On Sunday, Midtown Cinema in Harrisburg will screen the new documentary film Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC (1980-90). True to its title, the film takes a look at the place and time – the nation’s capital in the ’80s, respectively – during which punk music came not to be, but to thrive.
Salad Days is the work of longtime music journalist Scott Crawford and veteran photojournalist Jim Saah. Both were teenagers at the time of the punk’s emergence, and both took to documenting the bands and the scene by way of DIY fanzines. But while Crawford took primarily to penning articles, Saah instead found himself on the front lines – and sometimes on stage – wielding a high school photography class-issued Pentax K1000 camera. The images he captured during that decade serve as the visual backbone for Salad Days.
A Washington DC native, Saah has since made a living off his photography, shooting for publications spanning from the Washington Post to Rolling Stone as well as videography for music documentaries on Wilco and Death Cab for Cutie. One of his photos was used for the cover of Fugazi’s album Repeater.
In advance of this weekend’s screening, I called up the Salad Days director of photography to talk about his life as a music photographer, the effect cell phone cameras and social media have had on the way fans experience and to reminisce about the early days of punk.
Mike McMonagle: Were you interested in photography before you got into shooting DC’s punk shows?
Jim Saah: It was kind of like a perfect storm. I’d started taking photography in high school in the 10th grade – that was 1981 – and I took to it. By 1982, I’d discovered punk rock and I started going to the shows. It was a crazy scene. I had a camera to do assignments, and I had this new love, so I decided to document it and almost immediately started taking my camera to every show I went to.
MM: Were you turning those photos in for class projects?
JS: I used some of them for projects like when we had to show motion or whatever. Quickly thereafter, I started my first fanzine, which was called Zone V – it was primarily photographs and interviews and scene reports. Stuff like that.
MM: Photography technology has come a long way, especially in regards to shooting in low light situations like a club. But you were shooting 30 years ago. Was it difficult capturing a crisp image considering how much movement there was on stage?
JS: You pretty much needed a flash back then. Even if it was a legit venue like the 9:30 Club, it wasn’t so punk rock to have a big light show, you know? Most bands would say, “Turn them down, they’re in my eyes.” So it would almost always be on the dark side. In film, you’re right, you just couldn’t shoot that fast – not as fast as you can with digital cameras today. I don’t even know if they made 800- or 1,000-speed film at that point. I usually shot with 400-speed film, and sometimes I would push it and over-develop it. But you could do pretty much anything, you just had to have the technique. There are a lot of different ways to capture movement and freeze action and whatnot.
<<< MORE: Read our Q&A with Salad Days director Scott Crawford before you go to the documentary’s screening at Midtown Cinema on Sunday. >>>
MM: When I was looking at your website, I really was amazed by the crispness of the images you took back then. Again, because of the intensity and the movement. You caught the looks on peoples’ faces in the crowd and everything.
JS: I didn’t have a zoom lens – I had maybe one or two lenses. This was school-issued stuff; I didn’t have my own camera. It was like a Pentax K1000 – a super basic SLR camera with a 50mm lens. So it was all about getting up close. You couldn’t stay out of the fray because everything would be too far away. You had to pretty much get in the action. A lot of times I would be right up beside the stage, or even on the stage. And that was something that people didn’t really have a problem with at shows – you could actually be on the stage.
MM: So the band’s going nuts. The crowd is going nuts. And you’re in the middle of it with a camera – a school-issued one at that. Was that energy part of the draw for you?
JS: It was incredible. It was almost like when you got into the zone of it, it was just —You knew the songs, so you knew where the breaks were, and where it’s going to get faster and slower, and where people are going to start going apeshit and when they’re going to calm down. You could just feed off the energy. When it worked, it was great. Sometimes, when it didn’t work, someone might hit you or land on you. I never got badly hurt, but I got jumped on. None of my gear ever got broken, but I broke a pair of glasses a couple times. But you could just pop up. You swivel around and snap off a shot. And then you duck down and cover your gear and your face as someone dives over you. I didn’t play team sports or anything, but it was probably the closest thing for me to a sport where the play works well. Or a nice dance or something.
MM: I was picturing a symphony playing as all these elements were going down.
JS: It was constant motion – getting in and getting out. The only time they stopped was in between songs, so it was just constant motion with the singer running around, people jumping on the stage and off the stage. So it was a lot of action that you had to navigate.
“You just pop up. You swivel around and snap off a shot. And then you duck down and cover your gear and your face as someone dives over you.”
MM: I noticed so much emotion in some of your photos. You’d have the singer on stage screaming, and the people in the front row screaming back at him. And then there’s someone behind them smiling and smoking a cigarette. And then behind them there’s someone who looks absolutely terrified.
JS: Yeah, totally. And there are some extremes in some of my photos. There’s a picture of Faith, and [bassist] Chris Bald is up on a monitor and is just jumping off. One foot’s kind of just leaving the monitor and one foot’s in the air. He’s just erupting. People are dancing and looking intense, and then there’s a girl in the front that is crying. I never exactly found out what was wrong. I don’t think she was hurt or anything.
There was a piece in Vice, and the reporter asked about a photo of a Dead Kennedys show that had Ian [MacKaye] in the background. He’s in the background in a lot of my photos because he went to like every show. But he’s like looking on, and I don’t know if they were trying to get at him as kind of policing the situation or something; I think he was just interested in the show or the band.
But looking at all the faces, there’s one shot of the first hardcore matinee in DC. It was Faith and Discharge from England. It’s a crowd shot. One guy is jumping off the stage and bouncing off the pole at the 9:30 Club. He’s ready to fly into the crowd. Everyone’s slamming. And it’s all these people that are musicians – Brendan Canty [of Fugazi], Chris Bald, Mark Haggerty [of Gray Matter], and all these people. All their faces are all just totally raging. It’s one of my favorites. And it’s indicative of the scene at the time, of what it was like to go to the shows.
MM: Were there any moments that you were OK with not photographing? I was at a punk show a couple years ago and, over the course of the band’s set, the lead singer took off his pants and underwear, threw them into the crowd and continued on in just an oxford shirt. Honestly, I’d be happy unremembering that.
JS: [laughs] Black Flag’s roadies had their own band and they would come out and play naked, or in like women’s underwear – panties and stockings and stuff. The Meatmen didn’t play naked, but they’d wear all sorts of weird costumes or dress like bikers. For a teenage kid, it was weird and maybe a little disconcerting. But yeah, I photographed it. Sometimes my friends would say, “Don’t bring your camera so you can just enjoy the show and so you can slam.” But I wasn’t dying to jump off the stage and into people. I didn’t take my camera a few times, and I usually regretted it. You know, I struggled with this as a photographer – wanting to just be in the moment and enjoy the moment and not have to take a piece of it home with you to remember it. Even to this day, if I’m going to just enjoy a band, I won’t take a camera. But I usually see things – “Oh that’s a good shot” or “That light’s perfect right now.”
MM: Anymore, when you go to a show you’ll inevitably see cell phones in the air. Once I saw an iPad. You’re lucky if you see a camera. It seems that that struggle with enjoying a moment versus taking it with you is more prevalent now thanks to cell phones and social media.
JS: Yeah I had those thoughts back then, but that’s what it’s become now that everyone has a camera in their pocket. No one can just enjoy an evening. I almost will never take a phone photo at a show. If I brought my camera, I’ll use it – it’s a camera, and I’ll have permission from the band or venue. But I won’t stand there and hold up my phone with everyone else; the pictures aren’t going to be good. I don’t need to put a crappy photo up on Facebook to prove I went to a cool show. I think it’s a problem. I think it takes away from the enjoyment of others when everyone’s holding up their phones. It’s distracting to the performers. So I’m not so down with that.
MM: Before I called, I checked to see if you had an Instagram account. You had four photos posted.
JS: I have one because I felt like I had to have one. And I think some people put it to good use. I follow other photographers. I follow friends who see things in a cool way. So I’m not against the Instagram concept; I just haven’t really been able to work it into my daily routine. And I do use my phone to take pictures, but just not at shows. I do post things to Facebook. I have a website and a blog. But if I have cool photos from a show, I’d rather put them on my blog and then share the link on Facebook with my friends than to do the Instagram thing.
MM: It’s something of a philosophical catch-22 – to take yourself out of a moment so you can document the moment just so you can then tell the world that you are in the moment.
“I don’t need to put a crappy photo up on Facebook to prove I went to a cool show. I think it takes away from the enjoyment of others when everyone’s holding up their phones. It’s distracting to the performers. So I’m not so down with that.”
JS: I think that’s why I don’t do it that much. I don’t like to take myself out of the moment.
MM: So is photography still your main gig these days?
JS: It’s pretty much the only thing I’ve done professionally my whole life, except for working at record stores and at a fast food joint in high school. But the only job I’ve had as an adult has been as a photographer and videographer. I freelanced for a good 25 years during the height of photojournalism, but the bottom kind of fell out on that. I shot for the Washington Post for over 10 years, but they just wanted more rights to your work and to pay less money for it. So that became untenable. Living in Washington, DC, I’ve done political stuff, worked with lobbyists, labor unions. Now I’ve got a couple pretty big clients that keep me busy, so I don’t really free-lance all that much anymore.
I’ve worked on other music documentaries. Are you familiar with the Burn to Shine series? It was something that Brendan Canty and Christoph Green did where they would go around and find a house in a city that was going to be destroyed for some reason. A lot of times people would get tax breaks if they would donate that house to the fire department so they could do a controlled burn and train. We did Seattle, Portland, DC, Chicago. So we would get a musician from that city to basically curate a show in the house. We’d get maybe 10 or 12 songs to come in and play a song each in the house and video the whole thing. Then we’d video the house being demolished. It was a super cool project. You take the temporal nature of a live performance, and then take it one step further and get rid of the venue. We did The Decembrists in Portland. We had The Shins in Seattle.
Those same guys also developed a thing with Wilco after Wilco did the Chicago Burn to Shine. We ended up making Sunken Treasure, which is a Jeff Tweedy movie about his solo tour. Then we made Ashes of American Flags [with Wilco].
MM: That was you? I love that movie.
JS: Yeah. I like that band a lot. So yeah, documenting music – both stills and video – is something I’ve done my whole life.
MM: Had you had the technology of today back in the days of the punk scene, would you have used it? Or was photographing those shows with a school-issued camera the right way to have experienced it?
JS: I think it was the right way because it was the only way. I’ve never been a techno-phobe, though. I always just used what was available to me at the time. So if that was available, I would have probably used it. Now having said that, I look at some of those old photos that had come from negatives, and they’re beautiful in a way that I don’t know if they could be as beautiful with current technology. The texture of the grain, the deep blacks, the total range of the blacks and whites. I don’t think there’s too much difference, as far as color is concerned, between color digital photography and color negatives. Maybe you could have an argument about the super big formats. But there’s just so much less tonal range for black and white. Black and white negatives that are printed well still really have the look that is evocative of punk. You can feel it more. I’m glad I documented it that way, but it’s not like I really had a choice.
Salad Days comes to the Midtown Cinema (250 Reily St., Harrisburg) on Sunday, February 15. 7pm. All ages. $5. Click here for tickets.