United by Music and Photography
Writer and photographer James Damion has helped document the NJ and NY punk scene since the 1980s. Not unlike a war photographer, Damion has archived countless images of true beauty and destruction.Today he continues this role, always capturing several stories within each photo. From the front lines of chaotic street-punk shows in NYC to all-ages showcases in NJ, Damion has been witness to the local music community and its unending enthusiasm.
What first attracted you to take photos when you got into the NJ/NY punk scene? Was your passion for documentary photography moved by the music, or was it always something that you wanted to do?
I was sixteen when I really dove head-first into the New York Hardcore scene, though I had been going to shows sporadically up until then. I already felt that I was a part of something special and unique. At the time, I was really intent on becoming a writer. Going to shows with friends and meeting all these amazing people and bands led me to start a fanzine. I was interviewing bands and doing show reviews, so taking pictures was just a basic necessity. I really didn’t even own a camera. Most of the pictures I took were from point-and-shoot cameras I had borrowed.
As for documentary photography, I honestly felt in my heart that what I was witnessing would never be truthfully documented. Things were really different back then. It was a piece of my personal history, the bands and people involved with the music were closer than friends. They were my family. Looking back, I only wish that I had had a better grasp of photography. It was a very special time. I wish I had spent a lot more time taking pictures outside the clubs, in between sets, and after shows. The intimate shots of people on the scene were always my favorites.
Your photos tell stories. By looking at them, I feel like I was there, feeling the action. Is that something that you always aspired to capture? In a sense, you are more focused on the human aspect of the photograph, the expression, less than, say, a well-put-together pose with appropriate lighting. Would you agree?
I would totally agree with you. I mentioned earlier that I always aspired to be a writer. As photography became my passion and my work, I still approached things as a writer. Photography, and any art form for that matter, is story-telling. I tend to bring the same values and approaches I learned as a studio photographer to shooting shows. Lighting is really important in regards to both studio and concert photography, but I don’t pose my models, and trying to pose the bands I’m photographing would be pretty silly. For me personally, it’s all about capturing that crucial moment.
This might sound strange, but taking pictures at shows allows me to hear and feel the music on an entirely different level. My camera is like a second set of ears, or a seventh sense. The energy and emotion of live music is epic to me. My goal, my job, is to capture that. In the end, it’s all art to me.
What stories do you feel that your photos tell that the work of other photographers in the scene don’t? What makes your photos uniquely yours?
Like I said before, it’s all about capturing that moment. The story is all about the music and the emotion it evokes. I’m always looking at other photographers’ work, regardless of the subject matter. I’m inspired by it, and I’ve learned from everyone’s interpretation. My work may be different, but it’s not necessarily better. Every photographer has his or her own style and approach. I see a lot of shots that are on legit music sites that have me shaking my head, but it’s not my place to say what’s art and what’s not art. What makes my work mine? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just always searching for that moment.
When being a photographer in a crowd, what are you advantages and disadvantages?
I really don’t see any disadvantages to it. Shooting at larger clubs does offer its share of challenges. I really don’t care much for shows with barricades. I think it sends the wrong message. There’s the “No Flash” policy and the “You can only take pictures during the band’s first two songs” rule. (That second one makes absolutely no sense to me.) Regardless, I’ve been able to get around both just by not being an asshole. Lighting can also be a challenge at these big events, but that can be easily remedied with some minor adjustments. Knowing your camera and its settings helps a lot, too.
I think I really developed radar when I was shooting all those Hardcore shows. Having people mosh and throw karate kicks behind me while dodging stage divers and boots from the stage was all the training I ever needed. I’ve gotten knocked out cold a couple of times and broken a flash or two over the years. I guess it was par for the course.
As for the advantages, they are limitless. You’re in the eye of the hurricane and all of that energy is fueling you. I’ve photographed countless shows and can always look back on shots and know exactly what I was feeling at that moment. It’s great seeing your work out there. There’s a great sense of accomplishment that comes with it. I want magazines and websites to use my images. I want bands to come to me and ask if they can use my images for promotion or their records. Shooting for the newspaper or a magazine gets you on the list. Going to shows costs money. It might seem like nothing, but when you’re going out three nights a week, it kind of adds up. People have been good to me, and I really do feel appreciated for my work.
Back in the 90s hardcore scene, were there any shows or bands you wish you had been around for and photographed that you didn’t? What were your most memorable experiences?
By the dawn of the 90s, the Hardcore scene had changed drastically. Hardcore was going through something of an identity crisis. A lot of the bands I loved had moved on, and the style moved towards a more violent, gang culture. People were getting beaten up at shows and kids were bringing ice picks and screwdrivers into the pit. I wanted no part. That tough guy shit didn’t appeal to me at all. There was so much going on elsewhere.
here were so many great bands coming out of different scenes all over the country. I started going to a lot of shows in New Jersey (I was living in Hell’s Kitchen at the time.) Most of the time, I had no idea what town I was in. I was just along for the ride. I got into a lot of different types of music. I got to see and fall in love with bands like Helmet, Fugazi, Sunny Day Real Estate, Jawbox, Jawbreaker. The list is really endless.
I really don’t think I missed out on much. I’m sure I missed a lot of good bands, but who doesn’t? I think a lot of people spend too much time thinking about what they missed out on. A lot of the bands I got to see are considered legends today. Back when they were playing, most of them couldn’t fill a basement. Even if they did, it would be a basement filled with a bunch of kids staring at their feet. That’s not to take away from those bands or musicians. They really deserve the credit they get now. I just think it serves as a reminder to really appreciate the now. Go out and see what’s happening in your town and the places that are putting on shows. You will most likely find something special. Bands that, ten years from now, will most likely be gone but by no means forgotten.
There are so many fond memories from that time. I haven’t really thought about it much lately. I got to see countless shows in different towns, cities, and states. Slept on strangers’ couches and floors, some whose odors still haunt me. There were a lot of strange interactions with the police. Interviewing Dale Crover (The Melvins) in his underwear backstage at the Limelight comes to mind.
Is there one photo from another artist, just one, that has inspired you more than any other? Why, and how has that particular photo or artist influenced your work?
You know that cinematic moment when the character just stops dead in his tracks and stares into the abyss as his whole life flashes in front of him in a matter of seconds? That just happened to me. There have been a lot of iconic images, but the one that just wrecked me was Pennie Smith’s image of The Clash’s Paul Simonon smashing his bass guitar against the stage. That has got to be the best fucking rock photograph ever taken. From the moment I saw that picture, Paul Simonon was my hero. That was the first album I bought with my own money. That picture and that record changed my life.
Over the years there have been countless photographers whose work I look to for inspiration and approach. I could never narrow it down to one. Justine Demetrick and Chrissy Piper come to mind. Their photos of bands and shows had a certain intimacy that I always admired and aspired to capture. Ken Salerno’s work was and is the blueprint. I’ve admired his work for years, and I friended him on Facebook. He showed up unannounced at one of my photography shows last year, and I was rendered speechless. At the time, I had never even seen a picture of him. Needless to say, it was a surreal moment. He later suggested the lens I purchased for concert photography. I thank him for referring it to me. The images I’ve shot with it are by far my best yet.
Find more of James’ work at DamionPhoto.com