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Photographing San Francisco Punk with Ruby Ray

Ruby Ray, whose photos were featured in the legendary zine Search and Destroy back in the 1970s, documented the disenfranchised punk world of San Francisco at exactly the right moment. Now, three and a half decades later, her photos are gaining...

When the first wave of punk hit the Bay Area, it signalled that the tired reign of the long-haried, hippie counterculture was coming to an end; in it's place were young, angry, shorn kids shouting about nihilism and death to corporate America with an energy you couldn't get by vibing with crystals. In the world of marginalized scenes, San Francisco provided space for the punks who never made it in the big three of New York, London, and Los Angeles. Ruby Ray, who shot photos for the legendary zine Search and Destroy, documented the disenfranchised punk world at exactly the right moment, capturing the rapid rise and fall of that initial wave; from the birth of the Dils before they ran off to Los Angeles to the death of the Sex Pistols when they crashed into the Bay.


Now, three and a half decades later, her photos are gaining newfound recognition among both the newly rebellious and the depressingly nostalgic. I came to check out her book signing in Oakland at Stranded Records, which was atteneded by Penelope Houston of the Avengers and John Doe of X. Although time has stripped the older punks of some of their energy and anger, their youthful selves live on in  records and snapshots. Stranded was crowded by middle-aged white people with sagging tattoos, so to learn more about the woman behind the camera, I sat down with her at a gay bar across the street.

VICE: How did you get started?
Ruby Ray: I was working at Tower Records and I used to see [Valhalla] Vale of Search and Destroy wandering around North Beach and I always wondered who he was. I mean, he’s Japanese-American, very intriguing looking, you know? So, one day he had a stack of magazines under his arm and I thought, There’s that guy! I’m gonna find out who he is.  I asked him, and he showed me the first issue of Search and Destroy, and I was like, “Wow this is so cool, but don’t you need more photography?” A week later I did my first photo session with the Dils, and I was just blown away, I just knew that this was my life from here on in. I was already into Patti Smith and the Ramones and Lou Reed, so it was a fertile ground, and it just went from there. I became a part of the Search and Destroy team, and I got to meet everybody. Vale really had his finger on the pulse, he knew how to galvanize people.


How old were you then?
Twenty-five. I started in ‘77, but by ’79, Search and Destroy had stopped publishing. It was like punk was dead two years later, and we were like, “Oh, fuck.” But still, bands were playing and new bands were forming and there was really still a strong scene, although it wasn’t considered the kind of punk it used to be. So Vale and I and some other people started RE/Search Publications.

That’s the one with a William S. Burroughs issue, right? I have that photo saved somewhere, it’s electric. How’d you get Burroughs?
Well, at that time he had come to San Francisco to do some performances where he would read and there would be music, and we were going to do RE/Search issues four and five on him. So we had the interviews that Genesis P-Orridge did with him and Brion Gysin, and we had some unpublished material that Bill had given us, and then Vale asked me if I wanted to do the cover shoot, so of course I did. We brought some guns, actually, and since he loved shooting and shooting practice… I mean, everybody knows that story about his wife, right?

He shot her, didn’t he?
Yeah, well, a lot of the Beats had been in Mexico getting pretty wild, drinking, doing mescaline and mushrooms and probably heroin, you know, and they were really wasted one night and they were playing William Tell, so [Burrough’s] wife put an apple on her head, Bill shot at it, and, well, he did kill her. But he got off, because everybody that was there said it was an accident, a stupid accident, a wretched accident, and I believe he was tormented by it his whole life.


How did you capture the sort of energy that was in the punk scene in your work?
Well, I feel like I was an actual part of it. The punks didn’t want to just pose, they were all my friends and we were all collaborating, they knew I was a photographer and they could trust me, and we were trying to do something different.

What did you do differently?
It wasn’t like, “Everybody line up and I’ll take your picture.” it was like we had to have an experience. Once we just played around in the dump. It was really a kind of situationalist idea, you know—walk around and see something that sparks your imagination. We didn’t want to take conditional photos, so we took photos at the dump, at Tire Beach where it’s all polluted, but at the same time as we were mocking it, we were saying, “This is beautiful, this is real, this is our world right now, and this is how we’re going to show you what the world is.”

Did that define you as punks? 
We didn’t necessarily want to be called punk, we were just the rebel underground and it was other people calling us punks; that’s just what we were. It was an incredibly exciting time, there was stuff going on almost every night: movies, rock shows, bands were starting up—some were shitty and some were like, amazing, and everybody had the opportunity. Like, the fans were on equal footing because the fans would egg on the bands and force them to be more real and it was like we were all in this big way where we were pushing each other and teasing each other so little by little it grew and grew and grew. But then, after about two or three years, we started to have problems because the police were always trying to stop the shows, and the punks were never really accepted in San Francisco, so we used to get beat up a lot. It was very dangerous and some people started to die from heroin. It was a short-lived thing, but it was so intense while it was going on, we were all learning from each other, learning about politics in the world and the media and how everything was so controlled. We saw how vibrant and fun our scene was, but we couldn’t get anybody to cover it. There were no records being played on the radio, we couldn’t get records out, and any media coverage was just to ridicule the whole thing.


What did you shoot on?
I had a manual Nikon FM. Is yours a manual?

No, this is some shitty DSLR I picked up for 30 bucks. I love color film but it’s too hard to develop.
Yeah, I developed all my own film and prints in my bathroom or in the closet.

So you only shot black and white?
Occasionally I shot some color pictures. The night after the Sex Pistols played at Winterland, for some reason I just took color film. The Sex Pistols had just gone to Texas where they got beat up and spit at by all these cowboys, and [manager] Malcolm McLaren had planned it like that. By the time they got to San Francisco, everything had imploded. Johnny Rotten always said that Malcolm caused the breakup of the band and that he tried to separate Johnny and Sid [Vicious] from Steve [Jones] and Paul [Cook], so finally the band broke up, and the next night at the Mabuhay [Gardens] all the punks showed up, and we just figured the Sex Pistols would come because this was THE punk club, you know? So Darby Crash was playing that night with the Germs, and so Sid came during the show, and he was really out of it, and he got on the stage while the bands were playing and grabbed some broken glass and started to cut himself. But everyone’s just like, “Siiiid, come on, let the bands play!” like, “Don’t be an asshole,” and you know, he was an asshole. Then he just went backstage and passed out. That’s when I snapped that photo of him with Helen Killer.


There was a punk band in the 70s out of Seattle called Helen Keller and there’s a punk band now out of LA called Heller Keller. The spirit of punk hasn’t changed much, I’m guessing; it's still got same old influences, still unknown and marginalized.
I’ll have to check them out. You know, Green Day was asked in an interview, “How do you compare to the old-school punks?” and they said, “The old guys were political, we’re not.” That’s fucking crazy—being a punk was political even if you didn’t overtly say you were an anarchist or whatever. I do notice now with the newer generation, your generation, they are waking up to see how fucked up everything is. Because you are getting the brunt of it, my friend, and I feel so sorry for young people right now, I mean what the fuck are you going to do? You owe money for college, you can’t get a job. We didn’t have any money either, so that should be inspiration for you. We published a magazine, we wrote living on minimum wage, and we managed to do it. We were able to reach people across the world like that, we sold Search and Destroy in Paris and London, Berlin, and of course New York, so I support any young people that want to try to make a statement. If you have the rebel sprit, you can make a certain way.

What have you been doing since RE/Search?
Well, in ’81 I moved to New York City and they didn’t care about punk photography, nobody even wanted to look at it or hear about it. New York was moving on. So my work became very symbolic and I used the naked body to represent different symbols and information. I called the work “Archaic Revival.” Then I got started with this band called the Saqqara Dogs, they were like a Middle Eastern psychedelic band, and I produced a multimedia show for the live shows, and then in the late ‘80s I had a son and I gave up photography for about 15 years and studied healing.


So what brought about the publication of this new book so long after you stopped?
Well, in 2000 this friend of mine was looking for a photo of Chrome that he knew I had, and we were looking for the negatives, which it turned out I didn’t have because Chrome stole them from me, but he saw my negatives and said, “Why don’t you do a book?” I’m like, “Nobody cares about this anymore,” but he convinced me, and it took me eight years to scan all my negatives. Then I had a show in San Francisco and 10,000 people came during the three months it was open, so that was a start. Then I did a show in LA and in Denver, and now the book, From the Edge of the World, is out.

From the Edge of the World is published by Superior Viaduct.


More on punk icons:

We Talked to Lydia Lunch and She Didn't Seem to Like Us Very Much

The Art of Punk with Bryan Ray Turcotte

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