Spot's Photos of LA in the 70s Make the Skater and Punk Scenes Look Desolate and Frightening
We interviewed the legendary punk producer for SST about his amazing new collection of photos.
At this point every counterculture scholar in the Western world has a bookshelf that's fat with the weight of dozens of photo books documenting punks from decades past. None of them are like Sinecure's new book Sounds of Two Eyes Opening. It's a collection of images taken by Spot, who is best known as a producer for legendary label SST back in the early 80s but should probably now be recognized as one of the best photographers of Los Angeles's bygone beach, skate, and punk cultures.
Every one of Spot's black-and-white shots is like a beautiful nightmare. He has drained 70s-era Los Angeles of any element of beach fantasy and replaced it with an ominous and frightening beach reality. His exteriors are lonely and frightening. His interiors look like haunted houses. Spot shows LA as it truly is: gray, isolating, and frightening.
Although Spot strips away any sense of glamour or coolness from his subjects, his work never feels cruel or like he's trying to be mean or judgmental. His girls in bikinis aren't titillating, his punks aren't dangerous, his skaters aren't gods. He cuts through the artifice to the real humanity and he forgives his subjects for their flaws and pretenses.
I got to talk to Spot recently about that.
VICE:When did you come up with the title Sounds of Two Eyes Opening? You mention in your introduction that photographers have to keep both eyes open when they shoot.
Spot: First and foremost, I'm a musician and everything else I've ever done has been based on that. I learned to play back in the days when AM radio was king (years before FM rock came along) and, even though AM was kinda "low-res" and broadcast in mono, you're still listening with both ears.
It's really the basis of all language and if you're serious about the experience of music, you learn to keep both sides of your brain open and rely upon instinct rather than premeditation. Y'know, using improvisation and gut feelings as frameworks for rhythm and composition. In photography, the viewfinder should not be a limitation—it's merely one part of a larger vision.
It can be difficult at first, but you have to train yourself to keep both eyes open—otherwise you miss all the subtlety and depth of what you're looking at and how it connects with everything that's happening around you. A baseball player at bat has to read not only the pitcher but the also the guys in the outfield. That's how you know when to swing and when to not.
How did the subjects of your photos feel when and if they saw the images of themselves?
Folks liked the photos when they saw them. Why not?
What I mean is that your photos strip your subjects of glamour but not in a cruel way. Your bands don't seem deified, your bikini girls don't feel objectified like the way they often are in photos.
No one ever protested my images other than stupid, drunken idiots and a few policemen and drug dealers—and some "artists" who were way too full of themselves. I didn't pay attention to what other photographers were doing. I paid attention to my subjects and what they were doing.
This is the first book collecting your work—how do you feel about it? Do you feel like this took too long to happen?
It ain't perfect but it turned out better than I expected. There was no opportunity to do any kind of book before this. Everything worth doing takes too long to happen. Oh, impatient humanity.
What would you do differently to make the book perfect?
It was a collaborative effort with the usual aesthetic head-butting. I would've eliminated some images and added others. Of course, perfection is a nebulous concept.
How did you develop the techniques and choices that you show in this book? You portray the colorful worlds of beach people, bikini girls skaters and punks in a palette of grays.
You just do it, make mistakes and figure out what works and what doesn't for what you're trying to do. Gray is the domain of black-and-white photography. People mislead themselves in thinking that black and white are just representations of absences and oversaturations. They may represent these but they are also actual colors.
When I look at the pictures in this book I feel zero nostalgia for this world. The photos are beautiful but I think you manage to show almost nude young women in a way that's not sexy and punk bands in a way that's not romantic.
Nostalgia is a byproduct of action and memory. It doesn't have to exist but culture tends to impose a "longing for times gone by" and "the other side is always greener" mentality on perception. It's very marketable and does a great job of spinning history into easily digestible hot dogmas and popsicle politics. It's why America has such a fascination with the Wild West and a "rugged individualism" that maybe never existed. We've all pined for living in a time we were never part of. I once wished I had lived in the 1920s with the flappers, gangsters, speakeasies, and jazz joints. Sure, why not? Haunted house? I don't know about that but I have seen ghosts.
Some of your photos feel like film noir stills.
I think one of my favorite movies ever is Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? I'm a huge fan of Joan Crawford. (And yeah, Alfred Hitchcock.)
When did you fantasize about the flapper age? What specifically appealed about it to you?
When I was about 15 or 16. It was probably the last holdout of East Coast–style rebellion against the status quo and misguided missionary zeal. By the 30s (likely due to the repeal of Prohibition) it had all cooled to a sober (and ironically so), big-shouldered, double-breasted, modest-hemline-and-hairdo, lumbering-sedan world that included the West Coast as well. It was a somber Chicago style that established a sense of "cultural mafia" that didn't effectively crumble until the rise of electrified country, R&B, and rock 'n' roll on the nation's airwaves.
Is it weird to think of people wishing that they'd been able to witness the things you witnessed, the birth of skate culture and LA's hardcore scene?
No. Wouldn't you have wanted to see firsthand the building of the Empire State Building or the Wright Brothers' first flight?
Do you hate LA? Did you hate LA? Is that an oversimplification? I get very sad when I look at these pictures. Everything looks so grimy, lonely, and hopeless.
LA has one of the most amazing and interesting histories of all US cities, and they excelled at erasing their own legacy just to prove they were not like any other place. It's really not up to me to weigh in on this anymore; I got the hell out almost 30 years ago. It's a whole different perspective but the webseries OnlyinHelLA.com sums up a part of the experience nicely. LA is the best and worst place in the world. It all depends on what you bring to it but it's ridiculous to trust those who insist: "Life is what you make it"—a lot of people's lives in LA have been made hell by those who think they've found heaven.
Why did you leave LA?
It was a breakout from an unlocked prison. Too much time spent in traffic, too much time spent dealing with other people's problems, and realizing there was no longer a warden and the guards had only become inmates with fancier cells.
Where do you live now and are you happier there? Do you ever go back to LA to visit?
Sheboygan, Wisconsin—right on Lake Michigan. There's pros and cons about any place a person chooses to live. Ain't no residential silver bullet, but I do get better sleep.
Have you ever picked up a camera again?
Only when I've had to protect myself. An old Nikon FTN makes a great bludgeon.
Seriously, I've tried but I ain't got the motivation (or a darkroom) no more. The digital world is attractive but it doesn't have the magic. I'd rather have Jean Harlow with acne than any number of models expecting to be photoshopped.
Do you have a cellphone with a camera in it and if so do you ever use it?
Yes, and when I'm home I turn the damn thing on maybe once or twice a week.
You can get Sounds of Two Eyes Opening from Sinecure Books.