Rediscovering San Francisco's Punk Scene in a Box of Old Negatives
John Roberts documented the Bay Area's pre-AIDS, post-Hippie era, but until recently he thought all of his photos had been lost forever.
In the late 70s, John Roberts was a visual arts major at San Francisco's Institute of Art who spent his free time documenting the Bay Area's blossoming punk scene. His photos—a mix of street photography, portraiture, and concert shots—uniquely captured the last moments of the city's pre-AIDS and post-hippie era. Roberts's best shots were from a tiny punk venue called the Deaf Club on Valencia Street. The Deaf Club was a deaf community center that hosted hardcore shows from 1978 to 1980—the resulting scene was grungy, sweaty, and truly bizarre, and Roberts's photos captured it perfectly.
Right after presenting his senior art show, Roberts's car was stolen and many of his prints were lost. He spent a few years struggling in New York City before stopping his pursuit of a photography career for good.
In 2000, Roberts was diagnosed with renal cell cancer. The disease moved from his kidneys to his colon and pancreas about four years ago, but it was not until January, almost 15 years after his diagnosis, that Roberts was finally moved to end-of-life care.
His son Willee moved home last summer as Roberts's symptoms worsened, and they came across a box of old negatives while going through Roberts's house. They told Willee's friend Enosh Baker about the undeveloped film, and Baker contacted local artist Sean Vranizan. Baker and Vranizan scoured through the nearly 13,000 negatives and scanned their favorites. When the pair sent Roberts the scans, it was the first time the photographer had seen them in over 30 years.
I sat down with Roberts and Willee at their home in Berkeley. We talked about his relationship with photography, the San Francisco punk scene, and what it's been like to have his art rediscovered after so many years.
VICE: What first drew you to photography?
John Roberts: In 1964 and '65 there was a World's Fair in New York. I remember going there and taking pictures and really liking the experience of it. A year later, Polaroid came out with a "Swinger" camera—a white plastic camera that took instant pictures. I thought that was the coolest thing of all. The photo would come right out of the front, and you'd hold onto it and the image would slowly come up and up and up. That was so exciting. And from then on in, I became the de facto photographer for the family.
How did you come across the Deaf Club the first time?
Music was always a very important part of my life. In my early adolescence was when the Grateful Dead and the whole San Francisco sound became really important. But by the time the late 70s had rolled around, that music had started to become very old and tired and there were these new very exciting sounds that were coming out of England.
There were these two-minute songs with incredible bursts of energy—in contrast to the very long, jazzy [songs from] bands like Rush or Yes. As soon as one song ended, another song would come on immediately after that with twice as much energy.
When I came to San Francisco in '79, all of this music was really just starting to happen. It was really revelatory and exciting to hear. At the Art Institute, we knew about the Deaf Club. It was just such an exciting idea—a social hall for the deaf decided that they would rent the hall out to the loudest, noisiest, and most unruly bands that they could possibly find. It was great for them because they never had to hear the music. And it was great for us, because it was a very inexpensive place to book bands.
What was really available in San Francisco in those days were a lot of young people who were able to create art in a very inexpensive way. There were bands all over the place that were making music in San Francisco. Some that were quite avant-garde. There was a band called Tuxedo Moon,with a tenor clarinetist that played along with an organist and a drummer and the music was not based on 4/4 signatures at all. It was almost avant-garde jazz, John Cage music. You had something as extreme as that as well as straight-ahead punk like the Dead Kennedys.
And what about the shot of Iggy Pop?
The Iggy Pop picture! There were two spots really to hear that kind of music. One was called the Mabuhay Gardens and that was run by Dirk Dirksen who was a guy more in the Bill Graham mold—in other words, he was he was this older guy really trying to make money. I believe that Iggy was playing there. The Deaf Club was a little too small for him at the time.
What would a regular night at the Deaf Club look like?
As I recall, there were a couple of styles of clothing there. There were the straight-out punks who kind of took their cue from the Ramones. They had to wear a lot of leather, a lot of chains from their belt to their hip. The women had very spiky hair with heavy-duty multicolored makeup. That was one section. Then you had the Talking Heads look, the sort of intellectual crowd. And then you had your basic college kids. We were all aware of the suburban kids who would come in on the weekend. I don't know how we knew it, but we knew they were suburban kids. We would all elbow them to the back of the venue.
Were there deaf people at the shows?
They were working the bar. It would be in the back and they'd only have beer and you would just put up the deaf sign for the letter "B" and they would know what it is. Then you'd pay your dollar or whatever for the beer.
What did you do when you finished school?
I did a show in San Francisco and then I did a show back at Hampshire College and then I graduated. I tried to do some photography work in New York, but I found it very difficult. I couldn't really be financially successful in the art world and I wasn't really looking to do fashion or commercial photography, so I went into the family business in New York. Photography became a hobby instead of a full-time job.
Was it hard to move away from photography?
Yes, it was hard. But New York was very, very expensive. And I really learned that to be an artist, you have to be compelled and it has to be thing that you're really married to and that you love so much that you're willing to give up everything for it. And I found that I wasn't willing to make that sacrifice. I had a real reckoning with myself. In one sense, you got to keep following your dream. But my real dream was having a family.
Did getting diagnosed with cancer bring you back to photography at all?
It did. When I was in school, I was really first looking at photography as a way to look at the world in a very visual way. Once I was diagnosed with the cancer, I started to import meaning into the work—as much as it was important to have the right light, I understood that I was also sort of documenting my family. They always gave me a hard time, they never liked doing it, but somehow I knew that I wanted to document their childhood so that when I'm gone, they'll have that record.
What did it feel like when you heard that Willie and Enosh had found all of your negatives?
Well, at first I thought, Oh my God. I don't know what was in there. How much partying they're gonna see in there, you know?
But on the other hand, I saved all of those negatives. For some reason, in the moves that I made from New York to California, from Oakland to Berkeley, I saved those pictures. And I was never quite sure why I saved the negatives, because I wasn't working in darkrooms anymore and when digital photography came out, it was just easier to create digital pictures. But there they were. So when Enosh found it and wanted to go through it, I was very happy. I was very flattered. I was excited to see what he would come up with, because I never thought I'd see any of those pictures again.
Your photography really nicely captures an odd moment in time in San Francisco. The street photographs show a lot of the old city, while the punk photographs are something else entirely. Were you hoping to capture that intersection of the young and old San Francisco?
This was a time in San Francisco that was pre-AIDS, but I believe Mayor George Moscone had been shot by that point. I remember John Lennon was shot while I was in San Francisco. But there was still a freewheelingness about everything—an openness for people to be photographed.
The street photography that you saw was a sort of immediate interaction, and then we would go on our separate ways. My intention with the music photos was to be in the front row and to photograph while I was experiencing it. So instead of using a nice big camera, I had the smallest camera that I could possibly have. I got very good at knowing how wide the lens was, so that I could pretty much shoot without looking through the viewfinder. I could dance and elbow and knock people around, all while I was actually shooting. That was exciting.
You were in San Francisco for a small window, and you happened to overlap with the small window when the Deaf Club was open. What does it mean that you got to be in San Francisco for that little moment? How important is it that people remember that scene?
Music was a way to create community. It was a very special time in which young people who didn't have much money could get together and form an identity and a peer group and connect with one another. We'd see each other at show after show after show and everybody was connected to everybody.
We knew that what we were doing in San Francisco was less commercial than what was going on in Los Angeles. It felt more organic. It felt like it was unique music with unique people and we had a sense that it was a special time and place. I felt very fortunate that I just happened to be there at the right time to be able to record it and that people were so willing to allow me to do that.
Scroll down to see more of Roberts's photos.
Joseph Bien-Kahn is a freelance reporter based out in Oakland. He's had articles published in the Rumpus, No Tofu, and the Believer. He's also editor-in-chief of the Bay Area literary mag OTHERWHERES. Follow him on Twitter.
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