If you donâ€™t know who Edward Colver is, chances are youâ€™ve seen his pictures of the LA hardcore scene, some of the iconic punk album covers that he took the pictures for, or maybe you even saw him in the documentary American Hardcore.
Edward Colver is a self-taught photographer who documented punk rock history. Between 1978-1984 he went to shows five nights a week to take pictures of the LA hardcore scene. What he documented is absolutely fascinating and is an essential part of punk rock and even American music history.
But donâ€™t take my word for it. Hereâ€™s what Jello Biafra said about his photography in Edward Colverâ€™s book Blight at the End of the Funnel: â€œAnyone even slightly interested in LAâ€™s underground has seen it through an Edward Colver photo. Edward shined a light on the underlying darkness in a way that would make Weegee proud. The menace, the alienated kids, theyâ€™re on again off again camaraderie, and the fright behind macho eyes. The threads of disturbance in Edwardâ€™s work stitches together live fast die young no hope suburbia with hardcore homeless of dying downtown Los Angeles; before their ranks mushroomed as Reagan-Clinton America abandoned its misfits and disadvantaged. Edward brings out the Fellini in almost anything that steps into his lens.â€
Punknews staffer Ricky Frankel met Edward at his gallery showing in Los Angeles, which you can read a review of here, and interviewed him about a week after first meeting him.
His exhibit ran from September 20, 2014 to November 21, 2014 in downtown Los Angeles. Thereâ€™s more information about it here. And you can check out some of Edward Colverâ€™s work here, or you can buy his awesome book Blight at the End of the Funnel.
How did you get into punk rock photography?
Well I had an old girlfriend that came over and brought an old 35mm over and we were goofing around taking pictures of each other out in the yard and stuff with it. I had never used one before and I didnâ€™t know what I was doing pretty much. But I was kind of intrigued by it. I had studied all applied arts all throughout grade school, high school and junior college. I studied sculpting, print making, painting, design and ceramics and all kinds of stuff. And I had never thought about becoming a photographer and I never paid too much attention to it and after I had shot those photos I got a hold of just a super-cheap piece of junk 35mm for $35. At the same time I had kind of heard about this new scene in LA a little bit and set out to check it out. Even by myself I started going down to shows in mid or late 1978 at Madame Wongâ€™s. It wasnâ€™t my cup of tea though, it was all new wave stuff and I generally donâ€™t like any of that kind of music at all. Itâ€™s kind of funny how people would say â€œpunk and new wave.â€ Thatâ€™s like lions and tigers. The two genres donâ€™t relate at all in my opinion. Punk was a whole other thing and thatâ€™s what I liked. I was right there at the birth of hardcore and I went out five nights a week for five years shooting pictures and I just lived for it. It was so much fun and vitally important to me.
People hated punk rock. They didnâ€™t like it. They didnâ€™t like the people that went to those shows and they didnâ€™t understand it and they didnâ€™t want anything to do with it. I even had that initial reaction to punk at first, which is pretty funny to think about now.
Anyway, early on I made a clear distinction between punk and new wave. The first band I ever photographed there live was The Motels. They were kind of weird and moody with some quirky sexual stuff. Their first record was pretty poppy, but very cool. Then the Hong Kong CafÃ© opened up and I started seeing Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, X, The Bags, The Weirdos and stuff like that and then I was like â€œNow weâ€™re talkinâ€™!â€ They used to run ads across the alley from Madame Wongâ€™s and became rivals for shows.
Obviously this is pre-Internet, how did you become THE go-to punk rock photographer that everyone knew?
Well I would attribute it to primarily a couple of things. One is people liked my photographs. I had an art background. I had a concept of composition, of capturing something. I had an initial concept of what I was going to take a picture of. I wasn't just pointing and shooting, That is what most people would do. They used a 35mm camera and they always held it horizontally and they never tip it up into a vertical frame and they get their subject matter in the middle and shoot it and thatâ€™s what most peopleâ€™s concept of shooting a photo is. Theyâ€™re not creating a composition.
I always wanted my photos to say more. A lot of people told me that they felt like they were at the show when they look at my photos; like theyâ€™re in the middle of it. But I was in the pit all the time.
And you were completely self-taught?
I learned from my mistakes. Photography back then was very simplistic. Itâ€™s all about manipulating light and getting it to do what you want and creating a good composition. I tried to compose a frame even if I was being knocked sideways in a pit. I was trying to frame a picture not just take a picture and I think thatâ€™s the reason why people like my work. It goes beyond a snapshot hopefully all the time. I make a big distinction between a photograph and a snapshot.
How did people in the punk scene see your work other than the album covers?
They were in fan-zines. Early on I would carry a Kodak eight-by-ten paper box that held 100 sheets of paper and carry around a bunch of prints inside it. I would shoot pictures of a show and go home and pick which pictures I wanted to print and show them to my friends. They liked them and started using the photos for stuff. It was all word of mouth. I donâ€™t think there is another photographer on the planet that can say that they have been working 35 years without ever soliciting work. I never even asked for work or put together a portfolio.
I think that it is really interesting that you were self-taught because it goes along with the whole punk rock DIY ethic.
And I had a piece of shit camera! It was crap. I go a new one that had a 50mm lens within six months or less. It was still nothing great, but it was way better than the old one.
Did bands start to recognize your name and request you? Or did you go to shows regardless?
Well I was going to shows all the time. And it was just amazing stuff. Like people would go see Fear on a Tuesday night and there would be only 20 or 30 people there. And god! They were so good! Most people didnâ€™t like it or know about it. People werenâ€™t there you know? The punks didnâ€™t get out a phone book and look for a photographer. I was always there. If there was a show, I was there even if the band didnâ€™t know me they just figured I was part of the scene. Some bands were my friends and they knew me.
Later on when I was able to start supporting myself with photography. I did my first album cover when was The Circle Jerksâ€™ Group Sex, which Iâ€™m really proud of and came out really well and they still use it as an icon even and when I did that, that was when all the hardcore stuff started going on. And everybody loved the album cover. So really it was all word of mouth.
Yeah, Iâ€™ve been doing photography for over 35 years and I never advertised and I never solicit work.
Who the most photogenic bands that you took picture of at their live shows?
I always liked the Dead Kennedys.
Yeah! There was one portrait at your exhibit that I loved!
I have so much more youâ€™ll flip out. I have hundreds of pictures of the Dead Kennedys. I was always on the Dead Kennedys guest list every time they came to LA.
At the gallery exhibit, the Dead Kennedys photos were the ones that stood out most to me. Thereâ€™s that one of Jello Biafra with his arms and fists point outwards on each side at the Whiskey A Go Go, which is in your book, what are those little cards on the stage?
Those cards are tiny xeroxed paper cockroaches the Butthole Surfers threw out there. They threw out bags of them. I still have a few. On one side itâ€™s the top of a cockroach and on the other side is the bottom of a cockroach.
Itâ€™s a perfect crucifixion pose and it looks like heâ€™s trying to fly. That was 1983, where the Butthole Surfers and T.S.O.L. opened for them. All the members of T.S.O.L. came out wearing rubber Reagan masks.
Thatâ€™s so cool!
It was more of just people hanging out. There was no backstage. There was no passes. It was just little bands, playing at little clubs and having a good time. I had so much access and freedom to the bands while they were playing that I took a lot of them on stage. A lot of them came out better than if I had been in the pit.
I also timed my photographs. Iâ€™d shoot to the rhythm of the music. I would know when somebody was going to jump because I knew the song. And when a singer was singing Iâ€™d try and shoot them when they were holding a note because if you just shoot when they are singing randomly half the time they were making grotesque faces, but when they were holding a note they didnâ€™t look stupid.
I also would like to mention that very early on I decided that I would either shoot one person or the whole band. You see so many pictures with only three people in the band. Like whereâ€™s the fuckinâ€™ drummer? Whereâ€™s the bass player? It's like they werenâ€™t there that night or something? It's just really stupid to me to not get the whole band in the shot. I would always find a spot where I had a good vantage point where I could see between the cymbals and stay there for a while and shoot full stage pictures and then Iâ€™d move in and shoot close ups of the individual band members.
And you know I totally stopped taking photos at these shows in mid-1984. I said, â€œNo more of this shit!â€ I had photographed all the bands I cared about and by 1983 I had done 80 punk record covers by then.
Thereâ€™s another picture at the exhibit though that was incredible and eerie. Itâ€™s the one of Darby Crash staring right at you. How did you get the guy to stand still for that?
Yeah, that was a month before he died. He was prettying zoned out. I think you can tell. He wasnâ€™t moving.
He looked really angry.
I donâ€™t think he looks angry to meâ€¦just really vacant, wasted and kind of gone.
Was that at all intimidating to take because it was Darby Crash?
No, he wasnâ€™t anybody special back then. He was just another one of the LA punks. I mean The Germs were good, so were all these other bands.
The adulation and rock stardom shit wasnâ€™t going on back then. They had like 50 friends that were hanging out and going to their shows.
Another iconic photo at your exhibit is Greg Graffin and the rest Bad Religion throwing the brick at the car window. Where was that taken and how did that come about?
Well all four of them were throwing stuff at it.
It was an abandoned car on Highland Ave. across the street from the Hollywood Bowl. We were just out shooting photos. We also hiked up a hill and took that picture of them standing in front of the cross that night, too.
Why did you decide stop in mid-1984?
Primarily because of the thrash bands. I didnâ€™t dig it all. Itâ€™s all fast and furious. I donâ€™t mind fast music, but that stuff is a just a cacophony. I just didnâ€™t like their music. I also eventually got my first studio and started working for real record companies and getting paid for my photography and just never looked back. To me I think the punk scene went from â€˜79 to â€˜84 and that was it.
So what is your take on the American punk scene now?
I donâ€™t pay any attention to it.
What about the LA scene now?
I go see my friendsâ€™ bands. I donâ€™t go pursue new bands though.
So for those years you took photos at shows, that was it for you?
That was the end of punk in my opinion. Itâ€™s still going, but its all kind of rehashed since then I think.
At the gallery, you said something interesting to me about â€œ1994: The Year Punk Broke.â€
Yeah what a farce that was. It just sucked shit and was not punk rock. Also, to me The Ramones are not punk rock at all. They were a power-pop band to me. I saw the LA hardcore scene. THAT was punk rock! If someone had to credit for it, Iâ€™d say Iggy Pop started punk. Thatâ€™s my opinion. It was going on in a few places all at the same time. I just defined punk rock differently than how a lot of people do.
You also told me about how you arenâ€™t getting credited when your photos are used on the Internet.
My shit is everywhere around the world without giving me credit. I try to go after some of them and just ask for them to put my name next to the photo, but people have actually said to me â€œTheyâ€™re on the Internet! Theyâ€™re for anybody to use!â€ But Iâ€™ve been water marking and putting some stuff up on the Internet. Iâ€™ve been ripped off more than anybody. Its mind-boggling! Of the ten bootlegs that Iâ€™ve found that used my photos, only one gave me photo credit.
Iâ€˜m just hoping that by posting the watermarked stuff online that people will start learning that those are my photos. People know my photos, but they donâ€™t know that I took them. Thatâ€™s my big problem. Itâ€™s my legacy and my lifeâ€™s work. I need to get credit for it.
I did a bit of homework before this interview and found that you were in the documentary American Hardcore.
Yeah for five seconds.
They interviewed me for three hours for the book and they used two dumb quotes, one of which I swear I didnâ€™t say.
I thought that was weird because I think I had a lot to do with the punk scene. I mean I was there and I contributed to the look of it and the artwork. Besides documenting it, I created a lot of the icons and albums covers for it.
What you talked about, I thought was really interesting. You said, â€œIf more than six cops pulled up to a show it would always turn into a riot.â€
In my opinion the cops inspired a whole bunch of the violence in the scene because of their handling or mishandling of it. They also had this big vendetta with Black Flag.
Yeah, Pettibon made those drawings with the cop with the gun in his mouth and the flier said, â€œMake me cum f****t.â€
Did you feel that the cops instigated riots? Were you provoked or given any trouble by them?
Yeah they had it out for punks in general.
Sure I was, but not too much. I was a little bit older and a little bit wiser and avoided it as much as I could. I wore a police sergeantâ€™s shirt to a show at the Olympic, and a cop stopped me and said, â€œYou take that off or weâ€™ll arrest you for impersonating a peace officer!â€ And I thought to myself, â€œYeah because I look like a cop.â€
Even the premiere of The Decline of Western Civilization was pretty nuts. That was 1980.
Did you ever have issues with the audience members at shows? Like getting kicked or something like that?
Yeah. Sometimes. I had a boot dragged across my face one time. Iâ€™d get knocked around. And I once had my flash unit broken.
What do you think of the newer photography technology?
I donâ€™t know much about. I donâ€™t really use a computer or digital camera.
Do you think the art of photography has been denigrated by the new technology?
You mean â€œfauxtographers?â€ Hahaha. I love that term. Itâ€™s made photography cheaper, easier, faster and you take like 10,000 photos you still donâ€™t have to pay for processing and eventually youâ€™ll get one good one instead of having to pay to. I donâ€™t think they put as much thought into what theyâ€™re doing.
Now letâ€™s talk about the album covers you take pictures for. For our readers, what are some of the iconic punk album covers that youâ€™ve done?
Well I worked on around 500 album covers. But the most famous punk ones are The Circle Jerksâ€™ Group Sex, the first T.S.O.L. album, Black Flagâ€™s Damagedâ€¦the list goes on.
Iâ€™m glad you brought up Damaged because one of the coolest parts of your exhibit were outtakes for that album cover. How did the idea come up to destroy a mirror and have Henry look like heâ€™s punching it?
We had talked about it and I figured how to make it happen. People think that it was instantaneous and it's like if he had just smacked the mirror there would not be blood running down the side of his hand folks simple as that.
I brought red India ink to the Oxford House in Hollywood, an old 1920s wood-framed house on Oxford Blvd. So when I got there I found a mirror and got duct tape on the back of it and I turned it over and cleaned it. Then I took a hammer and just smacked it once and then cleaned it again and took the red India ink and went snooping around the kitchen to see what I could make the blood out of. After some experimentation I used the ink for color, instant coffee and liquid dishwashing soap for consistency. It looked exactly like blood.
Black Flag came to you with the original idea? Or did you come up with this awesome idea for the cover?
I'm not sure whoâ€™s concept it was. I donâ€™t think it was mine. But I made it happen and made it work.
There were better photos though. People would just croak if they see a better photo than what Black Flag used. There was one outtake though that isnâ€™t in the exhibit, that I wish the band had used where Henryâ€™s eyes were glowing red from the glass. It brought his face out of the darkness more. I like how dark and moody that one looked. His eyes glowing red was just insanely cool. Those are lost though. Theyâ€™ve been missing for 20 or 25 years. SST said, â€œOh, we donâ€™t want to use that one it looks too demented.â€ And Iâ€™m like, â€œHuh?! What?! You donâ€™t want to use that one? The album is called Damaged and you say this is too demented?â€ It was a way better photo than what they used.
I realize that the cover is kind of world famous and Iâ€™m proud of that, but there were way better shots. If I ever find those Iâ€™ll flip out.
About a year after I did that cover, I got a dozen copies of the record for pay from my friend at Green World, not from SST.
Letâ€™s talk about another album cover you did, Group Sex by The Circle Jerks.
That was my first album cover. I would say that between â€˜79 and â€˜84 I did 80 punk album covers. There was one time where twelve records came out in a month and I had worked on all of them.
Yeah, but it didnâ€™t happen because of printing issues.
Now you took the picture for the insert as well? Whose idea was it to make it look like Keith was cutting Gregâ€™s tongue?
Yeah. They were just screwing around and I was shooting pictures. We were at Luckyâ€™s apartment a block east of the Whiskey A Go Go on Sunset Blvd. and Larrabee.
Where was the cover taken?
It was taken at the Marina Del Rey skate park at a faux-wedding for Gerber (Michelle Bell) and Rob Henley. A bunch of bands played there. I should have the pictures somewhere, but Social Distortion played their first show as a three-piece there.
Now I did not know you did this album cover, which is NOFXâ€™s Ribbed album.
I did not do that shit photo of the band on the back though. But I did shoot the photo of the cover. It was a real condom.
You also did the cover for Bad Religionâ€™s How Could Hell Be Any Worse?. I assume thatâ€™s Los Angeles.
Yeah I shot that up by the cross in the Hollywood Hills across from the Hollywood Bowl. People think its LA, but it actually Hollywood, but you can see downtown LA off in the distance on the left side of it. It was an ugly, smoggy day and I ended up using it.
In your book Blight at the End of the Funnel, you took a picture of Andy Warhol. How did that happen?
I photographed him at an art opening in downtown LA in 1983, but I didnâ€™t want to just take a snapshot so I just followed him around and took pictures of him where there as a clean background. That one totally looks like a seated portrait.
For anyone aspiring to be a photographer like you, what would you tell them to do?
Hang it up. Hahaha, just kidding. It kind of depends on the person. If they are thoughtful and creative then classes might not help them that much. Itâ€™s kind of hard to say. For me, the introductory course I took gave me a sense of composition. I have always paid attention to lighting like a hawk constantly and making it work for me. Playing and experimenting with light is really fun. I would also tell them that finding an advantageous spot in front or on stage is really important. And shooting the rhythm of the music, like I did, is a great way to get good shots of the bands as well as either shooting just one of the band members or all of them like I said before. The more shows you go to, the more practice youâ€™ll get.