Bad Brains, Good Times

Vintage photographs from the early years of D.C. punk capture the birth of a scene

December 15, 2011

Singer H.R., center, leads punk band Bad Brains at a 1979 Rock Against Racism show at the Valley Green apartments in Southeast D.C.

Back in 1979, veteran Washington Post photographer Lucian Perkins hadn’t yet been to Afghanistan or Siberia or any of the other places his 27-year career would eventually take him. And he’d never been to a punk rock show.

As a 26-year-old Post intern on the graveyard shift, Perkins found himself one evening at D.C. Space, an edgy club at 7th and E streets NW.

“The ceiling was thumping from people jumping up and down upstairs, so I went to see what was going on,” he recalls. The din was courtesy of local punk band Bad Brains. Perkins began photographing them and others in the scene.

The resulting photos — on view through Dec. 31 as “Hard Art DC 1979” at Civilian Art Projects — are a time capsule of the early years of D.C. punk. “I wasn’t really interested in it for the music,” Perkins says. “I just knew on a gut level that this was important. My interest was in the culture.”

Some of the exhibit’s best photos are of a free, outdoor Rock Against Racism concert at the Valley Green apartment complex in Southeast. As an all-African-American punk band, Bad Brains were an anomaly in the mostly white punk scene. The show drew many families, and Perkins’ lens captured a sea of wide-eyed children and baffled parents.

“I don’t think anybody in Valley Green had ever seen anything like this before,” Perkins says. “I don’t think most people in Washington had seen anything like that before. The punks could have just as well come from another planet.”

Three decades years later, Perkins’ assistant rediscovered the photos and urged him to consider showing them. With Civilian owner Jayme McLellan, the team also planned a campaign through the online micro-funding platform Kickstarter to raise money to send the show on a U.S. tour.

Perkins, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his work at the Post, says that though his career took him far beyond D.C.’s punk clubs, these photos fit into the scope of his work.

“I see myself as a documentary photographer interested in movements. I photograph whatever I see around me, whether it’s punk rock or war.”

Civilian Art Projects, 1019 7th St. NW; Wed., Thu. & Sat., 1-6 p.m., through Dec. 31, free; 202-607-3804.
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