Punk in Perspective

A set of old photographs from the D.C. scene’s beginnings becomes a crowd-funded book

May 15, 2013

Washington Post photographer Lucian Perkins snapped D.C. punk band Trenchmouth at a show in Anacostia in 1979.

Lucian Perkins was a summer intern at the Washington Post in 1979 when he snapped a set of black-and-white photos at punk shows around the District. He’d stay at the paper for nearly 30 years, traveling the globe and winning two Pulitzer Prizes, but he never forgot those early shots.

Two years ago, the photographer set out with a small group of local musicians and artists to create an exhibition and a catalog of the photos. That took cash. So, Perkins went DIY to chronicle a famously DIY scene.

“We realized we’d have to come up with a lot of money to physically make this happen,” Perkins says. They turned to the Web-based fundraising tool Kickstarter, putting the fate of the project in the hands of fans who had been inspired by the D.C. punk movement and its attendant straight-edge philosophy.

“What was amazing,” Perkins says, “was that in the first 36 hours, we had reached our goal.” Ultimately, they ended up with double the funds they’d set out to raise. The project grew in scope, and they put together a proposal for a book.

The exhibition opened at Civilian Art Projects in D.C. in late 2011, and included iconic images of shows and a scene that was changing the city, including photos from a memorable Rock Against Racism show at a housing project in Anacostia. A year and a half later, New York independent publisher Akashic Books is publishing “Hard Art, DC 1979,” which presents Perkins’ photographs alongside text by punk rockers Alec MacKaye and Henry Rollins.

Some of Perkins’ shots were published by the Post in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Still, all these years later, he wasn’t entirely convinced of their importance until he saw public response to the project.

“When I photographed the punk rock scene here,” Perkins recalls, “I thought it was just a small, interesting cultural phenomenon, but I didn’t think it was anything significant. In fact, it turned out that for many people this was a defining moment, philosophically and musically.”

It took nearly a decade of planning, fund-raising and curating to get the photographs out for public viewing, but it was all worth it, Perkins says.

“The meaning of those images became much larger … than what they were when I took them,” he says. “They took on more historical significance 20 or 30 years later. That’s the value of photography — and an important reason to save everything, every photograph.”

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; with Alec MacKaye and Henry Rollins; Fri., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
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