By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Nov. 25, 2011
Intensely physical and largely unexpected, the subgenre known as "hardcore" (or "harDCore") soon upstaged the other punk music being made in the District at the end of the 1970s. The sheer power of it can still be felt in "Hard Art DC 1979," a selection of photographs by Lucian Perkins at Civilian Art Projects. These black-and-white images concentrate on two bands, the influential yet commercially doomed Bad Brains and the little-remembered Trenchmouth. Just as important in the photos is the audience, which is inches - or less - away from the performers.
Among the ecstatic fans pictured is then-14-year-old Alec MacKaye, who would become a prominent local musician. He wrote the text for the show (and an upcoming book drawn from the same pictures). MacKaye reconnected with Perkins after his now-wife, Lely Constantinople, was hired by the photographer in 1995 to manage his mass of negatives. The display also includes a few shots of the Teen Idles, a band that included Alec MacKaye's older brother Ian, later of Minor Threat and Fugazi, two D.C. bands whose following is global.
As history, "Hard Art DC 1979" is evocative but far from exhaustive. It captures just a few performances at Hard Art (which was around the corner from what is now the site of the P Street Whole Foods) and Madams Organ (which was near the location of, but entirely different from, the current 18th Street NW bar). There are also images of a singular event: a "Rock Against Racism" show that brought punk from Northwest to the Valley Green Apartments on Wheeler Road SE. You'd never guess from these photos that hardcore bands played on bills with poppier and artier groups, and that Hard Art hosted such coolly minimalist acts as Rhoda and the Bad Seeds more often than white-hot punkers. But photographs capture instants and impressions, not larger contexts.
Perkins was working for The Washington Post in 1979 and remembers struggling to convince the paper that the shots were noteworthy. (He says he was rebuffed by the Metro editor, a guy named Woodward.) A spread of these photos eventually ran in the Sunday magazine. Even people who've seen some of them before, however, have never encountered the pictures at this scale. Enlarged to near life-size, or presented in uninterrupted series that have an almost-cinematic quality, the photos are as commanding today as Bad Brains frontman H.R. was then. They almost seem to break the fourth wall between image and observer, just as hardcore crashed the barrier between musician and listener.