Rock and Roll Book Club: Photo books spotlight Fugazi and the D.C. scene

Two new photo books about the D.C. punk scene.
Glen E. Friedman's 'Keep Your Eyes Open' and Antonia Tricarico's 'Frame of Mind.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Pop quiz: what's the difference between punk and hardcore? In his introduction to photographer Glen E. Friedman's Fugazi book, music writer Ian F. Svenonius tries to explain.

Hardcore, like punk, retained the formal qualities of rock 'n' roll presentation: aggressiveness, humor, simple "pop" composition — but contorted it through speed, incompetence, artlessness, and tribal inscrutability. Beats per minute were often sped up substantially. Fashion was stripped down to essential signifiers. Typical hardcore regalia was a cropped hairdo, a hand-decorated tee emblazoned with a cryptic symbol (e.g. the Black Flag bars), and jeans or work pants; an American refutation of early punk's Anglo-dandy trappings. Like punk, HC was apocalyptic; though the lyrics were often political, hope was mostly absent.

Even within these parameters, Fugazi were more rigorous than most. Emerging on the Washington, D.C. punk scene in 1987 (frontman Ian MacKaye was previously in the landmark hardcore band Minor Threat), Fugazi booked their own shows, holding the ticket price as often as possible to an even five bucks. That wouldn't have been possible at a lot of conventional venues, so they made a habit of pioneering new spaces like community centers and Masonic lodges. Albums? MacKaye had his own label, Dischord Records. Merch? Fugazi had none. Press? The quartet wouldn't talk to a conventional reporter if a zinemaker was available.

Perhaps the definitive visual chronicle of Fugazi's decade and a half storming stages, Friedman's Keep Your Eyes Open was first published in 2007. Now, the book is back in print with a new afterword by Friedman and a joint interview with the photographer and MacKaye.

The latter exchange makes clear that Fugazi were as committed to a no-frills aesthetic in front of the lens as they were in front of the mic. The photos in Keep Your Eyes Open are almost entirely of two types: (a) Fugazi performing onstage, and (b) Fugazi standing in a group. That's basically it. Friedman favors a fisheye lens, but he doesn't use it to load up his frames with unnecessary details, he uses it to capture a wider swath of crowd or to get multiple members of the egalitarian band in his sight.

Something you emphatically will not see in the book are any photos of the band members with D.C. landmarks. Friedman says he had to "beg" the band to allow even a single photo of the four of them standing on the street with the U.S. Capitol out of focus in the background. To get the photo in the first place, he had to plead with the band to stop in the middle of the street for a second. "We're not tourists," they told the photographer.

"I f---ing hated it," MacKaye remembers.

An all-new photo book, also from Akashic, forms a welcome complement to Keep Your Eyes Open. In Frame of Mind, photographer Antonia Tricarico collects her best shots from 1997 to 2017, centered on the D.C. scene. She particularly spotlights women artists: Babes in Toyland, Joan Jett, Sleater-Kinney, Patti Smith, the Gossip, and many more. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Eddie Vedder, and Melvins also show up.

In addition to Tricarico's photos, the book also features short essays by 16 women — including Jett, Lori Barbero (Babes in Toyland), and the photographer herself. The essays vary in style and subject, but generally revolve around the challenges and rewards of being women in rock.

"To be a girl in the mid-1970s out shopping for a guitar amp," writes Alice Bag, "was an exercise in sexism that started the minute you walked through the door of the music store. Some dude would come up to you and ask, 'Are you shopping for your boyfriend?'"

Jett remembers taking her new ax, at age 13, to a guitar teacher who "told me girls don't play electric guitar, and tried to teach me 'On Top of Ol' Smokey.' Needless to say, I didn't go back."

Kristina Sauvage of Coup Sauvage writes about how "making music allows us to not only reflect our world but also imagine the world we want to see — one that's way more brown, way more feminist, way more queer, and way more fierce."

"Art is not fair," writes Donita Sparks of L7, explaining how she's sometimes resented by players with better chops. "Some people spend many years working toward something to get nowhere, and some can write a classic song in thirty seconds. It's just the way it is."

"I think now a lot of music is very saturated," writes Barbero, "soulless, overproduced, and unoriginal. Obviously I care more for the raw music than the overcooked."

There are a couple shots of Jett playing to a stadium and a Virginia amphitheater called Jiffy Lube Live (the latter just a couple of years ago, in a sparkly jumpsuit), but by and large Tricarico haunted house parties and club shows. One stunningly intimate photo has the late Vic Chesnutt, sitting in his wheelchair, singing into a microphone under a canopy of white Christmas lights.

Yes, Tricarico shot Fugazi — and somehow, the tightly controlled aesthetic of their work with Friedman didn't apply to her. In one series of shots, the band sit around a kitchen table...eating a banana! Drinking coffee! Even petting a dog. Several pages later, Fugazi and their crew are seen at a playground. Even the most dedicated hardcore punks are entitled to ride a teeter-totter and swing on a tire, at least every once in a while.

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