Punk Photographer Cynthia Connolly, "Banned in DC" but Welcomed in Denver

When Banned in DC was first published in 1988, it was one of the very few tomes to thoroughly document the world of hardcore punk. It was certainly the first to provide a true snapshot of a time in America's capital when youth culture and a vibrant underground music had become one and the same. The book's initiator, photographer and designer Cynthia Connolly, assembled the photos, along with Leslie Clague and Sharon Cheslow, from various photographers who were there when bands like Minor Threat, Rites of Spring, Artificial Peace, Iron Cross and Government Issue were still active and playing houses and DIY spaces as well as more traditional venues. If not for the book, we might have little extant visual documentation of one of the most influential scenes in the history of punk, the influence of which is still felt in music today.
When Connolly was approaching her friends and peers in 1986 about getting photos for the future book, people had a difficult time grasping why anyone would want to put out a book about something, a scene, that was still going on, instead of, for example, a book about storied New York punk. The book that was published was done so independently and funded by Connolly herself. Banned in DC has never been published through a large publishing company, and its distribution channels have reflected the ethos of the culture and bands captured in its pages.

This Sunday, April 10, Connolly will bring her slideshow of these photos, as well as copies of the book (now in its seventh edition) for purchase, to Mutiny Information Cafe, to discuss that important time in American music history. We chatted with Connolly to discuss the enduring significance of DIY and punk culture.

Westword: Reading the afterword of the latest edition of the book, it seems that the punk culture of L.A. was different from that of D.C. in that the latter sounded more intimate, with house shows and the like. What was the difference in the social environment between the two?

Cynthia Connolly: Los Angeles, you had to travel far to actually get to where anything was happening. In some ways, you would experience the city differently because you had to take the bus and interact with lots of people. Then the people you made friends with were from all over Los Angeles. If you were to overlay the map of Los Angeles over D.C., I can imagine it would be something like saying you were friends with someone from Baltimore when you were living in D.C. because Los Angeles is so big.

What was different about D.C. is that everybody sort of lived relatively close to each other and it's a relatively small city, so you could actually hang out with each other not at a show. In L.A., the only time I saw a lot of my friends in the punk scene was at shows, because everyone lived so far apart from each other. I've never thought about this before, but because of that, we were able to hang out, for example, in the basement and cut, score and glue the seven-inch sleeves of the first Minor Threat single because we could actually go there and do it. Whereas in Los Angeles, going to someone's house was a two-hour bus ride. You would lose some of that excitement and momentum by traveling that long distance.

What were the similarities between those two worlds beyond just being into music? Was there a unified ethos?

There was the music, of course, as you said. The energy was there. The cities were themselves similar. There were a lot of vacant buildings, there was a lot of potential to use those vacant buildings to have shows or other types of events. In that respect, it was very similar. In Los Angeles, the prominent cultures were the film industry and surf culture. In D.C., the prominent culture was politics. The politics were pretty distant to a lot of people here until people got politically involved and started protesting, which became more interesting to us as we got older.

There were a lot of kids that grew up that felt out of the norm or out of place, and punk was the glue that held us together in some ways. So all the kids that really wanted to find another voice and didn't want to go down the predictable path in life chose to go the punk route. It's funny, because the people that don't understand that think that punk is just a trend, like anything else, and that that path is just as tread-upon as anything else. Which I still don't believe.

The book is in its seventh edition. Why was it important to document that culture, and why does it remain significant?

What was interesting is that I thought it was going to be out of print after about ten years ago because of the fact that the analog negative was impossible to print anymore, and I thought there was no way I was going to make a digital negative. But it seemed that people wanted the book, and my stash was diminishing quickly. The message to me could represent any kind of scene or that the book wasn't published by a mainstream publisher and was independently published. If you're ordering it, you're probably ordering it from me or from Dischord. So the process itself represents what the scene is and supporting the people creating it. The process of even acquiring the book is part of the old sort-of scene. So it becomes an experience.

This slideshow I only did because someone suggested it to me. I thought nobody really wanted that, but I realized that people like this. I think it's to remind ourselves of something we already do believe in. So I'm kind of preaching to the converted, in some respects, but they like to hear it, because I guess they see me as somebody older who is actually still doing something. My life has changed, and I'm not listening to Minor Threat, but I'm still applying things I learned back then to do what I do now. So I guess that's an important message. We all have messages to convey, and that message is to trust your intuition about the things in your life that are right and going about and doing them. I'm really excited to be reading at the three or four places I am, because they all come from a background of DIY ethics. It's based on a trust and understanding of what it is.

Jay Fox, a musician who lives in Denver now, was a member of United Mutation in the '80s, and that band isn't often mentioned in writings many people have seen about D.C. punk. Was there a side of the D.C. scene that you wanted to have included in the book?

Scream isn't really in it because the guy who had the Scream photos never called me back. I don't remember his name or what happened to him. But there's a picture of Pete Stahl that's pretty big because Scream practically doesn't show up in that book. United Mutation is in there at the end because that's when they started showing up. After a while, it was our opinion as to what was important, so we tried to include more women in it, because although they weren't on stage as much in D.C., they were actually involved. The camera wasn't facing them. When the book came out, I felt self-conscious about Scream not being in the book as much.

Cynthia Connolly presents Banned in DC at 6 p.m. on Sunday, April 10, at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway, 303-778-7579, free, $25 for a copy of Banned in DC, all-ages.

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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.