In 1979, the photographer Lucian Perkins stumbled into a seminal moment in music history. He didn’t know it at the time, of course. He was 26, a photography intern at The Washington Post, when by chance he heard an emerging punk band, Bad Brains, playing above a Washington restaurant. Investigating, he found a roomful of teenagers dancing with sweaty abandon. “It was a cool scene that no one really knew about,” said Mr. Perkins, now a two-time Pulitzer winner, “and it piqued my interest to start documenting it.”
At makeshift clubs, his was habitually the only camera in the room. “He said, ‘Can I take your picture?,’ and I probably tried to look cool, as any 14-year-old would,” said Vivien Greene, whom Mr. Perkins captured in her bleached-blonde years. “But I was there for a show, not to be photographed.”
Those kinds of happenings — indie, cheap, frenetic — still take place today, at countless grungy spaces around the country, except there’s not one camera in the room but hundreds. Grotty basement shows, scavenged-art installations, far-flung site-specific performances: All are zoomed in on and shared, mapped and located, turning what were niche events into potential spectacles.
Word of mouth is instant, publicly broadcast over social media. The boundary around the mainstream is more porous now, changing the very definition of being underground.
“It really is an amazing transformation,” said Ross Haenfler, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Mississippi and the author of “Subcultures: The Basics,” published last month.
“You used to have to be really in the know,” he said. “If you’re at a certain punk show at CBGB’s, that had a certain cachet. If you had an original T-shirt from a first Metallica show, that is really something. You’d have to scour record bins to get an original pressing. Now all of that stuff is available via YouTube and eBay. It really changes the dynamic.”
By contrast, few of Mr. Perkins’s punk images were seen until decades later, when an assistant came across the unlabeled negatives in his archives. A book, “Hard Art, DC 1979,” published in June, reveals the origins of the movement that birthed the band Minor Threat and Dischord Records. If he had taken those same photos now, Mr. Perkins said, he would have posted them online right away. The underground culture that no one knew about, that had time to percolate and find its voice, might have instead been discovered tout de suite, with who knows what effect on its artistic output and reach.
Where once the counterculture prided itself on obscurity, now “the idea of being invisible is less seductive to people,” said Fred Ritchin, a professor of photography and imaging at New York University. “More and more things are done to be photographed. They don’t count unless they’re photographed.”
And it once took time for the mainstream to catch up to those images, “for Macy’s to carry a line of clothes that looked punk,” said Ms. Greene, the teenage D.C. punker, now a senior curator of early 19th- and 20th-century art at the Guggenheim Museum. “Now I think the cycles are much more abbreviated.”
Artists who transitioned from avant-garde to pop experienced the pressure of visibility firsthand.
“It was relatively easy,” said David Byrne, “back in the day, to work with only a smallish number of people watching, as we sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed.” In the mid-’70s, the early days of his band Talking Heads, “we felt comfortable trying out different things, songs that were quickly abandoned and stage wear that proved impractical,” he wrote in an email. “That’s all hugely important (the songs part anyway) as it allowed us to explore, refine our identity and go down those musical dead ends without the embarrassment of public scrutiny.”
Now, online exposure can make for an overnight viral sensation. But “it can also destroy and eliminate that crucial period of anonymity,” he said. “The Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away.”
Artists who document life on the fringes have a bird’s-eye view of these changes. Tod Seelie, a Brooklyn photographer, has spent 15 years shooting in mosh pits and abandoned buildings, images collected in “Bright Nights: Photographs of Another New York,” published this month. It showcases a thriving outsiderness, which has lately become much less rarefied, in part because Mr. Seelie himself has been posting photos online since 2003.
Chroniclers of the underground have always existed. But the visual record, and the urge toward self-portraiture, has made a deeper mark. “People can sort of buy into an aesthetic easier when they have all these images available to them,” Dr. Haenfler said.
Mr. Seelie, 35, who grew up immersed in the punk scene around Cleveland and earned a degree in photography at the Pratt Institute, said his book was heavily inspired by Nan Goldin’s “Ballad of Sexual Dependency,” the 1980s visual diary of her downtown tribe. He lives economically but has few qualms about trading his DIY cred for traditional professional advancement. In his view, authenticity and making a living are not mutually exclusive. What was stigmatized in Mr. Seelie’s punk youth as selling out has been redefined, he said: “Instead of selling out it’s called becoming successful.”
That’s a major leap from the outlook of bohemia in generations past. “We wouldn’t have used the word ‘career,’ ” said the artist and educator Martha Rosler, who made her name in the 1970s. “That is one sure sign that things are changing.”
Mr. Byrne, in his email, noted that the decision, by musicians especially, to commercialize their work — licensing it for ads, for example — was less a creative decision than a pragmatic one, driven by the collapse of the music industry and other fields. “It’s hard to hold on to principles if you can’t pay the rent,” he said.
Self-promotion online may be the norm, but not all digital-age creators are prepared for recognition. Born in 1985, Mike Brodie, a.k.a. the Polaroid Kidd, first picked up a camera at 17, shortly before he hopped his first freight train. He rode away from his home in Pensacola, Fla., making it only as far as Jacksonville, snapping maybe five photos. He was hooked. For the next seven or so years, Mr. Brodie crisscrossed the country, living on trains, taking photos of his fellow hobos. On Polaroids and later 35 millimeter, they are artfully posed and romantically hued images of life on the smudgy social edges.
Naturally, Mr. Brodie put his photos online, uploading them to his website on public library computers and tracking their spread as he continued on the road. His portraits of defiant punks and blissed-out runaways, glimpses of a modern-day, tattooed Robert Frank America on the rails, quickly attracted notice. Soon the Polaroid Kidd had a gallery show and a $10,000 photography prize.
He was 22, and the attention freaked him out.
“I was like, ‘I’m not ready yet,’ ” he said. “My mind was still in the game of taking the pictures. If all of a sudden, I started to get in the art aspect of it and navigating that, it would’ve messed up what I was doing.” His rail-yard friends, too, were not enthused about having their lifestyle identified and enlarged.
He took his website down but returned to the trains, with a new sense of the weight of his work and an urgency about capturing his adventures before they, too, transformed. At the urging of a friend, a collection, “A Period of Juvenile Prosperity,” was published this year, with gallery exhibits in New York and Los Angeles. (Mr. Brodie reluctantly put up a new website.)
The vortex of Internet notoriety is impossible to ignore, Mr. Seelie said, and people who are serious about remaining underground must now keep themselves offline. (Mr. Seelie occasionally photographs events whose organizers ask him not to post the images.) At 28, Mr. Brodie has stopped riding trains and given up photography. He studied to be a diesel mechanic and is now apprenticing in Oakland, Calif.
He’s proud of his work but wishes he hadn’t put the photos online. ““It would’ve just been cool,” he said, adding: “A lot of people did take to riding trains after seeing the pictures online, and they wear the whole outfit, the suspenders and the hats with feathers in it, and don’t wash their pants for three months. More power to them.”
Mr. Seelie, too, did not bemoan the loss of exclusivity that the Internet affords. “People who are like, ‘I’m the only one that knows about this cool subculture’ — you’re a snob,” he said. “It’s kind of un-punk to be a snob.”
If renegade artists once stood in opposition, now they may welcome crossover. Mr. Byrne cautioned that commercial forces could still ghettoize artists, but “the breaking down of boundaries and definitions is indeed encouraging,” he said. “I love that part.”
And aided by technology, subcultures are expanding, Dr. Haenfler pointed out. There are more tools and inspiration, more examples of how to succeed on the margins, and so more people try. The net effect, though, is that it’s just as hard to be found.
The underground is closer to the surface now. But it takes an equal amount of resolve to dive in.
- By Melena Ryzik, Art & Design, The New York Times