Los Angeles photographer/artist Edward Colver spoke to a capacity crowd of 250 guests in September as part of the Iris Lecture Series at the Annenberg Space for Photography. Colver, whose work is prominently featured in the Who Shot Rock & Roll exhibition (June 23-October 7), is best known for his comprehensive photographic documentation of Southern California’s explosive punk movement. Between 1978 and 1984, this self-taught photographer shot more than 80 album covers representing a who’s who of punk bands and photographed more than 1,000 Southern California punk shows, capturing youthful rebellion in the malaise of Reagan America and the faltering promise of Southern California’s endless sprawl. The witty artist curated a 90-minute slide show of his photography and sculptures that demonstrated a healthy and youthful distrust for institutions and convention that transcends his punk photography yet retains its rebellious spirit and energy. Colver’s enthusiasm for the cultural movement he helped create still burns hot and is laden with details of numerous concerts and bands and the names of musicians, many of whom are no longer alive.
A few days before his lecture, he invited the Los Angeles Beat into his Highland Park home to discuss his work and interests. His 1911 craftsman bungalow is a virtual museum of eclectic collectibles, including Stickley furniture that represent a more honest time in our history and oddball yard sale items like two taxidermy dogs he uses in assemblage sculptures that convey the story of America’s demise. His passion for photographing bands is still evident amongst the creative backdrop he has created in his backyard for his buddy’s band the Dumfuxx, a self-described arty, film soundtrack band. At the center of his life are his wife Karin, two Pekingese rescue dogs with puppy haircuts and a 50-pound South African sulcata tortoise that roams his backyard.
Los Angeles Beat: What was it about the first punk show you attended that captivated you so?
Edward Colver: The total kind of abandonment in the music and the people that were there. It was a high energy, amazing thing that I had never witnessed. I had been to a lot of different concerts. I had seen a lot of great bands in the 1960s like the Mothers of Invention, Captain Beefheart and all kinds of different bands.
Los Angeles Beat: So you had a wide variety of live music experiences that helped you peg this as something different?
Edward Colver: In late 1978 when I started going to these things, it was way underground. There were probably a couple hundred kids at the most, including band members, from across Southern California, who were involved. There weren’t that many people. By 1983, Black Flag had crowds of 3,000 at the Olympic Grand Auditorium. That was insane! Who would have ever thought a punk show would draw that many? Early on, I would go to see these bands on a Tuesday night with 20-30 people there, playing in empty, dead clubs to nobody, and they were great! Photographing the whole punk scene was vitally important to me. I was not just photographing bands, I was documenting them and hanging out with these people, many of whom are still friends to this day. I was older than most of the punks, if not all of them. I got along with them just fine.
Los Angeles Beat: Amidst the sweat, crazy energy, loud music, and, perhaps, police harassment, did you realize that you were contributing to a major youth, cultural movement?
Edward Colver: No, not at the time. It was vitally important to me and a couple of my friends. There was a photographer friend of mine Robert Hill, we started out together and both us were shooting. I set up a dark room and we would develop photos for days printing pictures. It was great fun. He had some great stuff that he never ended up doing anything with. Last I heard, he had worked on the space station Freedom for the last 12 years all over the world, Russia, US. It’s pretty amazing.
Los Angeles Beat: A pretty cerebral crowd at these punk shows (chuckling)?
Edward Colver: These punk shows attracted everyone from geniuses to drunken fools. There was a whole cross-section of people. They were all misfits, but some of them were brilliant and creative. The drunks were entertaining in their own right.
Los Angeles Beat: So some of these types were subscribing to the Sex Pistols’ “No Future” as a life plan and not a metaphor?
Edward Colver: I’ll sign up for that, can I borrow your pen (laughing)?
Los Angeles Beat: Your photographs really place the viewer in the moment. You don’t have to hear the music to know how raucous and chaotic these concerts were. What was your method for capturing these concerts and musicians? Was it relying on your gut instincts, protecting your gear and staying out of the melee?
Edward Colver: I was at all of these shows for all of these years and learned how to do it. I started taking photography classes at UCLA after I started supporting myself through photography. It was an intermediate photography class and it’s funny, I didn’t really learning anything as I had basically already taught myself. The instructor had us, the students, bring in some of our work. He immediately stopped the class and told everyone, “nobody in this class is capable of taking these photos, these were done by an insider, a professional.” I thought that was pretty astute. That was the only thing I really got from that class.
Los Angeles Beat: The audiences in your concert photos fascinate me. The expressions on everyone’s faces seem to dramatically reflect basic human emotions such as fear, excitement, bewilderment, joy and/or anger. There seems to be a story for every face. Do you ever wonder what happened to these people or where they are now? Doctors, lawyers, tradesmen, teachers, parents, prisoners?
Edward Colver: There are quite of few friends from back then that I still say in touch with. Some of them are my best friends to this day. I am hooking up with a lot of people peripherally from back in the day on Facebook. It’s been really fun. Unfortunately, a lot of these musicians are also dead.
Los Angeles Beat: There is a photo in Blight at the End of the Funnel of a kid…
Edward Colver: Do you mean the Reagan Youth kid?
Los Angeles Beat: Was that kid 10 years old?
Edward Colver: At the most! He’s got a swastika on his back too. For a kid that age, you would think, what the fuck is that kid doing? The swastika hardly shows in that particular picture.
Los Angeles Beat: He looks angry?
Edward Colver: I love the quality of light in that photo. I have no idea what would of have happened to him.
Los Angeles Beat: San Quintin or a doctor?
Edward Colver: Probably a skinhead. That’s Axle from the Gears playing behind him. There are a bunch of funny facial expressions in these photos. The dark haired kid in this photo (right) is my friend’s brother. He looks unaffected, like there is nothing going. This guy below him is trying to get his face out of the way, “uh oh, I am going to get hit.”
Los Angeles Beat: Was this photo of the Vandals with the painted diorama behind them taken at the Natural History Museum?
Edward Colver: No that was taken at the La Brea Tar Pits. Do you know what La Brea means?
Los Angeles Beat: Yes, the tar.
Edward Colver: The Tar Tar pits. That is so fucking stupid. My friend Steve from The Vandals once climbed over the fence at the Tar Pits and jumped in a maintenance boat left unattended with some of his punk rock buddies and paddled across the tar-slicked pond. He climbed on top of the mammoth statue. I am surprised we did not get thrown out of the museum the day we did the photo shoot. The guys were rolling down the grass embankments on the outside of the museum. Those guys were nuts.
Los Angeles Beat: I really like these photos of Bad Religion here because it looks like they’re having fun.
Edward Colver: The fact that this guy is standing here acting like he is presenting his band mate falling over was total fluke. They were just standing there and two of them just completely crashed.
Los Angeles Beat: This photo of the police cars and motorcycles at “The Decline of Western Civilization” premiere on Hollywood Blvd. is crazy. I have been to a lot of concerts in my time that attracted upwards of 20,000 people and I have never seen a police presence like that before.
Edward Colver: There is nothing crazier than taking that photo with a hand-held 35mm camera in low light, it’s as crisp as a potato chip. I braced myself against a car to hold the camera steady for a long exposure. I knew a guy who was on a nearby rooftop who counted 71 police bikes, seven cars and two paddy wagons. What was going on was there was too many kids trying to get in the movie premiere and there were communists passing out the revolutionary workers’ newspaper to the punks, who were getting rowdy and tearing up the papers and throwing them everywhere. See how the street is all littered. I was amazed how 71 police motorcycle units were mobilized in a matter of minutes. I still can’t believe that.
Los Angeles Beat: Was this extraordinary for the time?
Edward Colver: It was overkill and a half! A dozen cop cars arriving at a concert was more typical.
Los Angeles Beat: Was that typical of Black Flag shows?
Edward Colver: Well the cops had it in for them. Raymond Pettibon (renowned artist who did most of Black Flag’s album and flyer art) created the “Police Story” image for concert flyers and the merchandise with a gun in a cop’s mouth that said “make me come, faggot!” The police were bound to see that somehow. Conversely, I know a police sergeant downtown who is a big fan of punk. He bought one of my books. He had his picture taken with the Dead Kennedys in uniform. Is that funny? As I said before, if a cop drove by a show, nothing would happen. But if a cop stopped and sat there for 20 minutes, someone would get annoyed and throw a bottle or something. It would just blow up from there.
Los Angeles Beat: I think the “punk” kids today take for granted the crap early LA punks had to put up with.
Edward Colver: Hey when I was in high school, way before the punk thing, I had the longest hair. The vice principal was always after me to cut my hair and the jocks wanted to beat the shit out of me. Looking back, a lot of the punks early on were just suburban kids with short hair.
Los Angeles Beat: Do you want to talk about the cover for Black Flag’s “Damaged” record? There were already several Black Flag singles and e.p. covers done by Raymond Pettibon, who also did all of the other Black Flag records following “Damaged,” which is arguably the band’s most significant record.
Edward Colver: Well thank you. It is their most significant record for damn sure. Piece de resistance. Raymond Pettibon and I really defined the whole style of hardcore punk. I did 80 punk album covers by 1983…Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Social Distortion, Wasted Youth, Bad Religion, Christian Death, Anti, Legal Weapon and many, many more.
Los Angeles Beat: This Youtube video of Black Flag doing “Depression” at the Olympic Grand Auditorium in 1983 shows you taking photos at a furious pace and then, at about the 1:00 mark, the barricade in front of the stage collapses under the surge of the crowd and you are lucky to escape with your legs intact.
Edward Colver: One of the reasons for my success was that I was always timing my photos and had a rhythm while taking as many shots as I could. There was a lot of chaos, which was not suited for photographers who just stand there and try to get the perfect shot. Some would just stand there, stand there, stand there and then click. And it’s like, “what did you just fucking take? You stood there for two minutes and took a picture of nothing going on.” I have hundreds of photos that people would really like that I have never published because it might only include three of the four band members. I try to concentrate on a person or the entire band. Anything else is bullshit. Someone posted a photo of Scott and Rick of The Mau Maus and said it was the Mau Maus. That’s not The Mau Maus, that’s The Maus, that’s Scott and Rick. That’s stupid, that’s misinformation. There is so much misinformation and when it’s printed it becomes history.
Los Angeles Beat: That’s the power of media and visual media.
Edward Colver: I really like “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman and “Trivializing of America” by Roger Corwin. Most of my sculptures deal with the demise of the American Dream.
Los Angeles Beat: This comes from life experience?
Edward Colver: My father was veteran, who was wounded in World War II. He worked for the government his entire life. My family has an agricultural background. My great grandfather and grandfather grew oranges. My father was a forest ranger. I lived at San Dimas Canyon ranger station as a little kid. We later moved in my grandparent’s farmhouse in Covina. My dad was in charge of a 17,000-acre experimental forest in the San Gabriel foothills near San Dimas. It was called Tanbark Flats, it’s still there. They did a lot of burn control, acid rain and reforestation studies there. They learned that mustard was the fastest growing plant with the largest root bulb for retaining soil after fires, which led to putting mustard seed and fertilizer in fire retardant used to fight forest fires. When he retired, the US Forest Service named the tallest peak southwest of Mt. Baldy “Colver Peak” (elevation 5,512 feet) after him and gave him the Theordore Roosevelt Conservation Award at the White House. My dad met Nixon, Reagan and Bush, Sr. I was sitting in the kitchen with my friend during the 1980 presidential election when the vote tally was favoring Reagan. My dad was shouting “Reagan” and me and my friend were like what the fuck is this guy (Reagan) going to do. My father was a Republican, government employee and was wounded in the Battle of the Bulge.
Los Angeles Beat: So all of these experiences shaped your world-view?
Edward Colver: Yes. Growing up, I saw him as a wounded war veteran, one arm was longer than the other from a shrapnel injury. He was in a body cast for six months in England recuperating. I thought to myself, “wow, my dad was a machine gunner when he was 18 or 19 years old, out in the snow in France with a machine gun and he killed people!” My father killed people. That’s a weird thought. WWII was worth fighting. However, no war since then has been worth fighting. What have these other wars accomplished? Nothing! And who is starting these wars half the time? It’s the US most of the time spending your tax dollars.
Los Angeles Beat: Let’s talk about the July 4, 1981 stage diving photo of skateboarder Chuck Burke flying high and upside down over the crowd at the Stiff Little Fingers concert at Perkins Palace, the photo that would become the Wasted Youth album cover. This is probably the most well-known punk photo of all time. When you took that photo, did you know that you nailed it?
Edward Colver: I was confident that I had gotten it.
Los Angeles Beat: Did you use a power winder on your camera?
Edward Colver: No telephoto, no autofocus, not motor drive.
Los Angeles Beat: Were you surprised at how good the photo was when you developed it?
Edward Colver: I wish the picture had more expressions on the faces of the kids underneath him, but that motherfucker is in focus. He did this stunt several times and I have pictures of those too. He sprinted across the stage in his Vans and flew of the stage and I was there to capture it.
Los Angeles Beat: You two are forever connected by this photo.
Edward Colver: We made each other famous.
Los Angeles Beat: So after documenting 1,000 plus punk shows over a period of five years, you walked away from it. What was your motivation?
Edward Colver: I had my first photograph published three months after I started shooting. I wasn’t making any money shooting punk, but it was fun. I was shooting everybody, I did all of their album covers and I wanted to make some money shooting photos. Then, the thrash bands hit the scene and I was like “I don’t like this stuff!” I didn’t like the music. I liked hardcore punk, that stuff was fun. Thrash was not doing it for me and then I got work with I.R.S. records shooting stills for the television show “I.R.S. Records Presets The Cutting Edge” (MTV, 1983-1987) with my friend Carlos Grasso, who was the art director. He was just here preparing an album cover shoot for his band the Dumfuxx. I worked on that show probably through the third season. That’s when I shot Tom Waits and Robert Fripp, the photos that are in my book.
Los Angeles Beat: You shot many major label album covers?
Edward Colver: Yes. Some of my stuff, like the Chili Peppers photos have been reused a bunch, which has been nice. The composite of the four Chili Peppers heads has been used several times. My friend Bad Otis Link did the composite. I got real close to each of them and had their jaws go slack. They looked like they had all been punched in the face.
Los Angeles Beat: Looking at your early photographs and cover art for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I realized that this band was a hard band to describe in the day. Funk, punk and metal combined with outrageous stage behavior. Your work nails it though, leaving little to the imagination of what their band is and personalities are.
Edward Colver: I always thought it was Bad Brains crossed with Parliament…in 1983 and 1984, but not after that. I knew those guys well. I knew Flea from when he was in Fear before the Child Peppers. They were around the punk scene before they formed their own band. Flea shredded on the bass, he was nuts, he was so fucking good!
Los Angeles Beat: I think your photographs really helped them define their style. That look might have gotten their asses kicked in the mid-west in 1983/1984.
Edward Colver: I always try to capture or create the essence of what a band is about without being contrived or over the top. I have always preferred background locations that were not obvious and that would not overwhelm the band’s essence.
Los Angeles Beat: Were they fun to work with?
Edward Colver: Oh yes, they were like working with kids or puppies, trying to control them to get them all in the photo.
Los Angeles Beat: By chance about 10 years ago, I was fortunate enough to be one of the few people to go through your studio at The Brewery, probably just before you disassembled it and moved out. I met you a few years ago and mentioned that I had been in your space and you replied, “no you have not, only a few people have ever seen it.” Your space must have been very personal.
Edward Colver: The landlord said it would change your life going in there.
Los Angeles Beat: Absolutely! You created dioramas with witty, political jabs.
Edward Colver: Yeah, they’re all kind of dark and funny.
Los Angeles Beat: How has it been participating in the “Who Shot Rock & Roll” exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography?
Edward Colver: It has been great. They extended it two weeks. It has broken attendance records. I was there the other day and guests were waiting in line to get in. I would not be surprised if a major museum does not pick it up. It’s wonderful that they don’t charge admission.
Los Angeles Beat: I bought the exhibition catalog, which is great, however it’s your book “Blight at the End of the Funnel” that I keep returning to. Your photography is not just photos of bands, it’s social commentary, and you are documenting things historically with the eye of a sociologist.
Edward Colver: I was very non-judgmental about what I was photographing. I was rarely shocked. I was part of it and I was in the middle of it. I was there all the time. Most kids that ever went to shows, every time they went, I was there. Someone recently said on Facebook, that if I was not at a particular show, it meant they had gone to wrong show.
Los Angeles Beat: The inside covers of “Blight at the End of the Funnel” are filled with witty plays on common expressions, like Electoral College Dropout, Public Abscess, and Dumbmockracy, that really capture your witty cynicism and mistrust of convention and public institutions. Did you collect these?
Edward Colver: No, those are all mine. Some were quotations, some were sculpture titles. They just come to me. “Double sneeze booger, order of flies, and a large choke” was such an appropriate caption for the early picture of the Chili Peppers. How about “The revolution will be televised, it will be sponsored, and you will be forced to watch it?” (laughing)
For more information about Edward Colver, visit www.edwardcolver.com.
The “Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to Present” exhibition ends Sunday, October 7.
Location: The Annenberg Space for Photography, Century Park
Hours: Wed-Fri: 11am – 6pm, Sat: 11am – 9:00pm, Sun: 11am – 6pm
2000 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, CA 90067