Inside Out With Punk Photographer Edward Colver

When I took my first corporate office job, I had two of Colver's pictures pinned to the bleak gray wall of my cubicle. Every day I worked for The Man, I would look at the three pairs of black leather boots wrapped in chains and bandannas and at Circle Jerks bassist Roger Rogerson leaping into the air, mid-song.


Edward Colver: I had gone to a couple of shows because of news reports that I saw about the “music scene” going on at Madame Wong's [a nightclub that booked punk rock and New Wave bands, eventually programming only the skinny-tie crowd]. Around the same time, the Hong Kong Café opened and they were booking punk shows. I immediately saw a distinction between what was new wave and punk rock, and I abandoned Madame Wong's forever. As far as shooting live shows, I started back in the middle (or end) of 1978 and, pretty soon after, I had dinner at a friend's house. They heard I was taking pictures and asked me to bring some and come over for dinner and hang out. 
Their relatives happened to work for [music magazine] BAM, saw my pictures of [performance artist and punk singer] Johanna Went and wanted to use them in an article they were working on.                            
I got my first photograph published three months after I started taking them.
On your website, you mention avant-garde musicians (Edgar Varese, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Krzysztof Penderecki and John Cage) as the biggest influences on your life and your art, initially.
When I was 18, I started going to psychedelic music in the mid-60s and heard avant-garde classical stuff and started collecting antiques and my interests haven't changed. My whole life took a major turn when I heard that type of music, and it's the same way with the punk scene, even though it's a totally different scene. All those avant-garde classical composers were sort of the full-blown punks of their generation, doing outrageous stuff.
When you were shooting the punk scene, did you have an idea at the time that your photos would become as iconic as they have? That people would actually want them on a t-shirt?

I shot basically two files' worth full of black and white negatives in that five years I was out working. Had I known what would happen with the scene, I would have shot twice as much.
I'm basically self-taught. After I was supporting myself taking photographs, I took a beginning photography class at UCLA and learned quite a bit. Then I took an intermediate class and didn't learn anything. We brought our photographs to class one day and the teacher stopped the entire class when he saw my photographs and said, “No one in here could go out and take these photographs–these were taken by an insider. These people are familiar and comfortable with him.” I thought that was pretty astute.

You haven't watched television since 1979. What's behind that decision? 
I stopped watching when they started using R&B songs in commercials. I do not want to have the music I grew up enjoying when I was a kid bastardized and used as some advert for hamburgers or something. 
I don't listen to the radio, and I don't watch television. I like music and if I listen to that all day long, I play what I want to hear, when I want to hear it and I don't want to hear some DJ mouthing off. And if there's some good new great thing out there, I'll hear about it. I don't have to listen to the radio to try and stay with what's up. Most of it doesn't thrill me too much, anyway.
How do you stay informed?

I read the entire LA Times every day. Every section, except for the sports.
I really love your book “Blight at the End of the Funnel.” It's fantastic to have all those classic pictures in one volume. 

There was a lot of stuff that was left out of it, because my initial concept was a four-volume boxed set of all my work. It became four chapters and condensed down into the book. That's why it says “Look for Vol. 2” at the back. I was pretty upset about it. Maybe I'm not quite worthy of that, but I have enough work that I could have done that and I think it would have been pretty well received.

[How long have you been doing the assemblages?
Twenty-five years, believe it or not.

Wow, I had no idea you even did them until I picked up your book.What ended up in the [Hibbleton] show was what I had available in my “art room”/garage. I haven't been making too much new stuff since I moved out of The Brewery [his former studio], because I had all my junk around me. It was a big environment that I kept building on, and I had all of my toys to play with. I haven't been making too much of anything, lately. I've been busy dealing with the new house, my hundred-year-old house that I bought.

What is your process for putting together the assemblages? Do you have a concept first or do you look at a box full of objects and wonder what it could become?
I come at it from all different directions. 
I used to religiously go to all the flea markets, shopping and looking for stuff. I'd buy a couple of things, come home and start playing around in my studio, and I'd have a couple of new sculptures I hadn't even conceived of done in the afternoon. 
I like to only use real objects, and antique objects add character to my work. It gives it a lot more import, I think, because if you want people to see something that's kind of unbelievable, [put in original objects and] they'll say “That's real!” 
It adds a whole other crazy feel to it that way.

What are your thoughts on the last election?
I think both parties are pretty damned evil.

I'll never understand why folks like the Tea Party people will consistently vote against their best interests in so many ways. All I can do is chalk it up to education being cut and people becoming less informed. Stupider.

Granting corporations First Amendment rights and this recent [Supreme Court] rollover where they can put in campaign funding–we've basically lost our government. It's really astounding to me. Excuse me, but a corporation will never be a fucking goddamn person. To act like any corporation–no matter what kind of PR they spew out–they're anti-people, anti-environment, and their only concern is the bottom line. They don't give a damn about you. All of these clowns that are elected are just self-serving, and on the track to get re-elected and raise money. It's all partisan bickering, so everything has been basically boiled down to a sports mentality with too much sports jargon thrown in, like, “level playing field” and “on the same team.”

It's like the nerds took over the tech sector, but the jocks we hated in high school have taken over the government.
It's obscene. It's us against them or them against us, and it's nothing for the betterment of the country. It's just petty bullshit arguing. It has nothing to do with the people of this country–it's a corporate sponsor thing.

Any advice for photographers (or artists in general) that are just getting started?
I think the truer the vision of the originator, the better it becomes. Photography is a hard thing to do. I wasn't trying to get into the scene and become a photographer–I became a photographer because I was there, talking and working.I did the Circle Jerks Group Sex cover because I shot photos that they liked at The Whiskey, and they wanted to use them on their album. Then they asked me to do their album cover and, once I did the Group Sex cover, like half the other bands wanted me to do theirs and it went on from there. 
I've never advertised, I don't solicit work, my phone number is unpublished, and I've been working for thirty-three years. One thing I might say about photography: if you're shooting live band photos, either shoot one great picture of the artist or get the entire band in the picture because three out of four bandmates are just a waste of time. In so many pictures, the singer is shot with the guitar player. It's like, where's the drummer? They don't have a drummer in that band?
 If you look at my photos, even way back, they have the entire band in them. 
I like to take flattering pictures of people, too. I would actually shoot to the rhythm of the music, and that's how I would catch people when they jump–I was paying attention to the beat. When I was photographing singers on stage, I would try to shoot while they were holding a note, so that it wasn't just random shot and they looked great. 
People always focus on singers, which is understandable, but the fact that bands become like Jim Morrison and the Doors is such an outrageous travesty. They became The Doors because they were The Doors! They may have had a good frontman, but they were all playing the music and backing him up. 

Any final words you want to impart to people?

Uh, I don't know.

That's as good a final word as any.

“The Eye of the LA Punk Scene”
 at the Hibbleton Gallery, 223 W. Santa Fe Ave., Fullerton, (714) 441-1504; Open Fri.-Sun., 1-5 p.m. Through Jan. 2. Free.
Assorted T-shirts, limited edition serigraphs, archival fiber-based exhibition prints and digital printed signed posters are available at Edward Colver's website,
Buy a copy of Colver's book, Blight at the End of the Funnel, from his website and he'll autograph it for you.