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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Lilian Caruana’s Fascinating, Bittersweet New Photo Book Offers a Rare Glimpse of the Mid-80s New York Punk Rock Scene

In one of the initial CBGB crowd shots in photographer Lilian Caruana’s new book, Rebels: Punks and Skinheads of New York’s East Village 1984-1987, an audience member appears to be wearing a swastika patch. A closer look reveals a famous Dead Kennedys quote: “NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF.” In many ways, that capsulizes the unexpected complexities of Caruana’s collection of black-and-white photos and brief interview quotes. It’s more bittersweet, strikingly insightful historical document than it is nostalgia.

In her introduction, Caruana puts the era in perspective. By the 1990s, punk fashion had been completely co-opted by corporate interests. Violent evictions by the police put an end to the Lower East Side squatter movement, paving the way for the destruction and suburbanization of a long-thriving artistic neighborhood. With a finely honed sense of irony – in the true sense of the word – and a wry sense of humor, Caruana portrays a long-lost subculture in their irrepressible DIY milieu.

In what might be the most surreal shot of all, a blonde girl who looks all of about fourteen sits on a mattress, her legs wrapped in a repurposed American flag. Her blank stare fixes on a black-and-white tv propped up on a milk crate. A Ronald Reagan movie plays on the screen. The pillow to her left is from the Bellevue mental ward. Decorations on the wall are sparse: a grimy handprint and a label peeled off a torpedo of Budweiser. The year is 1986.

As Caruana explains, the individuals in her portraits come from a wide swath of social strata. Collectively, they feel disenfranchised. Bobby sees himself as exploited at his minimum-wage job and isn’t beyond taking a little extra from the till to make ends meet. Dave, an Army deserter, longs for the American dream but not the mortgage and suburban drudgery. Matt comes from a more affluent background but is similarly alienated by outer-borough conformity.

As grim as their worldview may be, these people seem anything but unhappy. They lounge with their pets – a colorful menagerie including rats, kittens and an iguana – practice their instruments and strike sardonically defiant poses. Recycling may be all the rage in yuppie circles now, but punks were doing it forty years ago, if only because it was a practical survival strategy.

Unsurprisingly, the Cro-Mags, the Exploited, Agnostic Front and Battalion of Saints are the bands most often visually referenced here. But what these photos remind over and over is the vast difference between the Lower East Side hardcore contingent and their bridge-and-tunnel counterparts. Hardcore may have been more relentlessly aggressive, monotonous, and implicitly violent, compared to punk. But the LES crowd was far more likely to be politically aware, multi-racial, tolerant and open to women. In other words, they remained closer to punk’s populist roots than the high school boys whose moms would drop them at CB’s for the Sunday afternoon hardcore matinee and then drive them home to Long Island in the family Chevy Suburban. Other photographers have made big bucks shooting the famous and the semi-famous in that same part of town at the height of the CB’s scene a few years previously; Caruana’s work both dignifies and illuminates a time and place too infrequently chronicled.

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January 10, 2018 Posted by | Art, Literature, Music, music, concert, New York City, photography, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lilian Caruana Captures the Vulnerable Side of the Punk Esthetic

What is most stunning about Lilian Caruana’s photographs of punk rock kids in New York from 1984 to 1987, now on display through January 7, 2011 at the John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute, is how much space they have. As anyone who lived in New York, or who came here at the time can attest, it was a vastly more spacious place, offering freedom to pretty much anyone who sought it. Caruana, an Italian immigrant, draws on the populism of legendary Life Magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith in an engaging series of black-and-white portraits offering a compassionate view of life as an outsider.

Caruana’s intent was to capture her subjects’ individuality, and it was fortuitous that she took these pictures when she did, when individuality of expression among young New York immigrants was not only not forbidden but actually pretty much de rigeur. Even then, the punk scene was not necessarily a nonconformists’s club: there were Nazi and racist elements, especially among the hardcore kids. But many of the people who came here did so not necessarily because they wanted to, but because there was nowhere else to go, and because they had the option of being pretty much by themselves if they felt like it. And because they could afford it. How times have changed. These East Village shots could be from another universe. There’s not a single $500 bedhead haircut, posse of overdressed, tiara-wearing suburban girls or their Humvee stretch limo, or for that matter, anyone, anywhere, except the subjects of the photos themselves.

Several capture squatters in their lowlit afternoon hovels: a scruffy but seemingly cheerful couple reclining by the window on a mattress; a young guy with a Simply Red haircut enjoying a smoke while playing with a trio of kittens who seemingly could have run off into the adjacent hole in the apartment wall if they felt like it; a girl on her bed, leaning on a Bellevue Hospital pillow and watching a war movie on an old portable tv at 4:35 in the morning, her wall decor limited to the label off a Budweiser torpedo bottle (those were the days before the forty-ounce) and what might be a bloody handprint. The multi-racialism and inclusiveness of the era is evident in the diversity of Caruana’s subjects, especially in her portraits of mixed-race couples. One of them playfully does the bump in front of a gated storefront, the guy holding one of those big Bud bottles – young people drinking on the street in broad daylight were not typically subjected to police persecution in those days. Another pose on their rooftop, the street below them empty save for a battered Chevy Monte Carlo and a shiny new Mazda coupe passing by. As is the case with an Iron Cross-wearing, heavily tattooed guy – his face out of the frame – down the block from an independently owned diner long since vanished from the neighborhood. The shot most likely to be destined for iconic mall-store t-shirt status depicts a father and toddler son with identical mohawks – again, this was from an era fifteen years before the hairstyle became popular with members of the military and the police force. The tattoos are homemade; expressions of peace, freedom and nonviolence predominate among the t-shirts and graffiti; and perhaps most obviously, none of these people seem the least bit threatening.

The John D. Calandra Italian-American Institute is located at 25 W 43rd St. (5th/6th Ave.), on the 17th floor. Gallery hours aren’t listed at their site: you may wish to call before visiting, (212) 642-2094.

October 28, 2010 Posted by | Art, Culture, Music, music, concert, photography, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment