“Johnny looked at my old collection of punk rock posters / Anonymous scenes of disaffection chaos and torture. And he said, “You were on the right track , but you’re a lamb jumping for the knife.” —from “Johnny Mathis’s Feet” by American Music Club.
Silent Pictures is a beautiful book of photographs, focused largely on the underground rock scene that came up in Washington, DC, but expanding to include bands from across two countries and across two decades, shot in America and Europe. Photographer Pat Graham got his start through an association with Fugazi, and has since focused his work largely on Modest Mouse, who he has been following since the early days of the band and with whom he continues to regularly tour. He also contributes the large majority of the photos for the band’s photoblog.
Modest Mouse is only a fraction of the focus here, and in a way Silent Pictures acts as a testament to and a primer for the bands that passed thought the DC scene along with Graham. The book extends back almost 20 years (the earliest pictures are from 1989), and memorializes bands regardless of what kind of success or name recognition that they went on to develop; The Shins, At The Drive In, Smog, and Andre 3000 are here, but so is Nation of Ulysses, Rodan, Jawbox, and Frodus (the subjects of the photographs appear in an index in the back instead of with the photo, which can be frustrating). In one shot, thousands of Modest Mouse fans wait for the band to take the stage for a 2000 show in California, while for a Slant 6 show from 1993, there’s a broom in the corner and a mattress propped on the radiator, presumably to either block a window or to help control the sound; maybe both.
Whether intended or not, some of the photographs can’t help but take on an iconic air (Beat Happening at a show held in an attic, Graham’s Bikini Kill photographs, Fugazi performing in direct view of the Washington Monument, Superchunk’s Mac MacCaughan, a shirtless David Yow dropping to his knees in one shot while in another he crawls his way from out of the mosh pit). You never feel removed from the subjects, though; Graham has an intimate style that fits the subject matter perfectly.
He also has an eye for the telling moment on stage, indie rock boys and girls and their guitars making big rock faces, but these tend to be the easiest pictures to pass by. Though filled with shots of heavy-hitters in action (Lungfish, Helmet, Les Savy Fav, Carrie Brownstein in her Excuse 17-days, two great shots of Blonde Redhead stacked one on top of the other, including one down the neck of a guitar) the images with the most lasting impact are of quieter moments; a beautiful shot of The Warmers on-stage in Washington DC (with audience members tucked behind the band’s amps), June of 44’s Jeff Mueller asleep against a video game, Cass McCombs shot from behind on-stage in London, Modest Mouse’s Jeremiah Green riding his bike through an empty parking lot, Unrest posing on a lawn in Bethesda, Issac Brock asleep on a motel room floor in Albuquerque, barely covered by his sleeping bag and still in his jeans and t-shirt from the night before.
A beautiful shot of the Granada Theatre in Lawrence, Kansas advertising both the upcoming Ladies Night on Friday and Tortoise show on Saturday, is seated next to a photo from ten years earlier of Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thomson in the Simple Machines office. Another image shows a snow-covered Montana skyline, beautiful until you consider that the shot was most likely taken from a dilapidated van and that the icy stretch of road in front lies between the band and their next show.
The photos of Graham’s that don’t come off as having been shot by a fan come off as having been shot by a friend. He seems to have full access to his subjects and his book fully benefits from it. Having come of an age in a scene known best remembered for howling guitars played in basement shows, Graham’s work pays testament to those bands. His pictures blast, loud as a band.