Ian Mackaye
[Minor Threat, Lansburgh Cultural Center, Washington, D.C., 9/23/1983 (last show)/Photo by Jim Saah]

“People were commenting about this one photo I took of Marginal Man that was in the inner sleeve of their record [Identity, Dischord Records, 1984],” mused veteran Washington, D.C. punk/alt-rock photographer Jim Saah via telephone. He was reflecting on an exhibit at D.C.’s Lost Origins Gallery celebrating his new book In My Eyes: Photographs 1982-1997 (Cabin 1 Books), collecting 15 years’ worth of his extraordinary black-and-white photos.

“The singer [Steve Polcari] is jumping off the drum riser, and he jumped so high that you see the drummer underneath him,” he continues. “The drummer’s got this look like, ‘Whoa! He got high!’ Then the cord of the mic was arched the way his arm was. 

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“People were saying it definitely captured a moment, but it’s more than that,” he says, smiling. “When you think about photographing with film, I can’t just put it on rapid fire and shoot the whole course of the jump and pick the frame I like the best, as you could in a digital format. I took one shot of that whole jump. Some of it is luck, and some of it is knowing when to push the button.”

Marginal Man
[Marginal Man, Space II Arcade, Washington, D.C., 5/13/1983/Photo by Jim Saah]
Knowing when to push the button is clearly a talent Saah has developed since beginning high school photography classes. He discovered punk shortly after, in 1982. Already carrying a camera everywhere he went, it was simply natural for him to start documenting D.C.’s hardcore scene’s evolution. In My Eyes is chock-full of not just his clear, artfully composed action shots of Minor Threat, the Faith, Void, Government Issue, Scream and the like, but such touring luminaries as Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks, Big Boys, the Cramps, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. As hardcore gave way to alternative music, he documented that scene’s leading lights, too: Fugazi, Nation Of Ulysses, Jawbox, Fishbone, Sonic Youth, Pixies, the Replacements, Guided By Voices and many others share space.

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Many of these photos are recognizable from various album covers and books and magazines. They bear loud evidence of the profound impact Saah’s gift has had on rock photography. In My Eyes is technically out now, but held up by global supply chain woes: “It hasn’t hit our distribution center yet. It’s still waiting to get on a boat and go there.” He took the pause in distribution to reflect on his art, a lifetime spent documenting D.C.’s underground scene and certain classic photographs. Please enjoy our custom playlist, Alternative Press presents Jim Saah: In My Eyes, a soundtrack of sorts to the book and the interview.

JIM SAAH: I didn’t wanna make it a book about D.C. only. I wanted to make it reflective of my experience with music. I have a lot of older siblings, so at a young age, I was really into all the ’60s stuff — the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, the California stuff like Jefferson Airplane. All that stuff was in my house, and I was hearing it, and I liked it fine. I liked the Doors and things. In the ’80s, a lot of those bands that were big 15 years prior were really big. Everyone in my middle school listened to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd

But when I discovered punk rock, that was my music. I just delved into it heavily. It must have been like what my siblings felt when they discovered Bob Dylan when he was really new. I just found this music, and I was compelled. Once I made it down to one show, I just had to go to every show. I had no choice. I had to get there, even if I couldn’t get the car and I had to take three buses.

Then I had to take pictures of it. My friends would tell me, “Oh, don’t take your camera! Whatever, enjoy the show!” But I enjoyed the show more when I took my camera. I paid more attention. It didn’t distract me. It made me focus — no pun intended — on what was going on, listening for that drum break where I knew someone was going to jump or something. If I wasn’t photographing it, I was jumping around with my friend or talking to someone, or feeling bad because I didn’t bring my camera because they turned the lights up that night where they usually leave them really low or something like that. 

You discover punk rock, then you work your way backwards, so you discover who was punk before punk. I discovered Iggy Pop and Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. So I wanted it to represent my journey through music, not just hardcore punk.

The way you describe your journey sounds a lot like the stories both Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins have related about their punk-rock journeys. They both loved the arena rock of the day — Ted Nugent and Led Zeppelin or whatever. Then somebody drops a record on them, maybe the Ramones or something like that. And as Rollins put it, when the Bad Brains opened for the Damned in 1979, he figured out that D.C. had bands as good or better as many of the touring acts coming through. 

Exactly. Bad Brains were that for a lot of people. Ian talked about seeing the Cramps, of all people, for the first time and being so blown away that he went home and cut his hair. 

That was a key show for Rollins, as well. Are the Cramps photos in the book from this particular show? 

No. I have photos from two different shows in the book. One was from ‘82, and one was ‘83.

The Cramps
[The Cramps, 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., 11/1/1983/Photo by Jim Saah]
Yeah, the Cramps gig they’ve both talked about was from a string of shows they saw in ‘79, including the Clash. They saw all these bands and decided, “This is my music! These are my people!”

Ian’s four years older than me, and Henry might be four or five years older than me. Things are different when you’re 15 versus 20 or whatever. I didn’t really discover punk until like mid-’82, I think. 

What was your fanzine called?

It was called Zone Five. It’s a photography term. I did two issues of that. It was a fanzine/photozine. It was mostly photos of bands, with maybe one interview and then scene reports. One issue had interviews with the Big Boys and Tesco Vee of the Meatmen, and then Thurston Moore did the New York scene report, and it was exhaustive. He did every club and every band. The other issue had Ian on the cover, and I had a Rollins interview. 

From all evidence, you’ve displayed a certain artistry that’s gone through every single one of your photo sessions. For one thing, I’ve never seen you do many posed group shots. You’re photographing bands live, capturing the excitement. But your framing is excellent. The photos are always very clear and precise. The compositions themselves are great. You can definitely recognize a Jim Saah photo when you see it. You get shots no one else really does.

People have definitely said that to me before. If people are trying to identify a picture, they’ll say, “This one looks like one of yours.” And it usually is. People have styles. Pat Graham was another D.C. photographer, and he was really into more of the Charles Peterson style — wide frame, blurry, showing motion. I was into dragging the shutter, too, and showing motion. But I always wanted something to be sharp. I had a shot of Ian in Fugazi bending the neck of his guitar. His arm and his guitar neck are blurry, but his face is sharp. I always liked that

Well, one of the cool things about the book is seeing that you weren’t just photographing  D.C. bands. We’re not just gonna see some great photos of Minor Threat. You were there capturing all the great punk bands as they came through town, so you get all these great shots, like the one I’m looking at now of the Damned at some in-store. There’s Rat Scabies and Dave Vanian, with Bryn Merrick in the foreground, and in the immediate background stands Brian Baker and Guy Picciotto.

Yeah, and Brendan Canty, too. They were all huge fans of the Damned. Some of them worked there at Yesterday And Today. That was a staple record store. Skip Groff owned it, who produced the early Minor Threat stuff and other early local bands. It was definitely a cool spot. D.C. punk rockers just loved the Damned! Usually they weren’t into worshipping other rock stars. They weren’t rock stars, but they were in bands. But they all came out to that because everyone just loved the Damned so much.

The Damned
[The Damned, in-store appearance at Yesterday And Today Records, Rockville, Maryland, 3/10/1986/Photo by Jim Saah]
Again, you captured great moments. I am looking at one photo now on the Government Issue page of Ian MacKaye and Boyd Farrell carrying John Stabb out of the crowd. Everyone’s got a huge shit-eating grin on their face. He was a special character, John.

Definitely. In the intro to the book, there’s a story I tell about how when I first started going to punk rock shows, I had long hair. I was listening to ’60s music, and I had long hair, and none of the punks really did. They all had shaved heads or really short hair. Of course I felt self-conscious, but even at the beginning, I was like, “Well, punk rock is supposed to be doing what you want, not conforming.”

So, why would I cut my hair to conform to something that’s nonconformist? I was just trying to own it. Then I saw another guy with long hair down to his shoulders walk in. That guy ended up getting onstage and singing! I was like, “Oh shit! That guy’s not just at the show. He’s in the band! That guy’s the most punk-rock guy here!” And it was John Stabb. It was the first time I saw G.I. He had long hair, and it made me feel much better about everything. 

[Ian MacKaye and Boyd Farrell carrying John Stabb, Oscar’s Eye, Washington, D.C., 7/26/1983/Photo by Jim Saah]
Of course, we have some classic photos of Minor Threat.

Yes, one of my favorite bands of the time. I loved a lot of bands — Void, Faith, Scream was a great band I loved and like to see, still. But I photographed Fugazi and Minor Threat the most, just because I loved them the most. So I got a lot of photos of them.

Ian MacKaye
[Fugazi, 9:30 Club, Washington, D.C., 7/20/1989/Photo by Jim Saah]
You got an incredible shot of Ian onstage, his arms spread out like Jesus Christ on the cross. And there’s this frothing crowd before him.

It’s funny that you called it that. I’ve hassled him about it, called it “Crucified Ian.” [Laughs.] I don’t know why I thought maybe it was just me, but The Hard Times podcast called it “Ian on the cross.” In the book, I cropped it. But in my photo exhibit, I did a print in a different format, a 16×20. So I had to include more of the headspace, like the ceiling. Then I noticed the panels in the ceiling make a cross. It mimics his body. It was a happy accident because I usually don’t include a bunch of ceiling. But I made a darkroom print, and when I saw that, I was like, “Oh, that’s really cool!”

Well, that photo really captures for me the power of Ian MacKaye onstage, fronting that particular band. And the sway he had over that audience! You see some guy in the lower right-hand corner gazing upon him reverently, and there’s someone in the lower left-hand corner, just rapt in his attention on Ian. That says a lot.

Yes, it adds to the biblical references — the apostles looking upon Ian! [Laughs.] 

Punk was supposed to be about shattering your heroes. But that guy had a lot of power at that point. 

Yeah, he could really command an audience. He has amazing stage presence, still. That photo is from “The Punk/Funk Spectacular,” with the Big Boys from Austin and the D.C. go-go band Trouble Funk. It turned out to be Minor Threat’s last show, although it wasn’t billed as that. They broke up shortly after that.

He and Rollins sorta created a prototype for The Hardcore Singer that is utilized to this day.

Yes, I would agree.