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 It’s more bittersweet, strikingly insightful historical document than it is nostalgia.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.