A couple of years ago, Carlo McCormick introduced me to Ruby Ray, understanding that she and I were destined to connect as her photographs of punk as it first exploded on the West Coast are unlike anything else out there. A regular contributor to Search & Destroy, Ruby Ray’s work defined a look and a vibe that has long since gone by. What remains are her photographs, which continue to evoke and inspire a do-it-yourself ethos that is more relevant than ever. I thank Ruby Ray for chatting about her work.
Please talk about the punk scene when it was coming up on the West coast in the 70s.
There was just an explosion of energy and so many great bands and shows up and down the whole coast. And a good number of NYC and UK bands came out here. We were playing a postindustrial game and had already decided that we were the winners! It was an awakening to all the lies – we weren’t caught in the matrix! SF was so cool because it was a small city with plenty of spaces and cheap rent. Anyone with guts could put on a show or start a band.
Please talk about your work for Search & Destroy magazine. What was it like to be a part of underground publishing?
We published S&D on newsprint and laid out all the pages by hand using miniscule typewritten pages and rubber cement. The text was usually Xeroxed several times in case the glue rubbed the type off! We had these giant flats that we had to carefully place and glue all the text and photos on, like a giant collage. Cartoonists came in and volunteered hand draw logos or headlines. What should it look like, what would punk visuals consist of? These were things influencing us subconsciously; we made it up as we went along. We had books all over for ideas –situationists, punk from other places, Russian constructivists, surrealists. The hippie paper the Oracle was an inspiration, too. Layout sessions happened on tables and the floor of our apartment with everyone helping out. It was a lot of work, but invigorating! We all felt very alive and part of something important. I learned so much and met so many great people! We tried to push the limits…
Do you see any connection between the DIY ethos of that era and today’s move trends digital self-publishing and promotions?
Totally, and it’s funny you ask me that because I have only just become involved with a cartoonist/games creator in developing a worldwide, online artist gallery and self-publishing website that hasn’t launched yet. I’m planning to publish my book Punk Passage there this fall in a print-on-demand edition and other formats. This method gives me so much freedom to publish the book just as I want it. It’s the future of new media and power to the people publishing. With billions of people in the digital landscape, there is always an audience for talent. Zeitgeist of the times impels us to find new forms. We have got to find different ways for artists to survive and thrive by their works.
How did it feel to be documenting a brand new scene and subculture? What was it like seeing your work in print as things were happening?
It was fabulous and exciting! I am a person who learns by doing and punk was my art school! It challenged me to become a better photographer and allowed me free use of my creativity to come up with whatever I wanted. It was a wonderful time of experimentation. And it gave me a forum which is what any artist wants. It’s fun to collaborate. We didn’t have to be worried about sales or whether the advertisers liked what we produced, we just put it out there.
How did your photographs influence and connect to a broader audience?
Well, for a while, I thought I was doomed to obscurity! But my big punk exhibit at the SF library in 2009 showed me differently. Almost 10,000 people came to the exhibit and granted, punk is a big draw. But I found a growing number of people had who claimed inspiration from my work, and that was very gratifying. My recent punk exhibit in LA took my work to yet another level. Sometimes, you have just got to hang in there… It may be awhile before those fans accept my new images.
Who were your favorite subjects to photograph?
Penelope of the Avengers was so photogenic and very easy to work with. Everyone was in love with her back then. The Mutants were so much fun, everything they did and said was instant art! I adored meeting and photographing John Cooper Clarke in London. It was always a different experience – at the clubs you had to be surreptitious because “punks” were not into posing per se. I always tried to think of everyone as my peer so I wouldn’t become intimidated. I had to make it interesting for them too.
What is the story behind the William Burroughs photograph?
When Search & Destroy stopped publishing, we started RE/Search and were putting out a magabook on Burroughs and his work. He was glad to oblige the photographer because he knew we would do a great book on him. I was a nervous wreck and only had about 10 minutes to shoot him and I had to make do with the location where he was attending a party. We brought the guns that were the props and I choose the garden to contrast the guns with. I kept praying the whole time that the film was exposed properly, and prayed again when I had to develop it. It wasn’t like with digital cameras where every photo comes out perfectly exposed; you really have to think when using film and natural light. Bill was at ease with me and I love the way the pictures came out. I am still shooting film, by the way!