Can you tell the Punk Globe readers how you got into photography?
Dawn Wirth- I was 16 and had been going to the Whisky and the Starwood to see the different bands. At that time, everybody was doing something. I was too shy to sing and didn't know how to play an instrument. I saw someone taking pictures and it clicked. So I took a class in high school. Of course when I took my film in to develop it, the teacher thought they were crap.
Punk Globe- That's so classic. People who are supposed to know knowing nothing. Can you tell the readers about the bands that you photographed?
Dawn Wirth- The Bags, The Weirdos, The Mumps, (they were an NYC band, but came through L.A. a bunch) The Screamers and The Germs. I shot DEVO and The Talking Heads when they came through. The Clash in London. The last Sex Pistols show in San Francisco. The Zeros from Chula Vista when they came through L.A.
Do you recall what you had in mind when you first began documenting the L.A. punk scene? I ask because people rarely seem to be present to what they're doing at the time, particularly if what they're doing is of great importance.
Dawn Wirth- At the time I didn't know I was documenting. I was going to shows, taking pictures, making copies and giving them to the bands. I don't think any of us really realized what it was going to become 20 to 30 years later.
Punk Globe- How did you meet Alice Bag?
Dawn Wirth- I was going out with Terry Graham at the time. He was the drummer for The Gun Club and The Bags. Somehow I got involved with The Weirdos and their fan club. So from there, Alice, Nicky and I would hang around and do stuff. Nicky Beat loved to have his photo taken. I couldn't be around Nicky without a roll of film in my camera. I could do a whole book just on him. I've taken so many pictures of him. He was like the big brother I always wanted to have. He's a good fellow.
Punk Globe- Have you kept in touch with people from the old days?
Dawn Wirth- I'm still friends with Alice and Terry Graham. I talk to Dix and John from The Weirdos occasionally. I see Cliff Roman here and there.
Punk Globe- Do you have a favorite Bags story you'd like to share?
Dawn Wirth- Probably the shoot for the book I just showed you at what used to be called Hollywood Cemetery, but is now known as Hollywood Forever. They came to me in 1978 and asked me to take the pictures for their press kit. I was surprised. Like, "You want me?" They were adamant. So we set it up. I picked them up at the Plunger Pit. The Plunger Pit was off Santa Monica Blvd. near the Starwood. That's where Trudie and Hellin lived. Many out of town bands crashed at their apartment. It was a meeting place for people. X lived upstairs from them in that same complex. One year, John Doe made Thanksgiving dinner for the girls.
I loved the book. Is there anyone from that era that you would liked to have spent more time shooting?
Dawn Wirth- If anything I would have shot The Screamers more. You never knew what Tomato was going to wear. Same with John Denny. You never knew what they would wear, but you knew that as soon as they got on stage you'd get a good picture. Back then, there were no digital cameras. I was shooting film. If I was going to see four bands I knew I'd need at least two rolls of film. So I'd have to count out how many shots I was gonna do of each band and then go from there.
Punk Globe- I think it's interesting that you seemed to gravitate towards bands that would be referred to as "art bands."
Dawn Wirth- That's what I liked. I liked art. I grew up watching silent films from the '20s and '30s. At that time I was also a huge David Bowie fan. That's kind of how it went. Chances were that if you were a Bowie fan you were also an art fan. It just seemed like a natural coupling to me.
What bands are you listening to these days?
Dawn Wirth- I'll tell you as long as you don't laugh: She Wants Revenge and Radiohead. If I was ever offered a photo pass to shoot Radiohead I wouldn't turn it down.
Punk Globe- Do you have any favorite photographers?
Dawn Wirth- Diane Arbus, George Hurrell, Herb Ritts, Rick Castro, Louis Jacinto and Donna Santisi. Donna Santisi was someone you'd see at shows taking pictures. We became friends. Last year, when she reissued her book, "Ask The Angels" I went around doing publicity for her. It was great to be able to reconnect with her.
Is this the Black Dahlia bar?
Dawn Wirth- Yes. She used to come here to drink and look for dinner dates. It wasn't necessarily hooking up for sex. She was really poor and was trying to break into the movies.
Punk Globe- They really sold that idea to women in those days. I guess they still do...
Dawn Wirth- There's still casting couches.
Punk Globe- I read way too much about the Black Dahlia as a teenager.
Dawn Wirth- But have you read "Severed"?
That was the best one! The most disturbing was this one written by this woman who claimed that her father killed the Black Dahlia in front of her. She claimed to have repressed memory syndrome.
Dawn Wirth- Is the second person whose claiming this?
Punk Globe- I think there was another one too. The whole case is so bizarre and fascinating.
Dawn Wirth- That's why we're here. I went on the tour with John Gilmore and we came here. One of my other hobbies finding graves.
Punk Globe- Oh, cool. What graves have you found?
Dawn Wirth- It started with Valentino and went on to Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Clark Gable.
I read that when you got back from London the punk scene had changed so much that you pretty much stopped photographing bands and focused on your daughter as your main subject. Is that true? If so, how did the punk scene change so drastically?
Dawn Wirth- When I graduated high school in 1978, the next day I was on a plane to London. When I came back home in December there weren't as many people around and it wasn't the same. Black Flag was coming around. A lot of the O.C. bands were coming around too and it was just not my thing. My daughter wasn't born until 1988. I didn't pick up a camera again until then. A couple of years ago my friend's nephew was playing out in Pomona and she asked if I'd photograph the band for them because they needed some good pictures. So I went and I hadn't been to too many hardcore shows so I forgot they do that thing with their arms. Windmilling. Ug.
Punk Globe- They still do that and it's so stupid. Do you think the film, "Decline Of Western Civilization" was an accurate representation of the L.A. punk scene at that time?
Dawn Wirth- Not the scene that I was a part of. You have to remember when Penelope filmed that. Darby died in 1980 and I saw him just before then. I don't know the Darby Crash that was in that movie.
I went to see a screening of it at the Eqyptian Theater and it was a madhouse. There were people in the street and inside people were throwing things. It was crazy. I remember because Penelope was standing out front and it was almost as if she had manufactured the chaos. Of course, it could have been real chaos.
Punk Globe- How would you describe Darby Crash?
Him and I both loved David Bowie. We'd go to the Capital Records swap meet on the weekends. Whoever got there first would walk around and find all the Bowie and Rocky Horror Picture Show records. Then when we'd go back we could try to get a good deal.
I knew Darby when he was Bobby Pyn. The person he became, I don't know who that person is. Him shooting up wasn't something I knew him to do. The worst thing him and I ever did was when we were at the Whisky and The Mumps were about to go on. We were up on the back stage and the overhead window was open so we started taking glass and throwing it out on the street. We were just being silly little kids.
There was another time we hooked up at The Masque. Nicky Beat was there and he was giving Pat Smear a drum lesson. It was Darby, Lorna and Pat. We were all hanging out and I took pictures of everyone. The Marque was cool. It was used as a rehearsal space during the week.
Punk Globe- And you said you were going to release a series of photo books.
Dawn Wirth- Yes. We have The Bags at Hollywood Forever. The next one is going to be The Weirdos. We've planned on The Germs and The Screamers. I still need to go through my archive.
Punk Globe- How do you feel about digital photography and the digital darkroom?
Dawn Wirth- I can't stand it. I can see the advantages to doing it that way. Though, if your computer crashes and you don't have your files backed up you lose all those images. The positive side is the instant gratification of seeing the photos right away. The negative side is that people are not really working at technique. Back then, I didn't realize it, but I was working on technique. No one really taught me so either I had done this in a previous life or I was good at it, but I didn't have a teacher telling me I was good at it.
Do you think digital photography has changed the medium? The information travels so quickly...
Dawn Wirth- It has changed the medium.
Punk Globe- I shoot mostly digital. I learned a lot on a digital camera, but pixels are ugly and grain is quite beautiful. And nothing compares to the darkroom.
Dawn Wirth- My daughter feels the same way. My daughter picked up on that super fast. When she was in high school she did the same thing I did and took a photography class. Her teacher told her that her stuff was crap as well. She wasn't shooting live concerts or anything like that, but to have to hear that same thing again was horrible. They were assigned to interview a photographer they liked and then copy one of their iconic photographs. It had to be approved first by the teacher. She wanted to use me and the teacher wouldn't allow it because I wasn't a commercial photographer. The funny thing was that there was an interview in Razorcake Magazine done by Ryan Leach. When it came out I told her to take it to her teacher. She didn't want to because he was so mean she was afraid he was going to give her a bad grade. The next time I was at her school I went and plopped a copy of the Razorcake on his desk. I haven't forgotten how to be mischievous.
Punk Globe- Can you tell the Punk Globe readers about your new book, "The Bags At Hollywood Forever"?
Dawn Wirth- This book is a collection of photographs I took for The Bags' press kit. When we went there I had one roll of 36 exposure film. We did 4-6 photographs in each location we went to. We used every photograph from that roll.
That's amazing. They used to teach that if you get 4 or 5 photographs off a roll then you've done well.
Dawn Wirth- I had to pay for all my equipment myself so I had to make every roll I shot mean something. I couldn't just go in, start snapping and then put my camera away and start jumping around. I had to wait.
Punk Globe- Was there any reason in particular that you decided to publish the book now?
Dawn Wirth- Alice Bag's book "Violence Girl" is being published in October. I had been going through my photos and decided that if I was really going to release these photo books that we should do The Bags first. Alice is proud. I'd never want to do something that she wouldn't be happy with. She's been such an inspiration to me. She still has a vision.
Very cool. I'll keep an eye out. Do you have any links you'd like to share?
Punk Globe- Thanks so much for taking the time to do this interview. Do you have any parting words for the punk globe readers?
Dawn Wirth- Never Give up on your dreams. They might not happen as quickly as you want, but never give up. Be true to yourself.