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A Camera and Three Chords: Documenting the D.I.Y. Ethos of Punk

A Camera and Three Chords: Documenting the D.I.Y. Ethos of Punk

Celebrated photographer and film director Michael Grecco revisits his archive to unearth images capturing the raw power of punk music.
Billy Idol, Boston, Massachusetts, 1982 © Michael Grecco

“Punk, in a strange way, saved my life,” musician Lizzie Borden says in Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1978-1991, a breathtaking collection of 162 photographs by Michael Grecco accompanied by essays by Fred Schneider of The B-52s and music journalist Jim Sullivan.

By the age of 13, Borden — who shares her birth name a woman who allegedly killed her family with an axe — was rocking at CBGB, the epicenter of New York’s burgeoning punk scene. “It was filthy, it was raw. It was sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll, and the bathrooms were disgusting,” she told Sullivan. “It was a group of people that not everyone wanted to join, but once you were in you were family….We would be up all night. Drugs, no sleep, more drugs. We lived in the streets. We squatted in Alphabet City. We lived punk rock.”

Ant Adam #2, Boston, Massachusetts, 1981 © Michael Grecco
Siouxsie and the Banshees, Boston, Massachusetts, 1980 © Michael Grecco

With “Do It Yourself” as the guiding ethos, punk encouraged all comers to make art without catering to careerist ambitions, commercial markets, or capitalist pretense. Stripped down to its bare essentials, punk was loud, angry, and raw — capturing the angst of adolescence and the disdain for the privileged politic of hippie ideology. With punk, anyone possessed with the audacity of youth could grab a guitar, jump on stage, thrash three chords, and howl at the moon. 

Anarchy in the USA

“When I came of age in the late seventies and early eighties, it was in the middle of an artistic rebellion that changed the face of politics and culture forever,” Grecco writes in the foreword. “This was the era of Punk: bold, self-expressed, and free. An era of music, attitude, and fashion that spat in the face of the established norms.”

Dead Kennedys #3, Boston, Massachusetts, 1981 © Michael Grecco

Hailing from what he describes as “an old-world Italian household in suburban New York,” Grecco felt stifled by respectability politics and societal rules. Punk set him free. “Walking into my first punk club in Boston at age eighteen, I found I suddenly joined a club where everybody belonged. I could finally be myself, or at least find out who I really was.”

By day, Grecco worked as a photographer for the Associated Press; by night he was covering the punk scene for Boston Rock and the Boston Herald. Writing for the Boston Globe, Sullivan chronicled the scene, offering a front-row view into the evolution of punk, post-punk, and new wave. Grecco’s portraits and documentary photographs of the era’s iconoclastic stars including the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, the Cramps, the Clash, Billy Idol, and Siouxsie and the Banshees, to name just a few, offer a candid look at an era that defied every stricture of mainstream American culture. 

Bow Wow Wow #2, Boston, Massachusetts, 1981 © Michael Grecco
Devo, Boston, Massachusetts, 1978 © Michael Grecco

Punk refused to participate in the machine, actively throwing wrenches to encourage radical acts of rebellion. As front woman of the Plasmatics, former porn star Wendy O. Williams set the tone, breaking out a chainsaw, a shotgun, or a mallet as part of the stage show. “To me,” she said, “rock ’n’ roll is something that gets your blood pumping. The way I find it is through the Plasmatics. It gives you that instant orgasmic rush.”

By Miss Rosen

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.

Punk, Post Punk, New Wave: Onstage, Backstage, In Your Face, 1978-1991
Abrams Books

Poison Ivy, The Cramps, Boston, Massachusetts, 1980 © Michael Grecco

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