Chris Suspect was born in the Philippines in 1968. In the 1990s he helped found Torque Records and played in various DC-area bands including The Suspects, Lickity Split, Spitfires United and VPR. In 2007 he took up photography and has had his work exhibited and published in Germany, England, Brazil, the Czech Republic and the United States. Since 2012, he has been a member of the STRATA photo collective, focusing on street photography. He works professionally as a designer in new media, specializing in video and audio production.
Work from his book “Suspect Device” is currently on display at the Leica Gallery DC and he will give an artist’s talk at the Leica Store DC on Thursday, April 9 from 6-7:30 pm Eastern. Below, Chris shares insight into this work documenting the punk scene in Washington, D.C.
Q: You last appeared on the blog in September 2014, can you share what you’ve been up to since then professionally?
A: Since September I have done quite a bit. I had an exhibit with the Leica Galerie at photokina. In December I was at Art Basel Miami where I was a finalist in the Miami Street Photography Festival. I then did a small show in January of street photography at a gallery space called Hole in the Sky in Washington, D.C., And now I have my own show at the gallery at the Leica Store DC based off of my book “Suspect Device.” But it doesn’t end there; I am now making plans to exhibit more images from “Suspect Device” at the Kolga Tbilisi Photography Festival in Georgia in late April/early May.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your show at Leica Gallery DC. How long does it run?
A: The Leica Gallery DC show opened on March 6 and runs through Spring of 2015. There are 20 large prints on display, most are from the book, but I did throw in some different ones for people who already have the book and wanted to see something new. We have a nice in-store monitor display video which gives some background on the work and the entire store front is covered with a transparency featuring a collage of over 100 images that I have taken. They have really pushed this exhibit in new ways, taking into account not just the images but also providing an added multimedia experience for the viewer.
Q: Can you provide some background information on the images presented here?
A: Most of these images are from my book “Suspect Device” published by Empty Stretch, but there are a couple that aren’t in the book, some are a little more recent. Essentially these images come from the last four to five years. They were taken in and around Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, MD, at various punk shows in small clubs, squats, basements and house parties. I have been regularly shooting DC area punk and hardcore shows with the goal of trying to capture the energy and excitement I experienced back in the 1980s when hardcore music first started in Washington, D.C.
Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: These are images of high impact in close quarters. I wanted the photographs to look like recollected memories and in part to also show that this youth movement has stood the test of time by outlasting many others over the course of music history.
Q: Aside from using off-camera flash, which you mentioned, how would you describe the technique you used to get the effect you wanted, and why do you think these images have a retro quality while also conveying the essence of a contemporary youth movement that has stood the test of time?
A: In addition to the off-camera flash, I often use a very slow shutter speed anywhere from 1/60 of a second down to 1.2 seconds. This effect causes motion blur and imparts a sense of action. On top of that I purposely use front curtain sync so I can control the direction of the motion blur by moving the camera with my hand. It’s kind of like light painting but I am sort of moving the canvas around on a brush instead of the other way around. For me the images produced by this technique often can produce a dream-like quality that reminds me of a distant visual memory that is not crystal clear but provides enough information to evoke emotion, like waking up from a dream if you will. The fact that these images were taken in the last couple of years of contemporary bands helps reinforce the notion that punk and hardcore music is alive and well, despite the movement being over 30 years old.
Q: All the images in this portfolio are presented in black-and-white. What is there about the black-and-white medium that you found especially compelling for this project, and is this your primary mode of creative expression?
A: I used black-and-white specifically to visually reference and pay homage to the black-and-white photos you see of punk bands in the ’70s and ’80s. Also, in black-and-white you are not distracted by color and I think in this case it reinforces the sense of energy and urgency the bands have that I wanted to convey.
Normally, I shoot most everything else in color, especially street photography because it adds an extra element and challenge you don’t find in black-and-white.
Q: This image shows a guy holding a microphone being held upside-down among a throng of people. It’s certainly a stopper that captures the spirit of revelry and intensity. Can you tell us where you took this amazing picture and what you think it says about the hardcore scene?
A: This image is of the band Trash Talk from Sacramento, CA, playing at the Ottobar in Baltimore, MD. They were the support band for the group OFF! who were on tour and they really blew me away. I actually saw this line up the night before in Washington, D.C., and I was so impressed with their energy and music that I went the next night to Baltimore. I am glad I did because the experience of shooting them the night before helped give me insight on how to shoot them better the next night. In this particular frame I really think the energy of hardcore is captured well with the singer hanging off the rafters, but it’s the eyes of the girl at the bottom of the frame and some of the expressions in the background that tells you this is also about fun.
Q: This image shows a singer belting out a song with his eyes closed and an expression of ecstatic intensity on his face. Even more remarkable is the white band of light emanating from his mouth that almost seems to be a visual analog of his vocal expression. What is actually going on here, how did you create this remarkable picture, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: This is a shot of a band from Chicago called The Kickback at a house show in Washington, D.C. It is a great example of the slow shutter/front curtain flash technique I described previously. I purposely made this happen. There was a light on the floor to our right pointing up at the band. I used the slow shutter to drag the light towards the singer’s face by moving my camera. It took two shots to get what you see here. I was successful on the second try.
Q: This picture seems to show a guy with an intense, awe-struck expression on his face evidently being carried aloft on his back. It reminds me of images I’ve seen of mosh pits taken in the ’90s, but it has a qualitatively different feel. Where was this picture taken and what is its significance?
A: This picture was taken at the same Trash Talk show at the Ottobar in Baltimore. This was interesting because what I did was set up remote flashes in the light trestles above the stage. This allowed me to move freely in the pit and get a unique source of light that you don’t normally see in music photographs. This is one of those epic mosh pit moments and I love the expression on the guy’s face.
Q: You can’t help but smile at this picture showing a guy in an odd mask and goofy glasses being kissed by an attractive young blonde woman who has placed her hands on both his cheeks as if to hold his head in place. His deadpan expression really makes this image quite amusing, though there is an underlying aspect of it that is kind of sad. Do you agree, and what do you think this image says about the event at which it took place?
A: This is one of those backstage moments. I was having fun shooting the man in the mask and they were well aware I was taking photos. If I recall correctly the man was posing in front of the graffiti when the woman went up and smooched him on the cheek. I guess his deadpan expression does evoke a certain sadness, but for me it’s more about the humor. Perhaps I am too close to this image to make an unbiased read as I know these people and the circumstances outside of the frame. It was all in good fun.
Q: To me the most striking thing about this image is the disparity among the three faces appearing in the picture. The guy on the left is smiling, the woman in the middle is impassive, almost expressionless, and the guy on the right (evidently the main subject) is so wreathed in smoke that his face is barely visible. It’s certainly a striking image, but what do you think it says about the hardcore music scene?
A: OK, you busted me! I can’t say this honestly says anything about the hardcore scene other than “here’s your typical basement show audience.” However, I am a big fan of street photography and I always try to throw in the aesthetics of street photography into my documentary projects. In this case you have three people with different expressions (more if you count the ones in the back) and a man upfront so encased in smoke that it looks like he’s on fire. It’s an oddball frame from a show that I enjoy because it is different from the usual show photography you see. I like fun and mysterious frames and this one has those elements. In fact if you didn’t know this was from a punk show, it may be a real head scratcher for some.
Q: What were you trying to accomplish with these photos and do you think you achieved this goal?
A: For me these photographs represent personal flashbacks to what it was like attending shows and being part of the hardcore community in the ’80s and ’90s. The goal was not about who or what bands I was shooting, but more about how I can achieve images that read like recollected memories. The other goal was to show that this scene is still a vibrant musical culture that has carried on since the early ’80s. I would argue that it is even bigger today than it was back then as there are more venues for bands to play and there seems to be a lot more bands these days. There is really quite a renaissance happening in the DC music scene today.
Q: How would you define the term “hardcore” and is it any different from the punk scene your images have delineated in such vibrant and compelling detail?
A: The difference between hardcore and punk is subtle for the outsider but once you get familiar with all the sub-genres of punk it is not too hard to identify. I am not a punk historian and a Wikipedia search for the origin of the term is vague, but here’s my take. Back in the late ’70s and early ’80s when punk started to take off in America, specifically Washington, D.C., the kids who were playing it were influenced by all the great UK punk bands at the time such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Wire, Chelsea, Angelic Upstarts, Sham 69, etc. However, they wanted to distinguish their musical style by making it faster and harder than what was coming out at the time – a more extreme form of punk if you will. These days the terms are often used interchangeably. And now there are so many different styles, from “grindcore” to “power violence” it is impossible to keep track.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years and do you plan to explore any genres other than what could be termed documentary fine art photography going forward?
A: I have this crazy idea of taking a year off from street and documentary photography to just focus on portraits, because portraiture is something I don’t feel that confident about. By immersing myself in this world, studying the great practitioners in this field, and actually doing the work, I think I could better myself in this area. It would be a neat challenge.
Thank you for your time, Chris!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Chris on his website and Twitter.