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Scene & Heard

Remaking the scene

From an old suitcase, JJ Gonson retrieves photos of Boston's punk past

By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2009
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"Toecutter! Oh, my God, I have Toecutter!"

JJ Gonson is sifting through piles of photo negatives when she comes across the stash of long-forgotten shots of a long-forgotten Boston band. Ecstatic at her discovery, she grabs a magnifying lens and peers in to get a closer look. "And they're sitting in a pile of Old Milwaukee cans!"

Leading up to "R&R B/W," her new exhibit at Zuzu of mostly unpublished photographs documenting Boston's punk and hardcore scenes in the mid- to late-1980s, Gonson had been digging for precisely these kinds of time-capsule treasures. They're the people and pictures that once dominated and defined her life. Until now, the images had been kept inside a suitcase stored at her parents' home, untouched and unseen for nearly two decades.

"What really got me looking at them again was the book ['Radio Silence' by Nathan Nedorostek and Anthony Pappalardo]," Gonson says, sitting on a sofa at the Blue Zebra Photo Lab in Allston, where she's been furiously developing the photos in a darkroom. "Nate tracked me down and said, 'Do you have any pictures of bands in Boston?' and I pulled out this suitcase. Once the box was opened, people started asking me about it."

Even after roughly 20 years, Gonson remembers the hundreds of local musicians, fans, and bands she photographed - the Dogmatics, Dag Nasty, Slaughter Shack, Slapshot - almost every night of the week for four years, in long-gone places like the Rat, Bunratty's, the Channel, and Chet's Last Call. She also shot film of the out-of-town acts that rolled through town: Sonic Youth. Black Flag. Jane's Addiction. Slayer. Megadeth. A particular favorite of hers was a little-known outfit from Seattle.

"Ah, the beautiful boy," Gonson says, gazing at a black-and-white portrait of late Nirvana leader Kurt Cobain. "The first time I saw them, there were 15 people in the room at Green Street Station. We took them home, because there was nowhere else for them to go. They were like puppies."

The Cobain image is only the most obvious example of the seismic shift in music that Gonson was documenting. "What I've always known," says Gonson, "is that this body of work, which takes place from 1986 to 1990 - it's not very long - is the segue from hardcore and punk to grunge."

Back then, punk magazines like Thrasher, Suburban Voice, and Triple X hired Gonson to chronicle Boston's burgeoning hardcore scene. She shot mostly in black and white, which was far cheaper than color, and developed the film in her sink or bathroom. The going rate was $5 or $10 per print. For a fledgling photography student, the arrangement seemed like a good deal, and a great way to see and hear music for free.

"I didn't have any money, but I could get into a show and get right up on the stage and be in the middle of that energy," says Gonson, now a 42-year-old wife and mother who works as a personal chef. (Her interest in cooking began when Gonson decided she loved both food and a flexible schedule: "I would cook and then could go on tour with whatever band I was shooting or managing.")

Those early days were, Gonson says now, "all about preserving the moment. I knew something was happening. I didn't know what it was at the time. But kids were making art happen that they hadn't before, and I was a part of it."

"Every generation has its own revolution, and JJ's work came around when a new fire and torch was being lit," says Mike Gitter, former founder and editor of the Boston-based Triple X fanzine and now senior director of A&R at Roadrunner Records. "I think rock photography created a visual language that was absolutely key to creating scenes. What got me excited was the sheer power of the black-and-white imagery. It helped create a visual mythology."

Gonson's favorite shooting perspective was to be perched atop the P.A. system on stage, floating above the fray. As a 5-foot-2 female in a male-dominated world of slam dancing and mosh pits, that vantage point had as much to do with survival as creative choice.

"The reason I would sit up there on that monitor was so that I wouldn't get kicked and my camera wouldn't get broken," says Gonson. "But the bands would protect me. The bigger guys would form a circle around me and make sure nobody hit me because I was important to them. I was documenting these bands for them, and if I didn't shoot, they didn't get pictures."

Music and photography have been at the center of Gonson's life for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Cambridge, she began sleeping with a radio on at age 5. When her parents gave Instamatic cameras to her and her younger sister Claudia (who happens to be a longtime member of the Magnetic Fields), she took pictures of the radio. Much later, despite claiming to be "not talented musically," she joined a local band called Feeding Frenzy - as its singer.

Even after Gonson decided to stop shooting shows to pursue a teaching degree and "do something serious," music followed her. After completing her degree (and with an eye toward teaching photography), she moved to the West Coast, and soon found herself managing Elliott Smith's first band, Heatmiser, and starting her own record label. Gonson even became an executive at Virgin Records, planning posh parties for the likes of Lenny Kravitz and the Rolling Stones. Her tenure there, she says, was mercifully brief. Eventually, she began shooting bands again - this time in color as well as black and white.

But those West Coast photographs aren't here. Those memories are in another suitcase, Gonson says, stowed away for another day. When, at some point, she decides to crack it open and peer through her magnifying lens to get a closer look at those negatives, Gonson knows there will be just as much to explore, remember, and discover.

JJ GONSON'S "R&R B/W"

At Zuzu (474 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge) through the end of this month. Free.

617-864-3278,

www.mideastclub.com

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