The scene was New York City circa 1976-77. Lou Reed and the rest of the Velvet Underground had painted the picture of this grimy wasteland of youth getting out their aggression at venues around town such, but specifically CBGB’s. Julia Gorton was a student at New York University with the hopes of getting to see bands with hype play. Fortunately for us, those iconic shows from Lydia Lunch and Richard Hell have been archived by her personal collection, now a collection of photos, essays, and typography, called Pretty in Punk.
The scene is now SXSW 2018. The week is coming to an end, but the convention center where Julia and I would meet is still filled to the brim with music journalists pulling their hairs out to meet deadlines. A very engaged Instagram user, Julia Gorton puts out snippets of her works to her following of more than 20,000. We had agreed to have a chat about her work, which was, and I can honestly say, one of the events throughout the whole week which I had been most excited for. In this we talk about her visit to the state, going through her archives and the roles in the scene.
Free Press Houston: I spoke with someone else about SXSW and whether or not it was what they anticipated and he said he would never come back, I think because he thought it was so “fake,” so to speak. Do you feel that way too?
Julia Gorton: It’s my first time here. The way I am, I have to go somewhere to see what it looks like, and then I understand what it’s like, so I can plan what to do next time I come back. I didn’t really have a concept for how big it would be; it’s not just [the Convention Center], it’s the whole city. I’ve never even been to Texas before. I’ve gone from [the CC] to the Hampton Inn and back.
FPH: So you have a project that had recently been released, Pretty in Punk; can you take the reader through it, the concept of the book?
JG: In the the late 1970’s I took a lot of photos while I was a student. I kept my archive and my work has occasionally been used in different articles or occasionally a show, but for the most part, it hasn’t been seen. I work as an academic, and a year or so ago I put in for sabbatical and took the year off. At that time I wasn’t really sure — I had a book project that I had finished, a photobook with essays. It just takes a really long time to get a book published. Taking some of the laser printouts that I had made for my book markups, I thought “I should try to do something with there. I have them, and I’ll do something different from other things I’ve done.” I started making these collages; at first it was really hard to rethink the work in a different perspective. But after awhile I got into a sort of rhythm, so when I completed 30 collages, I decided to turn it into a zine. That’s when it really got fun, seeing a product of my work was great.
FPH: I became aware of your work by way of a Garage article, I believe. Have you been approached much like that since you’ve started these zines? Have you noticed a large intake in your social media presence?
JG: When I started, I started social media with the assumption that my work — or at least some of my work — was being shared without my name attached. I wanted to make sure that, since I did the work, someone was behind this work that you’re sharing. I went onto Instagram and made an account and searched out well-known people I’ve shot by hashtag and would comment “hey, that’s my photo!” I started to build a following like that. Eventually, I started to make lovely connections with people — completely new friends. It was something that — I have over 20 thousand followers now, it’s just so weird. It’s strange. I was like really happy to get 100 [followers].
FPH: The legendary venue CBGB’s was your stomping ground. Now, when you walk past that building (I think it’s now a John Varvatos?) do you ever step in and reflect on the past? I hear that, to some degree, there is a memorial of sorts to the venue with pictures on the walls and whatnot.
JG: I walked by, over the past 20 years, or whenever John Varvatos opened, once. I can’t even imagine going in. I will never step foot in the store.
FPH: Could you imagine walking into this store and going “hey, the Butthole Surfers once caused a riot where I’m standing”?
JG: When you know something one way, you hold it in your memory in a really clear and emotional way. If you’re not careful about how you hold onto that — if you go into a new place, it’s going to be completely wiped away.
FPH: Do you remember what the first show you shot there specifically was?
JG: I don’t remember my first show, but I had been hearing about it for a year during my senior year in High School. My boyfriend had gone to NYU and wrote me letters saying “oh, there is this great club that we need to go to, there are these great bands like Television, the Talking Heads, and Patti Smith. You need to come up.” I got admitted into Parsons [School of Design] and started going out. So one of my earliest shows was probably Television or the Talking Heads. It was the fall of 1976.
FPH: Were you shooting for anyone, or were the camera policies at that time pretty lax?
JG: Myself. I later became friends with the people I photographed — not everybody. It was our hangout club, or we would go to Max’s Kansas City or Irving Plaza or a couple of different places pretty regularly. For me, I would try to get on the guest list as often as possible, because I didn’t have a lot of money. It was not hard, because they didn’t care if you had a camera. To be honest, they didn’t care if you were underage and drinking. You smoked inside. It was just not like now.
FPH: I’ve got to ask, were there challenges being taken serious or what have you as a young, female college student trying to be guestlisted and take photos of these rockstars?
JG: You know, it’s interesting, because that comes up from time to time. People will talk about the role of women in the punk scene and how it was very female-centric. If you go back and read Thurston Moore and Byron Coley’s book No Wave: Post-Punk, there is that conversation that comes up. When I was interviewed by Byron, he started talking about that. It sort of made my jaw drop, because it was a very egalitarian group where gay, straight, older, younger, male, female, in a band, not in a band, in a couple of bands were together. I did not see that people were looking at me in any particular way, everybody was very nice. I just happened to be a girl.