Recently, I received a letter here at the office that was handwritten on purple construction paper. (In this age of digital communication, that’s one way to grab my attention.)
The snail-mailed note was from a Kirk Dominguez, who’d written, “Yo, Cory Bilicko. Check it out, man. I’ve got a bunch of prints at the Blackbird Café, 3405 Orange Ave. Mostly a combination of stuff I shot in my youth– as a punker– and my current work, mostly portraits of artists. Hope you can check it out.”
Included with the letter were several postcards with black-and-white shots of punk bands like The Cramps and The Earwigs.
I contacted him at the email address he’d provided on that purple paper, and we set up a lunch meeting at Blackbird.
As we sat amidst the flurry of the Tuesday lunch rush there, hanging just above Dominguez’s impressively robust salt-and-pepper locks was a print of a photo he’d taken of the band Nirvana, just a year or two shy of their propulsion into fame and household-name status.
Though he’s shot some acts that fanatics of punk and the L.A. rock scene would certainly know (The Melvins, Social Distortion, Devo, Green Day), he’s particularly interested in capturing groups before they really catch fire.
How and why did you come to begin taking photos of rock bands?
At an early age I was heavily influenced by the rock mags of the late ‘70s, like Creem, Bomp, Slash, Flipside, NoMag. I always felt the photographers walked away with the prize. And the whole beauty of punk rock was that there were no boundaries– no boundaries between the band and the audience. So, taking a camera to a gig and shooting pictures was easy, accepted and ever approved. Back then at least. And even encouraged.
What would you say is the first meaningful photo you took of a band?
Good question. I shot a lot of real cool bands, [but] I’d have to say the first time I was truly excited about looking at my developed negatives was the Dead Kennedys at the Balboa Theatre, circa 1985. That band always brought out a wild combination of jocks, punks and general freaks. The show was chaos personified, and I was able to catch it on film.
Who was the most difficult band to photograph?
Well, each and every band has their own personal quirks. Sometimes you come across a band where everyone is super friendly and cooperative, except for that one member that can’t be found or is chasing skirt. But, the band that remains clear in my mind for [being] difficult to corral was Gwar. It was on their debut tour. They had about nine people on stage, and I wanted all nine in the picture. I would get five or six together, then one would wander off. I must have spent over an hour out in the freezing cold trying to get them together.
So, how many bands would you say you’ve photographed?
Oh jeez, I have no clue. Hundreds, I’d imagine.
And, when you’re not photographing bands, what are you shooting?
My children, car accidents, bartenders, local celebrities, women’s legs and cockroaches. Not at the same time, mind you.
Tell me about the car accidents, women’s legs and cockroaches.
I’ve always had a fascination with car accidents. The weight of metal multiplied by the velocity it’s traveling and add to that the vulnerability of human flesh. Sometimes I wish I was a crime-investigation photographer. Nothing more appealing to me than a set of nicely shaped female legs. I’m actually working on designing wallpaper solely using women’s legs. My obsession with cockroaches is deep-rooted and probably stems from racial tensions I felt as a child. I associate cockroaches with my people, Mexicans. Because we’re brown, no one wants us around, we’ve been here forever, you can’t get rid of us, and we’re not going anywhere.
So, when you are photographing bands, what do you try to achieve in your photos?
Umm…depends. Three are two basic approaches I take when documenting a band. Number one– capture the band in their immediate location at the moment. Like, say, a NYC band playing here in LBC in front of Alex’s Bar. That’s kind of cool, you know? It dates the band in your back yard. Number two– other times I come up with a wild idea, and then I locate the perfect band for the picture. Like, the picture I took of The Thingz fully dressed and waist-high in the ocean. That image is strong.
Sonic Youth is one of my all-time favorites. Tell me about when you photographed them.
Sonic Youth are also one of my all-time faves. First time I shot them was in 1986 on the Sister tour. They played at the Scream Club. I think Firehose opened. Again, I remember this one; they were very loud, dark and brooding. Then I saw them again on the Daydream Nation tour at the Roxy. That was a little more pop. My editor and I actually interviewed them on this tour. I remember I was kind of butthurt because they mostly addressed his questions and before I knew it, [Sonic Youth guitarist/singer] Thurston [Moore] and Al, Flipside [fanzine] editor, were deep in conversation about obscure 1977 punk rock! Last time I shot them was at the Hollywood Palladium. Nirvana opened. That was on the Goo tour.
Is there a particular band you’ve wanted to shoot but haven’t yet?
Some bands I wish I would have shot in their infant stages, yes. Opal is one of them. But, in all honesty, its not about shooting big and famous acts. It’s about discovering them in tiny clubs. That’s what truly excites me.
Dominguez’s work can be seen, along with photos by Jenn JKX Kitner, at Blackbird Café, 3405 Orange Ave., in an exhibit entitled Snapshots from the Epicenter.