Welcome to a brief history on Jenny Lens, MFA, the Punk Years. Creator of some of the most iconic Punk Photos, first generation, 1976 to 1980, punk photos based in LA. Classic photos of New York, British, San Francisco and other bands.
How did it start?
I waited in line, towards the end of the marquee or building to see Patti, the Roxy, January 76. Cold evening air. I see people getting out of a car at the box office entrance and walk in. I channeled Scarlett O’Hara, who famously put her fist in the air and said: “As G-d is my witness, I will never go hungry again. Nor my family.” I figuratively raised my fist and said: “As G-d is my witness, I will be part of this. I can’t play an instrument, can’t write songs, manage, too old and fat to be a groupie, but I’m going to be involved with this!”
Never occurred to me to take photos. I only used my camera to photograph my art for my portfolio. I hadn’t used it in awhile. I barely knew how to put film into it. I only photographed my art in good light. I didn’t use a flash. I rarely looked at rock magazines.
I was mesmerized hearing Patti – I could not see well because that’s what happens when you aren’t first in line. But hearing Patti’s “Horses” and seeing her live changed my life. I read everything I could, which wasn’t much. I subscribed to “New York Rocker” and “Punk” from NY. I subscribed to and loved LA’s own “Back Door Man.” I picked up Creem and some other rock mags at the local 7/11. I eagerly bought “The Ramones” the first day it was released. I fell in love with Dee Dee Ramone’s cheekbones.
I waited in line for hours before the doors opened to see the Ramones, August 11, 1976. The next night, I grabbed my camera. I stopped by the local camera store, bought black and white film, and the salesman told me which settings to use. Previously, I only used color slide film, which would not work in this situation — not enough light because I didn’t use my flash. I had seen the late Richard Creamer shooting flash just inches from the face the night before. I thought that was rude! Later, manager Danny Fields told me to “Use flash. They love it!”
It’s amazing I took so many beautifully composed, exposed and in focus photos that night. It was so new to me! But I studied art, art history. Years of looking at paintings and old movie stills influenced me.
I always say I photograph like a painter, but also a photojournalist. I never thought of myself an “art photographer.” Never. I lacked the confidence to do sessions. I didn’t want to impose myself into the situation. I didn’t know many famous photojournalists set up photos. Starting with Civil War photographer Matthew Brady. Who knew? I was such a purist. I wanted to document real life as I saw it. Photojournalist.
I photographed Dee Dee because he was and remains the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen. He reminded me of Errol Flynn in “Robin Hood.” Later that night I met the Ramones. Earlier, I sat at the feet of Dee Dee photographing him. Now while he was on the bed surrounded by the Ramones and my friends, Nancy Allen and another, talking to the others. I thought I died and was reborn.
It wasn’t like any rock ‘n’ roll I ever experienced. I’d been listening to rock ‘n’ roll since around 1962 or so. I saw the Beatles at the first Hollywood Bowl in August 64. I had just turned 14 a couple weeks before. I took several buses from the valley. I smuggled in a reel to reel tape recorder. Girls screamed all night. I didn’t go to many live shows after that.
Then I heard Patti Smith’s Horses. I had to get involved. I felt so great photographing the Ramones. I truly was flying high due to their acceptance of me.
Dee Dee was so sweet. I photographed the Ramones throughout the first tour in LA, San Francisco, down in the South Bay. I lost 13 pounds in two weeks. My adrenaline and endorphins were flowing like crazy! I didn’t stop for four years. I can summon up considerable creative energetic when everything aligns. It worked for me because I’m an energetic night owl. I could be creative with photos. I could be social. I needed to use my brain to figure out the tech aspects of using my camera, developing film, printing photos. Plus where to send photos while dealing with record companies, media, writers and others. I dealt with people I never dealt with before. Plus I dealt with own personal demons, insecurities, while being vulnerable, gullible and naïve on some levels.
I had earned my BA in Art, CSUN and Master of Fine Arts in Design, Cal Arts. I was a studio artist working alone. I was determined not to end up like that: sitting in my little rented cottage, making art, dealing with art galleries. Plus teaching college. A lonely, insular life. I didn’t want to live my whole life alone, being in college and then earning my graduate degree to teach college. Yes I love learning. I never stop. But I wanted and needed more. I was and remain looking for creative community I could contribute and be accepted. Punk answered a lot of my needs: to be around people, live entertainment, be creative, plus lots of cute guys who didn’t mind my weight nor age. Cool!
Go-Go’s “London Boys.” Do I need to say more? Lots of sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Living was cheap and easy. So much fun. Creatively colorful. Always somebody to photograph because their creative, no stylists, cutting edge looks. So much to see and do, shows, record company events, hanging out on the street or at parties. My dream come true. Community.
I didn’t go to clubs because anyone else was going. Or not go cos someone wouldn’t go. I was never the kind of person who only did things with ‘friends.’ If that were true, I’d go nowhere. I really didn’t/don’t have close friends I hang with. Never.
I rarely hung with people, unless with a camera around my neck. I never sought permission nor approval of anyone other than getting photo passes. I would have loved to hung out longer, more often or be closer to some, but I know my personality can rub people the wrong way. Of course some bother me! “Some people give me the creeps, we’re desperate, get used to it.” X. I figured I was lucky just to be doing what I was doing. I often was sad and confused, but that’s who I am.
I invited people as my plus one because I love sharing. They were supposed to help me carry my camera gear at shows, but that rarely ever happened. Whomever was my guest disappeared into the crowd and had a great time!
I don’t care what other people are doing just to fit in or not be lonely. I listen to my heart. The venues initially were the Roxy, because of Patti and Ramones. The Whisky re-opened in late 1976, due to our underground activities. The bands were producing their own shows, which also went on through 77 as well, often at the Whisky. The Starwood opened its doors to punk. Summer 1977, the Masque started becoming OUR literally underground punk clubhouse. Slash magazine produced benefits, to raise money to print the magazine, by renting Larchmont Hall, near Paramount movie studios.
Larger places like the Santa Monica Civic, which I hated. I wasn’t allowed to even bring a camera into the hall! During their 50th Anniversary, I told them of this horrible policy. I said it’s going to be hard to find photos. They were stunned. Used my Clash photos. I stood on stage because I knew them. Otherwise, no photos. One of my fave smaller clubs was Club 88, in West LA. I shot X in “Decline of Western Civilization,” March, 1980 there. I recall some fun times. One time lots of us were on Acid. Another time, dear Claude “Kick Boy Face” Bessy ran into Pico, when cars stopped at the corner. He grabbed their rear fender and hung on. I jumped up and down, clapping and laughing watching him being so crazy and wild!
I photographed wherever/whatever I could. Even saw the Go-Go’s at Gazzari’s early on. Of course the Troubadour, although I missed that infamous riot when the Bags played.
I went to popup events in Licorice Pizza across the street diagonally from the Whisky. I recently ran into Matt Groening. I said I have this fantasy the was working there the night I shot the Germs. He asked when. I said June 77. He said he probably was there that night. He asked me if were there when Patti Smith performed in the parking lot. I said yes I photographed her. I told him I also photographed the Ramones and Runaways during their promo visits.
I photographed other one-off places that I can picture in my mind, but I’ll be damned if I have any idea where. This native Angeleno often had no idea WTF she was! I drive somewhere and then not think about it.
I was born in Good Samaritan Hospital near downtown LA. Been stuck here ever since! Our home was in West LA, then I think Palms/Mar Vista, very close to Santa Monica Airport. When I was five, we moved to the hot, smoggy valley. First Canoga Park, then Northridge a couple years later. I didn’t get out much. So driving all over SoCal was new and not comfortable for me. I hate driving. It’s why I stopped around 2007.
I didn’t shoot hardcore because it was too violent and boring for me. Skateboarding was hot, I burn in the sun, and it was really boring.
I would have photographed even more fun local groups, but this was costly! Film, developing, printing, sometimes I did it. By 1978, I exclusively used labs for black and white. I just didn’t have time to do it all. Plus I hated being in the darkroom. Dark, smelly, hot and boring. Color more expensive. Plus buying magazines to see where to submit photos. Worse, to pull tear sheets with MY unpaid, too often not credited photos.
Money was always tight. I had to sacrifice shooting every show. But I did my best to photograph the bands I liked.
By the time punk moved inland, east of West Hollywood and Hollywood, money was tight. I didn’t photograph in downtown LA and Vex in East LA. One reason: I didn’t even know about those shows for the most part! No one invited me! No one paid me! Yet I catch hell for not shooting the Vex. Another reason was very simple. But I’ve been misunderstood. I will say it again. Now, if people want to misunderstand me, they can go to hell.
Let’s think back to the 1970s when wearing thrift store, vintage or torn clothes, having multicolored hair (magenta purple was my fave). Plus wild makeup and gatherings of young kids and loud music could get the attention of the cops or worse. Police hassled guys who looked and dressed differently than everybody else.
Today I open magazines and I see makeup and hair ads for looks WE created! We were ostracized for our creativity. For being different. Dangerous. Record company publicity employees thought I was weird and suspect for the magenta hair. When I asked for red eye shadow at the makeup counter at department stores, I was looked at strangely. Asked why I would want THAT. Now you see ads for the big stars for all kinds of hair color and makeup.
Marie Osmond wore black nail polish on “Larry King Live” at least 20 years ago. That’s the minute I knew punk as I knew it was really dead. The Ramones wore ripped jeans because that’s all they could afford! Back then, ripped jeans, spiky hair, purple hair and wild makeup meant you were trouble. You got negative attention everywhere.
But who cared when you could easily find others even more outrageous than you! I was inspired as an artist. I dressed unusually in college. Pre-punk. But not as wild before or after Punk. I went to venues where people like myself. I loved the energy. The music. The lyrics. Angry. Funny. Timely. No “stairway to heaven” guitar solos. Punk brought out something in me that was always there. If my late mother were here, she’d say I’ve always been an outspoken rebel aka punk.
I was and am extremely political. I ran home from school to grab Newsweek before anyone else. I read it instead of usual kid and teen mags. Although MAD Magazine was always my fave. I was so interested in politics, I subscribed to “Time” magazine and the “Los Angeles Free Press” in high school. I read more than watched TV. I was radically progressive before people used that term. A proud bleeding heart liberal. That certainly never endeared me to my fellow students. Between my talent, eagerness to learn and ability to earn good grades, and political outspokenness, I was friendless most of my life, pre-punk.
I didn’t have anyone to hang with or talk. Why should I go to thrift stores when it’s hard for me to find clothes which fit me, are comfortable and look good? Plus I simply didn’t have either the disposable income nor time. Lonely life. But full of art, books, music, old movie books. I coped. Now at least I have intelligent, creative, caring, thoughtful friends online. But I’m still mostly alone in real life. And so it goes.
I don’t go to movies or eat out or go window shopping with people. I get bored easily, ok? I get lost in my own thoughts. I’d rather read a good biography but most just wanna talk about petty gossip. What is the latest clothing trend of clothing or trendy restaurant or juice fast. I wanna make and learn and creative on my terms. I have little patience for most people. Our interests just don’t jive. We can come together at an art show, but those I get along with live far away and/or artists and busy. I go to metaphysical gatherings on the west side, although far less now. But I find them snotty towards me. Apathetic about tech and art. So I bury my nose in books and online.
I can picture myself in my West Hollywood apartment in West Hollywood every afternoon looking through stacks of rock ‘n’ roll newspapers and magazines to find out whom to photograph. People started hanging out as evening kicked in, on our way to shows.
Why photography? The result of my knowledge of art history, 60’s rock music (so many genres, most mutating or burning out, telling me these scenes are short-lived) and most of all, my years of nose buried in movie history books, starting when I was a young teen, inevitably led me to photography.
When I was about 14, making art, doing the housework and cooking, getting good grades, my lifelong habit of studying old movie stills began. It was so difficult to find old movie books, especially in the valley. If I lived in Hollywood, I could have found some books at Larry Edmunds, the best source for movie books. Today you can find many online, new or out of print. But not then. You could not see old classic films like people can today. No cable, no DVD, no net.
So when I looked at these photos, I had no idea who most were. Who were they to be remembered, revered, honored? That inspired me to document punk. I wanted to take photos so people wonder who are these people? Why should I care? Then check out the music, photos, stories, and then DIY. That was my goal. I succeeded. Didn’t make money. Overlooked and misquoted. But I inspired some with my photos. As I was inspired as a kid.
When I was a teenager I had no reason to stay alive. My life was so miserable. I had been beaten by my father from the time I was a wee lass til 14. Verbally abused, gaslighted and worse by my borderline Mother. Making and studying art saved my life.
One of my goals taking photos was to share what I felt and saw. As if you were standing in my shoes. I wanted to capture and share the fun, excitement, energy, joy, creativity I saw and experienced. I wanted people to support these bands. Go to their shows and buy their records. Write about them. Pick up a camera and photograph them. Or pick up a guitar and start your own band. Photograph and write for your own fanzines. I just wanted to inspire people to DIY.
I also knew, from the very beginning, this was “a cultural revolution.” I never published my writings, sadly. But I used that term prior to ever seeing it elsewhere. It was more than an art movement. Dadaism and Surrealism, for example, didn’t cover as many forms, in such depth and numbers. Neither of those readily translated well to every day life. Punk could and does.
As I told Dee Dee Ramone, his band would be as big as the Beatles. He told me I was crazy. I was right. Punk was far bigger than most realized, til many years later. Many.
I constantly talked about Ballets Russes and their most infamous incident. Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” choreographed by and starring the legendary Nijinsky, Paris, 1913 was vital and memorable. Between the music, the perceived lewd dancing, costumes, scenery, the usual evening of refined ballet was subverted with its subject matter and performance. Pagan spring sacrifice. Not exactly The Nutcracker. Not family friendly. A legendary riot broke out. Men in evening formal wear beating each other up. Throwing chairs. So punk!
I even pulled out my art books and showed people. I was loud about it. To a few people. But my words and pronouncements never were published.
I knew what I was photographing would be important 30 years from then. I don’t know why I chose 30, but I was correct. What I never considered was that I would be the one who have to still be involved. Oh. I took these photos, promoted and provided them to various news and entertainment sources, and never stopped. Oh.
The albatross around my neck. The need to get these pictures and stories out. I used to write information and captions when submitting photos. NO ONE ever paid attention. Even my own book, Punk Pioneers, was so badly edited I cannot bear to read it. I either cry or get so mad. My words were edited beyond sense.
Now there’s so many myths, lies, exaggerations, errors and omissions circulating in print, online, and word of mouth. The truth is buried and hidden.
I spoke about, especially to record company personnel and writers, that we were achieving something larger than most realized. A major art revolution. A cultural revolution, going beyond the world of art. Some people, one particular whom I will not name, always claims she was hip to that. Ha. She was 17 years old, didn’t study art, music and movie history like I. She went from Queen to punk. She, like most, just took it for granted, they’d always have this kind of fun. Girls just wanna have fun, ya know. And she disses me. Never mind I promoted her via my photos for years. Never mind we once were friends.
I’m not saying I was the only one with the vision. But I was one of the very few who talked about it.
The press and record companies looked down upon us. Hardcore punks tore up our fun places or they closed for a variety of reasons. Bands broke up or toured. The scene moved eastward, into the bedroom communities I fled from or downtown. Both not the kind of places I wanted to be walking around at 3 in the morning, with expensive camera gear, short dress (I got so hot, moving around like crazy, taking photos), plus driving, which I hate. I was also broke and it was just time to move on. I thought if I stayed, I’d die.
The political and cultural scene changed radically. No longer laid back, button up your sweater, do-gooder Carter era. Now the “greed is good” era of Reagan. The man who ruined California’s education system and started the wave of homelessness which plagues us today. As governor, Reagan closed the public mental institutions. During AIDS crisis, he blamed gays. He was involved illegally with the Iran-Contra scandal. Black communities were ravaged by the crack epidemic. All the while, Nancy and St Ronnie and their fundamentalist right wing cohorts, like Lee Atwater, started the horrendous GOP takeover of the United States.
Hardcore spread and grew. MTV made stars if record companies put enough money behind making and showing videos. Managers restricted photographers how many songs they could shoot. Then demanded approval of OUR photos before WE could use them. Should I go on?
Rents and cost of living began to rise. Wages stagnated. Fast forward to present times.
I stopped taking rock photos. I never stopped taking photos nor creating. Mostly, I dove into digital technology shortly after I left punk. I studied and learned all I could. Even before Photoshop, I knew I could finally print my photos as I wanted, but digitally. I taught myself many programs and invested in hardware and software. I taught computer programs and digital classes at colleges, universities, and training centers.
My final thoughts are some examples of short-lived artistic movements. This is purely optional reading. But it demonstrates a tiny sliver of the understanding I have of art being temporal. Art constantly mutates and influences what’s to come. Most art (music, movies) are also influenced by their predecessors. Art reflects and influences us. But the height of artistic expression with some major artists is a short time frame. A small window of opportunity. That is why I dove in, no questions asked.
The Screamers debuted at loft of head honcho Steve Samioff. I came later because I saw a movie at LACMA. I often read of the fabled director/screenwriter Preston Sturges. LACMA was showing “Palm Beach Story.” I saw it and didn’t ‘get’ it. I much prefer “Miracle of Morgan’s Creek,” 1944. I saw that as a child and many times since. Set during WW2, a teenage girl gets pregnant from a soldier before being shipped out. It’s hysterically funny, with some slapstick and shocking dialogue. How Sturges managed to get away with this still have industry folks scratching their heads.
Another film that same years skewers how people perceive heroes in the clever “Hail the Conquering Hero,” til its soppy ending. Or the first film he directed, “The Great McGinty,” about political corruption, 1939. Sturges won the first-ever Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay for that clever film. Sadly, it veers into sentimentality towards the end. That was a flaw in his movies, more so towards the end.
His most beloved film is “The Lady Eve.” He also owned a restaurant, The Player’s Club, on Sunset Blvd just west of Laurel Canyon.
By 1947, his career was in deep trouble. He flew high, with witty satires, from 1939-47. But the decline started around 1944, due to an ill-fated partnership with reclusive Howard Hughes.
Few directors reach such a height, with so many hits in a short time, to decline as quickly. I knew his story. And that of many in movies and rock with similar experiences.
How long did the Beatles capture our imagination and attention? Six years. From their first record to their last, 1963-69 (with Abbey Road). (ok, Love Me Do came out late 1962, but it didn’t make a dent in America.)
Change is inevitable. Art is neither stable nor static. The fun part about studying history: change. Nothing is in the limelight forever. Punk changed as I knew it. I always likened unto a comet. Bright. Illuminating us. You have to catch it now before it’s gone.
My taking photos and being in the epicenter of punk was THE best of times. I don’t live in the past. But my work keeps me involved. Plus everywhere I look, I see OUR influence. I constantly see images of mine, but as movies in my head. I’ve looked at these photos so many times. Events and people inhabit me. Providing solace, inspiration, and great memories.
I didn’t drink. Some of the most prominent and quoted writers were notorious drinkers. I’ve photos. And substantiation from others who didn’t drink or have valid memories. Alcohol really messes up the memory. I couldn’t drink because I could not take photos. I got drunk maybe 4 times in 4 years. Mostly, I did speed cos I could keep taking photos. So reading, watching, hearing what some ‘experts’ say, including yours truly, should be taken with a big grain of salt. Some love to embellish, because they are writers. My information is based on my photos. Which are always SOOC. Straight Out Of the Camera. No manipulation.
I realize the truth will never be told because people teaching on campuses, high school and college in America, England and elsewhere and writing without bothering to reach out to many who actually created and lived all this! I know because students contact me all the time or I come across books and ebooks. People come to me for my photos. They ignore or distort my words.
Somehow I’m looked at as having no memory nor intelligence nor education. NO ONE ever contacts me before teaching. VERY FEW reach out when writing a book for content.Photos, yes, Quotes, rarely.
Making it up per THEIR memory. THEIR fantasies how it came down. Hmm … whatever. Because I know my truth. I would love to read more truths. Instead, I usually read fairy tales. Oh well, I’ve got more to study and create than wallow in this mess.
This loss is not mine. I know what I did. I know what others did. I had a blast. I’m grateful because I don’t know how I could’ve gone through my life without those four years and the people I’ve met because of it. The exposure because of it. The books and magazines and documentaries and websites and interviews and art gallery/museum exhibits because of my photos and my involvement.
I appreciate it. Thankfully my life does not revolve around only this, as it had for many years. I’m learning to let go. I share, but I can’t cry over this anymore.
I’m reading a fascinating biography about a French photographer, “The Great Nadar.” I recently bought his journal. He is the man who gave rise to the word “Bohemian.” In”Punk Pioneers,” I wrote that punk was the last Bohemian movement in America in the last quarter century of the second millennial. When “Boho” wasn’t just a fashion statement. When it was a lifestyle of barely surviving artists. Not rich folks with their “Boho” clothes and interior design.
Nadar became a photographer, famous for his portraits of writers like Baudelaire and George Sand. Still a revered and esteemed personality in France. Far more than that. Reading him is so inspiring. The difference between him and I: he had great confidence in himself. I have confidence in the arts and the art movement. I never have confidence in myself. I much rather read these books than rehash punk, only to be ignored or misquoted. SMH.
People will write about me after I’m dead and get it all wrong just like they do about punk now. They’ll make up stories or wonder wassup behind my photos. Which is why I read so much about anything I’m into. I need to read varied sources to piece together what might be a glimmer of the truth. Whatever that is.
Thank you for reading (or listening, if I make a podcast/audio recording).
Take what I said not with a grain of salt but with a whole lot of music and my photos, here at PunkPioneers.com. See larger images (available at affordable prices): PhotoStore.PunkPioneers.com. Thank you. Rock On!