Jim Saah is a somewhat self-effacing guy, but truth be told he’s a bit of a legendary figure in the D.C. punk scene. The Silver Spring, MD, resident quietly captured much of the early 80s punk scene in the nation’s capital with his photos, including the cover of Fugazi‘s iconic Repeater album. And now, he’s serving as the director of photography for the upcoming Salad Days: The D.C. Punk Revolution.
The film chronicles the influential era of D.C. punk, featuring Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Government Issue, Marginal Man, Dag Nasty, 9353 and Gray Matter, to name only a few. Saah, along with director Scott Crawford, are in the process of shooting and piecing the film together with an expected 2013 release. Fans can help see the timely completion and release of the film by making a donation at Kickstarter.com, the world’s largest fundraising platform for creative projects. Get your pledge in by the October 10th deadline.
We caught up with Jim from his home to talk about the making of the film, his life in photography and how the D.C. punk revolution put him and many others on a path to who they are today.
Weeping Elvis: What was the “aha” moment for you and Scott to make this documentary?
Jim Saah: Scott came to me with the idea about doing the film. I’d thought about doing books and other projects, over the years, of my photographs. I think Scott was kind of at a moment in his life where he was looking back at those days and how they resonated with him as far as other decisions in his life. It was an important time that informed, kind of, the rest of his life. I feel that way as well. I don’t know if I would have become a photographer or felt like I had the ability to pursue things like doing my own magazine if it wasn’t for punk rock and the DIY mentality that gave me a license to do these things. That’s how Scott felt. He also felt the story had been told in pieces or had been touched on but never really had an in-depth telling. He came to me and asked me if I’d like to work on it with him and I was on board right away. I feel the same way about that period. It was a really important time. It’s not like a nostalgia thing like we’re looking back at it like those were the glory days, but more like we’re constantly looking forward and using that spirit to move on.
WE: So in talking with members of bands for the film, how did you find that period informed their lives? Are many of them still in music? Do many still live in D.C.?
JS: Yes and yes. Many of them are, lots of them are not as well. People that we talked to, like Brian Baker, who has had a career in music and Ian MacKaye, obviously. Then there are people like Mark Sullivan (from Kingface) who loves those days and speaks very eloquently about them, but put music aside at some point and is now a social worker.
People have gone in all different directions. I get the sense, and some people have actually said it, that even if they’re not in music that period put them on a path to where they are now and who they are now.
WE: Where are things at in the process of making the film?
JS: We have probably a couple dozen interviews, with mostly key people and probably maybe 15 more key people on the list and 5 or 10 after that of peripheral people. It’s a constant process of getting archival footage. We’ve gotten a lot of photographs. I personally have a pretty extensive set of archives from the early days [1981-83]. The mid-period I didn’t photograph a whole lot. I was still going to see bands and music but I was getting more into bands like The Replacements. I was sort of getting out of D.C. hardcore and checking out other stuff.
That’s when Scott Crawford came in. He’s a bit younger than I am. His first show was around ’84 when he was 12. So from those early years, I don’t think I missed a show for two years or so. A lot of the photographs in the trailer are mine. A lot of people are sending them in. This Kickstarter thing is getting the word out more. I’ve heard from people that have contacted me with video from this show or that show. I would say we are passed the beginning stage, but we are still early on. We don’t have a rough cut. We are putting chunks of the film together. We have a framework and we are putting them in.
WE: It sounds like the response from Kickstarter has been great.
JS: It’s been surprisingly positive. Not that I’m surprised people are positive, but just the overwhelming response. We raised more than half of what we’re asking for in two and a half days. People seem to like the trailer. I know everyone’s got their own opinion about this stuff and not everyone is going to agree, but in the end it seems like they like the trailer and that’s heartening for me.
WE: Is there anything consistent coming back from the interviews or anything that surprised you? I know you’ve chatted with a range of people from Ian MacKaye to Henry Rollins to Dave Grohl to Pete and Franz Stahl to name a few.
JS: Well people do come back to how much “straightedge” was misinterpreted outside the D.C. area. Ian MacKaye actually said to this day, he’ll get phone calls from drunk kids that have left him a message that says “Hey man, I’m f&*king drunk. What do you think of that man?” And I thought, “Oh my god, 30 years latter that still happens?” and Ian said “Dude, like the other day it happened.” That blew my mind. He wrote a song and never meant to start a movement, and it was mostly misunderstood. That’s been a little bit of a constant.
Some people surprise you. Like, I remember Mark Andersen as the guy that wouldn’t shut up before one of those Positive Force benefit shows. But he’s still working on what he started back in the 80’s. Positive Force, the music, and his service to the community, it’s all one and it’s his life’s work. That’s a beautiful thing.
WE: I know you said the film isn’t about nostalgia, but there must have been some aspect of that for you looking back at all the photos you took. I’m curious what you might have stumbled upon that resonated with you.
JS: That happened quite a lot actually. Back in the days of the darkroom you’d shoot a roll of film of a show and then you’d make a contact sheet and then you’d circle a couple that you liked and then you’d print them and put it in a file. Now that I’ve scanned all of my negatives in and I can look at them larger on the computer, I’m seeing things. There were a whole bunch of pictures of The Faith [Alec MacKaye’s band], that I never printed, and that I didn’t really remember—really visceral shots of him singing with a shaved head and he’s just like tied himself into like a ball on the stage. He looks like a monk with bondage pants on.
Fugazi, in 1992, I shot them in Berlin. It was just kind of by accident. I was there and we noticed that they were playing that night when we arrived. They were playing kind of a big tent in the former East Berlin. I printed a few that I liked from it. Going back and looking at them, the audience was just raging and the band was sweaty and everyone in the audience just had an extreme face. Seeing them in front of a foreign audience was pretty remarkable. It was a pretty great thing to see them in another country.
WE: Let’s back up for a moment. How did you come to be the photographer for some many of the D.C. punk bands? When I first moved to D.C. in the early 90s I kept seeing your credit on photos of a lot of bands I liked and I wondered “Who is this guy?”
JS: I just showed up and took pictures of everything. I lived in Maryland, still do. I discovered punk rock in kind of the same place, but a maybe a couple years after a lot of those people did, like in Georgetown. Ian worked at the Key Theatre there. Danny Ingram would DJ at Rocky Horror Picture Show. He’d play music before the movie. That’s the first place I heard, in 1981, The Stranglers and punk rock. I think Ian was gone by then.
I discovered punk rock and that these people were coming to the movie dressed up and I just kind of followed the line, like “I’ve got to hear more of this music.” I discovered there were bands in this town playing this type of music and I started going to hardcore matinees at the old 9:30 Club. Three bands, three bucks from 12-3 in the afternoon. It was an awesome way to spend your Sunday afternoon. I was just hooked. I went to so many shows and photographed them and sent people my pictures. I had a lot of my work in Banned n D.C., the book Cynthia Connolly put out, which has been a document for the scene. People would just start coming to me and say “Oh do you have Fugazi?” A lot of the pictures for Fugazi’s Repeater are mine, the cover and most of the inside photos. I wanted to photograph stuff for my own interest and people liked the photos.
WE: You’ve had a really interesting career as a photographer working with bands, politicians, and all the travel. What are some of your more memorable or favorite photos you’ve taken?
JS: My life in photography brings me to so many different places and it’s an interesting profession too. It’s like a life journey. Your styles change and the things you photograph over the years change, but it’s all just kind of a constant. I do a lot of work for labor unions—the Teamsters primarily. This job has taken me to some weird places. One time I was in Las Vegas in a hotel room with James Hoffa, Jimmy Hoffa’s son and I was like “How did I get here?” I’ve photographed several presidents.
I’ve been behind the scenes where you kind of hear the unofficial banter and stuff. You’re kind of ignored sometimes when you’re a photographer if you’re around enough and you don’t draw attention to yourself, which is what you want, because then you can get interesting shots. I’ve traveled a lot, taking pictures of other cultures. I’ve traveled in the Middle East — that’s always interesting. I still do music. I shoot stills and I work on other people’s music documentaries. I worked on the Wilco Ashes of American Flags movie and a lot of things that Trixie, Brendan Canty and Christoph Green‘s company, put out — the Burn to Shine series, I shot on all of those doing photography and video. I think it’s more about the journey than just a favorite, but those are some things.
Thanks to Jim Saah for spending time with us. Find out more on Salad Days.