You might know Brooke Smith from her role as Catherine Martin in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs, the girl Buffalo Bill puts in the hole after catching her driving around to Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” But you might not know that she lobbied for Bad Brains to play in the car. Smith was deep in New York’s hardcore scene in the ‘80s, going to shows and taking photographs of what she saw while she got a toehold in her acting career. “When I was hanging out on the Lower East Side I got my SAG card,” Smith says. “I had to dye my hair for a role—The Moderns, by Alan Rudolph—and it couldn't be purple.”
Using her mom’s Minolta camera, Smith captured kids, mostly, hanging out and playing music. Some kids headlined CBGB’s, some kids quit their bands before they recorded; some were just kids in the mix. The photos are now collected in a book called Sunday Matinee, published by Radio Raheem Records, a Brooklyn-based U.S. hardcore reissue label. Many of the photos included are being published for the first time, and they are startling.
Everyone’s very young. In one, Pete Hines, who played drums in Murphy’s Law, smokes a cigarette with a fresh Mr. Horsepower tattoo on his neck, looking all of 18, against a washed-out street corner. In another, Amy Keim, from Nausea, stands what must be a block away, in a tattered denim vest with a Crass patch, holding her newborn daughter. Ray Barbieri, Warzone’s departed singer, sits on a lawn chair stacked with pool cushions, about to play drums, while in another, two Cro-Mags members mug with one of Ingrid Bergman’s Oscars. Everything’s captured early: bands like Warzone and Underdog are shot with singers who moved on before they put out full lengths, and Agnostic Front don’t have many tattoos.
Everything’s captured early: bands like WarZone and Underdog are shot with singers who moved on before they put out full lengths, and Agnostic Front don’t have many tattoos.
And yet, Smith’s photos are only incidentally about music. They are a democratizing account of a young scene with no money or attention behind it. There are a lot of women in the book; more than have been captured in previous ones, or in some old zines and records. Alexa Poli, Smith’s roommate, shows up often in the front row. Smith’s peers are throughout. Modern Clix pepper the pages.
There’s also a deep sense of loss. Half of the book’s subjects, Smith estimates, are now dead. Many from drugs; some from AIDS. All of them very young kids, or “outsiders,” as Smith describes them, attracted to a music and scene defined by extremes. The East Village neighborhood in which most shows took place—around CBGB’s, on Bowery, and Great Gildersleeves, a few doors away—was in those days more or less a failed state, a ghost town without real infrastructure or a healthy tax base. There were not many rules. Still, that black space may have been what allowed all this music and life and everything else to happen.
Smith, now in her 50s, still takes photos—on set, in Africa, and, recently, at Agnostic Front shows again—when she’s not acting. She’s not alone in being a creative moonlighter: Dennis Hopper, also a director, has photos on permanent collection at the Met and MoMA, and Jeff Bridges does panoramic photography. Is there a through line? “It’s all a way of seeing,” Smith says. Acting and photography have for her, she says, “a similar feeling of losing myself, but being totally in the action and in the center.” Her most striking roles, like Lambs, share the eye of the storm energy that her pictures give off.
Below, Smith walks CREEM through Sunday Matinee photos that jump out at her, and the stories behind them.