The Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1970s was a wasteland. The Bowery was home to heroin, prostitutes, and rats, not necessarily in that order. But even as dirty and grubby as it was, it was still “the most exciting place to be on the planet,” according to punk provocateur Lydia Lunch, and home to “the freaks and other outcasts of NYC." Many of those freaks and outcasts would help invent punk rock and alter the course of music history. And many of those freaks and outcasts are the subjects of Stephanie Chernikowski’s glorious black and white photo document Dream Baby Dream: Images From The Blank Generation.
The Texas-born photographer moved to NYC in 1975, just as the city was spawning the nihilist punk rock world she captures in her book. There’s an impossibly young David Byrne, a joyous Poly Styrene onstage, and a (wasted?) Lester Bangs, amongst the glowering Johnny Rotten, the always cooler-than-thou Richard Hell, and a Ramone seemingly everywhere you look. Perhaps my favorite photo in the book is a very blurry shot of the always-coquettish Debbie Harry — she just exudes movie-star sex appeal amidst the ruins. The glue is the ambient photos that include the shithole bathrooms, and the anti-fashion and call-girl chic of the everyday people who propped up the whole scene.
There is an energy and intimacy in Chernikowski’s work that defined this new vanguard of art and music. “Patti’s Shoes” and the cover photo of the doomed Sid Vicious at Max’s (with the equally doomed Nancy Spungen and a coterie of groupies seated onstage) show just how incredibly thin the line dividing performer from audience actually was. A key tenet of punk rock was to eliminate the barrier between the two, and Chernikowski’s book provides a cinema verité of the punk’s progenitors of the CBGBs scene.
Dream Baby Dream is a crackling document of that last “important” musical moment (we could argue grunge, but…), now 30 years gone. The style, fashion and art created out of poverty and imagination are reflected on catwalks in Paris and galleries in Soho and the music echoes ironically throughout sports stadiums and TV commercials across America. In the end, Dream Baby Dream feels like an updated version of Robert Frank’s The Americans, with the kids all hopped-up and ready to go.
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