All photos by Brooke Smith/reposted with permission
As an unhappy teen growing up in Rockland County in the 1980s, Brooke Smith found solace riding the 9A bus into the city.
Once here, she'd take the A train to West Fourth Street. One day decided to keep walking on Eighth Street into the East Village and onto St. Mark's Place.
Here, she found her home, a place where she felt as if she belonged. Smith, now based in Los Angeles, has made a name for herself in films (Buffalo Bill's plucky would-be victim in the Oscar-winning "The Silence of the Lambs") and television ("Grey's Anatomy," "Ray Donovan").
While preparing to move about 12 years ago, Smith found a cardboard box full of the photos she took in the 1980s while part of the punk/hardcore scene on the Lower East Side. This discovery eventually led to a solo show at Primary Gallery.
These photos are the subject of a new photo book, "Sunday Matinee," which features hundreds of photographs of the East Village in the mid-1980s and bands such as Bad Brains, Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, Murphy's Law, Warzone and others. There are also recollections by band members and others involved in the scene.
What initially compelled you to venture down to the city as a teen?
I was very much an outsider in my hometown and high school. I was overweight and listened to WFMU radio a lot — punk and alternative music, which no one in my school was into. My mom worked in the city, and I started going in with her as a child.
By the time I was 13 or 14, I felt comfortable enough to take the bus alone to the GW Bridge and then the subway downtown. Initially, I got off at West 4th street and walked around, but I soon felt compelled to go further and further east. I loved St Mark's Place and I met people in the East Village and eventually wound up at CBGB. Later, I got a job as the bag check girl at Trash & Vaudeville and then did the same thing at The Ritz.
I started meeting people and making friends... and you know how you just know who ‘your' people are when you meet them? I mean, like you recognize them? That’s how it felt, like coming home, genuinely.
The East Village felt like it belonged to us. It was a bit like the Wild West back then, and it felt like there was always a possibility in the air. We didn’t have cell phones then, so you had to get out and find people.
You carried a Minolta with you. When did the interest in photography come about?
Photography was one of the only classes I liked in high school, so I always had my camera with me. Plus, I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin, so even if I wanted to be a lead singer or a musician, I was too insecure. Having my camera meant I could hide behind it but still be right up in the center of the action.
The people in the portraits on the streets and sidewalk look at ease in front of your camera. Were you known in the hardcore community as someone always taking photos? Did it take a while for you to build up the confidence to approach people?
It did take a little time. I only took portraits of my friends. Back then, when people used to drive by CBGB or Tompkins Square Park and try to take photos of us punks, we would always make them pay us! I think I was known as someone who was always taking pics, along with Amy Keim and BJ Papas, and a few other women in the scene.
I loved it all. And all those people in the photos, so many of whom are gone. I remember late nights when we would all hang out with the homeless in Tompkins Square and have bonfires in those mesh garbage cans and share our stories with each other. It was a real neighborhood, and I can remember so many of the characters… everyone from Ray — who’s still there at 90, serving the best shakes and egg creams in NYC — to that guy who would always cover his face with a newspaper if you tried to make eye contact.
I remember exactly when I felt it was time to move on from the scene. I was at the pizza place on St Mark's and Avenue A with these new kids I'd just met. I explained to them that my little brother had died in a surfing accident a week before, and I just remember feeling, at that very moment, that my time there was done. It was time for me to grow up.
There was no separation between audience and performer. It was our scene, and we were doing it for ourselves, not to get rich or famous. So I think that helped me. I learned to trust my instincts as an artist, and to stay true to myself and to always be authentic.
What do you hope that people take away from "Sunday Matinee"?
It’s a love letter to that time and place and especially those people. I hope people get the message to be themselves. Don’t try to fit in. If you can find a group of people, or even just one other person who shares your interests, you can create whatever you want.