The first thing I wonder, looking at Eileen Polk’s largely black and white photographs from the 1970s, is how she had access to her subjects: Joey Ramone (Jeffrey Ross Hyman, 1951-2001) on a motorcycle, Debbie Harry holding a cup and looking fabulous, Sid Vicious (John Simon Ritchie, 1957-1979) with eyes closed as if he’s about to pass out with Nancy Spungen (1958-1978) by his side.
Meeting Polk for coffee at Noisette Bakery, one of her favorite coffee shops downtown, I find that she was able to get these pictures because she was as much a part of the burgeoning punk scene on New York City’s Lower East Side as her subjects. Her photos will be on view at Sam Bond’s Garage from May 26 to June 26 in Punk is Alive: Legendary Punk of the 1970s.
She didn’t just follow the musicians, though she did that, too. Polk managed the band The Blessed and worked at an NYC punk clothing store called Revenge, which was a hangout where musicians would check in to get the gossip from the Revenge Girls, of which she was one. She was Eileen Revenge — and still is, in some circles.
About 30 of her photos will be framed and hung on the walls “wherever she can find space.” They will all be for sale, priced at about $80 for 11-by-14 inch prints and up to $400 for the larger 26-by-34 inches. She wants to put up more photographs of her friends, ones you may not recognize along with the ones you know. Some of her images catch the frenzied energy of a punk performance onstage, while others are more fly-on-the-wall shots, quiet moments backstage or hanging outside of a club.
The photograph of Harry holding a cup, mentioned above, is unusual. Though clearly taken in public, it looks as if it was shot in a studio and has the feel of a 1940s actor’s publicity picture, the singer’s blond hair framed by a dramatic dark shadow.
Hearing Polk talk about New York City’s Lower East Side in the mid-1970s is like taking a history class from someone who was there. Fifty years ago the neighborhood was so gritty that only “bums” and “misfits” lived there. She identifies herself, and the friends she photographed, as having belonged to the latter group.
They were misfits who didn’t fit in, musicians who couldn’t get airtime on radio playlists or booked for stadium rock concerts. Bands like the Misfits, Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Dead Boys couldn’t get pre-approved by mainstream culture, but they played at clubs like CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City to people who liked their music — which is why Polk is happy about her exhibit being at Sam Bond’s.
“That’s punk,” she says. “That’s how I should show my photos.”
She lived down the street from CBGB’s in a storefront apartment with her friend Anya Philips (1955-1981). Phillips was an exotic dancer and manager of a band called the Contortions, as well as a clothes designer. She made outfits out of ripped materials for performers such as her friend Harry, who also lived near CBGB’s and often dined at Polk’s apartment.
Some of the subjects in Polk’s photographs were more than friends. Bass player Dee Dee Ramone (Douglas Glenn Colvin, 1951-2002) of the Ramones was her boyfriend and so was Arthur Kane (1949-2004), another bass player but for the New York Dolls.
“I wasn’t a groupie,” says Polk. She didn’t have a problem with anyone who was, though, as evidenced by the fact she befriended Nancy Spungen when hardly anyone else would. They met at Max’s Kansas City, where Spungen told Polk she brought drugs to give to musicians so they’d hang out with her.
“She was honest,” says Polk.
A few years afterward, Spungen went to London and returned as Sid Vicious’ girlfriend, which is how Polk got to know Vicious. She was with Vicious the day before he died. Polk has been asked about that day so often that she finally wrote her account of it for Punk magazine, which was published as a cover story in 2007 and illustrated by her photographs (she’s going to bring copies of that issue to her exhibit’s opening reception May 26).
Polk landed her first assignment as a professional photographer at 19 years old, taking pictures of a block party for Rock Scene magazine. She eventually covered concerts at Madison Square Garden, but didn’t always make it inside or to the stage, even with a press pass. Being young and a girl, she says she wasn’t taken seriously and was often overlooked in favor of the guys.
Polk thinks she looks more like a hippie now than a punker. I have to agree. She wears her hair long and has on a flowing skirt, not skin-tight pants. But she is still anti-establishment, which is a punk attitude that she compares favorably to the hippie culture that has a presence in Eugene. That presence is one of the reasons she moved here in the mid-’90s, and you can catch her most every weekend playing, not at a club, but in the drum circle at Eugene’s Saturday Market.
Polk was still in NYC when I lived there in the 1980s. I worked in the fashion industry, mostly for trade publications, but we might as well have been living in different worlds. In the late ’80s I made contact with her world, though after the fact, while attending an opening of a clothing boutique uptown.
The place had more people in it than clothes when Buster Poindexter, aka David Johansen, ex-vocalist of the New York Dolls, arrived with a group of musicians. Singing “Hot, Hot, Hot,” he led us out of that tiny shop into the street where we could dance, and we followed as if we were in a parade. It was the only time living in NYC I went barefoot.
Punk is Alive: Legendary Punk of the 1970s opens with a reception 4:30 pm until midnight Friday, May 26, and runs through June 26 at Sam Bond’s Garage, 407 Blair Blvd. Regular hours are 4 pm to midnight daily.