“Adam DeGross is the only photographer that matters.” Or at least so says Paddy Costello of Dillinger Four, one of the most recognizable figureheads of a bustling underground punk and hardcore scene in Minneapolis that the 25-year-old DeGross has spent the last seven years tirelessly documenting. This Saturday, DeGross will display his work for the first time at a warehouse-turned-gallery space in Northeast Minneapolis at a party that will also celebrate the release of his first photo book, PAY ATTENTION.
The pages of PAY ATTENTION are filled edge-to-edge with a mosaic of vivid, gritty black and white photography that captures not only the aggressive energy of a hardcore show but also the cast of characters that make up the entire underground community. DeGross intentionally leaves the pages uncaptioned, allowing the images to meld together into one cohesive aesthetic and illustrate just what it means to be a modern-day punk rocker living in a post-post-post-punk world.
The book also provides an all-access pass into a world that can seem quite secretive and mysterious to outsiders. Most of the shows photographed in PAY ATTENTION didn’t occur in venues that you’d see advertised in an alt-weekly or promoted on the radio; rather, DeGross brings his audience into dimly lit basements, warehouses, and word-of-mouth-only spaces, capturing the action in such startling detail that you can practically smell the mold creeping up the cement walls.
The appeal of DeGross’s work is immediately clear. His photography is so unique that the University of Minnesota’s E.L. Anderson Library recently added a collection of his shots to their historical archive. That same day, shortly after dropping off his prints for the archive, DeGross sat down with me at Hard Times Cafe on the West Bank to talk about his new book, his love of photography, and what to expect from his first photo exhibit, which takes place this Saturday night at the Profane Existence Warehouse.
Local Current: How does it feel to have a book of your own photography sitting in front of you?
Adam DeGross: It was a long time coming, I guess. It all started because of the archives — they wanted my photos, the best of the best. And then I was just like, what have I been taking these photos for, for 10 years? I should probably do something, huh?
How did you get started?
I never took a class in photography, but my ex-girlfriend talked me into getting a point-and-shoot camera a long time ago, because I book shows, too. I book a ton of the punk shows here, and she was like, just take some photos at your own shows. When MySpace was still going, that’s when I really started — I made a photo
on MySpace, and I just started posting my photos there, and people started seeing them.
When was that?
2005. And 2006 was when I really kind of got into it. My old photos used to suck, but nobody ever told me that they weren’t good so I was like, oh man, these are awesome. And then they just turned into what they are now. I’ve been going to shows every day for the past 10 years, it seems like.
So you started with a point-and-shoot?
Point-and-shoot, yeah. And then I stepped it up and got another camera, a smaller DLSR. I only recently just learned what that word [DSLR] was. [laughs] People always say like, hey, you got a sick camera there dude, how do you do it? And I’m like, I don’t know anything, don’t talk to me about this camera. I just figured out what that button does, leave me alone.
What are some of the technical challenges of shooting in these unusual spaces?
The lighting, for sure, but also trying to be the fly on the wall. When I first started doing it, a lot of people were kind of like, who’s this guy? Why are you in my space? But because I booked all these shows, people kind of gave me a bit of leeway, because that was at one of my own shows that I booked, so I could take a photo or two. Even just being aware of my flash, in these dark rooms — that’s where the grit comes from, if you look at some of my photos, they’re really gritty. It’s because I don’t use my flash, I just kind of raise the contrast on a lot of them. And that was purely to stop bugging people. But then a lot of people started liking that style and it’s a little bit my own. Also, just not getting my camera broken, which has never happened.
Tell me more about building trust between yourself and the bands, especially at these underground venues.
I think I’ve just been around for so long that no one second guesses it. I did have a few experiences when I first started going to the real Minneapolis basement crowd — they did not like the camera for a while, someone tried to grab it once, and then I had some friends that were like ‘don’t touch it.’ I’ve just been doing it for so long that everyone knows me. [My camera] is my third arm.
What do you feel like you can accomplish by documenting this part of the city?
When I was younger, I would walk to Shinders and peel through the photos in magazines, and I’d always wonder what these shows were like. I’d look through photo books of old punk stuff, and it would always strike me, like, this happened. This is real. I just love it. If I didn’t have punk rock — I don’t know. I want to give it back to the people that have given it to me, in that way. I just think it’s a good thing to have. Looking back on this in 20 years, some kid might like that, and think maybe there’s someone doing that now. It’s a continuation of a culture I really like and respect.
And I just think Minneapolis is so special — I’ve been around the world doing photos, some bands brought me on tour to Europe — but Minneapolis is just so diverse. I just want to show everyone what Minneapolis, or what the punk scene is like. There’s so much happening in Minneapolis that people don’t know about. Even the venues, and there’s some of the best local bands that are on another plateau that people should be listening to. We have so much good stuff going on that I wish people would understand and see that. That’s what I’m trying to show everyone that might not be in the community.
What are some of your favorite bands to see live?
Frozen Teens, Wild Child, False. In Defence, I’ll go see all the time. I just try to go to everything, all the time. Like the Chalice, I went and saw them, never even heard of it.
How do you feel that the word “punk” has evolved over the years?
It’s been bastardized so much now, that whole word. Some people don’t even like saying the word punk. They’re like, ‘We’re raw punk.’ ‘We’re not punk, we’re black metal.’ ‘We’re hardcore.’ ‘We’re DC-82 hardcore,’ stuff like that. It’s like, but you’re a punk band, shut up. I just think there’s always going to be that umbrella term that everyone knows that they’re punk, but they don’t want to say it anymore. It got taken over by everything. Someone wears Converse, that’s punk. Someone has a stud on their wrist, oh that’s punk. I don’t even mind younger kids who wear a Blink-182 shirt and go to a show, that’s awesome. I was a kid too once. I just think people don’t want to say the word punk anymore, but they are punk.
PAY ATTENTION: The Book of MN Subculture Photography will be released this Saturday, January 5 at Brickmania, a.k.a. the Profane Existence Warehouse, with live performances by False, Frozen Teens, Arms Aloft, Agitate, and Ponx Attax. More info on Facebook.