Mitchell Kearney: From CBGB’s To Charlotte, And Back Again
by Daniel Coston
When the sounds of what later became termed punk rock began emerging from various places—New York City, Cleveland, London, and elsewhere—what bound those bands together was a sense of being as far away from the mainstream as possible. All these years later, the spirit and sounds of 1977 are the mainstream. On TV shows and beer ads, movies, and t-shirts. Much of what is written now about that scene, and the New York scene in particular, is being done by those who weren’t there when it all was really happening. Only a handful of writers and photographers documented the music as it was unfolding. Charlotte’s own Mitchell Kearney was one of those few.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Kearney went to numerous shows, worked for the now-legendary Trouser Press and New York Rocker magazines, and took lots of photos. When Kearney moved to Charlotte in 1983, most of his archive was put away in boxes. Now, with those days being recreated and rewritten by others, the time seems right for Kearney to let his archive loose again, to present the original sound and visions that sparked those ideas. Kearney also adds his thoughts about all of his subjects in these photos in a recent interview via email, coupled with another interview I did with Kearney in 2011.
Coston: How did you get started in photography?
Kearney: I watched my Dad take pictures for years during my childhood. He loaned me his camera. And I found two stacks of Popular Photography magazines, which I paged through for a month, realizing how much more fulfilling this would be than becoming an architect.
Coston: What were the first things you photographed?
Kearney: I was obsessed with super close-ups, macro photography of ice crystals on wood planks in the winter.
Coston: What brought you to New York City?
Kearney: I was born in Greenwich Village in NYC. My parents moved me to suburban northern New Jersey when I was one month old. I remember riding back and forth into Manhattan for Sunday dinners with my extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents.
Coston: How much had you heard about the punk rock scene, or the other scenes, before you came to New York?
Kearney: I was accepted into the School of Visual Arts as a photo major, and it was in one of my classes that a new friend of mine suggested checking out the new music being played at a club called CBGB.
Coston: Early on, did you shoot and make yourself known from there? Or did you line up work with a magazine, or another outlet?
Kearney: I was already photographing assignments for an alternative weekly, much like the Creative Loafing, called the Aquarian Weekly. So all I did was tell the editor about this exciting new music scene in lower Manhattan, and if I would cover it he would pay for everything I could bring him back.
Coston: What were your favorite bands to shoot and why?
Kearney: The Ramones were the first band I saw live at CBGB. They were fully formed by '76 and only got smarter and better with each live show I covered. Patti Smith was the best live show for me, since she and Lenny pushed way out of their comfort zone, every time they got on a stage. Mink DeVille taught everybody something new, about music of all kinds. And the Dead Boys were, are, and will always be Young, Loud + Snotty.
Coston: How soon did you move from live photography into posed work with the musicians?
Kearney: When I started working for Ira Robbins at Trouser Press Magazine it was because, by this point in time, I had just graduated from SVA with a BFA and began working for Len Prince Photography on 5th Ave @ 21st Street, in the heart of the Photo District. I was learning how to light scenes with lots of studio strobes and applying my day job to my passion for portraits of musicians.
Coston: How did your work with Trouser Press and New York Rocker come about?
Kearney: So my opening came at Trouser Press because Ira wanted to upgrade the photo content to better reflect his now very edgy editorial story content. New York Rocker simply wanted the best photos nobody else had already run, period.
Coston: What were some of your favorite shoots from that period in your life?
Kearney: My interview with Lou Reed was a sea change. I expected one thing, and it turned out that Lou walked, talked, and told jokes just like my cousin Louis. Well, to be fair, Louis did grow up two doors down Christopher Street from the Stonewall Inn. My interview with Frank Zappa was, like the Lou Reed portrait, slated for a cover of TP. Frank corralled a dozen rock writers into a room for a 45-minute round robin Q&A session, after which I was the only photographer in the room. I had a plan and he was great with the impromptu creative process I served up. However, the most memorable portrait session of all my Trouser Press assignments was to photograph William S. Burroughs during an interview set up by Scott Isler, with Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, the masterminds behind DEVO. What an amazing afternoon, on the Bowery, just blocks from CBGB.
Coston: How much did the music scene change during your time in New York?
Kearney: Well, as soon as the first and second waves of punk rock bands got signed it was off to the studio they ran, and then out of town for months of first album touring and promotions. So the NY scene was decimated for a time by the exodus of prime talent. The wind never truly blew as hard again for the punk bands as it did from early 1977 through the end of 1978.
Coston: What brought you to Charlotte?
Kearney: An opportunity to partner with the best, Ron Chapple & Associates, and settle into a new phase of my personal life and my professional photography career, in this wonderful city, state, and region.
Coston: Describe the changes in Charlotte since you first moved here.
Kearney: Well, the sidewalks did sort of roll up in downtown Charlotte in May of 1983, around 5pm. And yet, there was a strong pulse running through a group of creative entrepreneurs in Charlotte in those days, which helped create the city we now enjoy.
Coston: How has the business of photography changed in Charlotte?
Kearney: It has always been in a constant state of evolving needs and moods. I have created photography for practically every type of business, in business here in Charlotte, and the region, over the years. And then there is the transition from film processing to digital capture and optimizing. It is wonderful to be able to perfect an image to match my aesthetics.