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Book Review: Punk Press

Punk Press. Edited by Vincent Berniere and Mariel Primois.
Abrams Books, 2013.
Punk Press
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

Punk Press
Edited by Vincent Bernière and Mariel Primois.
Abrams Books, 2013. Softcover. 240 pp., 160 color illustrations, 9x13-1/4".


There are two kinds of photo books, those concerned with the primacy of the image -- in which the book is merely a secondary vessel -- and those more concerned with the book itself as an artistic form.

And I suppose there's a third kind too, books that aren't concerned with being photo books at all. The recent Abrams book Punk Press falls into this category. Yes, the book contains photos, but they are incidental to the content and poorly reproduced. If you're looking for a volume of finely toned art prints to fawn over, this ain't it.

And that's as it should be. Punk is unpolished. In fact that's sort of the point of it. Grainy half-tones from old magazines bleeding into the gutter are completely appropriate. String a few hundred together in herky-jerky order, number the pages by hand, and you've got Punk Press the book, a wonderful assortment of posters, essays, rants, and clippings from old punk magazines circa 1968-1980.

Punk Press, by Vincent Bernière and Mariel Primois. Published by Abrams Books, 2013.

Punk music may have begun as a reaction against bland pop schmaltz, but it wasn't built entirely upon rebellion. If punk stood for anything constructive -- a premise that might be argued by Johnny Rotten, et al -- it was the Do-It-Yourself aesthetic. Gone were the days when a producer would hire out everything from songwriting to temporary session bands. Punk bands didn't need labels. They didn't need sound effects, distribution, or even a recording studio. They'd handle all of that themselves, thank you very much.

Punk Press, by Vincent Bernière and Mariel Primois. Published by Abrams Books, 2013.

And the homegrown media that quickly blossomed around the music followed suit. Xeroxed show bills served as press releases. Much of the reporting was compressed into hand-written accounts. "The punk fanzine reflected the music," writes Jon Savage in Punk Press's introduction, "in that there was very little, in fact no, distance between having the idea, executing it, then broadcasting it to the world." The fanzines covered a huge range in quality and distribution. Some were mere copies bound with staples. Other magazines achieved widespread sales in newsstands. What they all had in common was an irrepressible enthusiasm for the nascent movement. Even three decades later skimming clippings compiled into a book, the sheer energy and vitality of the fan-base inspires wonder.

Punk Press, by Vincent Bernière and Mariel Primois. Published by Abrams Books, 2013.

For anyone who's followed the recent history of photobooks the DIY aesthetic will sound familiar. Within the space of a decade or so, it has thoroughly infiltrated book publishing culture, washing away the barriers between art's production and publication like yesterday's muzak. The rush is on. Some of these homegrown publications rival the best publishers. Others are closer to xerox broadsides. All follow the DIY doctrine.

Punk Press, by Vincent Bernière and Mariel Primois. Published by Abrams Books, 2013.

Like any cultural phenomenon, punk had a definite life cycle. By the early 80s it had been safely defused and assimilated into mass culture. The marrow has long been sucked out, and what's left is now grist for MoMA fashion retrospectives and historical scrapbooking. Reading Punk Press one gets the feeling of looking at a specimen in formaldehyde. The former enthusiasm is palpable, but also the sense that it's over. One can't help wondering if the current photobook boom will endure a similar cycle.

The most interesting part of Punk Press is the last section. The book shifts from cheap matt paper to thick glossy stock, and the material from reproductions to sharp analysis, offering a detailed historical account of the underground press, title by title. It's the sort of shiny coffee-table essay you'd expect from any professional art history guide. But the whole book couldn't follow suit. That wouldn't be very punk.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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