Posted September 10, 2003

Photographer Sue Rynski's eye
into Detroit's rocking underbelly

Rock photographers are lucky people. They're paid well to be right up and personal with the music, sharing lavish backstage riders with the elite and flitting between gigs of their choice with everything laid on. Yeah, right. The reality is many of them are doing it for love, not money, and put life and limb at risk to get that elusive killer shot, dodging beer, boots, bouncers and whatever else springs out of the pit only for an uncaring editor to crop their work badly or not run it at all. Plus, they usually end up deaf.

Detroit-bred and raised Sue Rynski knows the music photographer's gig as well as many and better than most, carving out a formidable reputation on the '70s Michigan underground music scene. Her work has graced the pages of esteemed publications like Creem and the odd release by the likes of Destroy All Monsters, Patti Smith, Rob Tyner and Sonic's Rendezvous Band. A friend of the bands who happened to have trained in Paris as a photographer, she was in the front row of a scene that spawned or was graced by the above-mentioned acts, as well as a host of lesser-known but deserving acts.

Sue's work recently went up into cyberspace, courtesy of Mike JTone's wonderful Motor City Music record label web site which now hosts a gallery of some of her best work. She's also exhibiting photographs in Paris in September. More on both of those later, but they seemed fitting triggers for THE BARMAN to request an interview, which Sue was gracious enough to grant. Read on...

Q Sue, thanks for joining us in the Bar. I believe you trained in Paris. How did that come about and where else did you learn your craft.

I learned photography in the mid-'70s in Paris from Richard E. Allen at the American Center for Students and Artists – it was a wonderful arts center which stood at the place where the Fondation Cartier is today. Jane Evelyn Atwood, the documentary photographer, was also learning there at the same time.

This came about because my dad's job transferred him from Detroit to Paris, and I began dividing my time and studies between there and the US. I received my BFA from the University of Michigan, where I studied under Phil Davis, best known for his Beyond the Zone System.

I also studied art and fashion for a year at RISD in 1973-74, the same year that David Byrne (pre-Talking Heads) was there. He was forever asking me if I was from London when we met in the cafeteria, he never seemed to remember that he'd already asked me that question! Later when he came to Bookies Club 870 in Detroit, I decided not to mention it...

Q Paris at any time of the year ain't a bad place to be. Are you living there fulltime or just while you're exhibiting? How did the local exhibition come about?

I've been living in Paris for a number of years now. I was very pleased when Salah and Stephane of Aux Arts, etc... asked me to exhibit. It's a fabulous arts center and exhibition space, good people, good energy, a community spirit. Music is the main discipline, and this is the first exhibition they've had with music as a theme, they'd been wanting to do one. Since I've only recently been reviewing my archives again, this exhibit is just a first small glimpse.

Of the 37 photographs exhibited, 17 are images only just discovered among my negatives this year, and 11 more have never before been exhibited or published. There are five previously published photos that are shown for the first time in "full frame," i.e. the entire image of the negative. There's a mix of Michigan's own and the touring national-internationally known bands. And my Motor City Music Gallery shots are additionally on display, so the French public can get a real feel for the local scene.

Q Tell us a bit more about your background. Were you Michigan raised? How did you get into the rock scene there?

Born and raised in Detroit and its suburbs, and proud of it! I grew up listening to all our great local music, it just becomes a part of you, I think, at least for me.

In 1977, I was in Ann Arbor finishing my degree at the U of M, and the music became an inspiration for my photography— the performers in action, all the passion and emotion expressed in their movements... I knew some of the people who started Destroy All Monsters. That summer of '77 they asked Ron Asheton (ex-Stooges) and Mike Davis (ex- MC5) to jam with them. Ron and Mike thought there was some pretty cool music to be made with these younger, arty musicians and quickly came on board bringing the group to a real pro level. Everyone involved felt that something very special was being created; the atmosphere was electric.

I was at all DAM's rehearsals and gigs, taking pictures all the time — it was about art for me. I remember realizing how intense and physical the music was when at one rehearsal, I was so following Ron's powerful leads, getting right into the rhythm with him, that I nearly snapped the film advance lever right off my camera!

Meanwhile, nearby in Detroit many, many more bands were forming. Musically it was a meeting of veteran local legends and newer, younger talent. There were many "styles" of rock, but all of it was high energy and relentlessly original. A scene sprang up, exploded really, between Detroit and Ann Arbor. It was an underground scene — small, intimate venues, just about any hall or bar that would let the bands play, and quickly centered around clubs like the Second Chance in Ann Arbor, and Bookies Club 870, the Red Carpet Lounge and Lili's in Detroit that are now legendary. All of the international touring new wave and punk bands also played in these clubs.

Since I was at all the gigs, people started noticing my work. When Paul Zimmerman and Jerry Vile started White Noise magazine, Jerry asked me to be the main photographer, and things just kept going from there.

© Sue Rynski

Q Can you recall your first show? Who was it and where?

The one that stands out, for our '70s scene, is one of the first gigs of Destroy All Monsters as a rock band, at the Underground, a sleazy bar in Ypsilanti, in May 1977. It was the gig where Cary Loren first invited Ron Asheton to play with them. Niagara was wearing red, a little red miniskirt suit, I think, and the song that blew me away was her "I Love You, But You're Dead."

Also, the Sonic's Rendezvous Band's gigs at the Second Chance were always awesome. And when Pere Ubu played there at one gig, there was an unforgettable moment when they achieved something extraordinary, where the music seemed to make the space expand. It's difficult for me to describe. Sonic's Rendezvous Band also came close to achieving that, too.

Q Your style is very stark and full of contrasts. Did you follow the work of, say, Roberta Bayley or any of that NY school of photographers? Who were your main influences?

My affinity for capturing performers, and bodies in movement in general, comes partly from having studied classical dance for many years. In fact, as a student one of my early photo subjects was the ballet. Because I knew what the dancers were doing, I also knew when the peak of their movement, and their emotion, would happen. It's something thrilling to me to see the ecstasy expressed by the body in motion. Perhaps the ballet also contributed to my sense of composition, for the simplicity and isolated moments. Also my composition likely comes from doing alot of drawing.

There's also a sort of graphic tension, a tension between the elements in the picture that I find exciting to achieve. In the 70s I admired the adventurous fashion photography of Guy Bourdin. At his retrospective exhibit in London this year there was a slide show of very stark and geometric shots he took of buildings, empty spaces, rooms and such that were like studies for the backgrounds in his fashion work. I wept when I saw these, they resonated so strongly with me, they were the type of things that I also like to look at.

Other photographers I feel a connection with are Henri Cartier-Bresson and Jacques-Henri Lartigue in terms of capturing the moment and the movement.

Q Have you shot much colour or are you strictly into black and white?

The vast majority of my work is in black and white. This is probably because when I started black and white was the process that was easier to control oneself from start to finish. I do all of my own processing and printing.

Q Snapping pix in the pit at some high-energy shows can be fraught with danger. Was that the case back in the late '70s Detroit scene? Have you had many anxious moments?

I'll always remember the gig at Detroit's Kramer Theatre on August 10th, 1977. Rob Tyner's "New MC5" headlined a bill with the Sillies, Destroy All Monsters and Bittersweet Alley. As Tyner's band was about to start playing, I was crouching on the edge of the stage getting a good position to shoot, when a roadie came running over and told me in a gentle, but insistent way that I had better not stay there. When I asked why, he said, "You're straddling a flashpot (a can of fireworks), and if it goes off, it could kill you!" That's how I found out what a flashpot was.

Another time, at the Red Carpet Lounge, Mark Norton of the Ramrods went temporarily insane and threw his mike stand at me, almost knocking my flash off the camera, cracking the flash mount and two of my ribs in the process. Actually, Mark thinks it was my collarbone— I don't remember, except that it hurt for some time afterwards. I was more focused on protecting my material at the time, and thinking "what a jerk!" Mark apologized profusely right away, and I already knew he didn't mean to hurt me.

Q Your credits are pretty impressive and I suppose one of the eye-catching ones, for our readership, is Creem. How did you hook up with them and did you have much to do with the likes of Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh or Richard Meltzer?

Susan Whitall was the editor at Creem when they were buying photos from me, and she, Cathy the Assistant Editor, and Art Director Charlie Auringer were who I knew there. Since I had things of the underground and punk scene they, and others, would contact me when they needed something in that area.

Q Did you have much of chance to get up close and personal with some of the greats, back in the day? Give us a few insights.

As mentioned, I was in the "underground" scene. My friends and the people I hung out with were Destroy All Monsters, Sonic's Rendezvous Band, Sirius Trixon, the Cult Heroes, the White Noise & Bookies crowd, the Chili Sisters...

Patti Smith came to Detroit pretty often before she married Fred. I was always struck by how in love they appeared, Patti positively glowed. She's a very private person, and I tried to respect their privacy.

One story comes to mind, about the photo of her and Fred that Patti recently published again in the booklet of her "Land" album. The photo was taken in the dressing room of the Second Chance, where Sonic's Rendezvous Band and the Patti Smith Group were sharing a bill for a few nights. The next evening, I came back and gave a print of the photo to Patti and Fred, who were standing together in just about the same spot. Patti turned to Fred and said something like, "This perfectly represents our relationship." Then she told me it would be their wedding photo. I'm touched that this photo seemed to have meaning for her, and that she's kept it all these years.

© Sue Rynski

Q One band that failed to crack it outside their home state was, of course, Sonic's Rendezvous Band. What's your take on the one that should have made it? What are some of your memories of them?

Sonic's Rendezvous Band is the one I miss the most. Their music was special, every concert was a celebration. Their music had power and authority, was often hypnotic and compelling. They also were a band that people really enjoyed dancing to. I noticed that their sets were structured in a way that allowed you to dance the whole set, a slower number every few songs to let you catch your breath a little and be ready to go all out again - don't know if they planned it that way, but it made their shows all the more enjoyable.

Of course they should have made it! They worked hard and were excellent and inventive. One wonders what the record companies were doing instead of finding the talent...

Fred "Sonic" Smith © Sue Rynski

Q Who else stands out as a band that should have been much, much bigger? (Names like the Torpedos and the Sillies spring to mind. Are we far off the mark?)

Sure, those bands, and more. There was such a wealth of talent in Detroit at that time, it's a shame it went untapped. They all deserved a much wider audience. Along with Sonic's Rendezvous, I always thought Destroy All Monsters would have gone far. The Motor City Bad Boys and the Mutants were definitely ready as well.

Q Destroy All Monsters certainly gained some profile in Australia in the '80s, just as they had in Europe. You must have shot them a lot. Give us a few insights.

They were exciting, and truly original, especially during the period where the Miller brothers added spacey sax and guitar. Niagara and Ron Asheton formed a perfect counterpoint, both musically and visually. I loved her sculptural poses, and her ever-present can of Tab onstage alongside Ron's Colt 45. Michael Davis is an angel, a solid, steady guy like the bass he plays.

Niagara, Ron and the can of Tab.
© Sue Rynski

Q People don't realise that Niagara's now a graphic artist in her own right. Were there many bands around at the time who put together the art punk and visual things, as well as the hard rock aspect that Ron brought to the band?

Niagara is a genuinely multi-talented artist. A great lyricist, fashion icon, vocalist (it's in the emotion she expresses), a successful visual artist, and more. I remember when someone tried to tell her she couldn't promote herself as doing all of those things, that it "wasn't credible." It's sad when people have trouble believing in multi-talent. Niagara's done very well, she lives her art 100 percent which takes courage and committment.

As for bands at the time who mixed art, punk and visual things, Pere Ubu from Cleveland was also in the arty vein. The Boners in Detroit were arty-comical, very outrageous visually and with provocative themes and lyrics. Like a rock band with performance art. The Radiators were very zany, too. The Sillies had Gloria Love posing onstage, and Ben Waugh doing his thing. I guess there was alot of art mixed in with the rock! Apologies to anyone I'm forgetting!

David Thomas of Pere Ubu.
© Sue Rynski

Q I’m thinking the Mutants are another band that didn’t make much of an impact outside Michigan. Can you give us your thoughts? They’re still around aren’t they?

Ahead of their time, or perhaps just too real and down to earth in their lyrics and sense of humour? The rest of the world world maybe just wasn't ready for serious rock music with a sense of humor. I find their music very joyful, something rock music could use a little more of.

The Mutants
© Sue Rynski


Q Sirius Trixon and the Motor City Bad Boys are another band we’ve heard a bit about rather than heard anything by. Were they much of a deal? I’ve heard a lot of sniping so I’m presuming they polarised a lot of people.

Another band that should have "made it." They had a following in New York as well as Detroit. They were around before the late 70s punk scene began, and their music was a more traditional rock style. They also had a very visual presence with the front end of a pink 1957 Cadillac as a drum riser, and Jim Jam the greaser who posed leaning on the Cadillac, and of course the Legendary Sirius Trixon with his rooster hairdo. Their ambitions were more mainstream, but they were able to crossover and play the Bookies scene as well. It's fair to say they polarised people. Their image was rough-and-tough-and mean-from-the-streets-of-Detroit, which some found abrasive.

Sirius Trixon fronting the Motor City Bad Boys

© Sue Rynski

Trixon tells me there are six live LPs and some singles that have been put out by indie labels over the years (but I don't have one!).

Q Did Johnny Thunders' arrival to live in Michigan have much of an impact at the time? The prospect of him and Wayne Kramer sharing a stage must have stirred things up.

Johnny Thunders
© Sue Rynski

Johnny Thunders seemed right at home in Detroit-Ann Arbor. He jammed with lots of bands, the Cult Heroes and the Radiators and more. Gang War was very cool with Johnny and Wayne together.

Q The Motor City Music label is thankfully doing its best to document some of the lost music of the late '70s and you're featuring on their site with a gallery of photographs. How did the association with Mike happen and if people want to buy your prints, how can they do that?

I met up with Robert Gillespie last year, and he introduced me to Mike then. We'd corresponded when Mike used some of my photos for the Rob Tyner Band CD, but hadn't yet met. Such great people. I was really impressed with what they're doing for the Detroit scene, and offered to put up some photos that would go along with their site. Mike agreed and did a great job with the gallery pages (designed by Meg Geddes). It got more attention than I expected, and so I'm a bit apologetic to the bands that aren't in the gallery. Had I known, I'd have included even more bands!

For people who want to purchase prints, there are some things at the C-Pop Gallery, 4160 Woodward Avenue in Detroit and at Rock Archive, 110 Islington High Street in London. Also people can write to me at

Q What do you think of the current crop of Detroit bands like the White Stripes and the Dirtbombs? Do you still check out bands live? If so have you seen anything new?

The renewed energy in the music coming from Detroit is great, the new bands and bands like Flirt and others that are playing again. Wish I was there to go to all the gigs, it reminds me of back in the day again. This time the bands are at least getting more attention from the rest of the world. And Ivan Suvanjieff's (aka Mark Norton from the Ramrods and the 27) DETROIT PUNKS documentary, which I'm contributing to, is going to tell the whole story from the '60s up to today's Detroit rockers.

Iggy with solo band © Sue Rynski

Q Did you get along to see the Stooges at DTE? If so, how was it? Did you see them back in the old days?

I never saw the Stooges in the old days, probably because of the back-and-forthing between Detroit and Paris, never in the right place at the right time. What was nice then is that the Stooges, and the MC5, were very big in France, people were in awe of Ron Asheton and Iggy is a relatively big star here, so it always felt like home where music is concerned.

I hope I'll see the Stooges now that they're playing together again! So far, I still have no luck, will miss the concert at Magny-Cours on Sep 13th because I have to be someplace else...please guys, get a gig in Paris soon!

Q Seeing we're in a Bar, what are you drinking?

A citron pressé, sans sucre s'il vous plaît.

The Exhibit: "Sue Rynski: Rock & Punk Photographs" Dates: September 1-30, 2003 Place: Aux Arts, 40, rue Godefroy Cavaignac 75011 Paris, France Metro: Voltaire Open: Monday-Friday 10am to 10pm, Saturday 10am to 4pm.