"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Monday, August 9, 2010

Donna Santisi: Q&A

From Kill Your Idols, Inc: Ask the Angels: Photographs by Donna Santisi, a re-issue of a highly sought-after piece of punk history... Originally published by Marcy Blaustein in 1978 with comb-binding, Ask the Angels takes the crown as one of the first books to ever document the early L.A. punk scene. 2010's Ask The Angels has been expanded and supplemented with essays by Alice Bag, Kristian Hoffman, Exene Cervenka, Trudie Arguelles, KK Barrett, and includes a foreword by the late, great Brendan Mullen (owner & operator of the infamous LA punk venue, the Masque). Donna Santisi will be at Book Soup Thursday August 12 to sign the re-issue and we were lucky enough to conduct a small Q&A with her in conjunction. Read on to learn about what first brought Santisi to Los Angeles, the first time she met Patti Smith, and which photographs are among her favorites. One can pre-order a signed copy of Ask the Angels here

Your first camera...?
My first camera was a Mamiya/Sekor 500DTL. My friend in college had one and I really loved the feel of it. I had seen Janis Joplin several times and I was so inspired by her power and emotion. I wanted to capture that so in 1969, I purchased my own.

Those are beautiful cameras. Very substantial. Is most of your work in Ask The Angels shot on the Mamiya/Sekor 500DTL? Or were you one to shoot on varying camera models?
All of the images in Ask The Angels were shot with my Mamiya/Sekor 500DTL. I used it exclusively until 1983 until it was stolen from my apartment.

Have you gone digital in the last handful of years? Is the digital format something you enjoy working with?
I was reluctant to go digital. Then, after I had breast cancer in 2005, I began to notice all the beauty around me in nature. I decided to try something new and bought myself a Nikon D70S. I was amazed at the quality of the images. Also, it was great to see the results immediately - to not have to wait for the proofsheets. I still have my Nikon N90S, but I find myself using it less and less.

Was there anything or anyone in particular that drew you to the late 70's punk scene in Los Angeles?
Patti Smith. 'Horses' was a mind-blowing revelation. The music was like nothing I'd heard before and Robert Mapplethorpe's image of Patti on the cover - it was very inspiring. I saw Patti perform and I immediately knew that I had to document this extraordinary time. I bought a ticket for the following night, grabbed my camera and never looked back.

Patti's incredible. Have you seen Land250? Properly titled after the Polaroid Land 250 used throughout the book, it includes a ton of her photographs, sketches, poetry, etc... It's quite amazing. You did get the chance to shoot her, yes? When and where did that take place? And what was that meeting like? Meeting someone who has such a profound effect on your artistic development...
In 2008, Fondation Cartier in Paris had a major solo exhibition of Patti's visual works called "Land250". I was fortunate enough to go to Paris and see her photographs and drawings. It was remarkable. I have been photographing Patti since 1975. I met Patti just a few days after photographing her in concert. I actually ran into her in a coffee shop and happened to have the photos with me. Patti asked if she could take the photos. About a month later, in Tower Records, I picked up Back Door Man because Patti was on the cover. As I flipped through, I discovered that Patti had given my photographs to the interviewer and my work was published for the first time! The last time that I photographed Patti was 4/21/10 when she received ASCAP's Founders Award.

Ask The Angels was published in 1978, and by all accounts, it seems to be one of the first books published to ever document the Los Angeles New Wave and early punk rock scene. What was the initial intent for the book? To document your friends? To be sold locally? Or were your expectations more grand?
Ask The Angels was published by my friend Marcy Blaustein. Marcy thought that it would be an interesting project. She liked my photos and thought others might like them too. I saw it as a way to document what was going on in the LA scene. I felt it was important for people to know about these incredible bands and the impact they were having. Initially we put the book out because of our interest. We didn't know if or how much reception there might be on the part of others. It was solely about the project and what it meant to us more than any ideas of grandeur. When we completed it, Ask The Angels was offered locally in record and book stores.

Were you surprised by the cult status it has taken on since 1978?
Yes, I'm very surprised. But, by the same token, I can understand. It was such a special time. For me, Ask The Angels was like a yearbook.

The book includes a foreword by Masque founder & owner, Brendan Mullen. At what point in putting this book together did Mullen pass? And how has his passing affected the final outcome and/or your feelings on the re-release?
Brendan passed right before the final edit. He had written a piece for the book. As a tribute to him, we decided that we would use his text as the foreward.

In your career, you've captured some incredibly raw moments on stage... What do you find to be the most important factor in obtaining a great on-stage photo?
First, patience. I wait for the moment to evolve. I don't start snapping when the artist takes the stage. I'm very selective... And second, the connection I feel to the music and then capturing that moment.

Which photos in Ask The Angels count as your favorites and why?
First, Patti Smith cradling her guitar. To me, it encapsulates what it is to be a musician. Second & third, Hellin and Trudie and Chip Kinman of the Dils. These two photos really capture what the LA punk scene was like. Fourth, Patti Smith with violin. It brings back great memories of hanging out at the Tropicana with Patti, her manager Jane Friedman, and her band. [And lastly,] Stiv Bators with Tish and Snooky. It is a fun remembrance of a very happy day.

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