When music photographer Leon Armour Jr. was 8 years old, his parents dragged him to his first two live shows: Funk legends the Ohio Players and folk singer John Denver. Thirty-three years later, Armour’s arsenal of photographs boasts a similarly diverse lineup; through the years he’s captured such acts as Public Enemy, the Cure, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Jay-Z on film. “If a band’s come through the D.C. area in the last two decades,” says Armour, “I’ve probably shot them.”
Seven of Armour’s photographs are currently on view in the District Fine Arts’ group show, “Hit Me With Music!” The shots span nearly 20 years of Armour’s career—and as many years of D.C.’s music history, from the Cro-Mags at Ibex in 1986 to Mastodon’s show at the 9:30 Club last February. The Petworth resident was inspired by a trifecta of local legends: Fugazi, Bad Brains, and Scream. “I grew up around all those guys,” says Armour. He also aspired to join their ranks, playing percussion and singing background vocals on two albums by local math-rock progenitors Beefeater. “I hung out in the music scene a lot,” he says. “I played with a small local band for a while, and some friends of mine went on to play for bigger bands. They all ended up getting signed to small metro-area labels like Dischord.”
While his friends were playing music, Armour was taking pictures. Some of Armour’s first live shoots were shows at now-defunct D.C. institutions Ibex and the old 9:30 Club. Armour was first introduced to the D.C. music scene in the early ’80s, when his family relocated to the Fort Washington area. “In high school, my friends and I would snag one of our folks’ cars and come down to the Ibex club on Sunday afternoons, when they used to have matinee shows,” says Armour. For a high-school-age photographer, Sunday matinees at the Ibex offered a window into the city’s competing scenes. “By the time the shows were over, around 6 or 7, a line of hardcore guys would be heading out while a line of hood guys waited outside for it to turn into a go-go club,” he says. “It was an interesting mix of people.”
Since then, the Ibex has shut down, and the 9:30 Club has relocated, but along the way, Armour—who also has shot landscape, fashion, and commercial work—slowly gained a reputation for chronicling local music. Several years ago, Armour’s work caught the eye of District Fine Arts curator Todd Savitch. “I had seen him out taking photographs, hanging out at 15 Minutes and the 9:30 Club,” he says. “When I decided to do a show about music, I went to Leon for his coverage of some of the more underground and hard rock shows.”
Armour’s appreciation for the scene hasn’t diminished in 20 years of shooting concerts. “Each show is different,” he says. “Live music is a constantly changing event. You’re dealing with people who are dancing around the stage. The lights are changing. You’re always adjusting the aperture, the shutter speed, the contrast in the shot. It keeps you thinking, picture to picture.”
The trick, he says, is in re-creating that energy in a still photo. “In a good shot, you feel like you’re there,” says Armour. “Like you could reach out and touch the artist right there in front of you.”
“Hit Me With Music!” runs to Feb. 2, 2008, at District Fine Arts, 1639 Wisconsin Ave. NW; call (202) 333-3545.