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While Chuck Brown put go-go music on the map, it still remains a bit of a mystery to many residents of the area. Yes, some folks have seen the occasional show at the 9:30 Club, but many gigs are late-night affairs at short-lived locations promoted via flyers and social media. Local rock shows are sometimes the subject of photo essays on D.C. music blogs, but go-go bands get far less exposure. Photographer Thomas Sayers Ellis documented the scene for years, but since he moved out of the area, he’s been less able to make it back here to take photos.
Since 2010, Silver Spring photographer Chip Py has been taking shots of go-go bands. Best known for a photo of Chuck Brown that is part of the display at the Chuck Brown Memorial Park in Langdon, Py will present a digital slideshow of his work tomorrow night at Bump ’n Grind in Silver Spring.
I have seen Py’s photos over the years on Flickr, Facebook, and TMOTTGoGo. He has a number of performance shots from the likes of Chuck Brown, Rare Essence, Backyard Band, Familiar Faces, Suttle Thoughts, Be’la Dona, and Da Mixx Band. Taken from various angles, and with clever usage of lighting and digital effects, the pictures help capture some of the communal joy and call-and-response of go-go. Many of them were taken at now-closed Maryland locations like La Fontaine Blue, Tradewinds, and Marygold’s. Py also has taken some offstage shots of vocalists like Ms. Kim and Donnell Floyd.
Py spoke with Arts Desk about why many of these photos are no longer online, his go-go experiences, and why presentations like Tuesday’s are one of the few ways he shows his work.
Arts Desk: What made you decide to go see Chuck Brown and start taking photos of go-go?
Py: I had been photographing D.C. musicians in the area for quite some time. It had gotten to a point where I asked myself at one point, why was I doing this? I thought about this and I said my goal should be to have a collection of photographs of the D.C. music scene. I knew at that time as a music fan that there was this thing in D.C. called go-go and it was particular to D.C., and like most white people I didn’t know what it was. I knew Chuck Brown, so I went to see Chuck Brown at the Barbeque Battle and photographed him from the audience. I knew that I would want to photograph somebody like him but that my musical cred from shooting the Nighthawks and the Slickee Boys didn’t transfer over into go-go. So I noticed that Chuck’s keyboard player had her own band called Bela’Dona, and I knew that if I started shooting some go-go bands like that, my work would speak for itself and I would develop some cred and I would work myself up to Chuck, and that’s what I pursued to do, and did.
And I guess hearing Chuck’s music impressed you and got you to come back?
No doubt that happened. I thought that this would be a project that I would be able to get done in a whole three or four months, but it ended up three years of doing it. I had no idea what I was walking into and what it would become for me. I quit my job to do it! But yes, as I went there and met people and saw what a lively musical culture that we have—there’s a whole lot of people in D.C. involved in it and a whole lot of people who have no idea it goes on five nights a week in D.C. Every time I leave a show now—-and I don’t go to shows to shoot now; I go to enjoy the music—-I walk out of there going, “I am so glad there is something so unique to this area where I live and that I got to see and have a piece of.” Not many people will do that.
Going further back, were you a kid in a photo club with cameras?
My father was a newspaper reporter, and I followed him around with a camera from the time I was thirteen on. I sold advertising for my junior-high newspaper and made enough money for the newspaper so that we could stop using an old Polaroid with a bellows and we bought a Minolta 35mm Rangefinder. I was also booking bands at the time into the Teen Club. I have always had an interest in live music my whole life. So it seems logical for those two to combine themselves. So I guess I started shooting bands when I was in college.
Shooting at go-go clubs, do you use a flash ?
I use a strobe, but I don’t use it 100 percent. I use a combination of the light that’s in the room and the flash that I put on it. That’s my technique.
Some of your pictures remind me of old black-and-white jazz photos by the likes of Herman Leonard in dark clubs where there’s cigarette lighting. Do you look at other photographers’ work?
I don’t study photography; I do photography. I can count the number of photo shows I have been to on my hand. But I also remember years ago for Christmas, my sister Beth handed me a bunch of jazz postcard books that sound like that, and I looked at those and I said I can do that. If there was an influence it was those photos.
Tell me about taking photos in black and white versus color.
I do a lot of black and white. I went through thousands of pictures for the show and had to then figure out what the story would be that I would tell. Interestingly, of the 75 photos I picked for the show, 50 of them are in black and white. Anybody who learned photography working in a dark room learned how to do it mostly in black and white.
Do you work on your photos after you have taken them?
You don’t see photos straight out of my camera. It’s the digital darkroom.
Talk about the issue of race in go-go.
It’s complicated. When I walked into my first go-go, I was scared to death that race would be a factor. When I walked into the building, I was one of the only white guys there, and so people said, “Who is that?” And then people would see my photos and I was very much welcomed into go-go. There are some people who are very pleased that I am the eye of someone who is not seeing this, and there are some people who feel the complete opposite and don’t feel the story should be told by a white man.
You used to show your photos online?
I don’t really post my go-go photos in social media at all. I was posting them in Flickr. Promoters steal photos for flyers. I don’t want to work on something that I consider art and have it cut up for a flyer. Flickr used to be protected for professional photography, but then they decided they wanted to compete with Instagram. This type of event [at Bump ‘n Grind] works for me. I can tell a story and show my photos and not have them shown on blogs where they become public domain. These are museum-quality photos. David Fogel of Bump ‘n Grind has purchased some of them to go on the wall, and that’s where I want them to be.
Tuesday Feb. 17, 7 p.m. at Bump ‘n Grind, 1200 East West Highway, Silver Spring.
Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of the owner of Bump ‘n Grind. His name is David Fogel.