So this summer my frame shop, Mainframe, is hosting a photography show by Paul Hernandez entitled "Star Gazing". Its a collection of photographs, many never published, of Seattle bands of the late 80s/early 90s, including the grunge greats such as Mother Love Bone, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains, as well as Green Apple Quickstep and even an awesome early shot of Duff McKagan. Most of the images are in black and white and either shot in the studio, or in places like The Vogue or Central Tavern. Some are shot out in the urban decay of Seattle (under trestles, abandoned buildings, crumbling edifices of the south side). There are a lot, I mean a LOT, of photos of Alice in Chains, but it makes sense since Paul befriended the band and fraternized with them in and out of the professional shoots. Because of that, he managed to catch a lot of "inside the moment" shots, when the guys let their guard down, sometimes smiling when they shouldn't, exhaling the pressure of the day, just being dumb kids on the cusp of Whatever.
I poured over the images, all made the "old fashioned" way in a darkroom from these things called Negatives, many of them pocked by time and needing retouching by hand, which Paul has done lovingly. These guys were all a couple years older than me -- Duff and I even attended the same high school -- and like most of us kids in Seattle, I was both super pumped and a little alarmed at how quickly they all skyrocketed into fame in such a compressed amount of time. I hardly turned 21 before the tavern shows were a thing of the past, and now all these bands played arenas and Lollapalooza and being a five foot nothing girl, it was impossible to see anything in a big show. Plus, I was in art school and couldn't afford more than a $5 cover charge, so I figured, fuckit, I'll just buy the damned CDs, watch the damned videos on MtV, and build my own empire. Which I did, by the way.
And these guys were my soundtrack.
I have plenty of Seattle musician friends, ex-girlfriend friends, I-used-to-hang-out-with-Jeff-in-1987 friends, so I have gotten a few stories about This Guy or That Chick. I've even hung out with a few of these rock stars - my face blindness is so bad, I've spent time with a couple rock stars and didn't realize it until much later on, which is kind of a mixed blessing for all involved (Sean Kinney needs to thank his Gods for the hour we spent talking about art, me being totally clueless as to who I was talking to, even when he mentioned his name very sheepishly and I just blankly stared at him like "ok, so what?", even though my little brain was like, wait, whoa, wait, noooo, really? It was such a great art conversation, I didn't want to blow the mood). Seattle is a tiny Big Town - if you grew up here, you can't help but know someone who knows someone. And people love to talk.
Paul, however, is kind of different to talk to. He's a different duck, to start with. He still dresses the part of a grunge guy, 30 years later, only his hair is silver, but still unflappably long. When he talks, his whole body moves, like a willow tree in the wind. His head bobs up and down, as if he's taking everything in at all angles; his conversations are not for the lazy. Its like Butoh with words.
He's very soulful, and can easily switch from a comment about crappy traffic to computations on the meaning of life, and you sense that whatever is on his mind will not be censored. I have learned that about photographers: they really do shoot from the hip. They understand the pregnancy and gestation of the moment, and there's nothing to waste, especially time and bullshit, of which they seem to tolerate very little of. They are both patient and anxious. Paul is very much on that razor's edge, a monk on the verge of losing his shit. But he never does.
When Paul showed me his photographs, he emitted both excitement and sorrow. I swear, if you see the photos reflected in his eyes, they wouldn't be static black and white images but moving pictures, living memories of a bygone time. The stories he tells tumble out hodgepodge and I can't keep them straight: did he get kicked in the head at a Pearl Jam show or Alice in Chains show? Was it Stone Gossard he cried with over the death of Andrew Wood? Whose idea was it to shoot pics at the old train trestle with which band again? I know I'm listening, but the stories, they tumble, and anyway I'm overly distracted with the photos before me and my own memories and the feels that wash over some stagnant part of my old lady brain, and, and, and... God, they all look so YOUNG.
Paul is a wizard. It doesn't matter what he says at this point. His magical camera apparatus caught reflective light bouncing off these mortal figures, these musical gods, my hometown heroes, and his magical brain picked the very second, the perfect second, to snap these photos and capture their souls and deliver them to my table at my frame shop. Paul keeps talking, and it doesn't matter. He could tell me he was Eddie Vedder's Siamese Twin and they did a vaudeville act together until they were separated in 1984, and it doesn't matter. The truth sits in front of me on photo paper, and also behind my optic nerves, the shooting stars in my own mind. Its not about him. Its not even about these musicians. Truth is, its all about me. How all of this shaped me. That's why the bands are so important, why we so badly want to "know" these people. When they die, I die too. Its why its seems to hurt so bad. I didn't have to know Layne Staley personally to be able to connect to whatever soulful energetic cable he was tethered to, through his music and voice. I took that energy and glomed it to my own during my painting sessions, and voila, I made game art and paintings and gave those to the world and now some kid out there plays Magic the Gathering with a little bit of Layne in there. And that kid will take that and make his own art or music or stories or whatever, and pass that along. See, its a beautiful thing, right?
Paul does matter, of course. His photos humanize these young men, remind us of how bright and honest and full of life they were, how we all were like that once. When we all *wanted* to be rock stars. That's what Star Gazing is really about; its not a death cult, or a rehash-the-past, or even a cash-in-on-nostalgia. I mean, it *could* be, but it isn't. Its mostly about us. Me. You. Paul. Seattle.
When the show opens in August, we've decided not to release a catalog, printed or online. Some of the images are too raw and controversial to publish right now - in fact, Paul has to get the blessing of the Staley family for one of them, it may get pulled altogether. But mostly, the photos need to be seen in person, as a group, in Seattle. I hope if you're in the Seattle area and you read this, you take a quick trip to Georgetown to visit this retrospective while its up.
(Show info: "Star Gazing: A Paul Hernandez Retrospective, Seattle Catalogue 1989-1993" opens Friday, August 10th, 7-9 pm with musical guest Tim Bertsch at Mainframe 5628 Airport Way S, Ste 150 Seattle. Runs August 11-October 7, 2018)