Punk Icon Ed Culver outlines the integrity, identity and intuition that shaped his vision

Punk Icon Ed Culver outlines the integrity, identity and intuition that shaped his vision

- By Ramon Gonzales

The venerated photographer whose work framed an era explains how seeing the bigger picture defined his unparalleled style.

You did an interview for Babylon where you spoke about not being traditionally schooled in photography - that your education came from trial and error. Can you recall any hard lessons learned after such an accomplished career?

Culver - I was not schooled in photography other than taking two adult education classes at UCLA after I was already supporting myself with photography. I took a beginning photography class where I learned several things and then an intermediate class where I learned absolutely nothing.

We were asked to bring in some of our photographs, when the instructor stopped the class and said, “None of you could have taken these. These photographs from an insider”. Until that moment, I’d never thought of that concept.

I was constantly at shows and was friends with a lot of the people and bands I was shooting so it was an environment I was part of. My lifelong background was in applied art studies and that influenced my photography.

Some of my work was trial and error, however after several years of shooting, I knew my camera and its capabilities well. I could generally focus in the chaos without looking through the viewfinder, simply by the amount of turning of the focus.

You have worked on more than 500 album covers. When you are that prolific, do you run the risk becoming disinterested because of routine? How did you manage to keep your work, your passion?

Culver - Yes, I’ve worked on hundreds of record covers. It was never routine to me, always interesting. How can I outdo myself, how can I represent this person/group to present them properly. I always avoided trends like the plague. Trendy is passé in 6 months. Strive for timelessness and hopefully it will stand the test of time.

JFA / 1982 by Ed Culver

Given your iconic punk work was done long before the era of digital, what was the self-editing process like for you? You’ve explained how you would try and sync your photos with the rhythm of the music - what other adjustments did you make to capture the most compelling images?

Culver - I only shot live punk photographs with a 50mm lens which is akin to human version perspective. {It's the reason people say they feel like they are in my photographs. In the early Los Angeles punk scene, there were no such things as photography or backstage passes. When shooting punk shows, I’d shoot a single member up close or find a vantage point where I could capture the entire group in a frame. Drummers loved me for that. I see so many concert photographs that only have some of the members visible, that’s a total waste of film in my opinion. One or all.

Chuck Burke / 1981 by Ed Culver

What were those sessions like in your darkroom? Did you ever find yourself surprised by the results? Were there any images that you can recall where you just knew it was going to be an image that would last the test of time?

Culver - I spent countless hours developing negatives and printing photographs in my darkroom for many years. I was surprised by what I’d captured out of the chaos quite often.

When I shot the photograph of skateboarder/punk Chuck Burke on July 4th 1981 (now known as the Wasted Youth Flip photograph) at an Adolescents, D.O.A. and Stiff Little Fingers show, I felt that I had gotten the photograph I was hoping to have captured.

(Culver even recalled that the image was shot during the Adolescents set)

I developed the film that night after I’d gotten home and was extremely happy with the photograph. Not many cared at the time, however, 38 years later it’s been licensed by Levi’s, Vans and quite a few others. I’d been shooting some live photographs for my friends in Wasted Youth at the time. I called my friend Danny Spira the singer the next morning & told him, 'You will not believe the photograph I shot last night.'

That photograph will be known forever.

Is the idea of being a documentarian something that resonates with you? Was your work always about making art that spoke to you or did you ever start to see the value in framing the important subculture of punk for a broader audience?

Culver - I never thought of myself as a documentarian. I was working by myself for myself and hopefully creating art in the process. No one cared about the subculture (except for those in the scene) during the time I was shooting punk shows, late 1978 until the beginning of 1984.

In 1984, I got my first studio and started shooting studio and location photography for record companies that actually paid me for my work.

Brian Brannon of JFA / 1982 by Ed Culver

The current wave of hardcore music seems to have a kinship to the punk community that was cultivated in the late 70s and early 80s - Stage dives, slam dancing and high volatility, high intensity live shows. What’s your take on contemporary hardcore and is there any sense of connection for you?

Culver - I have not followed the contemporary Hard Core Punk scene, mostly what I’ve heard sounds like the same band times 10,000. Loud, fast with screaming vocals, no nuance, not much originality. When I was shooting live punk photographs most bands had a unique sound. I’m sure there are contemporary Punk groups that stand out though.

There seems to be a underlying narrative in your photography that not only documents the community and the music that brought people together - but also an element of danger that was very real back then. Warring gangs, police altercations, drugs, booze, etcetera. Were you ever concerned that you were in harms way?

Culver - Yes, there were crazy things going on and some very shady people that showed up at punk shows. I was constantly at shows for around 5 years, I never saw much drug use, just a lot of drinking A lot of the shows were in strange places and unsafe neighborhoods.

Being 6’4” tall was a benefit on the dark streets as well as shooting shows.

I photographed a lot of punk riots and cops. I rather became known for it.

There is a video on YouTube called “Black Flag Reunion 1983” I’m the only person between the barricade and the stage and the only person visible shooting photographs. There is a crowd of 3,000 people, the slam pit collapsed the barricade onto me. I had to throw my camera onto the stage and scramble out. One moment later in the video, you can see me walking off stage to the left holding my side.


Is legacy something that you consider? Your books are still in very high demand. Your work has inspired countless of photographers that all emulate your style. Do you take any stock in going from documenting the culture of punk to being an integral part of it?

Culver. - Yes, I’ve created a legacy and it’s an an amazing thing to me.

I was there and contributed a lot to the look and iconography of the scene. I left an indelible mark. No one at the time thought it would become the history that’s it’s become. Had I, I would have shot twice as much film.

Back to blog
1 of 3