Shot at point-blank range with an uncanny knack for timing, Adam Degross's photos are visceral documents of a fascinating community in all of its chaotic glory. He's visible at nearly every show under the punk umbrella in town, craning above the crowd to snap a wide shot, or driving straight into the pit for the closeup. Despite these work conditions, Degross has never had a camera broken. Well, not at a show anyways. One fell off of a table once, and he's not too proud to admit that he cried a little.
Completely self-taught and consistently humble about it, he honed his craft through years of trial and error. Winner of the City Pages music photographer poll, Degross loves all things heavy, and he's been neck-deep in the Twin Cities counterculture since he began booking street punk and hardcore shows in St. Paul 10 years ago.
Degross's MN Subculture Photography exhibit will run Friday and Saturday at the Abstracted gallery off Northeast's central drag, with musical performances from groups like Claps, L'Assassins and Buildings. We met up at his home base of the Triple Rock to talk about his decade-plus love affair with the scene and the hard reality of holding down a day job.
Gimme Noise: How did you get into doing scene photography anyways? Were you always a photographer or was there a Eureka moment?
I liked taking photos when I was younger. I would go to the zoo with my Aunt or something like that and take photos of animals. When I was high school, I'd do actual film photos and they were... all right, but I liked it. Then my ex-girlfriend talked me into buying this point-and-shoot camera. I was booking punk shows too, since I was 17 or 18, so I would take photos just to put them up or whatever. That was right when MySpace was kicking off and everyone started seeing 'em, and they weren't the best, but people started liking them. I thought they were better than they were, so I kept going.
I've always liked the punk rock aesthetics of the old photos and fliers, and I wanted to contribute to that. I don't think anything that I was doing in the beginning was contributing to that, but since then I've started seeing my photos used for fliers or T-shirts and other ways to promote punk rock.
You're also well known in the scene as a show promoter, has that job always run parallel to your work as a photographer?
I started booking punk shows with a crew of other guys that would do it, and I had this mentor, Bryan, and he'd show me everything, he showed me the ropes. If it wasn't for that guy, for real, I wouldn't be anywhere. He was the guy who told me, "Don't just take photos of bands, take photos of people, take photos of the culture."
I'm from the last generation of actually having physical fliers, and having to go to Extreme Noise or Cheapo and look at the wall to find what was going on, instead of social media. So when I book shows, I still have physical fliers everywhere, and I talk to people. I was booking a lot of shows at the [now defunct DIY venue] Medusa, then I started to do shows at the Triple Rock. I've been bringing bigger bands here, like Deafheaven. I brought them here for the first time but I saw them in Chicago when they played in a basement to 10 people.
Minneapolis is unique, because we can cross genres and people won't freak out like, "Oh there's a goth band playing with a black metal band playing with a punk band? That's weird!" Here it's like "all right, whatever." In some other cities, one style of band is playing all night, and it's so boring. When a band comes that I'm friends with, I try to give them a good night. No one is there to see me. I'm not trying to make money off of them, that's why I bust myself, because I feel like I'm on the line. They drove eight hours to be here, I would hate to have them be bummed out.
How do you approach subculture photography? Do you find yourself in more of the "fly on the wall" documentary-mode, trying to be more journalistic and objective, or do you feel like it's better to immerse yourself in the experience?
I feel like I have to be a part of the community that I'm documenting. If someone came in to the scenes that I take photos of and was just a passerby, and doing what I do, it's off-putting and weird. I put in a lot of time gaining people's trust and letting them know that I'm not exploiting them. I try to give back to the community as much as I take from it.
It's funny, sometimes when I'm taking photos of a show I get caught by other photographers, and I'm right in there. I'm a bigger guy, but I'm in the pit, holding my camera, and they're on the side, taking a picture of me taking a photo the craziness going on.
You've established a pretty strong visual style: Usually black and white, dramatic contrast and angling, high-action type of shooting. How did you come into that?
I was shooting shows with my flash, and it was really dark at places like the Medusa so people got really upset that I was flashing all the time. So the high-contrast thing kind of came into play when I turned off my flash, then it would be really low light, and it would be red all the time. I'd make it black and white and then up the contrast, and that started to give it that look. I've figured out a way to do it that looks a little cleaner, but now it's kind of known as my style. But it all came because I didn't really know how to take photos. I was being really annoying, I felt bad, and then when I didn't have my flash, I didn't know what I was doing.
It probably goes without saying, but shooting the type of shows you do involves a lot more physicality and ingenuity than the average venue photo pit experience. How do you deal with the specific challenges your environment presents?
I've never had my camera broken, so I don't have any fear about it. I'm just such a fan of the music that I shoot that usually I'm singing along. I'm pumping my fist between taking photos. I just can't help it. I think some people are just afraid that they're going to get their cameras messed up, or something's going to happen, but honestly, I've never had that worry. I'm in my environment, that's the way that I started taking photos, and I think that's the only way that you can really get into the experience. I've had beer sprayed on it, but whatever, that happens. I'm not a gearhead, though. Maybe my camera isn't working the way it should be. Everyone thinks I'm kidding when I say I don't know crap about cameras, but I really don't. Sometimes I shoot in auto mode. The photo is more important than how you get it.
I never look through my lens, ever. I'm always holding my camera up above me, watching everything, and when I know something is about to happen, I take a photo of it. I'm not constantly shooting, at all. It's not rapid fire, it's slower, it's a way different process. I've been going to these shows for so long that I know what the energy is like. I have my camera wrapped, and I'm watching.[page]
You just released a book last year, called Pay Attention, to a huge local response. Let's talk about that.
I got it made in 2012 and it came out in 2013, and I've sold 400 of them so far. Self-published it, maxed out the credit card and just hoped that people would buy it, and it sold out in 20 minutes the first time before I re-made it again. Sold it completely hand to hand and by mail-order. It was humbling when I realized that people were actually really excited about it, and I still get requests for it, but I only have 10 left. I don't think I'm ever going to make that one again, I did two runs, and I'd like to make a new professional book. But I don't know anything about that. That's the new frontier.
What type of shows and what type of settings are the most fun for you to shoot? Do you prefer well-lit venues like the Triple Rock or do you like a challenge?
It's all just about the vibe. I love doing festivals, but when you're down there, there's just so many photographers. It doesn't feel special, and there's about 30 other photographers down there all trying to do the same thing. Doing the bigger shows, there's time limits. Three songs, no flash, that's it, get out. So you're rushing, and then you get upset when you're watching the show and someone will do something crazy. My mind has gone into work mode, they'll be doing something magical, and I'll want to be there doing a photo. But then sometimes I'll go to a basement show and get nothing, and I'll hate it. It's all just how the artist is. Doing those first three songs keeps me sharp. I gotta get it, this is it, do or die.
Why did you choose this gallery to do your opening? What parts of your work will you be focusing on?
I was asked by them [The Abstracted], and I liked the vibe. I liked the guys that were running it. They were younger and more of my style. There was another gallery that really wanted to do my stuff, and I didn't vibe with the dude. He wanted to sell my photos for hundreds of dollars, do a big print and sell it for thousands, and that's not me. Fine art is cool, I don't know if I'm there yet, but this is cool. This still feels like when I did my first exhibit by myself. It's grassroots, but it's a great gallery and they aren't greedy. This is exactly what I've been wanting to show for ten years, I can't wait to show everybody.
What's next for you after the opening?
I don't know. I ask myself that I every day. I wish I could find a way to quit my day job. I think that's why I do these things, it gives me something to strive for other than having to work ten days in a row so I can have these four days off. I'm not making money off of this. It's just nickels and dimes. But that's cool. I bet a lot of the people that you see onstage have day jobs, and if you saw them at work, they'd probably be embarrassed. But when I got my prints [for the exhibit], I was just so happy. It's the right time, it's the right photos, and I couldn't be happier that I got to make this happen.MN Subculture Photography Exhibit by Adam Degross. 5 p.m. to 12 a.m., October 10 & 11 at the Abstracted Gallery. Friday: Claps, Buildings, and surprise guest MC. Saturday: Dreamweapon, L'Assassins, Paddy Costello (DJ). RSVP.
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