During the late 1970s, Toronto was home to a short-lived downtown club called The Crash’n’Burn that rattled the city’s otherwise staid theatre district with a full-throated punk rock roar.
True to its name, the club flamed out after a few months and more than a few visits from police, but for a brief moment in time it played host to the launch of Toronto’s punk scene.
When he wasn’t booking bands or breaking up fights, club manager Ralph Alfonso captured the birth of a movement on his Pentax SP1000 camera.
Alfonso, who over a long career in the music industry has also been a musician, writer, publicist and illustrator, came by the Brantford Station Gallery on Saturday for the launch of a new exhibit called The 1977 Punk Photography of Ralph Alfonso, which features portraits and candid shots of punk notables The Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie and Talking Heads, as well as Toronto groups such as the Viletones and Teenage Head.
Station curator Mike Tutt noticed Alfonso’s photos at an exhibit in Montreal, where Alfonso operates an art gallery and café called BBAM! Gallery, and invited him to Brantford.
About a dozen music fans came out to hear Alfonso tell the wild stories behind the photographs of punk’s riotous early days, when every night more than 200 people crammed into a club that Alfonso half-jokingly said could barely hold two dozen.
“We got kicked out,” he said of The Crash’n’Burn. “It was too violent.”
Alfonso snapped photos of the club’s construction and convinced bands such as the Diodes to sit for what was often their first professional portrait.
The photos also capture the mood of the time, which was decidedly unwelcoming to upstart bands making a racket beside the genteel Royal Alexandra Theatre.
“This is an era where none of this was wanted,” Alfonso said. “The hatred toward the music and bands, it’s hard to describe. And any articles you got in the paper were derisive. ‘Oh, I went to the punk club. I can’t believe what these kids are up to.’”
Punk rock and portraiture might not instinctively go together, but aside from some trouble getting skittish musicians to sit still, Alfonso said the bands were game to pose.
“Preening is universal,” he said. “So nobody’s going to say no to a shot.”
Alfonso put his journalism training to use by quickly sizing up the scene.
“I got to be really good at taking super quick shots,” he said. “Within five minutes, I would have my shot. Bands like it because I’m not going to waste their time. A lot of these guys are ADD, so they’re not going to sit there.”
The almost spontaneously shot black and white portraits reflect the raw energy of the young bands.
“Shoot about five frames and pray to God you’ve got it,” Alfonso said of his method.
He rolls his eyes at photos of modern bands with each musician looking off camera in a different direction.
“That happens now because (the photographer) isn’t taking control,” he said. “The bands are controlling it and I’ve learned long ago that a band’s definition of what a cool photo is and what a cool photo actually is can be two different things.”
For Alfonso, a “cool” photo is one that captures the band’s attitude.
“You’ve gotta aim for universality,” he said. “When you look at some of these photos, they’re 30 years old and they’re still impactful. You could have shot it yesterday.
“The trick is, when there is time, just wait until you get the expression. You might have to sacrifice one or two rolls until you get the magic shot. When you see it on the lens, you know.”
The 1977 Punk Photography of Ralph Alfonso runs until August 31.