When Antonia Tricarico moved from her native Italy to Washington D.C. in 1997, she felt a kinship with the city’s underground music scene, which had roots in the DIY harDCore scene of the 1980s. Having been steeped in the punk scene in Rome, Tricarico used her camera as a way to connect with kindred spirits in a new language. In the process, she filmed a who’s who of the scene and those who came to play in DC: Ian MacKaye, Joan Jett, Alice Bag, Allison Wolfe, Donita Sparks and many more. Her new book, Frame of Mind, contains 200 photographs from this vast archive, with stories provided by many of the subjects.
Some say it takes an outsider to see a culture clearly. Or, at the very least, an outsider may recognize aspects of the culture that aren’t apparent to those born into it. When photographer Antonia Tricarico moved from her native Italy to Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s, she found a musical culture that was both similar to the punk scene she left in Rome, yet uniquely Washington’s.
Over the next two decades, Tricarico chronicled the city’s underground music scene, capturing thousands of images of D.C. musicians and friends, as well as photos of musicians who passed through town. Two hundred of these photos appear in her new book Frame of Mind (Akashic Books) a female-centric perspective on underground music that features essays by some of Tricarico’s favorite musicians: Joan Jett, Alice Bag, Allison Wolfe, Donita Sparks, and others. Since 2001, Tricarico’s work has been exhibited internationally from India to Japan and Europe and can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History and the D.C. Public Library’s Special Collections Division.
PKM: You were born in the south of Italy where you say you discovered the power of music. How did getting your first single (The Beatles “Come Together”/”Something”) impact your life?
Antonia Tricarico: Even in a small town in the south of Italy, I could feel that something was going to change in my life. I was not sure if the Beatles single would do that, but for sure it opened my mind to a new perspective, which wasn’t just to be a good girl the way my parents wanted me to be. Let’s say that it was the beginning of a rebirth toward more freedom.
PKM: What kind of a music scene did you find when you moved to Rome?
Antonia Tricarico: I moved to Rome when I was 19 years old. The music I was listening at that time was mostly Italian and foreign political songwriters. But punk and hardcore music stepped in my life as soon as I put my feet in the big city. We started to walk side by side.
PKM: Tell me a little about the underground music scene in Italy at that time – punk music and squatting?
Antonia Tricarico: By the end of the ’70s and the early ’80s, Italy was going through changes because the Christian Democracy party and the Italian Communist party were going to sign a historical compromise proposed by Prime Minister Aldo Moro. But Moro was kidnapped and the deal failed. It was 1978 and, in a very exaggerated climate of repression, people who were part of an alternative scene became a potential target of the police and the political system. Squatting was one of the responses to this; so was punk music. Squatting had been popular in Europe since 1968, but it became even more popular in the following 10 years.
Forte Prenestino is a fort in Rome built between 1880 and 1884 as a military base to defend that part of the city, but never really used for this purpose. In the ’50s it was abandoned, and in the ’70s Rome’s city hall used it as a dump. In 1986, the fort was squatted. It was cleaned up by the squatters and is still operating today with concerts, exhibitions, workshops. There is an auditorium, practice space, tattoo shop, a wood shop, gym, coffee shop, tearoom and restaurant. With squatting, punks were creating their own spaces to make music and spread the DIY concept in opposition to the mainstream.
The difference I found between Italy and U.S. is the level of tolerance, which in Italy is quite low compared to the U.S. The reactions to this can be very extreme. It’s almost a necessity that you impose your attitude in response to the imposition. By the way, to squat doesn’t mean that you take over private property — to squat means you take over old, abandoned buildings owned mostly by public institutions that leave them to rot before deciding what to do with them.
PKM: In Rome you had a hardcore band and then worked in music production. When and why did you start taking photographs?
Antonia Tricarico: When I was young, I always had a camera nearby. I remember my father using an old 6 x 9 German camera, taking family portraits. I liked the black and white results of the photos, and I liked the confidence my father showed behind the camera. He was a very introverted person so I was impressed. When I moved to Rome, I did have a little interest in photography but not in a way I did later in life. I was too busy playing music and then working for the musicians; it was either one or the other. But in 1997, after moving to D.C. and knowing a little English, the camera became what it was for my father in the past, a way to express myself with no need to talk. I was always going out with my camera, like a purse but with a reverse purpose — it was empty going out and full coming back home. It was my way to absorb my new world but also to share my point of view through the photographs and participate in this new life.
PKM: What brought you to D.C. in 1997?
Antonia Tricarico: In Rome in 1995 I met my significant other while working for his concert in Forte Prenestino, and after two years of thinking and rethinking, I decided to move to D.C. in ’97.
PKM: When you arrived in Washington, what did you find that was special, that made you want to live there and photograph it?
Antonia Tricarico: I knew that squatting wasn’t popular in D.C., but I felt that the community I was involved with and the vibes were similar. I thought that the D.C. music scene had some aspects in common with squats like self-production and self-determination, which are basic elements for squatters and for underground music. I simply believe that it doesn’t matter where you are, the key is to find the right way to accomplish your beliefs. That’s why I felt I was at home.
“The goal of Girl Germs, Bratmobile, and riot grrrl was to make our punk scene more feminist and to make academic feminism more punk. – Allison Wolfe, Frame of Mind
PKM: When you got ready to do Frame of Mind, you must have had thousands of pictures to choose from. How did you decide which ones to include?
Antonia Tricarico: While scanning the negatives and later looking at the digital files, I got lost and overwhelmed by the thousands of photos from the past 20 years. My attachment was either visceral or rational, so I focused on the emotional ones starting with the photos I took in 1997 at Fort Reno of Branch Manager and Fugazi. I liked the feeling of going back to that period of my life and then the locked up memories started to flow chronologically, recreating the vibes of that first show, then the ones in between and up to the last one.
Then Nichole Procopenko [photo editor] helped me to rationalize the selection through her eyes, which I found illuminating because she wasn’t in the scene at the time I was taking those photographs. The only photos that are not in chronological order [in the book] are the ones that go with the essays because the essays are in alphabetical order by the author’s name.
PKM: In the introduction to the book you say that “since the majority of the writing in music books has been done by men” you wanted to “highlight the voices of women.” When you approached the women in your book about writing essays, did you ask them to write about anything specific?
Antonia Tricarico: When I was 16 years old, I was in a feminist collective. We were always banned from the little town because the concept of being feminist is to pull people out of their comfort zone, alert them to what’s going on in everyday life, reject authoritarianism that leads to racism, sexism, gender inequality, control and more. I think women are still left in the underground of the underground, and I never stopped thinking that we need more spaces, need to be heard more.
So while editing the photos and looking at all the women involved in music, it just felt a little unfinished. I kept looking at the photographs and it was like the pictures were talking to me but with some limitations that only the musicians could complete. I thought it would be great to have the musicians tell their own stories as a complement to the photos, mostly to give the subjects a voice. I only asked them a few basic questions about why they decided to start a band or be in a band. The questions were meant to be some sort of guide, they were free to write anything they wanted. Every experience is unique, so their responses were based on that.
“I love walking off a stage exhausted and drenched in sweat, hopefully with the feeling that I gave it all I’ve got.” – Donita Sparks, Frame of Mind
PKM: Do you have any favorite photos in the book? If so, how were they taken and what do you remember about those shows or days?
Antonia Tricarico: Two photos in particular have a special place in my heart for the subjects and the space. The first is the Allison Wolfe (Bratmobile, Deep Lust, Sex Stains) photograph with Deep Lust during their show at the old Black Cat. I felt that the band was posing for me while performing but in such a natural way. I felt very connected and they used one of the photos for their CD. The second photo is Ian Svenonius (The Make-Up, Escape-ism) in the dressing room at the old Black Cat, too. He jumped inside a big trashcan, and I took a photo of him inside and coming out. We had a lot of fun. Again, I felt so connected, like there was no separation between subject and photographer, we were there for each other. Those photographs are special because they are on film and taken in 1998 (Ian Svenonius) and 1999 (Deep Lust).
PKM: There’s been a lot written and said about gentrification and the dramatic ways D.C. has changed since 2000. Do you feel there’s still something unique about the music scene in Washington or has it all changed as the city’s economy and population changed?
Antonia Tricarico: D.C. music will always be unique. It’s become a tradition to perpetuate, it’s part of the culture that can’t be eradicated but can only be passed to future generations. I think because of gentrification and the changes involved, it’s really hard for musicians to live in D.C. right now — very expensive, you have to have several jobs to pursue your passion. But by taking away all the nonsense of the music business to make more and more profit by exploiting the musicians, we survived and underground music is still more than alive.
“There was a sense of community that made me feel as if I belonged here … I had to document all of this, to honor the friendship, the action, and, most of all, the band’s control of their own music without compromise.” – Antonia Tricarico, Frame of Mind
PKM: Is there a message you’d like readers to take from your book?
Antonia Tricarico: The book is a celebration of music though hardcore concepts, feminism and underground music, and it’s a good match in opposition to injustice and dictatorship.