When Jenny Lens took her camera into the heart and soul of the Los Angeles punk scene, she felt like she was riding on a comet. During that time, her photographs appeared everywhere, among which were iconic shots of The Ramones, the Clash, Blondie, the Germs and the Pistols. She talks about those times with PKM’s Sharon M. Hannon…
Jenny Lens, the most published West Coast punk photographer, doesn’t like to talk about cameras. But punk, art, fashion, and politics? Definitely.
You’ve seen her photos. The Pistols at Winterland. Joan Jett and Lita Ford in the classic guitar player face-off. The Germs’ Darby Crash giving his best “we mean it man” snarl. And iconic images of Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, and The Screamers. From 1976 – 1980, Lens chronicled the L.A. punk scene extensively, as seen in her book Punk Pioneers: When Punk was Fun.
Before punk was even underway, Lens, an L.A. native, had earned a bachelor’s degree in art from California State University, Northridge, and she brought elements of that art background, and her interest in fashion and film, to her photography. She was a contributing photographer to the great Creem magazine, and her photos appeared in West Coast magazines and ‘zines (Backdoor Man, Slash and Flipside), as well as Rolling Stone, Spin, Melody Maker, MOJO, and others.
Below, Jenny talks about her work and her journey through punk.
PKM: When did you first become aware of punk and what attracted you to it?
Jenny Lens: I’d been reading art history and movie history since I was a child. I was always looking, looking, looking. So I was standing in line looking at a new magazine called People, thumbing through it, and there was this black and white snapshot of this androgynous-looking woman who was talking about Rimbaud.
I thought any rock ‘n’ roller into symbolist art I wanna listen to. So I bought Patti Smith’s Horses, put the needle down on the vinyl, got up on my ladder in the hallway to sort some books, because I’m always looking at books, and heard the first few lines and my life was changed. I’m a nice Jewish girl and hearing somebody say ‘Jesus didn’t die for my sins, my sins my own, they belong to me’. . . Then I saw her in January ’76. I was standing in line (for the Patti show) and it’s cold. And I see these people coming, and they didn’t have to wait in line. And I thought of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind when she puts her fist in the air and says, ‘I swear to god that neither I nor my family will ever go hungry again.’ So I metaphorically put my fist in the air and said – I don’t know what I can do, but I want to be part of this. I was kind of old to be a groupie, I can’t carry a tune, I can’t write a song, I have no sense of rhythm. I didn’t even think of writing or managing.
I put that out into the universe.
I started subscribing to New York Rocker, Punk magazine, and Creem – the only magazines that had anything about punk in the spring of ’76.
The day the Ramones album was released, I went to the store to buy it. And one of the guys at the record store turned me on to the Capitol Records swap meet (an informal monthly record show held in the Capitol Records parking lot – ed.) And I started subscribing to Back Door Man. That was amazing – Back Door Man was very influential. I started going to more shows in and around L.A. trying to find more punk.
(On starting to photograph punk bands)
I went to see the Ramones on August 11, 1976. And I’m sitting right at Dee Dee Ramone’s feet. He was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen.
And the next night I decided to grab my camera, which I didn’t know how to use. I had all these art degrees, but I’d never studied photography. And I’m sitting at his feet the next night and I’m shooting away. When I go to leave, one of the girls who’d been in the line and had seen me around at shows said, “Jenny, do you want to go to the hotel?” I was looking for adventure, so of course I said “yes.” When Danny Fields and the Ramones walked in—it was an out-of-body experience.
Then I’m sitting on the floor and Dee Dee’s on the bed and I’m talking to Dee Dee. The whole band’s in the same room and other girls are talking to them. So I started to hang out with them. I followed them the whole two weeks they were in California, going to shows.
PKM: What did you and Dee Dee talk about?
Jenny Lens: I was always talking about my belief in the Ramones and DeeDee. I listened to whatever he wanted to say. I will never forget repeatedly telling him the Ramones would be as big as the Beatles. He kept shaking his head, saying I was out of my mind. We had that discussion many times!
I couldn’t believe Dee Dee Ramone wanted to hang out and talk. Plus he loved my photos and enjoyed looking at them. I constantly asked Dee Dee about the origin of the songs. What was this or that song about? I kept telling him the songs were so funny! So smart. He looked at me blankly. He didn’t see how others responded to their songs. Especially those he wrote or from his point of view.
I can vividly see ourselves by the pool at the Sunset Marquis, when I returned the next day. I asked about “53rd and 3rd”. I was a sheltered, shy, isolated artist. I didn’t know hustlers! I didn’t know people who carried knives. Or had been stabbed in the torso as he had. I wanted to know how he came up with that song. Was it based on reality? I was too shy to ask if he had been a male hustler. But he pretty much confirmed it.
Dee Dee told me about his girlfriend. She put heroin into his coffee. He was trying to clean up in preparation for their road tour. He knew it could be hard to get heroin on the road. She didn’t want him to leave, she wanted him to stay hooked, stay an addict. I was shocked. I couldn’t understand why such a beautiful, talented, sweet man could put up with that! He could pull so many women, why her?
Dee Dee never knew how special he was. He thought that was the best he could do. He was such a damaged, beautiful soul. He had no idea how beloved he was and would be.
PKM: You have a nice photo of Johnny Ramone smiling, and there aren’t too many photos like that. Tell me about it and when you took it?
Jenny Lens: The Ramones’ first West Coast tour. I shot them all at Aquarius Records in San Francisco on August 19, 1976. He’s standing in the store, smiling. The original image is a fuller shot, but usually people crop out his Superman tee. It now is part of Johnny Ramone’s estate, thanks to Linda Ramone (his widow– ed.) acquiring my Ramones archive. The only exception is Barbara, Dee Dee’s widow, who has my solo Dee Dee images.
I was always talking about my belief in the Ramones and DeeDee. I listened to whatever he wanted to say. I will never forget repeatedly telling him the Ramones would be as big as the Beatles. He kept shaking his head, saying I was out of my mind.
PKM: So through this whole period you were living in the Valley. When did you move to Hollywood?
Jenny Lens: In December 1976, I was falling asleep driving from the city to the Valley. And I thought, “Why am I still living in the Valley?”
I grew up in the ‘60s, an amazing time for rock ‘n’ roll. I got into it at the time of Phil Spector’s wall of sound. Rock ‘n’ roll was like comets, I used to say. It would just come flashing across the sky and then it’s gone. And I knew that if I didn’t document [punk], it would be gone and it would be important. It was really vital to our culture. So what am I doing living in the Valley?
I didn’t know anything about Hollywood, so I moved into a bad neighborhood and got robbed. But I just had to be there. The labs were in Hollywood. I had to move there. Spontaneous things happened, you had to be able to get somewhere in 10 minutes.
So I moved literally the week that Blondie and the Ramones were playing at the Whisky in February 1977. The great thing was I moved across the street from Tower Records, I was two or so blocks east of the Whisky, and a few more blocks from the Roxy. So I could walk to the Roxy and the Whisky all the time or go across the street to Tower. I didn’t realize until later that there were other writers and photographers in my neighborhood. It was a great place to live. And it was cheap – it was $150 for a bedroom, living room, big kitchen, walk-in closet that I turned into a darkroom, and a bathroom. You could actually do this.
PKM: Were you photographing full time?
Jenny Lens: I had my camera with me 99.9% of the time because it was an incredibly visual time. When I was working on Punk 365 I realized that a lot of people photographed in black and white, but I photographed a lot in color. And few people photographed the fashions. Fashion was one of the things that drew me to punk. L.A. is unusual because of our fashion for a variety of reasons.
We have great weather in L.A. We also have wealth in Beverly Hills with socialites who discard their clothes because fashion changes. We have tons of movie studios that discard film clothes. Plus we have a ton of thrift stores. My friends would put together the most amazing looks. They made their own clothes – and people sewed as well, and shared clothes with each other. It was just amazing visually, so if you were into fashion it was a real feast for the eyes. It inspired me. We had a wide spectrum of fashion from the 1930s to the 1970s.
One time I was at a party with Alice Bag. I noticed that her shoes had all this glitter. I said, “Oh Alice, I love your shoes.” So she takes it off, this sparkly rainbow-colored stiletto, and I look inside the shoe. I see that she’s wearing Schiaparelli. Alice didn’t know who Schiaparelli was.
That was the beautiful part. My friends put together these amazing looks and it wasn’t the stylists and it wasn’t name brands. It was through thrift stores and their innate great sense; Alice always had a wonderful sense of design. I always felt that Alice could have been a fashion model – she was just ahead of her time. She had this wonderful ethnic look. She’s Mexican-American but she kind of looked Asian, Filipino, Armenian – just universal. She had a great attitude in front of the camera and putting her clothes together. She was phenomenal. And she still is phenomenal.
There were a lot of beautiful women. The cute guys were in the bands, of course, from England and New York, and some in L.A., too. But we had some really amazing women. They might not have had the most perfect bodies or faces. But they had great attitudes, knew how to wear clothes and they knew how to pose. I loved photographing them.
Dee Dee never knew how special he was. He thought that was the best he could do. He was such a damaged, beautiful soul. He had no idea how beloved he was and would be.
PKM: How did you view your role as a photographer?
Jenny Lens: I did not come to rock and roll photography from either a rock ‘n’ roll point of view or a rock ‘n’ roll photography point of view, or even traditional photography. I came from a photojournalist and painter’s point of view. I would tell people I was a photojournalist. I was not a rock ‘n’ roll photographer and I didn’t try to emulate what I saw in magazines. I couldn’t.
And it’s a shame because I held myself back. When I think about the few photo sessions I did, they’re really good. I could have really done something, but I didn’t have enough confidence. I didn’t realize my talent. I also wasn’t put on guest lists or paid. I had no validation.
PKM: So how did you get into shows?
Jenny Lens: Sometimes I had to pay but usually I’d have to beg. Even bands that I helped and record companies, I had to beg, plead, and cry and then they’d give me a free $3 ticket and a backstage pass with no +1 most of the time and no bar tab. And then I’d spend $30 developing, printing and mailing photos out. So I gave up because I didn’t know how many people loved my photos. I spent a lot more than I ever made.
PKM: What was the L.A. punk scene like? Did it feel like a group of friends hanging out?
Jenny Lens: It’s a misperception that punk was really big. It was tiny. There are a few hundred people and just a few dozen regulars, and you can see that in my photos. I keep photographing the same people over and over again.
In 1976 I was in the South Bay, the Golden Bear or someplace, and I was photographing the audience. I’m always attracted to where the action is – I don’t understand rock ‘n’ roll shows where you go and sit. What the heck is that? If you’re at the Ramones or the Clash and you’re sitting . . .? I’m a 68-year-old woman and if I had the opportunity to see the Ramones or the Clash right now, especially the way they were back in ‘77, you think I’d be sitting on my ass?
So I see this group of kids and they’re dancing together and they’re wearing cool clothes, and I take pictures of them. And then I go backstage and they were backstage. So from the beginning, there were the kids. I was 26 that summer and they were like 16, 17, 18. Patti Smith and Debbie Harry were older than I was, so there was a range of about 10 and 12 years between the youngest and the oldest of the core group and performers.
The kids who would dress the most interestingly would be at the shows, they’d be backstage, they threw the parties, they made some fanzines. And it really was a core group.
PKM: Things seemed to really take off in L.A. punk in 1977.
Jenny Lens: In 1977, a Scottish guy named Brendan Mullen was looking for a place to rehearse his drums, and he found this literally underground space that was off of an alley just behind Hollywood Boulevard and Cherokee. It was under a building that film director Cecil B. DeMille had owned, and he (Mullen) called it the Masque, like “The Masque of the Red Death.”
And in the summer of 1977 it was opened to some performances. The space only held a few hundred people. It was way smaller than the Whisky and the Starwood, which were the major clubs that had punk. The Masque was kind of legendary. People talk about “underground” as in “not known”; this was literally underground. The reason it was closed was it had one set of stairs going up and going down – it was a real firetrap. But it was a great place. And you just ran into the same people all the time. But at any given time, there was just a few hundred.
The other thing was Rodney. Rodney Bingenheimer. I watched his documentary, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, and I called him up. I said, “Rodney, what the f—.” There was nothing about punk in it. And I know that Rodney was at a lot of shows because he’s in my photos. He was onstage with Captain Sensible, hugging each other, at the Starwood in April 1977. It was the first time a British punk band played in L.A. The Damned at the Starwood. I would see Rodney onstage all of the time. Punk rock fans listened to “Rodney on the ROQ,” the only place we could hear the coolest new music and find out about some shows.
Backdoor Man. The L.A. Times, the Herald Examiner would have the Starwood, the Whisky, the Roxy listings and ads. I don’t think the Masque ever advertised in those papers! We had Slash magazine, a fanzine that came out erratically, and Flipside. Punks plastered telephone poles with flyers. So in order to know what was going on, you really had to have “your nose to the ground” and be looking for it. I was very much in the inner, inner, inner circle because I was everywhere they were to a certain degree. But to be everywhere, I’d have had to be cloned because you could be three places at any given time or you’d have to be out every night. I did probably five nights out of the week in 1977 and the rest of the time I was in my closet darkroom.
Rock ‘n’ roll was like comets, I used to say. It would just come flashing across the sky and then it’s gone. And I knew that if I didn’t document [punk], it would be gone and it would be important.
PKM: Were the punks at the clubs and parties close? Was it generally a positive scene?
Jenny Lens: We were dysfunctional. We all weren’t really close or nice to each other necessarily. We were brought together by this common love of music and fashion and parties, and sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. There was always a bit of backstabbing.
I was in New York for a week in 2007 to meet with the people at Rizzoli, who published my book Punk Pioneers. I reached out to Roberta Bayley. I also hung out with Leee Black Childers. I was blown away by how friendly they were to each other. How supportive they were. We didn’t have that in L.A. Punk photographers were not nice to each other and, to this day, stab each other in the back.
The only nice photographers were Brad Elterman and the late Richard Creamer. They photographed for money so they weren’t at the Masque or the parties. But Brad and Richard used to tell me, ‘Jenny, put on a pantsuit, take your photos to the record companies and get paying gigs.’ They always wanted me to make money. And I’m like, pantsuit? You want me to photograph Kenny Rogers? No thank you. (laughs) But they were very kind. I just didn’t know people were making money from punk. I didn’t want it to be a business because if it were a business I’d learn to hate it. I was having fun and I let my heart lead me for decades. Then the increased stabbing in the back, non-payment, non-credit, and nasty remarks made me think I needed to make a little money and put a little distance between punk and myself.
PKM: Let’s talk about some of the L.A. bands. The Screamers. A lot of people don’t know much about them.
Jenny Lens: I loved the Screamers – I wish I could do a book on the Screamers. They knew how to dress and pose. They had it coming and going.
PKM: Was that famous photo you took of them with the woman on the bench a staged shot or was that spontaneous. I always thought it was staged.
Jenny Lens: It was 100% spontaneous. In February ‘77 when Blondie and the Ramones played the Whisky, I was upstairs, not backstage, and this guy comes up to me and puts his hand out and says with this gravelly voice, “Dee Dee Ramone told me all about you. I’m Tomata Du Plenty and this is Tommy Gear.” And I’m like “what?” I never asked him what Dee Dee said, but it must have been really cool because it was enough for Tomata to want to be my friend. I didn’t think anybody liked me. And in fact, Dee Dee’s widow Barbara told me that at the end of his life Dee Dee said “Jenny Lens was one of few people who never tried to get anything from me.”
So Tomata Du Plenty and Tommy Gear . . . we started running around together and just crossing paths a lot. They had a band called the Screamers. I wanted to do a session with them because I loved the way they looked. I rented lights from some lighting place near Hollywood and Highland Blvd. and took these amazing German expressionist pictures in their home. I didn’t “know nothin’ about no lightin’.” My photos are awesome. I had an intuitive sense from studying film stills and old films, especially black and white, silent and talking, Josef Von Sternberg, studying art and German expressionist paintings.
After that we decided, let’s go take some street photos. So we go down to Sunset and Gower at the corner, it’s actually called Gower Gulch [home of the earliest Western films]. … They had a newsstand stand there. Tomata’s favorite magazine was called A Violent World. So he picked up his favorite magazine, and we walked around the corner and we saw this woman. Cat-eye glasses, the neck brace, she’s got the gingham dress and she’s reading some newspaper about a two-headed baby alien. I don’t know whose idea it was, but we said, “Let’s see if she’ll be in a picture with you guys.” So I’m standing in the street ready to take a photo … and they’re sitting on the bus bench and Gorilla leans over to the woman and says, ‘Could you hold this magazine?’ So I took one photo. Then Tomata was laughing. I don’t usually say this, but I said, “I don’t know if I got anything good.” And he said, “Did you see what she was reading? About a two-headed alien baby. She was so cute.” So that’s why he was smiling because he fell in love with her.
PKM: You have some iconic shots of the Germs. What was your impression of them, either as people or as a band?
Jenny Lens: Discussing the Germs is problematic cos they have such a rabid fan base. I found Darby Crash to be an immature, insecure, usually drunk or stoned brat. I can’t understand his appeal. I don’t like his lyrics or their music. Pat Smear and Lorna are aloof. Lorna is a very beautiful, sweet, private woman. I only took photos of them, as the Germs on or off stage or individually, cos we all hung out together. I also focused on fashions, so they were fun to shoot.
PKM: I heard you were you banned from shooting Blondie. Why?
Jenny Lens: I was standing in front of the stage in February 1977 shooting Blondie and Debbie Harry. Somehow she drops down on the stage and is rolling around and getting up while I’m taking these pictures. Then in March or April, D.D. Faye, who worked for Back Door Man, said, “Jenny bring your proof sheets. I want to see Blondie shots for Back Door Man.” So she’s looking at the proof sheets and she says, “That one. I want that one for the cover.” [The photo where you can see Debbie Harry’s underwear – ed.]
And I said, “D.D., I’m a nice Jewish girl. No Underwear. No.”
She said, “Jenny, don’t argue with me. It’s the cover.”
So I make a toll call to Blondie’s management and say I’ll come by. I have a proof sheet and I need approval. They told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s fine – do it.’ So I get it published. Then I’m shooting Blondie at the Punk Fashion Show on September 23, 1977 at the Hollywood Palladium. I’m standing on a chair shooting them, and Peter Leeds, their manager, reaches up, grabs my arm and drags me out. My arm was black and blue for days all because I got that picture published without permission. I offered to show him my phone bill because it was a toll call. But that was it.
That photo meant that I was shy about taking photos. I was so freaked out the rest of my photo career. And then I found out later how loved it was, how famous it was, and how good it was for their band. Debbie Harry told me when they played American Bandstand I couldn’t photograph while they were performing but [could] during the dress rehearsal. Debbie was so sweet. She said, ‘Jenny, honey, you can come do the dress rehearsal but you know you can’t do it live because we don’t want Peter to see you.’ Then there was a big Rolling Stone article about how the band sued Peter Leeds because he was an asshole.
PKM: What were the Ramones like when you hung around with them?
Jenny Lens: Joey and Dee Dee were close, Tommy and Johnny were close. I observed that, in addition to what others have reported. At certain points, they got along. Other times, one or the other barely talked to each other. Tommy expressed his love and admiration of Johnny at Johnny’s Hollywood Forever statue dedication.
My photos often caught Joey and Dee Dee hanging out together. I thought (and still think) Dee Dee is the most handsome man I’d ever seen, onscreen, in mags, or in real life. He and I got along, so my camera followed him.
Beyond that, I have my own personal reasons for never discussing what I saw and experienced about the friction. That’s all I will ever say. I have great respect for each of the band members, their family, friends, and fans.
Johnny Ramone and I bet Tommy, too, set down rules. But Johnny was more forceful and in your face, which was needed. Dee Dee and Joey were sweet but not mature. They were total creatives who needed some grounding to create the amazing songs they wrote. And to function in this wild world of entertainment. It’s a rough, tough world!! Plus Joey and DeeDee each had issues. I don’t know if you’d say mental or emotional, but certainly physical with Joey. Dee Dee had serious psychological issues. Which is why of course many of us related to them!!
Although many felt Johnny was too strict, without his taking control and imposing certain rules, that band would have imploded during the first tour or second. That’s MY feeling. The Ramones were unique because their personalities were so different, with serious underlying issues. Most band members got along with each other better than the Ramones did. It’s amazing they lasted so long and accomplished so much!
PKM: The Clash was your favorite band to see and photograph. What was it about them that got to you?
Jenny Lens: I’m quoting the Clash all the time. Some people say what would Jesus do – WWJD? I say what would Joe do? What would Strummer do?
I’m a political animal and grew up looking at Newsweek magazine before I could read. … I was a very early anti-Vietnam war protestor and I read Senator Fulbright’s book The Arrogance of Power when I was 14 or 15. … Strummer got it. Hippie music — peace and love and all that stuff — a bunch of hypocrites. Strummer said, “I’m bored with this stuff.” This industrialist, career opportunities never happen, put me on the dole society – he totally got modern life.
And it wasn’t just the words . . . when they were on stage – sexy! And they’re painting their shirts, they’re jumping all around the stage and interacting with each other. I love the Ramones – but they were rooted in their spots on stage. Then here come The Clash, they’re moving all around the stage, never staying in one spot, they’re singing with each other, they’re letting the kids come up on stage. It was like “whoa!!” Their energy was felt and could be seen in the audience, in my photos!
PKM: In 1980, you traveled to England to photograph The Clash.
Jenny Lens: They played shit places in California in 1979 and 1980. I really wanted to see them in England with their fans and their great venues. So I managed to scrape together money. I fly there, take a train and I make it to Bristol just in time for them to be onstage. Totally unannounced, I managed to talk my way in. They’re onstage and I’m taking pictures. That was in June. And those pictures were awesome because I had stage and backstage access. At that point in my life I was too much in awe of them to talk to them. I was also burned out on speed and ending my whole rock ‘n’ roll thing. I was kind of fried at that point. It was my swan song.
All I could manage to do was get enough energy and focus to photograph them onstage. And it was amazing.
I lived for live shots – I never had the confidence for backstage. And I never felt comfortable just hanging out with bands. But when they were performing . . . magic. I just channeled that energy and took the most amazing photos from the Ramones to Blondie, Patti Smith, X, Screamers, Germs, Clash, and a ton of other bands. And that was my gift. That’s what I wanted to do and that’s what I got to do.
PKM: After four years in Hollywood, you left. Why?
Jenny Lens: I just burned out and got in with some really bad people, which happens when you do drugs.
Hollywood was not for me. I am way too emotional for Hollywood. It is a tough town. Listen to the Go-Go’s “This Town.” “Stars like discarded cars,” it’s not a happy song. The Go-Go’s saw how people were chewed up and spit out. How Columbia treated the Clash. How A&M treated the Go-Go’s and how the press treated them. I wanted to get back to my art.
I had this adventure and then everything changed. My friends were all touring or into different music, rockabilly or hardcore where women were not welcome, all teenage angst and testosterone. Hardcore was all the guys I wanted to get away from. Surfers, puh-leeze?
In November 1980 I moved back to the Valley to my parents’ home. I wanted to study computer graphics when there wasn’t even a class called computer graphics. … I wanted to do something that was not invented yet. So I went back to school and I studied electronics. My electronics teacher said I should be an engineer. I did everything I could get into computer graphics. That was my mission from 1980 to 2019. I’m still on that goal of computer graphics, in service of my photos, new photos, art, teaching.
So the music changed, the scene changed and became pay-to-play, long hair music and all that. The comet came and went. Times they were a-changin’. It was time for me to move on with my life. And I did. And it’s the way it had to be.
I lived for live shots – I never had the confidence for backstage. And I never felt comfortable just hanging out with bands. But when they were performing . . . magic.
PKM: What are you doing today?
Jenny Lens: I’m teaching people how to take photos, organize their photos, create digital art, make social media graphics, use websites and e-commerce, no matter what they’re into. And have fun doing it. I’m around generally supportive, beautiful people who are making the world better. They’re giving, generous and kind for the most part. But I’m still a rock ‘n’ roller at heart. I’ll always love punk. I created a great legacy. But you cannot be defined by other people. You cannot look to punk for validation. I cannot live in the past. Nice place to sometimes visit, but it’s past. Time to create and teach, which is what I’ve always done. Same as it ever was. But always changing and growing.