Photographer Spotlight: Murray Bowles | Interview by Ryan Bray
Murray Bowles leads a dual life. By day, the longtime San Jose resident works as a computer programmer, but he’s also built up a reputation as a legendary documentarian of punk and metal in Northern California and the East Bay. Bowles’ photos from the then nascent Gilman Street scene that cropped up in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s captured Green Day, Rancid, Operation Ivy, and countless other bands on the ascent, and he’s compiling those riches in the form of book due for release in 2016. These days, he continues to shoot his local scene in San Jose.
How did you first get into shooting shows?
I started by taking pictures of nature and stuff like that. My grandfather taught me how to develop film. Around the end of the ‘70s, some friends of mine and I who were into punk started going to shows. Somehow, I ended up doing tape reviews for a San Jose fanzine called Ripper, and at one point, the editor of Ripper couldn’t make it to a show and he asked me to take pictures. I was already going to shows, so it just seemed like a natural extension.
What are your earliest memories of being a part of that scene?
One of my two friends at work was a record collector. He was into garage punk and general garage music. The other volunteered doing video for Target Video. He was a total fan of the Mutants, so I ended up going to a lot of Mutants shows. Back in those days, there were shows almost every day of the week at the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. You could just sort of go there and just see what was going on. Oddly, I live in San Jose, but I didn’t start going to shows here until recently. I was always going to Oakland or San Francisco.
Did you know at the time that some of the photos you took at Gilman and around the East Bay would be immortalized the way they have?
Well, I would just sort of go. I followed what Tim from Ripper was doing. In fact, I used the same camera he was using. I learned to move around and not take all your pictures from the same spot, how to hold the camera above my head and stuff like that. There were all sorts of warehouse shows and rented hall shows. There was a place in San Francisco where all the shows were in the basement. It was a great scene.
Did that add to what you were doing, taking these photos in these underground, alternative venues as opposed to proper rock clubs?
It was fascinating for me. In my real life, I’m a programmer in suburban San Jose, so going to these underground shows was a totally different trip than being at home.
Are there any specific shows that you shot that still stand out to you after all these years?
There were a lot of shows in places that were literally underground. Minor Threat, Articles Of Faith shows, stuff like that. I remember a show in San Jose where the Necros played in somebody’s backyard. One of the local kids from the scene ended up sitting on the drum set to hold it down. There were all sorts of weird little things. I like small shows better than big shows, for sure.
[…] When the Circle Jerks first came to the bay area, they played this venue that only lasted a few months. There was a downstairs stage and an upstairs stage. They played with Black Flag, who played downstairs and the Circle Jerks played upstairs afterward. The next night, someone in Santa Cruz arranged for them to play in a rent-a-garage place, a storage space. That was one of the craziest shows I saw back in the day.
It’s easy to forget that there used to be this real element of danger to punk shows…
Yeah, sure. In San Francisco, they had a real problem with people being thuggish for a couple of years, which added that feeling of danger. It was just part of what it was all about.
How did you first get involved in shooting at Gilman?
I was sort of vaguely involved with Gilman when it first started. I went to the city council meeting where they got their first permit in Berkeley. It was an interesting place. Tim Yohannan, who organized the whole thing, had this radical vision of how everything should work. It was all volunteers, and everything was decided democratically in meetings where everyone’s voice was as loud as Tim’s. Of course, it’s changed a little, but lots of things have stayed the same. I haven’t actually been there in quite a while.
Is it amazing how big some of the bands you’ve shot there have become?
It was funny how all of that happened. Gilman had been set up where, “If you’re a small band, you play at Gilman.” Op Ivy played their first show at Gilman, and by their second or third show, they were just huge. Green Day—it was the same thing, but way more so. What made it good for Green Day, I’d imagine, is that Gilman was set up as a safe place for bands compared to other venues. That made it easier for fans who were into Green Day if not punk music in general to just show up at Gilman.
What kind of stuff have you been shooting since then?
I go to shows still, more here in San Jose than outside now. There are shows in back yards, shows in basements. There’s a house that does three or four shows every summer, mostly metal bands, but some punk bands and grindcore. I’m actually seeing more grindcore, metal, and powerviolence shows these days. It’s what people are seeing and playing. There’s also a couple of small dive bars that do small shows. There’s a 300 person bar that has visiting bands.
Has your approach to shooting shows changed at all over the years?
In a way, the process is different. I used to do a lot of pictures for Maximum RocknRoll, which I don’t do anymore. In my film days, before 2000, I was printing up four by fives and selling them for a quarter at shows. Now, I just do everything digitally and post it all online. I don’t wind up printing things all that much. The great thing is I’m taking way more pictures, so that’s fun.