Extreme Focus – The Photography of Deb Frazin

Interview by Matthew Hutchison|All Photography by Deb Frazin 

Full disclosure, I wasn’t at the show described below. Deb Frazin was there, and this description is purely abstract based upon her photos of Flipper’s performance found online.

The Regent Theatre – DTLA

Act: Flipper/Mike Watt & The Missingmen/Qui

April 12, 2019

The Regent Theatre, an old movie house along Main St recently redeveloped into a 1,100 capacity venue hosting international and domestic bands. The reformed, Bay-Area, noise-punk group Flipper, with David Yow fronting, headlines tonight with support coming from Mike Watt & The Secondmen and Qui. Cross generations of punk rock fans and players alike pack out the room to weave to Steve DePace’s cadences and break the fall of an airborne Yow.

Yow’s bouncing off the walls and into the crowd on tracks like “Love Canal” and “Sacrifice.” The finale brings the fan favorite “Sex Bomb” with the crowd leaping on stage to join the band to sing along. The entire show, Deb Frazin nimbly maneuvers herself through the photo pit’s swarm of photographers to position herself in different vantage points near the stage. In front of stage right, she turns and snaps her Nikon 5600 as Yow leaps from the stage into the sea of hands awaiting his crash landing.

Round three of the night finished another dance of enduring the sweat, saliva, loose hair, and other auxiliaries of biological warfare from the flailing bodies of young and older punks around her. No one there would have guessed that in a year, social distancing measures would change all this. This show is just another night for Frazin, probably the fourth or fifth gig she’s hit this week taking photographs. Below is the result of that mentioned shot, one of many from the night. 

For the seven years Frazin’s been a professional photographer, she still reminds herself to be cautious in her work environment. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for people having fun at a show, but it’s hard to shoot when someone is stage-diving and kicking your head. Then again, photographers don’t own the pit area; that’s for everyone.” 

Frazin’s a known figure in the Los Angeles punk subculture. More importantly, she holds a growing portfolio and reputation for her visceral photography in two niches: the ensuing chaos of a punk rock show and the bleak streets around and within Downtown Los Angeles. Her work has led to collaborations with both the new and old guard of underground rock music such as Death Valley Girls, Trap Girl, The Flesh Eaters, Rikk Agnew, among many others. Publications like The Los Angeles Times have hired Frazin out to shoot or license her work whenever articles on the homeless population run.

A Southland native with roots 18 miles East in West Covina, Frazin relocated to the city in 1985 after spending years enduring the commute to catch shows in various neighborhoods. Working at a record store got her familiar with the news releases and tours to hit the area, and a fellow resident and friend who made a name for himself in photography too sparked an interest in the medium. 

“Ed Colver and I first met each other at my old job with Licorice Pizza when I was 18. That’s funny, looking back. My friends and I were always going into the city after our shifts to catch bands, all the usual spots like Madame Wongs, Cathay De Grande, Hong Kong Cafe, Whiskey, and of course, Al’s Bar. Ed [Colver] would be at those shows, and I was always impressed with his shots. I regret not picking this up earlier when all those great bands were playing. At the time, I didn’t think about shooting, nor did I have a camera to work with.”

Frazin’s involvement in the music world would further continue in her professional life, as she held positions working for the Sunset Strip location of Tower Records for over a decade.From there, a natural transition into the label world occurred with accepting a marketing job with Virgin Records.

They held a powerhouse roster of Iggy, Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and The Geraldine Fibbers. “I had no idea what I was doing when I got that job; I logged heavy hours into the night to learn everything. With the roster they held, who wouldn’t want to work on projects with those bands?” 

Her tenure at Virgin saw Mariah Carey signing then one of the most significant contracts in recorded music history with a five-album deal valued at $100 million. The partnership was short-lived, with Virgin buying out Carey’s contract after the one release with the collateral damage being layoffs and restructuring. Frazin found herself unemployed because of the matter and acknowledges the event pushed her into the photography world as a coping mechanism and eventually her next chapter.

“Twenty-thirteen was a rough year. The lay-off hit me pretty hard and pushed me over the edge a bit; then the depression came. I was in a bad place, selling everything I owned to make rent and pay bills. That’s when I was in the frame of mind to begin shooting parts of DTLA and going into Skid Row. It was a numb period for me; the circumstances of shooting in that area didn’t cross me much, and at the time, I didn’t give a shit about what happened to me back then.”

Frazin credits the resonating work of Diane Arbus and Alverez Ricardez as her primary inspirations for shooting marginalized subjects and their environments. From 2013 to 2018, Frazin photographed life around different districts of DTLA and Skid Row’s harsh living conditions. Her work in that field has grown to a large amount where she has enough material to release a series of books on her street photography work alone.

Her black-and-white images from an old Powershot SD450 depict grainy scenery of the city’s surroundings with images of vacant, industrial yards encompassed in rust and piss-soaked back alleys aligned with tents. The bridges connecting outer neighborhoods and the city’s train tracks are her cherished spots to venture towards due to these reasons.

“Anything can happen around those two areas, from stumbling upon bloody, rolled-up rugs to rats overtaking rivers of garbage scattered across the premises. I’ve stumbled upon parties happening under the 101 freeway bridge, drag races, and some of the city’s dopest graffiti. The Arts District doesn’t have shit on what’s under those bridges around Downtown, just bad murals and boring, sterile, uninspiring street art.”

Her desolate cityscape photography is only half of her work in the street photography world; the other half comes from photographing DTLA’s homeless inhabitants and surroundings. These photos depict intimacy and vulnerability within her subject’s faces; you almost have to ask yourself what their life stories are via the expressions or natural postures alone.

While a group of women smile and converse, a woman in a long coat leans forward into her belongings in exhaustion (or in hiding) on a busy sidewalk. A disheveled man lies near a storefront next to his detached, prosthetic leg and gazes towards the camera. You’re not sure if he’s waking up, in pain, or both. These are a handful of people she’s shot up close; visit her Instagram profile to view more. 

That five-year period of Frazin’s life shooting around Skid Row affected her in profound ways as she got to know some of the residents and hear their stories firsthand.

“Everyone living in that area is a person with thoughts, dreams, and feelings like you and I. They’re not invisible, but they get treated as such. Especially the seniors who live on the streets.”

“About five years ago, I got to know an older woman who was in her 80s and lived in a wheelchair off 6th and Broadway. Whenever the sun went down, she’d pull a blanket over her head and go to sleep. I begged her to let me help her get into the woman’s shelter, but she refused. It’s so dangerous for a woman to be on those streets alone at night; rape and beatings happen every night down there.”

Whenever Frazin has had friends ask her for tips on shooting in the area, she advocates for them not too. “It’s a dangerous environment for a photographer. One of my Facebook friends posted about going down there recently, and some guy ripped the camera from his hands while he was shooting. He ended up paying that person $100 to get it back.

“Knowing how to carry yourself and interact with people is important; you can’t look or act scared. You’re making yourself an easy target doing that. If you sense something is violent, follow your gut, and get yourself out of the situation. I’m speaking from my experience; I’ve seen some crazy stuff while shooting there.” She stresses a further point: “You need to have a dignity line; otherwise you shouldn’t be in there. No one should be shooting something like a hungry person digging through trash looking for food or a half-naked schizophrenic urinating. No one needs to see that.” 

Protests are a hot situation with most photographers. The recent Black Lives Matter protests brought Frazin out of retirement from this world for a short while with an attempt to shoot night one in Downtown.

“Protests and marches, for the most part, bore me. I’m looking for action every time I go to shoot one and always don’t get any, except with this recent one, I made the mistake of leaving too early. The tension rose when the sun started going down; my gut told me to get my car out of there. I was parked around the corner from the city hall building and drove the five miles back to my apartment. When I arrived home and turned on the news, the looting had begun. I was so pissed at myself for leaving.” 

These days, Frazin’s focus is on the music side as a freelancer. Burnout of street photography turned her towards this avenue. She’s already built a name for her work within the punk community. Her proximity to the various venues around the city allowed her to visit different bars and clubs with ease and practice off who was playing.

“The Smell, Cafe NELA, The Redwood Bar, and The Echo is where I’d cut my chops. I practiced off gigs there for months until I figured out the best approaches and techniques for shooting live bands; I gotta credit my photographer pal John Nikolai for some helpful tips that made my pics look really good.”

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, if you went to punk shows around the city, it’s a sure bet you were going to run into Frazin somewhere in the room. The Paranoyds gig at Cafe Nela, she was there. Jon Spencer playing a headlining show at The Echo, she was there.  Niis playing a secret show in downtown’s The Factory, she was there. Pre-Black Flag group Würm playing a benefit in Chinatown with San Pedro post-punks Slaughterhouse, and Fur Dixon, you bet Frazin was there, and that was a matinee show, too. She probably had something lined up for that night. Her last gig shot? The Mummies at Zebulon Cafe in Atwater Village, the week of California going full quarantine.

Frazin’s photography work is on hold now, and she’s turned to making music videos for her clients for the time being. “I gotta admit, I’m starting to forget my camera settings for each club I shoot; it’s been that long. For the time being, making music videos has helped me get by. Chris D from The Flesh Eaters and I collaborated on the “Ghost Cave” video from the new album.

“Last summer, I did something for Dee Skusting & The Rodents. I’m currently working on a video for a great band called Tombstones In Their Eyes, and it’s been a real challenge for me. It’s six minutes long, and I’ve been filming all the clips in isolation with no band members available. Thankfully, it’s almost finished.”

Deb Frazin’s a lifer in underground culture; she’s seen the city change throughout the years and institutions come and go. From a bad place in her life, she found her calling and a new lease.

“Shooting photography filled a huge void in my life; I’ve finally found something I’m good at. The opportunity to make a living from it is fulfilling itself. It’s a gratifying feeling to see your work hung on a gallery wall or an album cover.”  

Her parting words, “Wear a mask and don’t walk Skid Row. Also, listen to more Richard Rose, Slaughterhouse, and Reckling.”

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