Inside D.C. entertainment

Go-go in photos: Thomas Sayers Ellis' visual archive at The Gallery at Vivid Solutions

August 5, 2011 - 12:30 PM
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A photo of Chuck Brown, one of more than 30 images in (Un)Lock It. (Photo: Thomas Sayers Ellis)

Thomas Sayers Ellis—photographer, poet, professor, former go-go band member—describes a perfect night at the go-go, back when he was growing up in Shaw in the '80s, thusly:

“A good show was, you got your name called by the band, you met a girl and got her phone number, you got your picture taken by the picture man, and you didn’t get in a fight," he says.

Today, that same basic blueprint for a great night at the go-go holds up, but getting shot by Ellis himself, who has been photographing the community for 20 plus years, is now an item on that list, as well. Ellis' first exhibition of go-go photos—which is also the first exhibition of go-go photos—is "(Un)Lock It: the Percussive People in the Go-Go Pocket." The show opens tonight at 6 p.m., at Southeast’s The Gallery at Vivid Solutions, and remains up until October 7.

Ellis' work falls under the category of fine art photography, but he says he still feels kinship with the "picture man"— any photographer who would regularly come to go-go shows, and snap posed group shots of people in the crowd for a small fee. "I feel like a pioneer, because in go-go, it tends to be just the picture man, who is a different form of photographer, but I can definitely see my lineage, from the days of jumping in front of the picture man’s camera," he says.

With "(Un)Lock It," Ellis presents photographs of the people onstage at go-gos (including the Godfather of Go-Go, Chuck Brown, in a fur, naturally), as well as the people in the crowd. Among all of the jubilant, movement-filled music shots, there are also sad moments: Pictures from the August 2010 unveiling of Lil Benny Way, the city's tribute to go-go legend Anthony "Little Benny" Harley, who died last May. There is a heartbreaking shot of a cardboard cut-out of Reggie "Polo" Burwell, in front of a microphone; Burwell, lead talker for the go-go band TCB, collapsed on stage in April of 2010 and, although recovering, hasn't performed since.

The exhibit also includes a "roll call" wall, a visual interpretation of go-go show shout-outs; there are pictures of performers, show attendees, sound folks, and all of the other people who keep go-go thriving as an art form. Anyone who comes to the exhibit and spots themselves on that wall can take their picture, free of charge. 

One of the photos on the roll call wall is the shot that inspired the exhibit and companion project The Go-Go Book: People in the Pocket, which Ellis is currently working on. It's a black-and-white photo of a couple, hugged-up and standing in the wings at a 2003 show at Constitution Hall, where Chuck Brown opened for the Roots.

"They're watching Chuck, and you see part of the stage," Ellis says. "[I]t's the first time go-go was photographed that way. It wasn't someone bent over, or the usual audience shot—there was just so much love....That's when I thought, I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna exhaust myself over the next 5,6 years. And that's how the project really came to be."

"I feel like I just added a new instrument to the music," Ellis continues. "I used to play rototoms, now I feel like I play camera."

Mambo Sauce, performing live (Thomas Sayers Ellis)

Ellis, now a poet and assistant professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College, played percussion in go-go bands, while attending Dunbar High School; his first camera came from a friend and former bandmate.

"I was on Georgia Avenue, I think it was 1985, and I had been away at school in Cambridge, Mass., and I ran into a friend who used to be in a band with me," Ellis says. They talked and caught up and, at one point, they guy opened the trunk of his car, revealing, "maybe three cameras, which were obviously stolen," Ellis says. "I said, 'I've got $35 dollars. He gave me a nice camera, and one lens." 

Ellis started shooting old, deteriorating Globe posters advertising go-go shows, and then moved onto human subjects--go-go pioneers like Michelle Johnson, Harley, and Chuck Brown embraced him early on, even giving him PA tapes in exchange for his photographs. But even with the approval of some of the biggest names in the genre, he had to work to gain the trust of band members and go-go supporters.

"A lot of things have been done to go-go," Ellis says. "Go-go has been lied to, and used in a lot of ways. So, you have to [get] people to relax around you." Ellis does far more candid shots than posed pictures, something it was hard for artists and show-goers to get used to at first. "People who know me know that if they hold up a peace sign and look right at me, I'll walk away," Ellis says. But when he shows subjects his photos and they see "something they didn't prepare for, or weren't expecting, they say, 'Oh wow, thank you,'" he says.

"Also, a lot of people hadn't seen themselves in black-and-white," he continues. "It's timeless, it makes them seem like they've been around forever. And it makes things seem like it's on the level of hip-hop, or on the level of Vibe magazine. The black-and-white pictures put me in demand."

That demand has helped Ellis to create a photographic archive, of bands, of venues, of Washingtonians, that literally no one else has.

"There's always something vanishing in go-go, there's always something changing," he says. "Somebody is switching bands, a venue is gone, and there are no records of that. D.C. is changing, and a lot of what I have, no one else has, so I'm happy about that—I do feel lucky.

"I brought a camera into those spaces as a call for go-go to open up, and include more artists, so that the culture won’t be impoverished and insular," Ellis says. He adds that go-go needs to "see itself as a force for change, not just fun," and retire the debate about the music "going national."

"People get on my nerves talking about 'go-go isn't national,'" Ellis says. "The rest of the country isn't national. Go-go is more national than the senators and interns that come here; it's more national than the president who comes here, whether he's black or white. Because go-go was born and raised in the nation's capital." 

The opening reception for (Un)Lock It: the Percussive People in the Go-Go Pocket, is tonight, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at The Gallery at Vivid Solutions, 2208 Martin Luther King Ave., SE. The show runs through October 7 and can be viewed 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays, and by appointment.

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