There were quite a few photographers on L.A.’s early punk scene, but Melanie Nissen’s pictures have always stood apart. The legendary photographer shot for illustrious punk rock fanzine Slash from 1977-1980 and will release the first official collection of her work with HARD + FAST, a hardbound art book published by Blank Industries due out February 1, 2022.
In its early years, the L.A. punk scene was egalitarian, and the mix of people in her pictures is astonishing. Senior citizens, people of every race, children, swells in fancy clothes, people in rags – everyone was welcome. “The early years were special,” Nissen reflects. “There was a real sense of camaraderie and everyone was generous with their work.”
Immersed in the burgeoning scene herself, Nissen was friends with most of the people she photographed. This created a unique trust and comfort for her subjects to act naturally, injecting a biting sense of humor and extravagant body language into her photographs. There are also elements of formal portraiture evocative of work by Richard Avedon; like Avedon, Nissen sometimes prints her portraits framed with rough outlines of thick black ink that give them an unconventional edge.
“I can see that these are also documentary pictures because they include elements of Los Angeles that have disappeared,” concludes Nissen. “The Tropicana Motel, bars and cocktail lounges, newsstands, nightclubs, the street life on Hollywood Boulevard, boutiques run by and for punks, burger stands, phone booths – these things are gone today, and they represent an aspect of L.A. history that shouldn’t be forgotten. The entire city had the familiarity of a neighborhood then, and that’s no longer the case. L.A. is my home, though, and I’ll always remain loyal to it; I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
When Nissen left Slash she embarked on a career in the record industry, working as a photographer and graphic designer for the four major labels – Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Virgin, and A&M – for more than two decades.