Every Day Is Saturday: The Rock Photos of Peter Ellenby (Introduction)
A pint in one hand and a camera in the other. That's my enduring mental image of Peter Ellenby.
While he is many other things - a cutup, a gentleman, a loyal friend - he is the undisputed master of the one-handed flick 'n' click, a Pabst-fueled Pollock-esque technique perfected in the beer-soaked expanse between stage and fans, usually under fire by very high-decibel levels.
These days Peter is a celebrity in the world of independent music. What Charles Peterson was to Seattle, Peter Ellenby is to San Francisco, and beyond. But it wasn't always thus. Sit down and I'll tell you a story...
In late 1995, I was drowning in a sea of post-grad depression. Desperate for a diversion from my day job at the University of California, I decided to start a zine. It would be called - what else?? - SnackCake!, and its mission would be to cover great bands that no one knew about. While frustrated publicists rejoiced, my parents seriously considered an intervention.
I shanghaied a few friends and we cobbled together the first issue, a thirty-two-page monument to youthful enthusiasm and naivete that came out in January of 1996. A couple more issues followed. The magazine was gaining steam and we were pleased with ourselves. But in the back of my mind, I knew something was missing. We needed a look, an aesthetic that set us apart. We needed something that was ours.
Across the Bay, Peter Ellenby could usually be found snapping away at his local haunt, a small club nestled at the bottom of Potrero Hill called, appropriately enough, Bottom of the Hill. Knowing of my predicament, someone suggested that I talk to Ellenby. I introduced myself via email and we arranged to meet at a Meices show at the Bottom during the fourth annual Noise Pop Festival.
Noise Pop was the brainchild of another Bay Area music fanatic, Kevin Arnold. Kevin had launched the fest three years previously and it lived up to its billing big-time, featuring the cream of SF's fuzzy melodic underground, bands like iCarlos!, Corduroy, and the very aptly named Overwhelming Colorfast.
I was immediately struck by how down-to-earth Peter was. A genuinely nice guy, I thought, with an impressive camera to match. We talked a bit and he agreed to contribute some photos to the next issue of SnackCake!.
Having never actually seen Peter's work, I had no idea what to expect. At this time in the magazine's gestation, I was settling for anything that was in focus. In short, my expectations were slung lower than Joe Meice's guitar.
When I saw Peter's photos, I was astonished. They exuded a vibrancy and skill that I'd never seen in photographs before, or since. The black-and-white shots before me not only chronicled (in focus!) the rockage that I had witnessed standing in the crowd two weeks before, they somehow captured the energy of the moment, the feeling of being there. Technically, I knew what was up: Peter had left the shutter on his Minolta open just long enough to keep things in focus, while also creating a ghostly backdrop of blurred guitars and elongated chrome
reflections that looked like a child's finger painting (the fish-eye lens-one of Peter's favorite toys- further enhanced this effect).
However, the impact - the feeling you got when confronted with these pictures - was anything but cerebral or calculated. Staring down at the photos, I wondered how someone this talented could be so relatively unknown. The answer, I would eventually discover, is that Peter is a true artist for whom the work is paramount, with the rewards and acclaim coming a distant second. I knew instantly that SnackCake! had found the thing that would set it apart, and I was ecstatic. I felt like I had a big secret, one that I couldn't wait to share with the rest of the world.
Summoning as much cool detachment as my giddiness would allow, I informed Peter that his photos were satisfactory, and asked if he might like to take on some new assignments for the magazine. He accepted and immediately got to work, shooting the Supersuckers, Swell, Jawbox, and You Am I in quick succession. Everything was amazing, and my fascination and admiration grew in equal measure. In the resulting issue, Peter was christened photo editor and chosen as our SnackCake! Superstar for work above and beyond the call of duty. We also gave him a free ad. Beneath a drawing of him chomping on a cigar and wearing X-ray specs was the line, "These labels have actually paid me for my work! You can too!" It was classic Peter.
Things kept moving. The glossy (albeit black-and-white) cover of our first issue of 1997 featured Peter's photo of hometown heroes Overwhelming Colorfast. For the next issue, Peter and my co-editor Rick Stone flew to Seattle to interview and photograph Noise Pop favorites the Fastbacks. Peter's photos captured all of the band's humor and energy, and I was overjoyed. One of those shots became our first color cover. More classic covers followed: Built to Spill post-sound check at Slim's, the Poster Children demolishing Bottom of the Hill, Luna being nonchalant outside the Fillmore, a stunning black-and-white portrait of John Doe under a bridge in Bakersfield.
The magazine was now distributed internationally, and we began publishing the official program guide of the Noise Pop Festival. Our stature was growing, largely because of Peter's amazing photographs. Suddenly, we gained entree to a cavalcade of artists we'd only dreamed of covering: Supergrass, Ween, the Chills, Yo La Tengo, Old 97's, the Melvins, Superchunk, Modest Mouse, Mike Watt, Spiritualized, the Jesus Lizard, Rocket from the Crypt, and my idols, X. Peter even got the opportunity to interview and photograph his heroes Run-DMC and, in a truly surreal exchange, asked about their favorite snack cakes.
While all of this star power was intoxicating and helped sell magazines, it was Peter's devotion to the people closest to him-local artists-that really floored me and made me understand the depth of his artistic integrity.
San Francisco has always been a hotbed of talent, and in the last decade of the millennium the scene was booming. Peter was out every night of the week almost single-handedly chronicling an entire era of San Francisco rock. The bands were legion: Swell, American Music Club, Jawbreaker, Creeper Lagoon, Richard Buckner, Overwhelming Colorfast, !Carlos!, The Meices, Oranger, Beulah, MK Ultra, Kingdom First, Package, Hugh, Engine 88, Bracket. Whether he was shooting for the magazine or for a band's press kit, Peter always gave his peers - his friends - 100 percent of his talents.
By the dawn of 1999, I was a shell of a person. My magazine duties, combined with being in a touring band and cultivating a relationship with my future wife, had all conspired to wear me down to the nub. When a blood vessel in my eye burst due to stress and lack of sleep, I knew something had to give. I decided to fold the magazine. Peter was understanding, but resolute in his desire to carry on. When SnackCake! managing editor Mike Cloward and Peter decided to pick up the mantle and launch their own magazine, Devil in the Woods, an outlet for Peter's work was assured. I was very relieved.
Our last cover was a stark portrait of one of my heroes, Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü and Sugar. Once again Peter seemed to perfectly capture the essence of his subject, and it was a fitting closure to our time working together.
I consider Peter to be one of the most gifted artists I've ever come across, from recent years or otherwise. His photos exhibit that rarest of qualities: the ability to capture lightning in a bottle, time after time, and make it look totally effortless. That's no small feat with a pint in your hand.
Tim Scanlin was the publisher and editor-in-chief of Berkeley-based SnackCake! magazine. He was and remains a member of Actionslacks.