"We'll Just Rock for Ourselves: Selections From the Lisa Davis Archives"
The photos capture the kineticism of Austin's lesbian music scene in the Nineties and the magnitude of the photographer's legacy
Reviewed by Beth Sullivan, Fri., July 6, 2018
An archive is an accumulation of records over a lifetime, extensions of memory that bring communities together. "We'll Just Rock for Ourselves: Selections From the Lisa Davis Archive" aims to elucidate the life and work of the late local photographer who sought to chronicle the underground scenes often left unrecorded.
Culled from an archive of more than 29,000 images, Davis' photography on display pivots around Austin's lesbian musicians and LGBTQ activists of the Nineties. Davis captured countless bands, queer and otherwise, but it was the city's "lezzie rock" groups such as Two Nice Girls, Power Snatch, and Sincola – with their sexually and politically charged music from a queer, feminist perspective – that proved enthralling for Davis.
The Austin History Center exhibit's energy resides in Davis' images of these bands performing live, in the recording studio, or posing for photo/video shoots – commanding subjects that always occupy the entire frame. About a dozen photographs line the walls. Mostly undated, the concert photos are shot in color, with hues of cranberry (a bass guitar and drum set) and some pink (frilled, babydoll lingerie) running between them. In contrast, the recording studio photos are shot in black and white.
By rendering the performances in color, Davis captures the kineticism inherent to live music, while the monochrome of the recording subjects suggests a shade of intellectual gravitas absent from the stage. Their songs may have had titles like Two Nice Girls' "I Spent My Last $10 (on Birth Control and Beer)," but these rock bands operated from a fully formed political consciousness – an activist ethos that Davis understood, as the program and two photos from the 1993 March on Washington tell us.
The statement piece Darcee Douglas playing with Power Snatch hangs above the room's fireplace. (After all, the center occupies what was once Austin's Central Library, originally built in the Thirties with an Italian Renaissance style. The punk-meets-ornate clash doesn't go unnoticed, but it doesn't distract either.) Shot from the front row, with Davis gazing up at Douglas, the image captures the musician looking back and reaching her right hand toward the camera, her palm absorbing most of the flash. The neck of Douglas' bass guitar draws attention to a woman in the background, though the focus isn't sharp enough to reveal her exact role onstage. But that doesn't matter. Douglas' outstretched, glowing hand – whether read as a stop sign or an invitation – entices the viewer to step onto this stage.
Along with photography comes a biography encapsulated. A glass case, featuring Davis' press ID cards, DIY 30th birthday party invitation, and CV, among other personal effects, illuminates the photographer's prolific yet brief life behind the lens. In 1995, when she was 32 years old, Davis took her life, disclosed through her "Memorial Service brochure" on display. Hanging above the case is the original sign (emblazoned with its namesake in black cursive) from Chances, a popular lesbian bar and punk performance spot in the Eighties and Nineties frequented by Davis and her friends-cum-subjects. As a whole, then, the exhibit operates as something close to an informative though wholly engaging eulogy.
At the Austin History Center, Davis' work is contextualized within a historical framework, which reveals the magnitude of her legacy today. Situated in a corner is a player with a reel of videos featuring concerts, music videos, and studio sessions of bands depicted in the exhibit. For an activist-artist, breaking the gallery's serenity with a few minutes of punk rock seems more than fitting.
The Austin Public Library will host a panel discussion about Austin's lesbian music scene and LGBTQ+ history Sat., July 7, 3pm, at the Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe. OUTsider founder Curran Nault will moderate the discussion with Jana Birchum, Chronicle photographer (and former partner to Davis), and Kate Messer, former Chronicle editor and current Communications Director for Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan.
“We’ll Just Rock for Ourselves: Selections from the Lisa Davis Archive”Austin History Center, 810 Guadalupe
Through July 22