The best kind of cultural examination not only captures snapshots and stories but also challenges assumptions and stereotypes. To find such meaty matter in a coffee table book is a discovery I cannot keep to myself. Black Sheep: An Unconventional Look at Good Ol’ Family Values, by Karyn Gray, contests the notion that members of counterculture undoubtedly come from broken homes, and subsequently, lack family values. Karyn collaborated with some of the “underground elite” to chronicle their family lives through the use of photography and intimate storytelling. Contributors include Penelope Spheeris, Darryl Jenifer, Ian MacKaye, Kevin Lyman, Roberta Bayley, Henry Rollins, and Melissa Auf der Maur as well as featured photographers including Susie Horgan, Heather McGrath, Scott Wade, Gordon Ball, Susan Moss, Paul Stewart, and Jamie Siever. Karyn was gracious enough to answer some questions of mine, and I highly recommend you read on to get an insider peek at the inspiration behind her work…
What was your inspiration for developing the theme of the book?
That is an extremely long and involved story, but essentially it all developed because family is not only important to me, but also really fascinating to me as a concept. Human beings generally have a need for acceptance, support, and love, and that’s what a family (however you define it: biological kin, friends, crew, etc.) aims to provide. For whatever reasons, individuals involved in subcultures (e.g. hardcore, punk, graffiti, tattoo culture, skate, hip hop) aren’t often associated with having positive family values, but I always found the opposite to be true. Therefore, I wanted to provide a different perspective. By having all sorts of different people from different scenes talk about their families and/or the concept of family, they become accessible and familiar to the reader, and to each other. A little common ground goes a long way.
What challenges did you face while compiling the media for this collective reflection on family life?
Well, first off, someone broke into my old apartment and stole my Mac before I had backed anything up, so the first few months of work on the book were lost and I had to start over. That was definitely discouraging. But when stuff like that happens you just have to tough it up and keep on trekking. Another big challenge was the fact that I, um, had absolutely no idea how to put a book together and I had no financial backing! Hahaha. I did have experience getting interviews from the previous magazines I had worked with, though, so I figured I would learn the rest as I went along. And that’s just what happened. The biggest challenge was trying to get all of the interviews that I wanted. There were some people whom I tried like hell to get in touch with and I just couldn’t get to them. Others said they were interested in contributing, but then didn’t due to time constraints or because of personal issues. Every time that happened it was a major bummer. Ice-T, the guys from Blood for Blood, Ollie Gelfand, Flea, Mike Ness, Lee Ving… all of those were big let-downs for me, but all of that was totally made up for by the hundreds of awesome people who agreed to contribute!
How did you manage to get intimate access to the family lives of the counterculture elite?
I suppose it helps if you yourself are involved in those cultures. On top of that, it helps if you’re involved in music/subculture journalism. I was a freelance writer for a couple of music magazines and the editor of a music/graffiti magazine for a couple of years, so I had some contacts. Many people in the book I knew or was in contact with already, and the rest I just put my feelers out the best I could.
Did any specific contributor stories remind you of your own family history?
No, not exactly, but that’s something that I really love about the book: No two stories are the same. Everyone is coming from someplace completely different, which surely contributed to the fact that all of the contributors are such unique, amazing people with all sorts of different perspectives. Family is what we all have in common, yet even how we define family changes from person to person. For some it’s their parents or siblings, for others it’s members of their band or crew, for others it’s their kids, and still for others it’s all of the above.
What place in culture (mainstream and/or underground) do you want this book to hold?
First and foremost, I intended for this to be a wholesome book involving people who aren’t always seen as being wholesome. Many of the people in Black Sheep are people I’ve known for a long time, who I know as being amazing sons or daughters, or parents, or siblings, though somehow people who don’t know them often find that to be surprising. There’s a big misconception out there that if you’re tattooed or in a hardcore band or write graffiti, then you’ve obviously gotten “lost” along the way probably because you rebelled against and subsequently rejected your family and the idea of positive family values. That’s ridiculous. I wanted to show that family is a hugely important and influential staple for all of these people, no matter their level of celebrity or their scene.
Not only does the book give the contributors a chance to celebrate their families, but it also aims to bridge the gap between subculture and mainstream culture by using family as a common denominator. People who aren’t familiar with the contributors or the scenes in which they participate have the chance to see these individuals in a different light, and thereby embrace their similarities instead of concentrating on their differences. We’re pretty much all family to somebody. In that sense, the title of the book is ironic. As I say in the preface: “This is not really a book about black sheep, or at least it’s not about disfavored and disreputable individuals, as the idiom suggests. Instead, this is a book about individuals who are black sheep only insofar as they embrace being true to themselves. They’re not outcasts or pariahs. They’ve all got family backing them up.”
For more information on Karyn’s work or to purchase Black Sheep: An Unconventional Look at Good Ol’ Family Values (are you reading this Santa?!), visit GraySide Projects.