Hardcore: the Photography of Rose Cormier
Part concert, part street fight, hardcore is bringing weirdness and angst back to Montreal's music scene. Rose Cormier's been documenting it for the better part of a year.
It’s hard for me to picture Rose Cormier standing in the middle of some giant fist fight.
And yet, that’s how she makes her art. In the past year, Cormier — a 21-year-old photographer who’s about the size of a thimble — has documented the beautiful carnage of Montreal’s hardcore scene.
If you’re unfamiliar with hardcore, think of punk rock but faster, messier and a lot more aggressive. Whereas you might hear the Ramones or even the Sex Pistols on oldies radio, it’s inconceivable that anyone on CHOM 977 would play “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” by the Dead Kennedys without being fired on the spot. It helps to think of it as a rejection of Reagan era capitalism, something too raw to be co-opted and used in a Pepsi commercial (although I’m sure they’ve tried).
At a time when Montreal is losing some of its best small venues to gentrification, hardcore fans are breathing life back onto strips like St-Denis Street and the Lower Main. The scene is small but cult-like, bringing together a few dozen misfits in someone’s basement, a warehouse by the train tracks or the odd bar show at Foufounes Électrique and Turbo Haüs. The crowd of (let’s face it) mostly men takes the concept of a mosh pit and pushes it to the extreme — people hurl themselves at each other, punches are exchanged and the pace is so frenetic that sets rarely last more than 20 minutes.
I was oblivious to the scene until Cormier, an occasional contributor to The Rover, started posting her work on Instagram. Now I’m obsessed with it.
On Monday, Cormier’s concert photography will be on display at Turbo Haüs alongside work by her colleagues Hamza Themonko and Rémi Deschenes. Cormier joined me this week to talk about her work and the wild scene she documents.
Chris Curtis: When people look at your work, what do they see?
Rose Cormier: I try to focus on movement. Like you’re capturing this moment, not just a time and a place but this actual living moment. And then, when people shoot hardcore shows, it tends to be black and white, gritty, grainy but I like to add dashes of colour. Like, I love a good black and white photo — and I take plenty of them myself — but there’s a nice contrast when you capture the blue and purple lights at Turbohaus (a frequent hardcore venue).
Curtis: Some of the photos have a real ‘glam shots’ quality to them. Like it’s something you’d see at a mall in the 1980s.
Rose: I stopped shooting before the pandemic because I was getting too obsessed with perfection. Everything had to respect the rule of thirds, everything had to be edited to perfection. It was overwhelming, it never felt good enough.
So I ended up picking up a film camera and you can’t edit those. With film, you can’t take 700 photos and just choose three. You have 36 shots and that’s all you get. It’s liberating. But it’s also incredibly expensive so I got a digital camera and tried to figure out how not to make it look digital. I don’t want it to be perfect. I would spend so much time looking at pictures from the 1970s and they’re overexposed or underexposed but they somehow still feel good. That’s what I’m going for.
Curtis: In your work, it often feels like the line between audience and performers gets blurry. In some of your photos, I see a singer who gets right in an audience member's face or people almost mobbing the stage. Is this specific to hardcore? And how would you even explain hardcore to someone who may never of heard it. How do you explain hardcore to my 67-year-old father. His name is Mike.
Rose: I barely knew what hardcore was six months ago. And then I got my first gig and I was scared shitless because people in the audience were slamming into each other, throwing punches and I’m this little photographer stuck in the middle. Wait, what was the question?
Curtis: What does hardcore sound like? What does it feel like?
Rose: Well it’s loud. Really loud. It’s in your face and there’s so much happening everywhere. All you have to do is figure out your confidence level and you’ve gotta trust that everyone there is good natured and won’t hit you in the face. It’s just about ripping shit up for maximum 20 minutes, the audience is throwing down — I don’t know why — but it brings them joy. It’s like shaking your sillies out but with angst.
A lot of the pictures where a singer and audience member are screaming in each other’s face, it’s bands that have been around for awhile. The lyrics resonate, people scream along. Usually the people they’re screaming at are their friends. I don’t think I know a single hardcore lyric — I don’t really listen to it on my spare time — but it’s no so much about the lyricism as it is the emotion. Some of these songs are like 45 seconds long. It’s about a big riff, a mood, a community. It’s an excuse to get with your buddies and let it all out.
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Curtis: Can you talk about some of the hardcore venues? I know Turbo Haüs is a big one but I’ve also heard you describe warehouses, people’s basements, that sort of thing.
Rose: There’s some pretty grimy ones but the biggest grimy one is probably Trackside in St-Henri. It’s a big DIY venue — people smoking inside, selling Whiteclaws for 50 cents, shows going till three in the morning. You leave there and you have to wash your clothes. It sort of exists in this legal grey area. Someone’s in charge for sure, someone’s booking bands, someone’s paying the electrical bill and there’s some structure.
But then there are places that are really just someone’s basement, basements of businesses, there’s a big one Saturday at Bain Mathieu — an old public bath. Usually, I shoot less grimy venues because the grimy ones don’t want pictures taken.
Curtis: When did it dawn on you that there was something special about hardcore in Montreal?
Rose: When I started working as a server at Turbo Haüs, I got a new camera and started seeing a lot of these shows pass through. Everything felt new again so maybe it was just my own curiosity and excitement happened to coincide with this thing I just noticed.
Curtis: What do you shoot with?
Rose: A Sony mirrorless camera. Usually cameras have mirrors that reflect what the lens sees but these don’t. They’re great though. What happens, on this camera, you’re looking at a digital reproduction of what the lens sees. It’s not real. It feels a lot different than most cameras. I also use a 50 mm lens that works for an analog camera but I have a hookup that makes it work on digital. It already has a film feel to it. I have a wide angle lens too because so many of these shows are in tiny venues.
As I was figuring out the equipment, I was also trying to get a sense of how the shows play out, how the music builds and how you can see that big moment coming. And then you just try to build your confidence, to put yourself in the thick of things and own your space. Sometimes there’s other photographers at the gigs and it’s hard not to be intimidated by that at first. You have to remind yourself that you’re all doing good work, you’re all there for a reason, it’s not a competition.
Curtis: How is it shooting these shows now that you’re used to it?
Rose: Crowd shots. When I started, I thought ‘Oh it’s too dark, no one’s gonna see anything.’ But the crowd is sort of the best part. So I changed the way I edit (photos) and it became so fun. I’m still trying to figure out how to make it work.
Curtis: What’s Turbo Haüs like?
Rose: There’s a bar on one side, soundproof doors, a venue on the other side. Turbo’s got a really low stage so it’s almost like the bands are in the audience. They have these LED strip lights that you can’t miss. They’re in every picture. You have to learn how to make them work for you. You have to.
Turbo’s not just a hardcore venue. We do rock and pop. I work at the bar so it’s gotten much more comfortable for me to shoot at Turbo. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I can stand on the speakers cause I work here!’
Curtis: I read a few articles about how, in the 80s, some of the hardcore scene got co-opted by white supremacists and skinheads. Did that have a lasting impact? Because the crowd seems predominantly white.
Rose: The people that are problematic get called out fast, they get excluded fast. If there’s one Nazi who feels comfortable in your bar, it’s a Nazi bar. I think that applies here. We can’t tolerate that and we don’t. It’s not super diverse but it’s getting better. I often here that I almost only shoot dude bands but I don’t get to pick who plays at the venue.
There’s a collective called Les insoumises that pushes for nonbinary women and every kind of minority band. It still happens that you have bills that are all dudes and it is still very white. But the younger bands are very diverse, there are more and more people of colour at the shows, there are all women groups and it’s not just tokenism. No one wants to be included just because they’re the token whatever but no one wants to be excluded because of who they are either. We have a lot of work to do but, like I said, the younger bands are changing things.
Curtis: How big is the scene?
Rose: It’s not so much how big it is as how intense it is. Some people can get by just playing shows but those people tend to be in five or six bands. Some people -- like the guy from Prowl -- he’s a stylist in his everyday life. Super chill at work, rips shit up on stage. There’s some bigger bands but the biggest you can get, in hardcore, is not that big. It’s a subculture.
But there isn’t a desire for a lot of these bands to get big. Probably because they all have day jobs and it takes a lot of time but that’s not really the point. The point, as far as I can tell, is just to have an excuse to hang out with your friends. Kind of like fantasy football. You have this thing you all care about and obsess over. It’s a community, the same 50 kids trading the same $20 bill to watch each other’s bands.
Loved reading this! Rose takes beautiful action shots!!