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The Go-Go’s Photo Exhibit at Saint Joseph’s is a Missed Opportunity

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Reproductions of old Go-Go's concert posters, stuck to a cabinet downstairs at Saint Joseph's Art Society's 'Gina Schock: Made in Hollywood' exhibit. (Johnny Dismal)

The Go-Go’s, in many ways, were the rock band equivalent of that kid in your high school who got straight As while also regularly ditching class and smoking under the bleachers. It’s easy to forget how exceptional they were because they always maintained a casual air of being scrappy and relatable.

In reality, The Go-Go’s are, to this day, the only all-female band to reach the top of the Billboard album chart while playing their own instruments and writing their own songs. Vocalist Belinda Carlisle, bassist Kathy Valentine, guitarists Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin, and drummer Gina Schock did that in 1982 with their first album, Beauty and the Beat. It stayed at number one for six weeks, went double platinum in the U.S., and is still considered one of the most successful debuts of all time. In October, the band was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Schock marked the event by releasing a book of her photos documenting the band’s history.

If you’ve seen that book, Made In Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s, you already know that Schock’s photos are amazing. They’re funny and gritty and honest. They’re images of the band at their most beautiful and their most disheveled. These are shots of The Go-Go’s clowning around, doing blow, goofing off, and scowling from the back of the van. And together, they provide a perfect snapshot of five women boldly going where few women had gone before.

As Valentine notes in the foreword: “It’s one thing to casually take pictures; it’s another thing altogether when the photographer is one of you … It’s the photos, from behind the scenes, that tell the most evocative accounts.”

To celebrate the book and the band, Saint Joseph’s Art Society—a converted Catholic church refurbished, luxuriantly, by designer Ken Fulk—is exhibiting Gina Schock: Made in Hollywood. But the way Schock’s work is presented in the space only serves to minimize it, the way that so many have minimized the work of The Go-Go’s before.

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The bulk of Schock’s photos are contained, in their original (very small) sizes, under ten 24-by-24-inch glass panels arranged on a large upstairs dining table. The horizontal presentation would be reminiscent of an end-of-year middle school art show if only the lighting wasn’t so bad. Picture the kind of dimness that your mother tells you not to read in lest you strain your eyes, combined with aggressive spotlights that reflect off the glass and obscure the images further. Trying to view Schock’s photography in this way is an exercise in pure frustration. (One can only imagine how much worse it is for wheelchair users who aren’t able to stand and bend double over the table.)

People look down on a table where the photographs are displayed under glass.
The dimly lit dining table of doom. (Johnny Dismal)

Infuriatingly, there are tantalizing glimpses of what this exhibit could have been. Like the four Polaroids blown up, framed and hung on the wall at a scale and angle where you can actually see what’s happening in them. For a moment, I thought these images—of hot tub tomfoolery, and of The Go-Go’s hanging with Joan Jett, Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman from the Rolling Stones—were leading to a space where there would be more like them. Instead, they led me directly into the bathroom. It’s clear that putting this exhibit directly next to the john was not a winking, knowing nod to first-wave punk sensibilities. It feels more like no one could be bothered to make space for it anywhere else in this giant building.

Two framed photos hang on a pink wall. One shows Joan Jett and Gina Schock in the '80s, smiling with their arms around each other. The other shows The Go-Go's horsing around in a hot tub.
Gina Schock’s Polaroids blown up to a scale where people can actually see and enjoy them. Why didn’t someone just run to Kinko’s and make more of these? (Rae Alexandra)

On Made in Hollywood’s opening night—Saturday, Nov. 13—Gina Schock was present to sign copies of her book and conduct an hour-long interview with San Francisco Chronicle columnist Tony Bravo. Schock enthusiastically talked about the book, her background in Baltimore, her life in bands, young Jodie Foster’s honorary status as “the sixth Go-Go,” Jane Fonda’s secret smoking habits, and being only the second female drummer inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (“Now that we can vote for everything,” Schock noted, “we wanna get the B-52’s in, we wanna get Cher, we wanna get Suzi Quatro. We’ve got a list of the girls that we want to get in there who should already be in there. Hopefully we can help change things.”)

Schock radiates an infectious high energy and her on-stage charm made a visit to the opening worthwhile. But without her presence, the show falls flat in a way that shouldn’t be possible with a photo collection this fearless. (Only on my third go around the dining table did I notice Belinda Carlisle labeled as “Bighead” on one Polaroid.) If you want to see Schock’s photos in a context that actually does them justice, buying her new book or watching Showtime’s warts-and-all documentary The Go-Go’s, are both much better options than a visit to Saint Joseph’s. Schock’s work and The Go-Go’s legacy deserve more fanfare—and much more wall space—than this.

‘Made In Hollywood: All Access with the Go-Go’s’ is out now through Black Dog & Leventhal. Photos and posters from the book are on view at Saint Joseph’s Art Society (1401 Howard St., San Francisco) through Dec. 23.

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