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In love and death
Pia Schachterís portraits of death metal

When Pia Schachter photographs death-metal fans and musicians, her subjects are often disarmed by her images. "They always say, ĎYou make me look gay,í " she laughs. Itís their way, Schachter explains, of saying that sheís made them look pretty. This is a theme that runs through "Defiance," an exhibit of these photos on view this month at Allston Skirt Gallery: where others see only rage and darkness, Schachter discerns a deep and abiding beauty. "Itís like Emperor," she says, referring to the iconic Norwegian black-metal band. "You have this wall of noise, but behind that wall of noise are operatic melodies."

But "Defiance" is also, Schachter says, about the death-metal scene as a working community, a brotherhood, and a safe haven for hyper-masculinity ó the kind of place that might save its members from still-darker fates. Itís a topic she knows a few things about. She prefers not to talk in detail about the events that led her to death metal except to say that she "lost an important younger family member." As she discovered death metal playing on the stereo at the old Flyrabbit boutique in Allston and observed its fans congregating at events like MassConcerts promoter Scott Leeís annual New England Hardcore and Metal Festival, she began to ask herself a question. "Thereís so much safety in hanging out with people who are into the same thing youíre into. In a lot of ways, this is exploring whether or not this young lad who passed away, if heíd got into this community, if it would have saved his life. And my answer is 100 percent yes."

Schachter was 38 when she began to photograph death-metal bands. She was young enough to appreciate the music of Today Is the Day. But she was older, too. "I could see that whole world in a different perspective: analyzing it as a community, seeing how they interact, and how they need each other, how they need this music. People are looking at death metal and extreme metal as these scary-looking guys, but you go to Metal Fest and theyíre [greeting each other] like, ĎBrother!í, and they hug each other, and itís the coolest thing: itís like, weíre here for some loving!" In a culture thatís sending mixed messages to young males about their roles, Schachter says, constructs like organized sports, NASCAR, and heavy metal offer places where they can safely act out their aggression. "Itís a tough time to admit your romantic side. And in death metal, Iíve noticed that men express a very romantic side. Look at Opeth or Type O Negative: what theyíre doing is utterly romantic, but itís under this protective mask of rrrrrrrgh! and noise and angst, so they donít feel theyíre being too mushy ó so you canít laugh at them. In order to be passionate and romantic, they have to dress it up in black."

The death-metal community reminds Schachter of the early Boston punk scene, which she observed first-hand more than two decades ago. A high-school dropout in the mid í70s, she became a muse to a number of Boston School photographers including Jack Pierson and the late Mark Morissroe. But it wasnít until after sheíd spent a number of years as a beauty columnist for the Phoenixís old sister mag, Stuff, and the Improper Bostonian that Pierson saw pictures Schachter had taken of her daughter and encouraged her to pursue her own photography career. In her death-metal portraits, Schachter has taken cues from Renaissance portraiture. "The main inspiration is Caravaggio, and what Iím trying to show is the romanticism, the Renaissance-like beauty of these young men, and show, in a way, how we would do Renaissance portraits of those who were on the cutting edge of creating art."

She says she often instructs her subjects to look at the camera. "Itís like a deer-in-the-headlights thing. For some strange reason, I get this look, and itís always a sad look. The photographers who were my inspiration were Jack [Pierson] and Mark [Morissroe], who were very homo-erotic photographers, but my approach has nothing to do with sexuality, even though theyíre really hot guys ó theyíve all got really long hair, they look like Vikings. But Iím trying to capture something else. And I still donít know what it is."

"Pia Schachter: Defiance" is on view through November 27 at Allston Skirt Gallery, 450 Harrison Avenue in the South End; call (617) 482-3652.

Issue Date: November 12 - 18, 2004
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