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Calgary’s Shuttered Music Scene: City’s ’90s alt-music community in focus in Studio Bell’s new exhibit featuring the work of the era’s pre-eminent local rock photographer Zoltan Varadi

Zoltan Varadi wishes he had heeded the advice he was given 30 years ago.

“I remember back in my student days, (instructors) telling us to label everything because one day you’ll be sorry if you don’t,” he says, recalling his time studying photojournalism at SAIT in the early 1990s.

“I didn’t listen to any of that!” he says, laughing. “I’m not an archivist.”

Varadi would, however, soon emerge as the pre-eminent photographer of the Calgary music scene during that decade; his images adorning the covers and inside pages of local publications such as FFWD Weekly and CJSW’s VOX Magazine. In total, he snapped thousands of photos of local, national and international acts — many portraits, yes, but many more performance photos, usually captured on live music’s front lines: in community halls and now-defunct clubs such as the Republik, the Night Gallery and the Westward Club.

So when the National Music Centre (NMC) approached Varadi earlier this year about pulling together an exhibition of his black-and-white photography capturing the local alt-music scene from 1992 to 2001, the photographer went to his “archives” — essentially, a large cardboard box stuffed with negatives. 

“Not labelled. All mixed up,” he says.

As such, the 51-year-old Varadi spent several months looking through his negatives — “holding them up to the light because I don’t have a light table” — to settle on the 30 images that will be showcased in Reflections: 10 Years Capturing Calgary’s Alt Music Scene, opening Sept. 18 at Studio Bell.

The exhibition — running until Fall 2022 — includes images of acts both local (Beyond Possession, the Von Zippers, Forbidden Dimension, Huevos Rancheros, and Placebo, featuring a young Leslie Feist) and national (Headstones, Big Sugar, Sloan, Bif Naked, and Maow, featuring Neko Case on drums) in full flight onstage. Many of these photos were never published and will be shown for the first time.

Reflections is Varadi’s second formal display of his photos from the era, following a pop-up show for the Glenbow Museum in 2014. Yet a near-disaster with his archives could have foiled this new exhibition and destroyed Varadi’s decade-long visual record of the city’s music scene.

“The cat had peed in the box,” Varadi says, “and the acid from the cat urine ate away at the emulsion of the negatives. When you scan them, it creates these weird colours and bubbles. He didn’t get most of the music ones, thankfully.”

Just as the city’s music scene has changed significantly since the 1990s, so has Varadi, who still resides in Calgary with his wife, their eight-year-old daughter, two cats and a dog. Once a fixture in local music venues, Varadi admits he doesn’t get out much anymore.

“Life has changed,” he says. “I’ve always been more of a recorded-music guy. That’s still where my fandom is. That’s where it started and where it is now.

“It was a fun time being out and all that stuff but I’m OK where I’m at now. I’m a homebody. I was joking to someone that COVID didn’t really affect my social life at all because I only go out once a year.”

Zoltan Varadi comments on a sample of photos from Reflections: 10 Years Capturing Calgary’s Alt Music Scene

Mr. Chi Pig, SNFU

1993 — In-fest

“I first saw SNFU six or seven years earlier at a community hall in Ramsay. That was a real eye-opener. It was one of the most exciting things I had ever been at. This tiny, little hall. The mosh pit, slam dancers and stage divers. And Mr. Chi Pig, being just all over the place. I had already heard the record, so I was already a fan. It was my gateway to viewing regional music as something just as viable as a big show. It’s where I switched my allegiances from big-ticket items to smaller venues.”

Ron Hadley, Beyond Possession

1996 — The Republik

“It looks like we’re looking at each other straight on. But I remember I was down below the lip of the stage. I was leaning back, and he leaned over, right into my face. When I went to SAIT, outside the darkroom there was a wall of prints from students past and present, and I remember seeing someone had a Beyond Possession shot on the wall. I remember being very envious, wishing I could take a photograph like that. Years later, I got a pretty decent one myself.”

Graham Evans, Huevos Rancheros

Ca. 1995 — The Republik

“Talk about classic rock poses. That guy, watching him onstage, had all the Pete Townshend-type moves, moreso than Brent (Cooper, guitarist). Graham was just all over the place. He was one of my favourite people to watch.”

Leslie Feist, Placebo (MAIN)

Ca. 1993-1995, The Republik

“That Feist shot was in my (pop-up) show. I remember putting it up (on social media) and she actually shared it on Instagram and made the comment that it was her first encounter with a camera as a musician. So that’s kind of cool.”

Sloan and Fans

1996 – Megatunes

“A promotional appearance in support of the album One Chord to Another at the much-loved but sadly defunct Megatunes record shop on 17 Ave. SW. As you can see, the building also housed what was then the brand-new FFWD Weekly, Calgary’s first alternative weekly publication, also lost to the sands of time. The Sloan kids have this fresh, innocent vibe – these friendly, sunny kids.”

Bo Diddley with Steve Pineo

1996 — The Republik

“Bo did two sets in one night at the Republik. You can’t see it in this photo, but he’s wearing a snazzy Republik sweatshirt. Bo closed both sets with an anti-drug rap, which was not great. But the classic material was great and seeing that (cigar box) guitar was cool. Did I get to meet him? No. I’m pretty shy. I don’t go out of my way to meet really anyone. I was a fly on the wall for most of these shows.”