The first time Erin Carolan met Lisa Gourley was at the Living Room in 1997. “She was there with three or four cameras,” Carolan remembers. “I thought it was so cool to see a female photographer elbow in — and watch guys get out of her way so she could get the shot. My favorite thing about Lisa is that she’s always all in.”
As a lover of local music, Carolan still sees Gourley — and chances are, if you love local music, you have, too. She still carries multiple cameras (one recording, another snapping shots) and stands up front; often in a long dress and black jacket or sweater, her blond hair parted down the middle. If she knows it’s your birthday, she may surprise you with a cake. If you’re in a band, you might use her photos for press releases and album covers. Legend has it, a photo of a Providence pit graces the wall of a clothing store in Germany who was trying to sell punk clothing — and snagged one of Gourley’s black and white photos as the perfect ambiance.
“Lisa was, and still is, at every show,” Carolan says. “How she does it? Nobody knows. But you wake up in the morning with a magical file of you and your friends. Sometimes at your worst, sometimes at your best, but always a shot with your true essence.”
Gourley may not be on stage herself, but through decades of dedication has created a digital archive of RI music history. John Difruscio, current “Commander in Chief” at Askew and previous manager of Firehouse 13, calls Gourley a cornerstone of the music community. He remembers first seeing her in 1985 at the Bubble Room-era Living Room.
“What you don’t do is notice it at the time it’s happening,” Difruscio says. “Then it’s years later and you’re seeing memories that maybe you’ve forgotten about. There’s not too many communities as thoroughly documented as Providence.”
Difruscio says he hopes Gourley one day comes out with a hardcover book of her photos; they carry a special resonance in particular, he notes, after someone passes away. Her social media, soon after, is filled with hundreds of photos of the deceased and memories shared by others.
By nature, Gourley is a connector (approach her at a show and she’ll surely introduce you to whoever is nearby) and her work doesn’t discriminate. She’s photographed known national acts and club shows with more people on stage than in the audience. In 2011, Firehouse 13 hosted a gallery show in an attempt to celebrate the breadth of her work: “20 Years of Rock n’ Roll in Providence” featuring her photos and a weekend of local bands. (Eight years later, Gourley’s collection has surely grown by the thousands.)
Kerry Lee Broderick, singer and guitarist of The Evil Streaks, was one of the bands who played the Firehouse shows. “Many of my favorite photos of me playing are ones she took,” Broderick says of Gourley’s work. “Her kindness and dedication to capture the music scene is admirable. We are so lucky to have someone like her; so passionate about photographing bands she loves because now we have these mementos, and treasures, to remind us of great times.”