FEATURE: Patience, Poker and Snap: The Art of Music Photography

FEATURE:

 

 

Patience, Poker and Snap

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IN THIS PHOTO: Hayley Williams captured in 2017/PHOTO CREDIT: Heather Hawke

The Art of Music Photography

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THE biggest problem I have with new musicians…

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IN THIS PHOTO: Madonnatron photoed during the Green Door Store's seventh birthday celebrations earlier this year/PHOTO CREDITTLBrooker Imagery

is the rankle regarding photos – or a distinct lack thereof. My interviews and reviews are always full of great shots that give a visual edge to things. The reason I require about six or seven images, high-resolution, from each artist is that visuals are vital when making an eye-catching and interesting piece. If I had a long interview with one photo and a block of text; not only would it look dry and like an academic text – people would grow a bit weary. Photos keep you hooked and, more importantly, show different sides to an artist mere words cannot convey. It may sound like a whorey old cliché but a picture really can paint a thousand words. A photo – maybe there are some swear words in there – can say so much more. Artists always come back to me and ask the question: Why do you need so many images?! The reason I love images and want to make my pages as rich as possible is to give them a professional look but show what great work is being done by music photographers right now. I have included shots from Heather Hawke, Georgia Penny and Thomas Brooker (among others) to show how each photographer has their own style and personality. I love seeing music photography because, in a digital age, it is more important than ever.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Taking Back Sunday during a set at this year's Slam Dunk Festival/PHOTO CREDIT: Georgia Penny Photo

Maybe a certain vintage look and authenticity have been lost: so many snappers use the best cameras and want to get the clearest possible images. Although getting into photography is not that cheap – there is the camera and accessories to go with it – getting a basic kit together and going to as many gigs as possible is a great experience. Bands and artists always want to be captured and feel great when they see a photo of them in the music press. For me, photography in music is as vital as a video. Things are so digital and faceless at the moment – photos give music a sense of soul and colour that is lacking from streaming. We are all too busy flicking through playlists and not really looking up. Without a physical product (a vinyl or C.D.) and only the sound available, it can be hard to understand what a song/artist is about. Photos give you that important visual representation and bring new sides out. Of course, it can be a bit costly for new artists to hand over the cash when it comes to snaps. I often get people saying they cannot afford a photoshoot because they are new and do not have much money. I emphasise but would argue that even a top photographer is not going to charge mega-bucks for a single shoot – when you can get seven or eight good images to share with the press and on social media.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Florence + the Machine in Lake Tahoe this year/PHOTO CREDITLillie Eiger

Even if it is a bit of a cost it is all part of the marketing campaign and an investment that will pay for itself. Few things annoy me more than bands and artists with very few good images – Metal bands are especially guilty! – or a few crappy phone pictures they have put. I am not saying every artist needs to have an arsenal of professional and great images but there is something very pleasing viewing a portfolio when you have an option to choose photos that express a range of moods and moments. A great music photography can get an artist to come out of themselves or reveal something mysterious (if doing a portrait). In the live setting, they can capture that single moment members of the audience might have missed (especially with people filming gigs on their phones!). It is almost like watching wildlife: you are waiting for that defining shot that drops the jaw and cannot be easily replicated. Those who feel photography is an easy quality that we can all do now – on our phones – need their head checked. It is much more than selecting the right camera and being ‘in the right place at the right time’. The best music photos have a concept or design.

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IN THIS PHOTO: IDLES/PHOTO CREDIT: Pooneh Ghana for DIY

Look at the image of IDLES above. It is a shot that shows them in all their game, gooey and goofy glory – a banquet of colours, bare flesh and intriguing interplay. Pooneh Ghana is an excellent photographer and someone I have been following for a while. It is a different discipline snapping from an audience or stage as opposed to a studio or on-location. The latter involves more concept, design and wardrobe. It is a subtler and more delicate procedure where you have the time to set a shot up but do not want to make it look fake and boring. The live shot is that instant and quick reaction where you need to get a great photo and be in the right position. I know music photographers take multiple images a gig but it is still about being in the moment and having the right equipment. Maybe the photographer is in that special place that captures a perfect angle; they are part of the crowd (moshing or dancing) or pick the right song that defines a gig. There is so much to consider, emotionally, physically and technically before you even take that shot. The greatest music photos ever can go down in history and be seen as works as art. We see rare photos of big artists and can learn more from a single image as we can an album or interview.

I will go on to look at music photography and how to get into it but, before then, I want to bring in a couple of articles. This piece, written in 2016, spotlighted Kana (Kana Waiwaiku) who uses a single moment and atmosphere to bring something unique and special from an artist. His shots vary between portraits and live shots but seem to convey so much emotion and texture. I shall quote from the piece that unearths valuable advice and insight from those looking to get into the industry:

Music photography is a heavily saturated industry. With many emerging photographers happy to shoot for free to have their name associated with musicians, it has become very difficult to make a living by specializing in music. But there are a few pioneers who have risen amongst this heightened competition; this is the story of renowned music photographer Kana Waiwaiku.

The 31 year old Londoner, Kana, has swam against the tide his entire life both personally and professionally. He describes trying to establish himself whilst being true to his personal vision as an uphill struggle. But with great dedication to his craft, Kana's brand of music photography has gained many admirers. Yet the biggest compliment I can give is that you can identify his work without needing to look at the credits.

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 PHOTO CREDIT: Kana

“…As a young, black, British man growing up in London, Kana’s early experimentation in photography is full of elegant anecdotes that he describes as love letter to the craft. My favorite one was of his run-in with the police when out taking long exposures in a dark London park.

I got stopped by the police once because they had thought I’d nicked all this camera gear. I’d tried to convince them I was taking 30 second exposures, but they were having none of it.

It’s this reality in his personal experiences that I feel comes across in his work, yet he never shies away from how difficult an industry it was to crack whilst trying to stay true to the spirit of his work. Even his first few times spent in the photo pit at gigs he was shooting film, then taking his work into the dark room to physically mark his expression in post”.

This piece, written for DIY Musician interviewed photographer Jason Gardner back in 2010. A few sage and interesting questions were asked that could be of help to budding photographers and musicians alike:

Which advice would you give someone when selecting a photographer?

The first thing to do is look at the work. Look at the photos they choose to display on their site. You want to see a couple things, and if you can determine it from the photos, great. If not, that’s fine too. Do they specialize in outdoor/exotic locations, or is it all studio? That’s the big thing with music and photographers in general and speaks to what kind of work you want to produce for yourself too. Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but the outdoor work tends to be a little bit more visually interesting than just a blank wall. It tends to be less artificially lit. Studios inside could be five lights, and this could just be one light. Part of that is a little soul searching as to what kind of vibe you think you and your band mates would react to more. Some bands love to go into the studio with six lights because they feel like rock stars. And some have had so much of that they want to go to a random corner in remote Brooklyn where no one knows them and they can run around naked.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Surfbort/PHOTO CREDITSacha Lecca 

I am awful at being photographed because I never know what to do with my face or my eyes. Can you advise someone on how to take better photos? Is there something to being a good subject?

That’s a good question. Part of it is in the pre-visualization/collaboration. It’s talking about what image you want to portray. I shot this guy recently, who is starting a punk music label. He never smiles, and we knew that was happening. He was scowling and fist clenching. That’s kind of an extreme. It depends on the image you want to portray. You don’t want to be too smiley/goofy when the desired result is a somewhat serious photo. What I like to do is provide musicians with a whole different bunch of looks. Let’s say we’re doing five locations and three wardrobes. All the sub-categories within those. Some they are looking at the camera, some they are looking away, some they are looking at each other. Some they are with their instruments, and some without. Some are more contemplative, and some aren’t.

I don’t think musicians need to put a lot of pressure on themselves to be a good subject. I think part of that is the photographer’s burden/job. But part of it is keeping your mind and heart open to the photographer’s suggestions. A portrait is like a conversation, and not just a one-way conversation. A one-way conversation would be the subject saying, “This is what I have to say, and it’s here.” A two-way conversation would be the photographer judiciously and subtly art directing them and moving them here, to and fro or adjusting the group dynamic.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Rhiannon Giddens (2018)/PHOTO CREDIT: Claire Harbage/NPR

If you can’t afford a photographer, are there some simple things you can advise people about their photographs? When you look at a crappy, amateurish photo, are there a handful of things you can steer people away from doing?

One thing I would say would be regarding your wardrobe. Unless your persona onstage is to wear crazy costumes or you are like KISS with full-on makeup, I would say for musicians it depends, but the photo should be about you and not what you’re wearing. What you’re wearing should not call the attention away from your face, instrument, facial expressions, mohawk, whatever. I’d say wearing plaids and polka dots and major patterns is more distracting than solid colored clothes. Of course someone like Eugene from Gogol Bordello would be a different story, because he is all about that kind of craziness”.

I have titled this article as such because I believe music photographer is a game of patience and cunning; you need a poker face and be able to, in a sense, bluff the intuition to just endlessly shoot and hope something sticks. You also need a certain amount of dare and risk when you are taking that shot. Is there a formula and set chemistry to getting that perfect/rare photo?! This article, written by photographer Sacha Lecca, shed some light:

I’ve never been happy just shooting the first three songs at a concert, stuck in a pit with 20 other photographers all trying to get the same thing.

Traditional live shots can feel dated quickly. The challenge is to find a unique moment that will endure.

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PHOTO CREDIT: Unsplash 

Rather than give an overall representation of the concert, the best music photographers will capture one sliver of stillness amid the madness – little details away from the stage, among the crowd.

I’m just as interested in seeing the opening act if they’re unknown to me. They’ll often play separate shows elsewhere in the city, leading me to other bands and other venues.

Letting those connections grow makes me excited to shoot as much as I can. Sometimes you never know what’s going to happen”.

Is it just a case, especially when taking live shots, for a photographer to simply rock up and start snapping? Sarah Arnold, for SmugMug, provides some useful tips for those who are new and not sure how to approach artists. She looks at the art of concert photography and raises some interesting points:

Don’t be shy.

 The majority of the concerts I’ve shot, I’ve walked straight up to the band and asked them directly, “Would you mind if I take photos?” 99% of the time, they are excited a photographer is interested and have absolutely no problem saying yes. You have to be a bit of reporter when trying to track down the band. I usually find where they’re located backstage or wait until they are on stage setting up and simply approach them. In many cases, I’ve ended up becoming friends with the band members and am given stage passes as well as put on the guest list for future shows… 

Don’t get flashy, kid.

Whether it’s natural spot lighting or a colorful light show, concerts have unique lighting systems. Usually the stage lighting used produces a much more natural capture, while flash can distract the musicians during their performance and can interfere with the experience for those involved.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Dua Lipa/PHOTO CREDIT: Heather Hawke

Location.

Moving around is key. You want to get entire venue shots showing the band and the concert attendees from behind, as well as those awesome detail shots taken from the front of the stage. The bigger the band, the more likely the front of the stage will be crowded and difficult to navigate. Staying in one place is easier, but you’ll miss some great shots”.

That might sound like a breathless and whistle-stop tour of music photography but I hope there is advice in there and useful guides – in addition to an explanation as to why photography is crucial in music and what a great photo can do. Those who turn their noses up and think that anyone can go into photography is half-right. Anyone, literally, can become a music photographer but your amateur capturing shots on their phone are not in the same league as the professional. I am yet to see a convincing argument for allowing people to use phones at gigs: I am yet to find a convincing argument that makes music photography irrelevant. Images are crucial and, at a time when competition is fierce and artists are struggling, having great photos is essential. Recently, I interviewed Delroy Matty about his experiences and asked him this question:

One of my biggest gripes is artists without good photos. Do you think great music relies on striking visuals? How many words, in fact, can a picture/photo say?!

Photos and visuals are so, so important as it helps people to recognise you, the artist or the brand. Look. If there was a shelf with two rows of Coca-Cola; one row had the Coca-Cola branding on the can and the other row was still Coca-Cola but had nothing on the can; what one would you pick up? It would be the one with the visual because you know what to expect inside the can but both rows were Coca-Cola but the one with the better image looked more appealing. So, yes, image and visuals very important”.

Articles like this one offer some useful advice for those starting in the business. Have a read – but this closing point really stands out:

I find this last point to be the most important one. You don´t have to pretend to be someone else. Be authentic, be real and people will appreciate you for who you are and your work. It´s good to have a look at what other photographers are up to and it´s great to seek some inspiration from them. But you have to find your own way. I believe that everyone has her/his own voice. Find it and you will be able to communicate your vision to others”.

Authenticity is important if you want to be a music photographer: creating your own style and dynamic will stand out to artists looking for photographers and means you are not lazily copying others. I will pop in a video as a guide how to become a music photographer but, before I go, make sure you keep a track of guides and articles that will give you a useful leg-up and push. I have included a selection of music photographs that show brilliant instinct, emotion and skill. Anyone who claims music photography is dead or irrelevant needs to have a look at the great work out there. Look at music websites like The Line of Best Fit and DIY; take a look at The Guardian and NME - stuffed with epic and perfect shots that ingrain themselves in the mind. There is an army of upcoming music photographers who are at the gigs getting that best representation of an artist; they are calling the shots in studios and bringing new life to bands; they are braving the bad weather, keen to capture a unique moment. They are the (largely) uncredited army doing sterling and incredible work that now, more than ever, certainly…

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IN THIS PHOTO: Jimmy Eat World during a set at this year's Slam Dunk Festival/PHOTO CREDIT: Georgia Penny Photo

DESERVE your respect.