Back in the ’80s and ’90s there was nothing more major label rock than a band’s glossy press photo. You knew you’d made it as a group if you were posing in front of a brick wall or some railroad tracks. But nowadays every band and their keyboard cat are posing in the rail yard because everyone has a camera. This results in a never-ending stream of bad band shots, making a good one more important than ever. As a journalist who is constantly on the hunt for high-quality, interesting shots of artists, it’s a relief that Justin Tyler Close exists.
Close has shot everyone from the Sheepdogs to Carly Rae Jepsen, Hey Ocean! to Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston. He’s editor in chief and creative director for The Lab Magazine so he, too, feels my pain. We caught up with Close to talk about great music photos, and how you can get a stunning DIY shot on a budget.
What is your all-time favorite photo of a band (taken by someone else)?
Wow that’s such a hard question! So many I love. Obviously I’m more drawn to the photos of bands that I really admire and the music I actually listen to. So considering all of that, I would say the first photo that comes to mind would be a shot of Nirvana taken by a good friend of mine, Frank W. Ockenfels 3.
What makes it good?
I think Nirvana’s music is what makes the photo good. Looking at a photograph of a great band automatically creates a sound, so I think that’s why I thought of this image first. Often, shooting bands is hard because a lot of musicians either pose too much or just don’t give a shit, so in this photo I think the entire band just looks comfortable and in the moment. And obviously the technical side of the photo is brilliant from the composition to the lighting and Frank is the man!
When you’re presented with the opportunity to shoot a group, what’s the first step in getting a compelling shot?
I think listening to their music would be my first step. I think the photographers that truly understand music take the best shots. That doesn’t mean you need to know how to mix, master and produce a track, but unless you’re a robot, you can feel what the band is conveying through their tunes and try to vibe with it. I personally also look at all their previous pictures and make sure that I’m doing something totally different if it means technical or just with the actual concept of the shoot.
Once I get on set, I like to start it off with some small chat, getting to know each other, breaking down awkward stranger walls. I often take a shot of whiskey with the band before, so that we’re all on the same level before anyone does anything.
Ok, let’s say I’m in a band that has no money and just a cellphone camera or a little point and shoot, what would you suggest we do?
Well first I would suggest to at least find a buddy to hold the cellphone, so that you’re not taking those ugly Facebook profile shots of your arm extending out to take a high angle picture of yourself, doing the Zoolander face.
After you get your buddy, I would make sure your cellphone is actually capable and technically OK to actually get a quality shot. Then I would find a cool location somewhere, a forest perhaps, or even just a white wall works that has some nice light, maybe drive down to the local party bizarre and pick up some costumes, and go for it. If you’re “too cool” for costumes, then maybe just think of a simple concept and make the cellphone shots work within the actual concept, and pretend that’s what you meant to do. “We wanted it to look like this, duh:” If you don’t tell, no one will ever know.
Conversely, what are some of your press photo pet peeves?
I personally hate it when you can tell the band is bored as hell and they’re just standing there in a line looking right into the lens, not amused by any of this. I totally get that when you’re on tour, you’re basically shooting for every Joe Schmoe publication in every little town you stop, but at least have fun with it. Press is a part of touring, this is what you signed up for, so put on a happy face and do something interesting or at least not be a grumpy diva.
Lastly, what is your favorite music-related photo that you’ve taken?
Well for me I always like my most recent shoot, because it’s new and I haven’t looked at it 100 times, which is for a band called the Sheepdogs. I took these individual portraits of them, which kind of just captured exactly what I wanted, simple, natural and moody. I shot it on old 35mm camera, black and white film, and it just worked for me and for them. Plus, I really love this band – such cool cats and super talented, but still so grounded and humble about all their success. I love that! Plus they’re Canadian!
Close’s Lab Magazine just released their fifth issue, which has music features on Sean Lennon, King Charles, WU LYF, the Sheepdogs and an interview with Willem Dafoe conducted by Wes Anderson. It is available on newsstands worldwide.
The Lab Magazine
Justin Tyler Close on Tumblr
on Apr 04, 2012