Here at Outsider Music Press we want to spotlight the music we love as well as the people working behind it. Today’s feature is about Jason Quigley who adores music and wishes to capture it photographically. Over the years, Quigley has taken tons of dynamic live shots of his favorite Portland based bands as well as conducted quirky promo shoots that have gone on the be published throughout the local press. Outsider Music Press was lucky enough to chat with him via e-mail about his work and well as feature a few of his favorite shots in his growing catalog.
When did you start doing photography? What initially drew you to the medium? Do you have formal training?
Right after college, about 8 years ago. I’d been interested in photography for a long time, playing with my dad’s old Minolta when I was a kid, and just using crappy 35mm point and shoots to take pictures of friends. I didn’t buy a “nice” camera until I got a job after school and had some money to spend. I took a couple photography 101 classes at PCC and a few workshops at Newspace but the rest of my education has been trial-by-error and learning from other much better photographers. Since I was a big music dork it was kind of inevitable I’d start taking a camera to shows. I decided that I wasn’t any good at playing music, so I’d become rich and famous by photographing other people doing it. I’m still working on the rich and famous part.
Do other music photographers inspire you? Who has been a source of inspiration?
Jim Marshall, Annie Leibovitz, and Bob Gruen are the obvious answers but Charles Peterson is probably the biggest reason I started shooting music. In high school, after I had outgrown my Wilson Phillips and Shaquille O’Neal phase, I was totally into the whole Seattle “grunge” thing. By the mid-90′s the big hype explosion had long since come and gone but I lived in Klamath Falls, Oregon before the internet and therefore didn’t know any better. I loved me some Nirvana, Mudhoney, Soundgarden, the Fastbacks, Pearl Jam, etc etc. Still do, but I’ve branched out a bit. Anyway, Charles Peterson pretty much shot all those bands and he was the guy who took most of the photos in the Kurt Cobain biographies I voraciously read. His work is stunning and I wanted to emulate it when I started shooting bands. I really wanted to take the photos for album covers and get my name in the liner notes. I really admire a lot of other contemporary photographers who happen to photograph musicians. Autum de Wilde’s work with Elliott Smith (and every indie rock band you can think of) is breathtaking. Peter Ellenby single-handedly inspired me to buy a Holga. Pat Graham’s photos of Fugazi, Bikini Kill and Modest Mouse among others are amazing. I also really like to follow the work of local photographers like Alicia Rose, Jeff Mawer, Inger Klekacz, Nathan Backous, and Liz Devine to name a few. There are almost as many photographers in Portland as bands…Almost.
What gets you “in the zone” while doing live photography?
It certainly helps if I like the music. If not, it’s hard to care much about what I’m shooting and if you don’t care about your subject it shows.
How do you know when you get a good shot?
I often don’t know when I get a good shot. Most of the time I think I know but when I look through everything later “the one” is crap and some other photo that I barely remember taking is awesome.
Do you prefer to shoot bands that are animated on stage – flailing around and rocking out – or do you find you can also take intimate portraits of more focused songwriters?
They both make for interesting subjects in their own way. The flailing, rocking bands are obviously really fun because they fill the photos with energy but a closeup of a quiet songwriter can be pretty powerful if you capture the right expression. Trouble is [someone] sitting still and playing an acoustic guitar under constant lighting is way too easy and pretty soon all the shots start to blend together.
What sorts of themes interest you when doing promotional shots? Do you collaborate with the bands on ideas or do you come to the session with a plan?
Honestly I struggle a bit at coming up with creative “themes” for promotional portraits. I always write down a few ideas before meeting with a band, but we usually brainstorm and talk about other ideas they have, and they’re often more interesting. I like simplicity and spontaneity so that usually means we meet at their house or a predetermined location and just walk around taking photos. Sometimes I think I’d like to set up a fancy set with costumes and elaborate lighting and try and tell a story and all that but I rarely have any budget or resources to do such a thing. I really enjoy photographing bands in the studio or in their practice space, just working things out. It’s exciting to be there and hear new songs take shape or watch as familiar ones get laid down on tape and visually document it all. I love seeing old photos of legendary bands in the studio, concentrating on a vocal track or arguing with the guitar player or whatever. They’re intimate – historical documents – and I’d like to think maybe someday a few of my photos will have that quality, if I get lucky. Besides, if you only photograph a band playing on stage, 100 other photographers might have the exact same shots from some other venue in some other town so it’s really difficult to make your work stand out.
Do you edit your photography digitally?
If I’m shooting digitally, yes, but I try not to go overboard. It’s real easy to get carried away when you have an expensive camera and Photoshop and try to “fix” the exposure, colors, composition…you have to stop and remind yourself that hey, great live music is often imperfect and chaotic, so the pictures should be too.
Music is a very fluid art form. How does music inspire still images? How do you feel your work portrays the music and the musicians themselves?
That’s hard to answer; I guess I’m coming more from a photojournalist angle than artistic. Most of the bands I’ve photographed I’ve done so because I love their music and I want to freeze that particular performance or moment. Music and photography have gone hand in hand for a long time…I think because of people like me who are music fans but it’s not enough to just listen and watch. We want to feel more connected, like we’re a part of the “scene” for lack of a better word. I hope I portray the music and musicians positively and honestly. I hope people like my work and want to have me around taking their photos. Musicians, like most people, are uncomfortable having their picture taken and there is understandably a lot of mistrust of photographers – especially these days when every kid with a decent camera is a “photographer” and every picture they take ends up on the internet forever. I just want to be known as a good photographer who can be trusted to respect peoples’ image and art.
Point Juncture WA
Any particular bands you enjoy photographing? Live? Promotional? Why?
I like photographing my friends’ bands because we know each other. They’re comfortable with me hanging around with a camera and they trust me so it’s easier to capture them candidly. A few of my favorite bands to shoot live have been Hey Lover, Big Black Cloud, the Snuggle Ups, 31Knots – to name a few; the kind of bands whose performance is barely controlled chaos are the most fun. Monotonix at MFNW 2008 was insane – that chaos wasn’t controlled at all. I photographed the PDX Pop Now! festival fairly extensively for the first five years of its existence and loved it. They book such a crazy variety of bands, so a metal band will follow hip hop which will follow folk or experimental, noise, etc. So I saw so many great performances from artists I’d never heard and basically learned the art of concert photography in the process. Also, Alan Singley, just because that guy is a performer and nobody has more fun playing a show than him. As for promotional portraits, I had a lot of fun with Menomena a few years ago. We went to Malibu Speedway in Beaverton and just took pictures of them with go-karts. They are really nice guys and seem willing to do pretty much anything for a silly portrait. The Angry Orts are good subjects as well. Mainly because James, the bass player, has no shame.
What sorts of publications have you been featured in? Album artwork? How did these opportunities arise?
Besides the local papers and magazines, not too many publications: Venus, Performer, DIVA. A lot of my published credits have something to do with PDX Pop Now! for the yearly festival preview articles. I’ve never got my shit together enough to hustle work from large national magazines and I don’t think SPIN or Rolling Stone are that interested in most of the bands I’ve photographed anyway. I’ve had photos used in several local bands’ album artwork – which I’m always thrilled about. My biggest job has been for Sony Music France in which I shot all the promotional materials and album photography for a French singer/songwriter called Tété, because he recorded it in Portland. That came about because he was friends with a Portland-via-Paris singer named Eric John Kaiser and I had done some work for his album. So it was just a case of one project leading to another and just falling into my lap. My proudest accomplishment remains having a photo of Corin Tucker on the cover of Sleater-Kinney’s “Jumpers” single just because I love that band so much. It was kind of a fluke – I sent it to Sub Pop for some kind of photo contest but never heard the results. Then later, out of the blue, they emailed me and offered a tiny sum of cash and some free records to use it. I’d never had anything published at that point so I would have probably given it to them for free, which now, being older and wiser, I know is a really stupid thing to do.
The Angry Orts
How do you feel about people taking live photos on their cell phones and such?
I don’t mind it but I don’t get it either. I mean, those photos look like shit, so what’s the point? Maybe it’s a “prove you were there” kind of thing but you can’t tell who the blurry mess on stage is so why bother? If I’m taking photos at a show, it’s because I want to capture something that looks great, otherwise I’m just going to enjoy the music. This is the reason that I don’t understand the “no professional cameras” rule that so many bands and venues impose once they achieve a certain level of commercial success. Everybody at the show has a cell phone or a little point-and-shoot, and many of them are going to take really terrible pictures and immediately upload them to flickr or facebook. Why not let a few professionals in there to take good photos? It makes no sense to me. Of course, the quality of cell phone cameras is improving so fast this is going to be a moot point very soon.
Do you think the future of music photography is going to be able to compete with the up rise of access of video?
Still photography and video are two different things, and I think there will always be a place for both, but my concern is camera technology advancing so fast that anybody will be able to take usable photos with any camera so the term “music photographer” will become an anachronism. This is already starting to happen anyway, and it’s probably inevitable. It’s becoming rare to get any work that offers more than a photo credit in return. That’s why I never expect this to be a full time job, especially not with a family to take care of.
What are some of your techniques when shooting live music? Do you have any tips to obtain a perfect shot?
They always say you don’t have to have an expensive camera to take a good photograph but that doesn’t always apply in the case of live music photography. If you’re going to shoot in a dark club or basement, using the ambient light, you have to drop a lot of money on a really good, fast lens, or it’s just not going to work. Without getting too technical, at least one f/1.4 lens is essential. If you can’t afford that, use a flash, but not an on-camera flash. Get a cheap Vivitar or something with a hot-shoe cord and hold the flash off to one side or bounce it off the walls or ceiling. And practice your shutter drag. Flat light coming straight from the on-camera flash never looks good. Finally, be nice and ask the band’s permission before you start popping flashes in their eyes while they’re trying to play. As far as composing the shot, watch the band’s expressions, posturing and how they interact with each other. Try to get some lights or another band member in the background and shoot when the singer’s face is not covered by a mic. If you know the band’s music well, anticipate the moment in a song when they start to really shred – if shredding is part of their repertoire. Look for interaction with the crowd too.
On average, how many photos do you need to take in order to get “The One”.
That totally depends on the night. Could be 5, 20, or 100. That’s the nice thing about digital photography; I don’t have to spend the money processing 2 or 3 rolls of film only to find there’s nothing really worth keeping on there.
Any advice for aspiring music photographers?
Do it for the money, and the drugs. Just kidding, there is no money. Still kidding! Don’t do drugs. But seriously, photograph the bands you love, from the town you live in. That way it’s more than just a collection of music photos, it’s documentation of a community at a certain point in time, and that’s far more interesting. You will have invested more of yourself into your work because you know these people and you want them to do well and they want the same for you. Just have fun with it. It’s not going to be a career, unless your friends get famous and hire you as their full-time tour photographer which, let’s be honest, is probably not going to happen. Also, don’t assume having a camera gives you the right to be an asshole. Other (normal) people are at the show to enjoy the music and it’s not cool to shove up to the front and stick your camera up in the air without any respect for their right to do so.
See more of Jason Quigley’s work on his official website.