The importance of bands image is the cause of many debates among us music devotees. Can a bands image impact the likely success beyond the music itself? Whichever way you lean, image IS out there and it takes the right talented photographic eye to capture it. With the over-population of new music and a society that is quick to forget as a result of too much information, is a band’s defining image a way to rise above the noise? From the late great David Bowie, the success of KISS, the homogenized look of The Beatles to the “shocking” visual identity of Marilyn Manson, is the photographer the underrated star? We had the privilege to Baa Baa Blaah with Chicago-based photographer Ryan Bakerink, to ask that very question and many more. Thanks Ryan.
“Now that is a loaded question”, says Ryan as we go for the jugular with this Baa Baa Blaah.
I personally feel that the Music itself will be the only real driver of success for a musician. Image helps when a band is trying to portray some sort of persona, where their image is essentially their brand. Some examples I can think of are Die Antwoord, Slipknot, Marilyn Manson, Kiss, Lady Gaga, etc.
Their brand/persona certainly helps them rise above the noise only when that noise is actually GOOD. In these cases, it’s usually the photographer who has to adapt to an already established “image,” but that’s the fun part of it for the photographer; You come in knowing their image and you have to figure out a way to stay in line with their “brand guidelines” but still make it your own. I think any photographer would be happy to take on that sort of challenge!
Most musicians don’t really have an “image” so to speak, sure genre plays a role in defining any image they may have, meaning; you know what Country artist should look like Vs a Boy Band, VS a pop singer, Vs a Hip Hop Artist Vs a Rock Band…but Essentially a photographer has an opportunity to recreate that image on each shoot, which to me, is exciting. In my experience, most artists have been willing to do whatever I’ve asked them to do (within reason). I do try to get familiar with a band’s music (if I’m not already familiar with it) before I shoot them, because their music might actually inspire the direction I take the shoot. When that is successful, their music WILL actually determine that “image” (even if it’s just for that one shoot), which is a win-win.
What got you interested in music photography in particular?
As a teen in the 90’s (I’m dating myself!), I was obsessed with Alternative music, but growing up in a very small, Iowa town, I had very little access to it. My hometown was so small that we didn’t have MTV and I didn’t live in an area with any real culture. My only exposure to this music at the time was a local radio station out of Des Moines that had an Alternative night on Sunday nights. In addition to the 3 hours a week I glued myself to the radio, I also read every Music Magazine I could get my hands on to fuel my obsession; Rolling Stone, Spin, and Alternative Press were essentially my music bibles.
I also had a passion for art, and I fulfilled this passion by creating paintings and drawings of the beautiful photographs I would find in these music magazines, images by photographers such as Annie Leibovitz & Mark Seliger. Over time, I realized that my interest in creating artist renderings wasn’t at all about illustration and painting, it was about the photography itself. So I moved from the small town to the big city to pursue photography!
There are a lot of things that surprise us music devotees about the reality of the music industry and being a photographer, you probably get a good glimpse into what really goes on. Do you have any wild stories from tours or bands you’ve shot before that you can share?
Without giving too much away (and NOT about me)…Let’s just say: “when the tour bus is a rockin’ don’t come a knockin’?”
In the same vain, being in the industry seems hectic and sometimes a bit restrictive. It seems like all your favourite bands tour at the same time and they even play on the same nights, what’s with that? Anyway the REAL question is do you have any bands on your bucket list that you still want to photograph but haven’t had the chance yet? Why them?
Absolutely! This one is easy: Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Morrissey & Billy Corgan are my top 4. Mainly because they are such iconic musicians with immediately recognizable looks (as well as my two favorite song writers, my favorite lyricist, and the song writer of my two favorite albums of all time, respectively). Can you help me make any of these shoots happen? 🙂
Who have been your favourite bands/artists to shoot so far?
This is a tough question. The bands I enjoyed working with the most were the bands I had the closest relationship with, such as Fall Out Boy, Paramore, Goldfinger, & Thursday. When there is an element of trust and respect already established, it’s easier to ask people to do things for you. A few other artists that were a delight to work with were those that seemed to enjoy the shoot as much as I did, such as Frank Turner, New Politics, & Skrillex. After spending an entire day with Frank Turner and his band, they made a point to say “this is the most fun we have ever had with a photographer” and his band had a small toast to me at the bar we ended the day at. Definitely a moment I cherished.
Please share with us your most favourite photos? Tell us, what makes them your favourite?
My favorites always change based on what’s been inspiring me lately and sometimes it’s due to things you don’t see. For example, the images I have on my website of Andrew McMahon…I love those because they’re extremely simple images and when I put out the chair and stool for him to sit on, he posed himself. He knew EXACTLY what I wanted and then even took it a bit further. He is a photographer’s dream subject. Another one was an image I have of Pete Wentz on his sitting on his bed in his bedroom, for the same reason as mentioned for Andrew McMahon.
Another shot that I’m in love with now is of Laura Jane Grace from Against Me! She had all black on and her hoodie was over her head, so I wanted to put her against something that had a little life/color & throw it out of focus. I took two frame of her, and that was it…she nailed it. She looked directly into the camera with the most wonderful stare, her eyes are very caring & giving.
Getting the perfect shot from a live performance must take years to master if you can master at all. What are the biggest challenges when shooting live performance?
There are 3 main challenges: a technical challenge, a time challenge, and a logistic challenge. On a technical level, the light is changing by fractions of a second so ensuring you get the right exposure can be tricky. Most live shows now only let you photograph the first few songs of a performance, so the time challenge is making sure you get what you need in 3 or less songs. The logistic challenge is with the other photographers. Music photography has gotten so popular that it seems that anyone with a blog or connection can get a photo pass. Moving around to get to the right spot is a struggle these days.
The Australian Music Scene continues to go from strength to strength, not only in our country but internationally with artists like Tame Impala, RUFUS, Courtney Barnett, etc. Do you have a particular Australian artist you’d like to work with?
Absolutely! – Gang of Youths. Their album ‘The Positions’ was, hands down, my favorite album of 2015. How they’re not the biggest thing in Australia (and why they haven’t made an impact at all in the states) is beyond comprehension. I’d like to work with them simply because I love that album so much. I would also love to work with Nick Cave because he’s such an icon, the Living End because they have such great songs, Empire of the Sun because they’re such interesting characters, and I would never turn down and opportunity to work with AC/DC!
Your brilliant online portfolio has a “rock/grunge/punk” slant to it. Is this coincidence or is this genre your preferred subject?
I can’t say it is my preferred subject as I like a lot of indie/folk/rock as well, but it was somewhat coincidental, or circumstantial in that, when I starting shooting heavily in the music scene, I was consumed in the punk scene in Chicago, which is extremely strong and has been for some time (See Fall Out Boy, Rise Against, Alkaline Trio, etc). Having a passion for this music helped on an aesthetic level by influencing my point of view, but also on a networking level. Being a part of a specific scene helped with getting to know people in the industry, whether it be in record labels, publicity, or the bands themselves.
The photo you have of Bayside, of them jammed into a fridge is cruel. Do you like to make your subjects suffer? 😉 When it comes to setting the scene for each shoot, what inspires you to make it a little more interesting?
I absolutely like to have my subjects suffer! Doesn’t all good art contain an element of suffering? That shot was fun because I literally had 5 minutes to shoot them and I had NOTHING to work with. We were trying to figure something out and I saw that freezer, I looked at it for a minute…and someone from the band said “you want us to get in that don’t you?” Obviously I did and they hopped right in. They were great!
If I’m lucky enough to have time to set something up I look for an environment that seems out-of-place, an environment where I can play with perspective, or an environment that is interesting enough to catch someone’s eye in and of itself. In an ideal situation I’ll have time to scout locations, but in most situations you have a limited amount of time, so I collaborate with the subject to try to get something interesting. An example is the picture I have on my site of New Politics. I had very little to work with so I asked them if anyone can do anything unique or cool, David, the singer, said he could stand on his head and I knew THAT was the shot I needed.
There are some amazing photographers out there, of our favourites is Kevin Cummins who works with NME. Are there any photographers who inspire you? Why is that?
I’m not typically drawn to over the top, slick photographers. I don’t have an emotional connection to that work. Photographers I admire most have a way of mixing honesty and simplicity in with their quirky Images in a way that really illustrates the subject’s personality. The best example of this, and one of my favorite photographers is Danny Clinch.
Danny Clinch is a no-frills photographer who’s point of view is one that continues to influence me to this day. He builds a strong connection with his subjects and when viewing his photographs, it’s immediately clear that his subjects trust him. One of the images that introduced me to his work and helped inspire me to become a photographer was his image of Green Day in the trunk of a taxi cab. I remember thinking to myself how fun it would be to try and convince Green Day to squeeze into the trunk of a taxi. It was a very simple concept but interesting enough to stand out. He had a similar image of the Smashing Pumpkins in a cardboard box in an alley that I always loved.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the music industry, advance their photography hobby into a career or any other important life advice that we should know?!
Oh Lord, I’m not sure I’m qualified to give anyone advice, but one thing I have come to understand, which can apply to life AND advancing their career in the industry is that being genuine, kind, and having A LOT of ambition can do wonders for you.
Visit Ryan Bakerink for more great photography. Thanks Ryan.