Specialist music photographers

five men sitting on or standing in front of a small van in a field with a handwritten sign saying 'THE OUTKASTS' in the windscreen

The Outkasts © National Museums Liverpool collections
(Peter Kaye archive) Accession number MMM 1998.23

From the 1930s, developments in photographic technology (principally through the introduction of 35mm film) meant that performance could be captured in detailed and subtle ways for the first time. Faster shutter speeds, more portable small-format cameras and more sophisticated flash technology allowed a whole new style of photojournalism to emerge. Music photography could now capture the excitement of live performance and the ambience of a particular venue. Herman Leonard's photographs of the New York jazz scene of the late 1940s and 1950s, for example, capture the dark, smoky atmosphere of the city’s clubs. His live shots of performers such as Billie Holliday and Dexter Gordon use stage lighting, plumes of smoke and contrasts provided by the darkness of the venues to create a striking visual style that has had a lasting influence.

Leonard’s work is an early example of how the style of certain photographers has been instrumental in constructing a clear iconography for a whole genre. At a similar time, Francis Wolff was a record producer and photographer whose black and white photography of bebop musicians has become central to the visual language of the music. Wolff’s status as an insider at the Blue Note label meant that he was able to document hundreds of recording sessions and capture musicians in settings that had not been seen before. His often intense and intimate portraits echoed the bold visual style of Leonard’s live shots whilst attempting to document and represent the intensity of the musician during the creative process. Wolff and Leonard were highly influential on a whole generation of photographers, from the jazz, soul and rock shots taken by Val Wilmer to the fashion/art photographer Bruce Weber. Indeed, Weber’s 1988 biopic film of trumpeter Chet Baker, 'Let’s Get Lost', is a clear homage to the innovative jazz photography of the 1940s and 1950s.

Along with a few photographers in other music genres, such as David Gahr (who photographed the US folk revival extensively), these early jazz photographers were the first examples of specialist music photographers who conscientiously documented the culture of a particular genre. As Laing (2003, 297) notes, up until the 1960s specialist music photographers were rare and it was not until the growth of the music industry in the 1960s that music photography became a profession. Both the recording industry and the specialist music press began to employ staff photographers during the 1960s. In addition, the increase in the number of aspiring acts meant that at a local level, some photographers began to gain a significant amount of business from photographing musicians. Liverpool photographer Peter Kaye for example, undertook hundreds of sessions during which he documented and created images for 1960s beat groups.

At the same time, further advances in photographic technology (even more lightweight cameras, improved development techniques and the introduction of telescopic lenses) meant that live and photojournalistic shots became easier and more accessible. Subsequent movements in popular music have invariably been extensively documented through the medium of photography. Certain photographers have become intricately linked with certain historical moments in popular music history. Often this took the form of photographers getting close to their subjects and travelling with them extensively (for example Mick Rock during the glam rock era, Anton Corbijn and post-punk, etc). Other photographers were deeply rooted in the musical life of a given location and documented the minutia of detail of emergent musical scenes. Photographers such as Paula Court in New York and Jim Jocoy in San Francisco documented not only performances and musicians, but also audience members, scenesters, promoters and related events to give a comprehensive picture of the post-punk avant-garde music and art scenes in their respective cities. Jocoy's style is particularly interesting, as he documented the scene primarily using instant Polaroid pictures. The effect of using such a throwaway medium is to blur the lines between audience and performer and echo the DIY (do-it-yourself) spirit of the punk scene he was involved with.

Photographers don't just document what is going on; they present artists to us in particular ways. Images are selected, cropped and manipulated in order to give a certain feel or suggest a particular context for an act. For instance, some of the major musical and lyrical themes of punk and post-punk music (everyday life, alienation, etc) were echoed in the portraiture conventions used to photograph its bands.  For an urban feel, bands were pictured against walls, rubble, decaying buildings or in banal, everyday settings. These images were often linked with specific locations that were part of a particular band’s broader public image (Joy Division and the urban decay of Manchester or the Clash and the tower blocks of West London for example). By using very specific visual contexts for press shots and record sleeves, photography became a central part in building the mythology of such acts. In turn, the photographic conventions set up by certain photographers became widely imitated and integrated into the visual language of popular music culture - for example, Anton Corbijn’s trademark use of 'overcooked' images (full of sharp contrasts taken on grainy film) to give an epic and almost timeless effect became a standard mode of visual representation of rock and pop acts in the 1980s and 1990s.