Photographing Musicians, From a Photographer’s Perspective

I recently wrote an article about photographing actors, that made me think about photographing musicians. For a while I tended to photograph actors in studios, but with shrinking budgets I find myself today making photographs of them in their homes. I prefer this more personal setting.

The idea of spending time together and photographing musicians informally has always been my ideal commission, and I have always avoided the studio if possible.

I am passionate about music, and having been brought up on the vinyl record, and weekly music press, particularly the NME, environmental, and documentary photography of musicians on the printed page, and album cover has always been close to my heart. Images that place musicians in the real world always helped me to connect with my heroes.

As a result, as a photographer I try to break down the artifice of the rock or pop star, a desire that has led me to buy bacon sandwiches with Bjork, have David Bowie make me a mug of tea, and go shopping for t-shirts with Cat Power. What I have learnt from these experiences and others is that if you can work one-to-one with most musicians something interesting will happen.

Working with bands is more difficult. A mix of personalities, always presents a variety of issues. When one member wants to work with you, and at least one other has no interest in cooperating, solutions to the problem can be limited. Too often this results in a line up shot in which someone refuses to look at the camera, or one where no one takes any interest in what you are trying to achieve. I have had shoots with McFly, The Magic Numbers, Madeline Peyroux, Bryan Ferry, and The Go Team that are all proof of these issues.

However, when there is a meeting of minds photographing musicians can lead to creative collaborations that allow the photographer to create their best work. This was certainly the case for me when I photographed Jarvis Cocker.

I found a location in a private wood, he arrived, we talked, a black cat strolled past, that became part of the session, we talked more, we walked and the resultant images were a success for me, and the client. Interestingly, a similar easy going shoot with a young classical musician resulted in images we both liked which were rejected by the record company as being too sexy for an album cover.

There can be a difference between the photographer’s, and musicians idea of success, and that of the record label. The history of music photography is filled with examples of this in both images that appeared, surprised, and shocked, and those that were put into the ‘no’ pile.

Jarvis is highly visually literate and it is that awareness that helped me photograph him. All photographers benefit from being helped in the creative process, but musicians are not always as interested in visual representation as Jarvis. Photographing musicians can be tough.

A rock and roll lifestyle can lead to interesting images, but it can also lead to the photographer thinking they need to lead a similar lifestyle. A day with Ronnie Wood opened my eyes to that reality. Many photographers have embraced the worlds their subjects inhabit, some survived, some didn’t, some survived but still bare the scars.

I am not a music photographer, I am a photographer who has been asked to photograph bands, and musicians. My knowledge of the history of such photography has always informed the work I make, and my expectations of any such interaction. As such I have found photographing musicians to be the most rewarding and frustrating of experiences. I always work ‘light’, with minimum equipment, and maximum research. I try and keep things simple and expect nothing.

Of course actors, and musicians are no different from anybody else. We are all humans, with the frailties and complexities that come with that reality, however, the creative muse that underlies the performer can emphasise those conditions. It is the responsibility of the photographer to understand this, and attempt to work with those frailties, not to expose them without permission, but to do so to make images that reveal aspects of the true character of the artist. You may be a fan of the person you are photographing, but you mustn’t allow any form of fandom dictate the images you create. Music photography can easily become ‘bad pop’ photography, vacuous and surface led. Whenever I photograph a musician images by Anton Corbijn and Pennie Smith are in my head, iconic images of substance, by photographers who loved the music as much as they did photography.

Music like photography can be disposable, it can date quickly, and feel insubstantial, the challenge for any photographer is to avoid these outcomes. I have some hits and some misses like all musicians do, but like the best bands, singers, and songwriters, I keep going. Testing, testing…1,2,1,2….

*If you want to hear more tales of photographing musicians I recommend checking out

Image: Paolo Nutini © Grant Scott 2006

Dr. Grant Scott is the the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, documentary filmmaker, BBC Radio contributor and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019). His film Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay was first screened in 2018

© Grant Scott 2022

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