I had worked with New Orleans musician John “Papa” Gros a few years ago to create some new portraits for his press needs. We rented out Luke Winslow King’s house (another notable NOLA talent) for some rustic and royal portraits in his century old creole mansion in Arabi, Louisiana. For this recent album artwork job, John was very specific in creating images that fit with the theme and title of the new, soon to be, New Orleans staple “Central City”. We were going to create a mix of studio photography and natural light outdoors photography.
For a few weeks I scouted all over New Orleans’ historic Central City neighborhood looking for unique backgrounds that lent a similar color tone all across the board. I didn’t want each location to be different from each other, nor did I wan’t them to distract from the portrait of John. We did some studio photography at my headshot studio on Magazine Street to create some stylish yet clean images to be used in various press releases for the album and live shows.
For my studio shots I had to remember to keep it simple…with a guy like John, photographing him is so relaxing and easy, almost like you are hanging out with a friend taking pictures when it feels right. A few things I remembered from our first shoot helped me in this most recent one:
My Tips on How to Photograph Studio Portraits of a Musician
Keep the Conversation Going
Being able to use casual conversation in an often hectic studio environment will put you both at ease resulting in the best version of that person.
Make Camera Adjustments With Little Effort
Make sure you don’t stop to just concentrate on the camera and lose touch with your subject. While you find a button you need, keep the conversation light and ask questions so that they have to talk.
Do Your Research On Their Music
Being able to quote and reference their music, songs, lyrics, and influences can give you so many things to talk about you can almost forget you are working!
After our studio portrait session, John was ready to look at the locations I made him. I created a location scout gallery and uploaded the best ones to my private HIGHTAIL account so he could look through and decide what fit best with his album concept. We agreed on a few locations in the Central City area of New Orleans and my next step was to make sure we shot at exactly the right time when the light was perfect. I used my favorite photography light apps to gauge those times when the sun was just right, and we scheduled the shoot around those times.
For me, creativity begins with experimentation and overcoming fear.
There was a time when I was first starting out as a photographer where nothing made sense. The apertures, shutter speeds and ISO’s where lost on me as well as the dollars spent experimenting with countless rolls of film.
As a 5th year senior at LSU I was eager to finish my degree in Journalism so I could hit the road and let the camera be my guide. In the meantime I had to learn this device, so I converted my bathroom into a darkroom and began experimenting with Rodinal, Kodak Developer, and any black and white chemicals I could get my hands on. In the beginning, it was all about making mistakes and learning.
Especially when I was just learning how to develop my styles as a portrait photographer, I still had to mess up, experiment, and learn. In my early days I photographed my friends, strangers, and those around me. Funny how 20 years go by and that has not changed at all…
Even though the stakes are higher as professional, I can’t lose sight of the need to make mistakes, push my boundaries and learn.
Just because I have a studio now, know my gear, and enjoy all types of clients, it doesn’t mean I can rest on my laurels. I have to continually be learning, experimenting and growing as a photographer. So just like before, I still have to learn and grow from the community around me.
Debbie Davis photographed at my studio on Magazine Street in New Orleans, 2018
My friend Debbie Davis can sing. Damn she’s got pipes like I’ve never heard and she commands a stage like no one else. Debbie came by the studio a few weeks ago for some portraits and allowed me to experiment with light and backgrounds and I am very grateful for the opportunity to have a friend that trusts in my vision.
.As an artist at any stage we need our friends and collaborators to help push us to new levels. When I was first starting out learning the ropes as a photographer I needed those friends daily in order to get comfortable with my craft. 20 years after picking up a camera, I still need that support to learn. Thank you Debbie and countless others who have allows me to stumble, capture and learn right in front of you.
Selfie 101: Your backgrounds and your subjects are equally important!
To me, there are some simple rules that dictate how to make a great portrait. No, it doesn’t involve someone famous or strikingly good looking. Maybe in the early stages of one’s portrait photography journey it’s easy to make good photographs of good looking people, posing, preening, and playing for the camera. You pop off a couple of strobes and WALAH! you have a portrait. For me it’s always been much more of a process, but still very simple.
To make a great portrait you must have Engagement and Environment.
I recently had both of those rules come true in so many ways during my recent collaboration with the folks at The Music Box in New Orleans. I went to the creators of New Orleans Airlift to float my idea of creating one of a kind dynamic portraits of the musical collaborations that took place at their one of a kind venue. The idea was to feature each musical structure and environment as a background story to accompany a portrait of each artist that played there. Lucky for me, every artist that performed this season was down for the idea, and always willing to bring their most creative spirit to each session. As most of you know, this kind of creative spirit is alive and well in New Orleans!
Each portrait I did was based on having a different background featuring the amazing musical structures built at The Music Box. I have sincere and great gratitude for all the creators of this art and Delaney, Taylor, Jay and Leah for making this dream a reality. Without their guidance, continued support, and organization this project would not have happened…
Each portrait session we did had to be done right after the last soundcheck and before the doors opened for the first performance. As you may guess, this very very small tiny window of time is an extremely high pressure stressful time for all parties: sound men turning nobs and fixing monitors, musicians running around trying to put on costumes while testing microphones, organizers setting up frantically while waiting for the dozens to hundreds of people lined up in the 9th Ward neighborhood to be let it. And then there was me…running around with two lights in hand, testing my strobes, composing my scenes and reading and adjusting for the quickly changing ambient light. Yeah, it’s about 30 minutes of hustle for 5 minutes of shooting if I am lucky! This is really what being a photographer in New Orleans is all about for me: Creativity Under Pressure! (More BLOG posts on this topic here: Creativity Under Pressure, and Creativity and Diversification in Photography Business )
Learn How to Make Dynamic Portraits like the ones in my series! JOIN my Upcoming Workshop in New Orleans – Art of the Photographic Portrait at The Music Box – Saturday, August 19th
The structures at the Music Box are fully functional art and music installations.
The user must stand inside this piece, hold the rope…sway and move to the chimes.
Each installation gives me ideas to create a unique environment for my subject. I had Taylor help me navigate the pulleys and wires of this piece to install one of my radio transmitted strobes which I gelled orange for the Norah Jones/Tank and the Bangas shoot.
Photographer Lemar Arceneaux and I trying to figure out if this mirror could add some dynamics and depth to the image. It didn’t..and we moved on!
If you haven’t been to The Music Box, then it might be hard to know what I am talking about so I will show you in photos…but first: Each background you see, each structure in each portrait…is able to be played. Yes, played by a musician or a performer, or the wind and the rain. The art pieces are drums, sound machines, rotating dual speak phone booths, wind chimes, and much much more. The music that is made at The Music Box is like no other music made anywhere else.
I had both elements of a great portrait – the Environment of The Music Box and the Engagement of the artists there to collaborate. I hope you enjoy, and I URGE YOU to visit The New Orleans Airlift’s website to see their upcoming events and attend a performance. It will change the way you look at how music can be made AND enjoyed. I was honored to be able to work with each artists performing at the Music Box as they gave me their time (which was in short supply) and especially their honest, collaborative, engagement.
One of our first shoots was with Gogol Bordello and New Orleans band Debauch. I really only had 5 minutes to setup, not even knowing if the band would even have time to pose. Lucky for me they had exactly 60 seconds.
Lost Bayou Ramblers, Langhorn Slim, Rickie Lee Jones and Spider Stacy serenade the Music Box…
Rickie Lee Jones uses the pay phone on site to sing through it’s dual spinning speakers…
Norah Jones collaborated with New Orleans group Tank and the Bangas for a very special evening. You can see here, I used my backlight to create a warm glow amidst the cool twilight night.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy performed with the Roots of Music and just watching him direct and perform and rehearse with a show time energy was amazing.
New Orleans’ Roots of Music
The Roots of Music at The Music Box
Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Tredafilka, The Bitchin Bajas, and Roots of Music pose in yet another epic symmetry at the Music Box!
Mike Dillon brought his New Orleans Punk Rock Percussion Consortium to the Music Box which featured Simon Berz, Mark Southerland, Clint Maedgen, Tiffany Lamson, Andrew Bohren, Brian Haas and many more!
Having known and photographed Mike Dillon for a few years, I was comfortable getting to the rehearsal early and documenting them up close. I was also able to setup earlier to do individual portraits, something I had never done until this show. It had been suggested to me by Jay Pennington of the New Orleans Airlift. Now it’s something I do each show…thanks Jay!
Drummer Paul Thidbodeax drums high in the trees.
Tiffany Lamson of GIVERS rehearses with Mike Dillon’s NOPRPC.
BEFORE……Music Box Installation
AFTER – with Dustan Louque! I decided to crop those images above to show you how I approach each setting at The Music Box. First i find the right installation and decide if it makes a good background. I then experiment with some lighting, then add the subject! ENVIRONMENT + ENGAGEMENT – THERE YOU HAVE IT!
ANOTHER epic group portrait at The Music Box! Dustan Louque presented “Dub Down Babylon” which featured Layla McCalla, Nels Cline, Blato Zlato and many more…
Preservation Hall Jazz Band pose in the setting sun of the last show at the Music Box this season…till next season!
A little bit about New Orleans Airlift, taken from their site:
New Orleans Airlift is an artist-driven initiative that collaborates and creates alongside the artists and communities they support.
Airlift was founded in 2008 by musician and artist manager Jay Pennington and Delaney Martin, a multi-media installation artist, as a response to the unparalleled destruction of Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath which left local artists, like all New Orleanians, struggling for their lives and livelihoods. Jay and Delaney recognized a need for new audiences who could support these artists as they rebuilt their city. They dreamt up a one-time project that took city artists to Berlin and called it The New Orleans Airlift after the Berlin Airlift of WWII. Other exchange projects that used an import/export model and a multidisciplinary approach soon followed and the name stuck.
Airlift programming highlights the city’s underground art and under-the-radar artists, transporting the dynamic street culture, living folk culture and growing contemporary arts scene of New Orleans to far-flung locations around the world for exhibitions, workshops, festivals, performances, and collaborative projects. Airlift also brings influential artists from abroad to participate in collaborative endeavors with local artists in this special community. They believe that collaboration between artists and across communities shares resources, empowers learning and unites disparate groups in common and powerful goals.
“New Orleans is the last great bastion of living folk culture in the United states. Airlift projects honor tradition alongside innovation, leading our artists, culture and communities in meaningful new directions.”
I have posted these images from HIP FEST in 2014, but I thought it was a good opportunity to relive them again. I was recently contacted by New Orleans musician/drummer/improviser/composer Marcello Bennetti to work on an image I shot of him for his upcoming record. The image in question ( i won’t show it here…) was from a series of backstage portraits I made at HIP FEST at the Blue Nile, where over two nights various sets of improvised music was played by shuffling trio’s and quartets.
My backstage portrait setup was visual improvisation…
Local and out of town improvisors like Aurora Nealand, Brad Walker, and Paul Thibodeaux (REDRAWBLACK), Simon Lott, and organizer Jeff Albert, played out there and right on music downstairs at the club. Upstairs I wanted to do my own improv with lights. I ended up bringing three Paul C. Buff Alien Bee strobes only and bounced a red gel strobe on the background, and fired off two 30º gridded strobes perpendicular to my subject’s faces. I wanted to create harsh side lighting, with a dark center strip on their face. Here are my results photographing Cliff Hines, Rob Mazurek, Nathan Lambertson, Gianluca Petrella, Jeff Albert, Simon Lott, Johnny Vidacovich, and REDRAWBLACK (Nealand, Walker, Thibodeaux)
Check out some more live photography from that event at their website – http://noise-nola.org/category/hip-fest-2014/
New Orleans is and always will be a sacred space that pulls the creativity from those that are ready to give.
Don’t think for a second I am not grateful about the amount of amazing gifts New Orleans gives. Most of all this city allows the artist to create freely, experiment at will, and be a force in any way under her skies. Since I moved here permanently in 2000 I have always had the need to organize my thoughts, make art, create moments, in a way I have never before. I am very grateful to have begun a new portrait series in thanks to the wonderful creators and organizers of New Orleans’ newest force – The New Orleans Airlift’s Music Box performance space. These guys are nothing new to creating groundbreaking art and installation in town, but they now have a new home, and are letting me photograph there….alot
I began this series last week and was able to witness some quiet rehearsal moments when the legend Rickie Lee Jones began whisper-singing into an effects laden phone, stretching from an old telephone booth.
Louis Michot from the Lost Bayou Ramblers sauntered over with his violin so his tune was in earshot, unplugged and raw like amazing Music Box performance space. I go to hear a few tunes as I setup to make portraits of these amazing musicians. I am forever grateful at the opportunity to create art at this wonderful space.
Am I lucky to live here, or am I lucky to have migrated east continually since my birth in Lafayette, Louisiana? I keep moving east…east…and south. I moved through Baton Rouge, and when I began my New Orleans life I started uptown and moved east through the Irish Channel of New Orleans. I lived in the Garden District before living in the Treme. I lived in the Bywater, Holy Cross, and now St. Bernard Parish. I keep moving east, south, east but I keep moving inward and outward and out in my own life and creative journey. The roots continue deeper and connect with others like myself. I am grateful the The New Orleans Airlifts’ Music Box started in the Bywater, went to City Park, and then moved East, South, and landed where it is now in the 9th Ward. Come share the journey….
The organizers, Delaney, Taylor, and Jay have been nothing but warm and open, inviting me to create in a place like no other. As I said before, New Orleans has a way of bringing out the best in artists, and the Music Box, I think, is the living and breathing musical reality of that. Go see a show...INFO HERE
Spider Stacy of the Pogues plays inside the Tintinnabulation by artist Angaliska Polachek
Rickie Lee Jones at the Music Box in New Orleans, Louisiana.
It was a pleasure to meet Langhorn Slim at the Music Box. Thank man…
I shot New Breed Brass Band for LYFT and Trombone Shorty Present: Jazz on Demand 2016
Ok, so picture this: You are looking for a ride from the Fairgrounds or to the Fairgrounds for the 1st day of Jazz Fest 2016. You open your LYFT app and type in your destination. Ten minutes later, you get picked up a LYFT SUV(you know it’s LYFT by the pink mustache on the dash, really) with tinted windows, sit down, and music starts playing. The music is not on the radio or a CD player – it’s a LIVE BAND rocking in the backseat complete with a photo booth to mark the occasion. A genius marketing ploy if you ask me.
Trombone Shorty for LYFT and Trombone Shorty Present: Jazz on Demand , photo Zack Smith
But before all that jazz got to happen, we did a super fun and quick photo shoot with non other than the man himself, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. A little backstory: Troy and I rehearsed and recorded in the same studio a while back and passed each other in the halls many times over the course of a few years. Always a super nice guy, always saying hi and a bringing you in for a slap and embrace. We had always wanted to work together on something and I can’t tell you how many times we talked about it… “shoot soon?” “let’s do a cool photo shoot” ” yes, soon!” was always how we parted ways. So I was over the moon when I got the call from LYFT to photograph this campaign and heard he was going to be available for the early part of the session.
The folks at LYFT were a young, energetic, and organized group. I really enjoyed working with Lauren and the crew from LYFT, as well as the New Breed Brass Band which featured Troy’s nephew on snare and leading the band. I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story…
Learn How to Photograph a Silhouette Portrait in any situation!
I have to say, this last week was a great week for Acadiana area artists. Being from Lafayette and living and working in New Orleans, I love when I get to work with Cajun and Zydeco artists in any way shape or form. I recently got to work one artist from Lafayette that I’ve been photographing for quite a while.
Anthony Dopsie and the Jazz Fest Silhouette
After shooting as one of the staff photographers for The Jazz and Heritage Festival for 7 years, I have amassed an impressive archive of festival photography. In addition to doing my duty for the festival and getting the shots required to tell the story of the music, food, and fun – I make sure I get photos that I can use for later. I make sure I photograph my friends hanging out in the crowd, I do well lit backstage portraits of musicians, friends and strangers. One aside to this story, most young photographers are always asking me “can you get on stage?” as if being on stage you get the ‘best’ shots. I always tell them that you are more limited from the stage than anywhere else, and the best shot would be “15 feet in the air, in the middle of the crowd”. It’s funny, but kind of true.
There are a few moments when being on stage can really help you: The Backlit Over Exposed Crowd Musician Portrait. Say what!? One of my favorite stages to shoot is the Fais Do Do Stage, mainly because I love the music on that stage (mostly Cajun and Zydeco) but you can get some great silhouette photos (SEE the NEW Gallery)of the musicians since the crowd has more light on them than the stage. The best way to describe what a silhouette is when you set your exposure for a brighter background then the subject that is in front of it. If the subject is in a darker area, then it will be rendered as a silhouette.
I recently was contacted by the Louisiana Office of Tourism as they were looking for a silhouette or partially silhouetted musician playing at a non-descript music festival. Knowing that I had tons of this, I went straight to my Jazz Fest archives and looked up all the Cajun and Zydeco bands I photographed. I usually always get on stage when Rockin’ Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters play because of the ongoing relationship I have with them. Any time they see me shooting, I always get direct engagement, especially from accordion player Anthony Dopsie. I found one shot from a few years back of the PERFECT silhouette of Anthony, sent it to the agency working for the client and they loved it. The photograph ended up being used in their ad “Come for a Feast – Stay for a Fest”
Anthony was super excited as was I. As you see in the photo above, I exposed for the crowd in the back meaning I wanted the crowd to dictate what my shutter speed and aperture were, and just let my subject (Anthony) fall where it may knowing it would be underexposed. My exposure here was:
In this case of wanting a silhouette I could not set my camera on a Priority Exposure Mode like Aperture or Shutter Priority. Using Manual Exposure (always!) I can use my Spot Meter to read the light from the background to begin my exposure. I set my aperture at 2.8 so that the crowd would only be recognizable as a soft mass of people as I didn’t want the viewers eye to go there. Once I set my aperture at 2.8, I read the Spot Meter and I could then bring my shutter speed to 1/800 which gave me the exposure I wanted which was had the Meter reading “0” or right at 2/3 of a stop below. Having my ISO low at 320 enabled me to crop the image without losing much detail. Here’s the original image before the crop:
It was great working with the Louisiana Office of Tourism to help promote the greatest things about Louisiana! Food, Music, and Acadiana! Allons a Lafayette!
Since 2001 I had found a way to setup comfortable and quiet photography portrait areas amongst loud and raucous festivals in New Orleans…
On May 5th 2001 I set up a white bed sheet between two trees on Sauvage and Grand Route St. John streets, just two blocks from the entrance to the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans. There, for 8 hours, I photographed people as they walked in. My approach and execution were quick and Doctor’s Convention-style:
Me: “OK one photo just looking in the camera and no expression”
Me: “And now do whatever you want!”
SNAP – and hand over business card – thank you.
Since then I have had 5 years photographing backstage portraits at The Voodoo Music Experience (Voodoo Fest), 7 Years at Chaz Fest, and a host of one-off backstage happenings. By far the most rewarding and fun of the “one offs” was the Ponderosa Stomp in 2013. I have to thank Dr. Ira for giving me the this wonderful opportunity and a small corner in a side room at the Rock n Bowl I set up a simple brown muslin where I was to photograph the legends of rock and roll, one on one, just me and them. I usually know most of the people I am about to photograph but this time I knew none. I was not hip to their music or any of the stories surrounding them. As you may or may not know, the artists booked at The Ponderosa Stomp have usually enjoyed the successes of their hit songs decades ago and have been brought back on stage by the festival to show them how much they are still loved and revered. It really is a beautiful thing.
I have had the privilege of photographing artists in their prime, before their prime, and after their prime. But the constant between them all is that they love what they do, and what they do is what they love. Being witness and recorder to that gives me great pleasure and reminds me I do love what I do, and do what I love.
This was my first Mardi Gras away from New Orleans since I moved here in 2000…it comes at a time of great change and upheaval in my life – but all good.
In the days before I left I finished up shoots with local metal band, Crowbar, for promo on their new record before the headed out for a UK tour. On Friday I did a quick and slick shoot w New Orleans roots rockers The Iguanas before I headed out to Florida.
I really got to relax for a few days with Helen:
As we just chilled all weekend, cooking and taking photos of the sunset and an abandoned motel…more on that later. Now with the days upon my arrival I have gotten the call again from Swedish magazine, SONIC, for another photo spread, this time of 3D Na’tee and Big Freedia. I am pumped to work w these rappers… And all the recent notoriety of bounce and sissy rap I have not gotten the opportunity to work directly with one of these artists until this week..
Also right in the middle of these two shoots, I am shooting a huge food shoot at my studio on Thursday…. You just can’t beat the diversity of being a freelance photographer in New Orleans, Louisiana photographing people and whatever comes your way…as long as you can keep the creative part of you clicking everything else works out. Oh, and if you’re wondering what Crowbar looks like?
As the year ends, and a new one begins i can’t help but reflect and get philosophical about life, the world, photography and art and culture. So as i make you sit through my rants to get to my BEST OF 2013…enjoy
What is social media becoming? The show flyer pileup on a pole on Frenchmen Street.
First off, i feel that social media is helpful, but is becoming the show flyer wall on Frenchmen St. You know the one, 20-30 flyers tacked to each other that comes off the wall 4″ thick? As one flyer’s date passes, another gets nailed to it – but when you walk back and realize that there’s so much information thatyou can read one clearly…they all become stuck together on the wall: their words stuck together in our heads our brains can’t process them. We now have FB, twitter, instagram, tumblr, vine, and who knows what else that’s competing for our eyes, our time, our $ – i look out at the world and see the tops of peoples heads walking towards me, staring at their phones…Soon you’ll be the smart advertiser and post your adds in sidewalk chalk. Let it rain, Let it rain…
What is Photography? “JPGrapher’s Dumbdown” What is a JPGrapher??
From 2001-2003 i worked the sales counter at Lakeside Camera and saw digital start its slow creep into the local commercial world as local photographers were pawning their old Hasselblads and Mamiyas (i still have 2 from that period i bought at Cost+10%) and “trading up” for the NEW Nikon D1x – 5.4 MP and the Canon D30 w/ a whopping 3.3 MP – read the
.What i saw slowly happen, was the dumbdown of what a “good photograph” is being: as our eyes and lives slowly turned more to the backlit world of our now pixelized-life. All the new photographers in the digital age (JPGraphers) know nothing about film, but more importantly about light – their end result of a stunning photograph starts w/ a 2″ LCD screen and ends with a 17″ LCD screen…of course its’ gonna look RAD! – I see more an more every day what people think a good photograph is, and it’s becoming more technically poor, not lit well, and probably would stand the test of time on a wall. Will we be using computers in 20 years? Will we be admiring the prints of Herman Leonard, Ansel Adams? Trust me folks, THE PROOF IS, WILL BE, AND HAS ALWAYS BEEN….IN THE PRINT.
Here’s to 2014. Good intentions, Great content. – Do Good Work, and Stick Around!
See you on the Streets
Aerials shot during French Quarter Fest 2013
Chalmette Battlefield Graveyard
Josef Makkos and his Newspapers
Gambit Weekly Cover shot, December 2013
Tulane University Marching Band at New Orleans Bowl
David Batiste at Ponderosa Stomp
Honey Island Swamp Band
Kuffa and Ryan
Best Damn Booze Photographer, Sara Essex
Young Pinstripe Brass Band
I love collaborating with like minded folks to make stunning, creative, and lasting images in New Orleans, Louisiana.
And 2013 wouldn’t have been what it was w/o the excellent client of Krewe du Optic and Stirling Barret. KDO is why i photograph – i love collaborating w/ like minded folks to make stunning, creative, and lasting images. Here are some of my favorite from the 2013 campaign…
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