While I do not photograph musicians exclusively, I have done quite a bit of it over the years. Some-times it has been for professional reasons—for promotional purposes, album art, magazine stories, and so forth. But usually the work has been personal—done for myself and anyone who cares to view it.
I take the pictures and hope to find a home for them later. It can take a while. In fact, most of the pictures in Honky Tonk were taken more than twenty-five years ago, and few have been published previously. The reasons I photograph music as a subject are twofold: I like music, and I think it’s an important part of our culture and should be recorded visually, as well as on audio. I suppose I’m killing the proverbial two birds with one shot—by playing and working at the same time.
Most of the photographs in Honky Tonk were made with equipment and techniques that are long outdated. I would never recommend them to an aspiring photographer today. But for the record, this is what I used. The square-format pictures were made with a Rolleiflex Wide 21/4-x-21/4-inch twin-lens reflex medium-format camera—a wonderfully designed instrument and fairly obscure. Only about four thousand were made between 1961 and 1964. I owned two of them in the 1970s and used them whenever possible to achieve negatives that were dead sharp and rich in detail.
When I took photographs outdoors with the Rolleiflex, I usually used natural light. Indoors, and when there was low light outdoors, I used a very simple portable bare bulb flash—an electronic flash bulb without a reflector—to brighten the room with relatively soft, diffuse light. Whenever possible, I used a tripod, outdoors and in, to ensure accurate framing and no camera movement while I exposed the film. The rectangular pictures were made with various Leica M-series 35mm rangefinder cameras—usually M-2 or M-4 models—with 28mm and 35mm wide-angle Leitz lenses. Many photographers are familiar with this classic combination. I used Leicas to achieve sharp, rich negatives and also for their small size, convenience, and unobtrusiveness. I used flash—again a bare bulb—if I had to, but I always used natural light, if there was enough, even if it meant pushing film development to compensate when the light was too low.
I almost always used Kodak Tri-X film, whether for medium-format or 35mm shots. This is a general-purpose film that still works remarkably well twenty-five years later—assuming you want black-and-white photographs. I shot the photos for Honky Tonk in black-and-white because it didn’t occur to me to shoot in color. Back then, black-and-white materials were considered far more “artistic” than color, which was yet to come into its own aesthetically and technically. Given my druthers, I still use black-and-white film today. But this is an individual choice. I just like the way black-and-white photographs look; they seem more timeless. Also, they are more permanent—less likely to fade with time—and this fits with my general goal of using the camera to record “history.”
Photographing musicians these days can be difficult. There is more awareness of the value—promotional and monetary—of a photograph than there was when I was taking these pictures in the 1970s. Today, many musicians won’t let you photograph them unless they have approval rights over what’s to be used. They may also try to restrict your rights so you can’t use the photograph to produce “product,” such as posters, that might compete with their own merchandise. I am hardly an objective source, but I think this attitude is very shortsighted. It leads to fewer photographs and ultimately less exposure for the musicians while they are actively working and even afterward. The freelance photographer provides an important service, which the musician doesn’t have to pay for. This seems like a fair trade to me.