Photographing Musicians, The Way They Want To Be Seen
Micah E. Wood’s mission is simple: Photograph musicians the way they’d actually like to be photographed. A musician himself, Wood has often cringed at portraits of band members clearly arranged by photographers, producing an overall effect quite disparate from the groups’ ethos. Instead, Wood emphasizes using equal time to socialize and to shoot, treating the portrait session ultimately as a group project without lowering standards of quality.
Emily von Hoffmann: Can you please describe the concept of your project, “Features,” for our readers? How did the idea emerge?
Micah E. Wood: The idea behind “Features” is photographing bands the way they want to be seen. In many occasions, the photos of bands are directed by the photographer, the magazine or the label and not the band members. With “Features,” the band decides on the pose, the location and the style of the photo. I just help them with that as they like.
EvH: You mentioned in your Kickstarter that you were disheartened by the fact that many magazines would ask bands to pose in certain ways, ostensibly to better represent their music, but ultimately detracting from the musicians’ actual vision or project. Can you share an example or two? How did you become aware of this problem, and come to view it as a missed opportunity?
MW: About 6 years ago I saw a band I love in a magazine dressed as chicken. A few years later I met them and they told me how much they hated that shoot. I then decided to try and change how bands are photographed and make it more of a collaboration than anything else. There are also times that I see photos of bands where I feel the shoot doesn’t match their sound or that they look super uncomfortable in the photo.
EvH: How did that negative impulse (i.e., not to do what others did) shape the way you positively interacted with subjects in shoots? How did you walk the line between gentle direction to get a great performance out of a subject, and the more heavy-handed manipulation you wanted to avoid?
MW: Well from that frustration of band photos I learned that I really need to get to know my subjects. I can’t photograph a band as soon as I meet them and I can’t photograph them just from talking in emails. So, I decided if I have 2 hours with a band I’ll spend an hour getting to know them and hang out; if I have an hour I’ll spend 30 minutes, and so on. Getting to know them and making them comfortable with me was the key to having the subject interact with the viewer as you see in the photos.
To avoid manipulating them I just get to know them. If they say, “Okay, so like what should we do…?” — because they aren’t comfortable posing, I push back the photographing a little and hang with them longer. Another thing I might do is ask them something along the lines of, “How do you want to be seen? Do you feel comfortable looking at the camera or would looking away be better?” I can also catch them candid in moments of vulnerability, but if I do that I always check with the band or artist before posting or using the photos to make sure they like those, because that can be very very personal.
EvH: Can you please tell us about one or two of your favorite images from the project, and the situation surrounding them? What makes these surprising, or affecting, or lucky?
MW: The cover photo is one that sits with me. It was of Dan Deacon, a Baltimore electronic artist [above]. He asked me to come to a small venue before he had a DJ set and I got that picture of him just in front of his laptop. It was super quick and just one shot — I usually only take one shot of each moment; I don’t shoot a lot — and it turned out haunting and iconic. Another great one was Jessica Lea Mayfield. She’s an amazing artist from Akron, Ohio.
She was in town and only had 45 minutes for me after her set. The backstage was not to her or my liking so I said, “want to go across the street, get a drink, and photograph there?” She trusted me and it meant a lot, and we also got some amazing shots. She really loved the shots and it was amazing to have that kind of trust from a new person just by talking and learning about each other for a bit (below).
EvH: The portraits are quite varied in style and mood, and presumably the type of musician as well. How did you choose the members of this eclectic bunch? What are the common threads throughout the collection for you?
MW: Honestly it’s all just artists I love and respect from Baltimore and beyond. Despite how different each shot is I feel like I have a style to my work that keeps all them together well as a collection.
EvH: Who are some artists or other creatives in any medium, who give you inspiration or joy right now?
MW: There are so many Baltimore musicians that inspire me everyday and it would take all day to list them all. But, besides all of the bands I’ve photographed, one of my biggest inspirations will always be Kanye West. Something about how he’s forever striving for perfection. I’m also starting to share my own music with the world, and sometimes I worry about blending that and my photography all under the same name. But then I think about Kanye and all the mediums of art he does, and that gives me the confidence to keep pushing my art.