Sunday, June 21, 2009

Look at me, I'm a rock star! or 5 style rules of rock music photography

When it's done right, it can rock your world. When it's not, it can feel like a stale cliché. Since I'm focusing on music this month, I decided to put together a list of some typical rock music (and I'm interpreting the term in a broad sense) photography characteristics. Want to photograph an aspiring rock star? Here are 5 tips for you. Want to do something that's never been done before? Well, then here are 5 things you should avoid:

1. Get down with it!
A stock photo meant to convey a "rock band" look

Low angles are a staple of rock photography. A low angle gives that larger-than-life feel and recalls the view from the mosh pit. A low angle can also be sexually suggestive—just think of the low and wide angle of Bill Clinton on the famous December 2000 Esquire cover (see also this R Kelly photo) —a much more provocative angle than the Halle Berry remake in 2008 —but then again, she wasn’t wearing any pants, so...

I can remember how low angle shots of gyrating bodies were exploited ad nauseam in early MTV days for an in-your-face sexuality that could keep the Church Lady ranting for hours. And—shock value bonus—the low-angle shot is equally good at suggesting violence. Shot from below, a group looks more threatening. Early Beastie Boys, like many rap and hip hop artists in general, often put the viewer in the position of someone that has been knocked to the ground. So what'cha what'cha what'cha want? —Umm...not to be kicked to death by a trio of angry white boys, OK?

2. Color me aggressive.
The White Stripes. (I think Jack White is a genius, by the way) seen in a poster from Starstore.

Whether it’s a bold color like red, or a black and white photo with bold red graphics, remember that rock star palettes should be about as subtle as a drag queen’s makeup kit. Save the soft tones for neo-folk artists. Bleach bypass, cross-process, brush, and manipulate color as much as you want. If it's a muted palette, it had better be a post-apocalyptic bleak kind of muted (see tip 3 below). And remember that "restraint" is for people who drive minivans.

3. Habitat: Urban Wasteland
Nothing cries out disaffected youthful angst like a neglected street or run-down warehouse. Post-apocalyptic cityscapes are to rock band photos what fields of flowers are to bridal shoots. If nature or suburban settings must appear, they had better be used ironically.

4. Want to be an icon? Then take one on.
Rock stars and their photographers thrive on iconic imagery. The use of emotionally charged cultural symbols—say, Courtney Love as the Virgin Mary and a Kurt Cobain look-alike as Jesus—creates the visual equivalent of deafening feedback through an amp. The assault on cultural values gets attention. Dada and Surrealism pioneered the attack on bourgeois values, rules, and logic. Duchamps’ mustached Mona Lisa sets a standard in iconographic blasphemy: anything venerated is fair game.
A Manet classic? Nope. Art work for Bow Wow Wow's album See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! as seen here.

Religious imagery, of course, is a perennial fave: think Madonna and her far reaching use of religious references or Kanye West’s “Passion” image on Rolling Stone. Blasphemy is hardly original, but it continues to be used as a formula for provocation because it gets attention.

But the exploitation of icons is not limited to religious symbols. Take the Marylin Manson formula: iconic movie star + serial killer = rock star that your parents are guaranteed to hate (Note that both cultural references are of an earlier generation—just to make sure the parental figures get it). Other stylistic modes sure to upset your elders: Maoist, Stalinist, and Fascist- inspired work.

5. Look into my eyes....
Lil Wayne stares you down on this Blender cover as seen here

Stare down your viewer as a photo and you will always win. Whether in the form of a blank stare, an evil eye, an accusatory wounded glare, or a nasty stank face, the unblinking gaze can be effectively disquieting and even hypnotic.

Equally effective as the “look into my eyes” photo, however, is the “I’m too cool to look at you” standoffish approach. And then there's the back of the head shot reserved for alt-rock only.

What rock photo style rule works for you? What do you hope never to see again? What else should be on the list? Leave a comment (I seem to have a problem with comments disappearing, but leave one anyway).

Want more inspiration?