Behind the Lens with Greater Lowell’s Ultimate Live Music Photographer
Coleman Rogers grabbed his camera not expecting to capture rock history. But for more than 30 years, from raucous basement clubs to intimate stage performances, his memorable live music shots have put fans center stage and given them a back stage pass to bands they love throughout Greater Lowell and Boston. Rogers’ killer shots have landed him a nomination for a Boston Music Award Thursday, Dec. 8 at the House of Blues, 15 Lansdowne St., Boston.
WHEN WERE YOU FIRST BITTEN BY THE PHOTOGRAPHY BUG?
Early in high school, I visited some cousins who were into photography. They had a darkroom and processed their own film and prints. I was fascinated by the process, from the precision of the camera mechanism and the calculation of exposure to the mixing of chemicals and the appearance of an image out of nowhere on the paper. That year, my dad and I built a darkroom for me in our basement, and I was hooked. I spent many hours capturing images and printing them, but I did not think of myself as an artist at that time even though I liked to deviate from the traditional steps to see what would happen. I am completely self-taught, and I had great arguments with the photography teacher in high school.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CAMERA?
After that trip to my cousins’ house, my dad gave me a Zeiss Ikoflex twin-lens reflex camera that he bought in France in 1950. I still have the Ikoflex and it takes wonderful photographs. Twin lens cameras are very quiet because they have no moving mirror, and they have a periscope-like view finder so it is not obvious that the camera is being pointed at you. They make great cameras for street photography. When I was a sophomore in high school, I got a 35 mm Minolta as a gift and I started taking photos for the yearbook and newspaper. We made creative covers. Now I have about a dozen film cameras of various ages and types, and two digital cameras. Cameras have personalities and I try to understand the strength of each, what it wants to do in terms of capturing images. It sounds like I am the camera whisperer, but that is how I feel when I shoot with each one.
WHAT ATTRACTED YOU TO MUSIC PHOTOGRAPHY?
I have been in and around Boston music for the last thirty years, as a musician (I was really bad!), live sound engineer, recording engineer, producer, and studio technician. I have done a few shoots during sessions, but I really thrive on capturing the energy and tension of live performance. I get butterflies the same way I did when I was in a band, and I get really excited after a set, looking back through the shots and finding gems. Sharing these with my friends/performers is very satisfying.
HOW HAS MUSIC AFFECTED YOUR ART?
When I am working on a fine art image, I work alone and I use the meditative quality of my process to dig into a photo. Photographing a live music event is the opposite of that. I get absorbed into the energy of the performance. That energy is addictive, and the quick turnaround from capture to final image has drawn me away from the very long-term process of developing an image on film. Capturing music photos has many similarities to fine artwork, and street photography as well. I look for angles and framing that I think will lend itself to a good photo, and then I wait. Patience and timing is key for the actual capture. You might see me standing like a statue, with my camera ready, for a few minutes. I peek around the camera to make sure that I am not missing anything else, and then when a moment comes, I am ready. Or sometimes, not.
WHAT GEAR DO YOU USE WHEN WORKING?
I use a Sony A99 with a series of Zeiss and Sony prime lenses. Prime lenses let in more light, and are sharper than zooms. My 16mm fisheye is a favorite for creating group images. I love how it distorts the world to fit so much into the frame. Mic stands and guitar necks get all bendy and cartoonish, those shots really grab your attention. I run the camera in manual focus, and usually I have it in manual exposure. The auto focus will focus on the wrong thing, especially if a mic is in front of a face. And the stark lighting of the stage causes the light meter to vary wildly. I love shooting music events with black and white film, the images have a quality that digital approaches but does not reach. Even my best digital shots lack something that film has. Unfortunately, it has gotten very expensive to shoot film during events, I really have to be careful to get the right image. This is part of the difference for sure, along with the texture of film. I avoid flash, unless I get permission from the band, and even then I will only use it during one or two songs. It distracts so much from the event, everyone knows when you took a photo and I like to be stealth when I work. Photography helps me to channel my inner stalker, I like to blend into the background and not be noticed. Some people would disagree with that, because I am all over the place, on the floor in front of a band, creeping around behind the drummer, but I really am trying to be invisible. I have been told I look like a ninja when I am working — I take that as a big compliment.
WHAT MAKES A GREAT LIVE MUSIC PHOTO?
Composition of the shot is very important. I treat my music photos with the same eye that I do my fine art work. In addition, a photo should express the raw emotion of the event. I am capturing one slice of time that whole performance. Even inside of one beat of music, expressions can change wildly. Joe Perry of State of The Union once told me that in one of my photos, he saw the thread of his song, all the way from writing the song by himself, presenting it at open mic in its raw form, developing it with the band, loading in, sound check, and the sweat of performing it. As a performer, he has a different reference point than fans do, but if anyone who looks at one of my photos gets some of that feeling, then I have been successful.
WHAT TYPE OF THINGS DO YOU TRY TO CAPTURE DURING A SHOOT? DO YOU HAVE A FORUMLA?
I do start with a list of shots that I want to get; full group shots and then individual shots. I also like to get shots that have people relating to each other, as well as little moments in between the big ones. I shot a punk show recently and was surprised afterwards how many images showed the lead singer in a peaceful state, almost blissful. Of course, I had many shots of him in his full rage, too.
HOW HAS YOUR STYLE EVOLVED?
I was in a bad bicycle crash two years ago. My left leg was paralyzed for two and a half months, and then I had knee surgery last spring. I am still recovering, trying to get my strength and flexibility back. Before the crash, I was very acrobatic when I was shooting, climbing on top of things and crawling around on the floor. I am still recovering from the various surgeries and injuries, so I am not as daring with my activity and I need to take breaks between sets. But as far as my images are concerned, I am more experimental than I used to be, playing with the extremes of the settings on my camera. Because I mostly use available light, I have to make the best of any given situation. Keeping an open mind is really important.
AT WHAT POINT DID YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF A PROFESSIONAL?
I don’t really think of myself as a professional, more as an artist. And as an artist, I am not constrained by the idea that I need to please someone to earn their money. I am free to try things to make myself happy. If that pleases others, great. If not, well, that is what art is about. I have a day job that supports my camera habit, so I am not worried about generating income from my work. I like it when people want to buy my photographs, but that is not why I am out a few nights a week shooting photos.
FROM HOBBYISTS TO PROS, PHOTOGRAPHY IS A CROWDED INDUSTRY. WHAT IS THE KEY TO STANDING OUT FROM THE CROWD?
I don’t think about my work in that way. I go in as an artist, and follow my eye. I try to become a part of the show, feeling out the energy from the stage, the relationships between the various players, who is expressive and who is more reserved. I spend the first song getting my basic shots and feeling out the composition of various locations, and then I try to dig into the essence of the performance. Depending on how many other photographers are there with me, I might give it a rest for a few songs to get out of the way of the crowd, but watching the show. The crowd is there to see the band after all, not the back of my head. I return for the last couple of songs to capture the climax of the show, and taking the most chances with my shots.
HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR PHOTOS LOOKING FRESH GIG AFTER GIG?
I love music, and I play off the energy of live performance. Every show is different. The same band in the same venue will have a different crowd and a different feel on a different night. I shoot for myself first, and I don’t hesitate to experiment. It really is play for me, so avoiding burn out is very important.
WHICH PHOTOGRAPHERS DO YOU MOST ADMIRE?
Over the years, I have studied film masters like Harry Callahan, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, and Vivian Maier.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE SHOOT?
Too many to mention! Parlour Bells opening for Culture Club, Party Bois at Johnny D’s, The Dirty Dottys at The Hard Rock, The Shods reunion shows at The Shamrock…but my favorite shoot was probably last summer when Cherie Currie came to Boston for CAPOTISTA, headlining a great night of performances that benefitted BAGLY (Boston Alliance of Gay Lesbian Bisexual & Transgender Youth). I was with Cherie for a few days as she made various appearances around Boston, including a visit to Woolley Mammoth studios and my friend Dave Minehan. It was very special capturing the two of them telling stories from their illustrious careers. And the night of the show was truly moving, Cherie standing in the front row of the audience during most of the night leading up to her own set, cheering on each of the bands. Every band was psyched to be there — Marianne Toilet and the Runs, Gene Dante and the Future Starlets — and both Sarah McGuiness and Cherie had great backup bands made of some of Bostons’ best players.
IF YOU COULD PICK A DREAM CLIENT WHO WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
I would love to shoot The Neighborhoods, in a tiny club with a crazy crowd.
WHAT IS YOUR NEXT CONCERT STOP?
I am in Portugal for a few months working remotely, and there is a great club in Loule called Bafo de Baço (Breath of Bacchus). They have a wide range of great acts from all over the world. I will be here for a few more weeks, and then I see that late November and December are already looking good for upcoming shows in Boston and Lowell. The Lowell music scene is amazing, so many places for original music. I love the club’s in Boston and Cambridge, but I love being able to walk from my apartment in Lowell to four or five shows in one night.
DRAWING ON YOUR EXPERIENCE, WHAT ADVICE CAN YOU GIVE TO AMATEURS WANTING TO TAKE THEIR HOBBY TO THE NEXT LEVEL?
Don’t quit your day job. Learn all that you can about your gear, push it to extremes and experiment. I have a few rules for shooting an event: Wear black. Leave your flash at home, unless you have discussed it with the band. Do not hog front spots. Move around. It’s better for the crowd and your shots. Don’t look at the back of your camera, trust your work and engage with the music.
Learn more about Coleman Rogers’ fine art and live music photography at colemanrogers.com.