Tattoos. For some it is an art form, medium of self-expression, memory, heritage and for some a desecration. Follow us on a journey into the world of music, photography and tattoos, guided by Jon Blacker and masterfully documented in his book Musical Ink.
Musical Ink is a portrait project, featuring music celebrity artists and their humbling inked stories. All beautifully executed in infrared with 62 different personalities. Take a look for yourself and pick up a few photo tips & tricks shared by Jon Blacker along the way.
Hi Jon. Could you share with us your photographic journey?
My father attended Rochester Institute of Technology in the late 1950s so there were always cameras around the house. While he didn’t ultimately pursue photography as his career, that’s there my interest started. I saved up all the money I earned at my first summer job when I was 15 and bought a Minolta XG-M and a couple of lenses (which lasted me about a year before I switched to Nikon. 26 years later, I’m still a Nikon user) and started shooting for the local newspaper. The following summer I was offered a paid internship there and the rest is history as the saying goes.
Why concert/music photography?
I’ve always loved music from simple backbeats to driving guitars and just about everything else in between so shooting concerts was really a natural progression for me. I don’t only shoot music, though. In addition to my portrait work, I also shoot a lot of sports for both Reuters and The Canadian Press.
Who was the 1st celebrity you ever photographed? Do you remember the feeling and if the nerves ever got to you, did you forget any equipment?
I suppose the first ‘celebrity’ I photographed was Richard Kiel who played Jaws in the James Bond film The Spy Who Loved me. It was a feature portrait for the paper I was interning at when I was 16. I have never been ‘star struck’ in any way, so I don’t feel anxious or worried at all. The people I shoot are, well, just people. Sure, they’re sometimes wildly successful at what they do but they’re still just people. I feel that treating them any differently would be disingenuous and insincere.
As far as forgetting equipment goes, never. I always check and double check my cases before I leave for a portrait shoot to ensure that everything is where it’s supposed to be including memory cards and extra batteries. I always arrive early to set up so that I’m ready to simply pick up a camera and start shooting the moment my subject is ready.
Your book’s photo subjects are world class super stars. How did you get in touch?
Specifically for my Musical Ink project, I primarily contacted the artists through their management or public relations teams. I had detailed information about the project that I sent out, inviting the artists I wished to include to participate and then scheduled time with them based either on their touring schedules or my own travel schedule. If they were coming through Toronto on a tour stop, we would try to shoot them here. I made half a dozen trips to Los Angeles, several to New York and one to Atlanta while putting Musical Ink together and on several occasions did the portraits in the artists homes.
In working on my Musical Ink project, I had the opportunity to meet a few of the artists I have been listening to for a long time which was a lot of fun, but I’ve also created some lasting relationships not only with some of those artists themselves, but with a lot of the people behind them in publicity and management.
Would you say that getting a hold of a star is easier once you are an established photographer versus beginner?
When I started reaching out to musicians for Musical Ink, I had never dealt with most of them previously so they had never heard of me. Having detailed information available to them about my project made it relatively easier for them to be comfortable that I wasn’t just some deranged fan with a camera.
Being established I suppose refers to having a history working with people and being professional. I’ve always strived to be professional when working with my subjects, respecting their time and getting them on and off my set as quickly as possible while still ensuring I get the images I need. I’ve had many of the musicians I’ve photographed thank me at the end of a shoot and comment on how much they liked the way I worked because I don’t drag out my sessions with them; my respect for them as people goes a long way and is reciprocated.
As an example, when I shot a portrait of Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister who appears in Musical Ink, he did not approve any of the images from our shoot; he didn’t like the way his eyes looked (infrared can sometimes be a little less than kind with eyes, giving them a bit of a dark look). A few months later his band made another tour stop not far away from Toronto and I asked if we could try again. He remembered me from our first shoot and because it was quick and painless, he agreed. We did our shoot; he was on & off my set in less than two minutes. The second time he approved the image that appears in the book.
THE BOOK: MUSICAL INK
Musical Ink. The name speaks for itself, but could you share with us how you came up with this concept?
I had seen some portrait images made by Minnesota photographer Tom Dahlin of some of the NBA’s Timberwolves back in 2006. His lighting was radically different than mine but I was taken by the way the players’ tattoos reacted to being shot in infrared and I filed the idea away in my mental ‘I might use that some day’ folder. A couple of years went by and I found myself in need of a creative project that I could really make something out of and I revisited shooting portraits of tattooed musicians. Combining a couple of things I really enjoy, tattoos and music with an infrared camera and an entirely different lighting setup than Tom used, I found my project.
There is a range from heavy metal to hip-hop artists. How did you chose which musicians to photograph?
The musicians in Musical Ink were chosen for a variety of reasons ranging from their being artists whose work I enjoy to artists whose tattoos I found particularly intriguing.
In the book, photos of artists are accompanied with write-ups about the tattoos. Were these written by musicians themselves?
They were. More accurately, they were spoken by the musicians. Before I started each portrait session I told the artist that while we were shooting their main portrait, I wanted them to think about just one of their tattoos that held a special meaning for them or simply had a great story behind it. Once the main portrait was complete, I would shoot a detail image of their chosen tattoo then have them tell me the story of that piece, either into the voice memo feature of my phone if time was particularly tight or, more frequently, into a Nikon DSLR running in video mode.
Which tattoo story was most memorable to you?
It’s really difficult to narrow it down to just one single story. There were a couple of stories that I found really funny, like Sammy Hagar’s and Chad Smith’s and there were a couple that were surprisingly moving, like Kerry King’s.
Now the obvious question. Do you have any tattoos?
I have many tattoos. Not unlike the musicians whose portraits I made for Musical Ink, their meanings are all over the map. I have a classic heart with a pair of swallows holding a banner that says ‘Mom’ (I lost my mother in late 2011), I have a great black and grey Koi that covers my entire left forearm and a large black & grey pinup of my girlfriend based on a photograph I shot of her on my right forearm. My tattoos have been done in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles, and every time I get a new one I start thinking about the next one.
BEHIND THE LENS
Did you shoot digital or on film?
The book was shot entirely using digital cameras. With the exceptions of the portrait of Kat Von D near the front of the book and the layout of the equipment I used near the back, every single image in the book was made using an infrared-converted Nikon D2X. It as converted from a standard off-the-shelf body to shoot infrared 100% of the time by LifePixel near Seattle.
Where did you shoot? Did you bring backdrop/equipment to locations where the musicians were at or did they commute to a studio?
Working on location almost 100% of the time, I don’t have a studio. The portraits for Musical Ink were shot in many different locations. I always travel to the musicians to make their portraits and shot in hotel rooms, back stage and venues both large, like Toronto’s Air Canada Centre and Molson Ampitheatre and small, like Massey Hall and the Sound Academy. I was also fortunate to make a some of the portraits at the musicians’ homes; Matt Sorum, Gilby Clarke and Jack Irons were just a few who welcomed me into their personal spaces.
What was the light setup like?
While for some my lighting setup may seem very complicated, it’s really just a straight-forward five light configuration; two lights, one on each side angled to blow out the white background, two more, again, one on each side, angled slightly forward to provide rim lights and highlights on both sides then a main light up front. While the setup was identical for all of the portraits, for a few of them I turned off some of the lights to get a different feel.
The Nikon D2X I mentioned earlier was the camera for all of the portraits, more often than not paired with a Nikon 24-70/2.8 lens. Using a zoom allowed me to get ‘closer’ to the subject without actually having to get closer to the subject. It was also very helpful if the shooting space was very small and there was not much room to work.
For lighting, I used 5 Nikon SB-900 Speedlights. They put out plenty of light, they’re lightweight and with various accessories (Nikon’s SU-800 or Pocket Wizard’s Flex TT5 units), the output can be adjusted on the fly right from the camera.
All of the images were shot against a white 6x7 foot Lastolite collapsible background that folds down into a three foot circle. When I travel, I carry two bags onboard — one with my cameras and one with my lighting â€“ and I check the Lastolite along with my suitcase.
TIPS & TRICKS
Infrared. After going through this experience of shooting over 50 infrared portraits, could you share with us any tips or tricks you picked up?
Make sure you have plenty of daylight-balanced light. Due to the different wavelengths of light, infrared-converted cameras respond best to a daylight balanced light source; tungsten or fluorescent-balanced light sources require much longer exposure times.
Publishing. If you were to go through the publishing process again which mistakes would you avoid or difficulties that you could skim over?
While I have contributed to books in the past, this was the first that was entirely my own and it was a learning process to be sure. That said, the single biggest challenge at the very beginning was the Catch-22 of publishers asking who was going to be in the book and artists asking who was going to publish it.
Once I was able to get several portraits made, I put together a very comprehensive package outlining the entire project, including sample images and sent that off to publishers pitching the book. I don’t know that there were really any mistakes that I made or difficulties that can simply be skimmed over; the publishing business, particularly for photo books, is an exceptionally challenging and competitive market and to successfully have a book produced through traditional means is much more about its marketability and sales potential than it is about pretty pictures.
Advice. What’s your advice to beginner concert or celebrity photographers?
Persevere and start small. Without some manner of experience and existing relationships, a new photographer is simply not likely to begin their career by shooting major bands at large concert venues. Start by shooting small bands at small venues; there are a number of bars that have open mic nights which would be a great place to start honing your skills — these venues will very often have poor or minimal lighting which will make shooting a challenge, but once you’ve spent enough time shooting under those conditions and start to get sharp, well composed images, when you ultimately do get an assignment to shoot at a major venue with great production and lighting, you’ll then ‘only’ need to concentrate on composition and timing.
Shooting live concerts is definitely not about getting access to the photo pit to watch the show and be one of the cool kids; it’s about shooting quality images, typically during only the first two or three songs, having respect for your fellow photographers who are also working in the pit — don’t reach, don’t block, don’t shove. While often the pit is very tight and very busy, there’s always enough room for everyone to get their images by being aware and working together; don’t be ‘that guy’.
WIN MUSICAL INK
Want the book? Here is your chance to get your hands on a brand new signed copy of Musical Ink. Upload your b&w photo to 500px with a tag musicalink
. You have a month to enter and we will announce one lucky winner on November 26th. Book will be shipped to you with a 500px surprise inside.
Thanks to Jon Blacker for the interview and thank you for reading! To see more of Jon’s photography and to follow his future work visit his website.
If you are planning to get into concert photography and need more tips check out this How To by Brad Moore. For more interviews and tutorials scroll down the blog and send in your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to reading your thoughts, feedback and questions in the comments below.