Shoot To Kill (II)

I like getting questions. Nobody ever sends me questions. Probably because although I like getting questions doesn't always mean I like answering them - usually because people ask the wrong questions. Yesterday though, my buddy Scott asked me a peach. It looked like this: I've just finished re-reading (sober this time) Shoot To Kill - you interview with Fin Costello in BDWN. I enjoyed that chapter pissed first time around and wanted to return to it to take it in properly.

I may not have worked at the very top with the biggest bands, but there are so many similarities. I spent years shooting bands, (Californian punk mostly, with the Fat Wreck Chords label), travelling with them, hotel rooms, dressing rooms, I can relate to the whole thing. I earned their trust over time and they became good friends - there was nowhere I couldn't go.

I recently got invited to meet up with Bowling For Soup again on their farewell tour too. I didn't bother taking my camera. I'd spent seven years travelling and documenting everything they did in the UK already, so this time it was just to talk about all that we'd done and which photos they'd like for the book. I wandered around to the back of the venue, went inside and walked up to the dressing rooms, without a pass, unchallenged. I've always wondered why no one else did this. After the show I was stood chatting to the tour manager when one of the evening photographers asked me what an 'old guy' like me was doing at a BFS show! 

Do you think any of us photographers can ever make our mark like Fin? Everything seems so throw away now and everybody's at it.

Just wanted to say I found it a really interesting chapter. Great work Sir.

Oh yeah... that's a peach of a question alright. For the uninitiated, this is Fin Costello. If you're a music fan, there will be plenty you recognise - and this is Black Dye White Noise. This may be the longest blog post I've written in years. Hopefully, I can make it useful

That interview with Fin is from back in 2003 but I think all of the things he talks about are still relevant - not only that, but they are relevant to more than just the music business now time has moved on. You can also apply the same principles to writing that's for sure. The background of the story is that I interviewed Fin for a magazine I had just launched (Burn) and he gave more than I could ever have asked for. Hours of material. He was a true gent and unintentionally, taught me everything I know about how photographers should be treated - looking back, it might have only been how Fin wanted to be treated (which was with respect) but it all made perfect sense to me and still does. So:

Will any photographers ever make a mark like him?

Sadly, unless things change across the board, it's unlikely in the current climate. First of all, photographers (pro, amateur and everything in between) must stop giving their work away for free - even though they don't mean to. As you know all too well, as soon as a single image hits the web, it's dead meat. It can be around the world so fast that you have no hope of reclaiming it ever again. So the first rule must surely be, keep your work to yourself. Unless you want it to be a genuine free for all, you wouldn't do it with a song, a book or a movie. Assuming photographers think of their work as being in the same arena - why is it more prevalent with images than these other things? Do you all feel guilty that the web will be empty if visual treats without your contributions?

But that's not actually a real world proposition if you're trying to make a name for yourself. You want people to see your work and the web is great for that, but unless you have a client at the other end (an editor, a paid for commission etc) what the hell are you supposed to do with them? It probably seems like you won't get anywhere if you keep them to yourself. So, as far as I can see, a photographer needs to decide which side of the fence they sit on. Do you pull everything in and keep your cards close to your chest until such a time as you get a break or do you throw it to the four corners of the world and see what happens? The correct answer is that you keep them to yourself. Sounds harsh but hey, that's business for you. All the time you give your work away 'for free' and let it loose in the world without your knowledge, you're in no better a position really than a 12 year old with a mobile phone and a wi-fi connection.

Sounds harsh, but that's what I think should happen. That's what would separate the men from the boys but that is an ideal world scenario because it won't work unless other things come into line as well - media editors offering decent money for the work would be a good start. Being a mag editor, I know that money isn't as freely available as it used to be back in Fin's day, so those people are also in a hole. Everybody is in a hole and the root of the problem is that we've all got used to getting stuff for free. It's a good plan as a promotional tool but when promotion turns into "why is there no petrol in the car?" and "why is there nothing to eat today?" maybe you should have thought it through a little better.

There was a time when I would spend good money on a poster of a band - that's how I discovered Fin in the first place. Sometimes you can get lucky and find an editor who appreciates what you do but I think we (I do class myself as one of them) are few and far between. Switch places and you wouldn't find an editor of a mag spending four hours making your work look great for the love of it. You can pretty much guarantee that. That's a bit simplistic but I think it gets the point across. I'm sure most people think you just turn up with a camera hanging off your shoulder, rattle 1000 shots off digitally, send them in and walk away with more cash than you know what to do with.

Do they teach you this at university if these are your plans? They should do.

The other thing that's important here is that nobody seems to have a freaking clue about what's good anymore. Either that or nobody cares because information floods at you now instead of being carefully chosen by you. In music, the CD killed off most artistic cover work and mp3 put the final nail in. Now that we're streaming instead of downloading (or at least I am) - what happens next?

They are not all like this by any means - the shot of Rebecca Ferguson's album cover that I posted yesterday, is a stunning shot. Nice work whoever shot that... and RIGHT THERE is your problem - and even now that I've had a cursory look for who shot it, that info is not easy to come by.

Back in Fin's day, you had the album sleeve. We would sit around for years with those damn sleeves and read them over and over while we listened. You knew who produced stuff, who wrote songs, who shot the cover - and I think (I hope) within the industry, that was out of respect for everybody being a cog in the big machine. You play nice. You get remembered. You turn up, you get let in. You could call up David Lee Roth and he would remember you. You knew the manager and the tour bus driver and you treated them all the same because the clock doesn't work if one of the cogs gets fucked up. Basically, you could get things done. The more you got things done, the more the people with the money would just trust you to work out what the client (the band) wanted and know (for the most part) that what they would get back would work. (If you're interested, that's one of the reasons why I moved the photo credits on the cover of Skin Deep to the cover instead of burying it on the contents page. It's just the way I think things should be done. I don't know if other mags do this or not. I only read Vanity Fair these days but as far as I can see they are still very respectful of photography and still treat it well - but they are quite old school).

As for everything being throwaway. I agree. I hate it. I hate it so much, I've given the world what it asked for and thrown/given all my things away in some desperate stab at regaining control. I own no compact discs anymore, stream all my music via rdio but I do have a record deck for the things I really care about - plus it gives me something to do when travelling. Do you know how hard it is to find old vinyl that's not been to hell and back. I have no DVD's and I'm working on my books to the point that I only want books with effort put into their presentation on the shelf - the rest might as well be an ebook or an audiobook because - if you're not going to package it like you mean it (respect it?) - why the hell should I show everybody in my life your half assed effort?

It's probably a fruitless stand but it's a stand I like to make. It's going to be a long time before people want quality stuff in their lives anymore. It's the Facebook mentality of "live fast, die young and tell everybody about it" because "I want to be important too". Don't get me started on it but I can never resist an opportunity to say again that Facebook is the slug of the internet garden. It's ugly, pointless, will eat everything in sight regardless of what it is and you can't kill it. I tried putting salt on it one day just to make sure but just made a mess on the table.

Finally... the comment you make about being an "old guy" at a show. I suspect we all used to be like that. Then I became an "old guy" - not that old admittedly, same age as you in fact. Time moves on and you get a bit more respectful about it because if you don't, you're just going to end up being that "young guy" who was hot for ten minutes - or at least until the even younger guy came up behind you and kicked your ass into oblivion. Which is more or less the same as the story that Fin tells about being treated like shit when he went to shoot Train - when the guys in charge found out what he had done in his career, the rules changed. And I dare say that if good money hadn't been involved, Fin would have told them all to go fuck themselves.

So - on a positive note, if anybody reading wants to be remembered like Fin, Mick Rock, Bob Gruen, Ross Halfin, Scarlet Page and there are many, many others - you better get your shit together, (not you personally, I'm just speaking generally here). If anybody else is reading - and I don't profess to know everything, this is just how it appears to me - be an decent human being of a cog whilst also getting pretty good at not taking shit from fools. Talk to the waitress like a real person. Talk to the guy who holds the door open at the hotel, he has dreams too. The guy who is serving you coffee hasn't made a career choice there. Don't be a dick because frankly, you're just not that important - play nice and you can make good art (yep - stole that from Gaiman and I don't care) and if you make really good art and aren't a dick, people will ask for you and remember you.

That - I think is how it should and could work but there's one hell of a long way to go. I guess some might say that it's OK for me or that I'm older and don't need to fight the same, but I paid my dues. When I started out, I turned up at 2pm hundreds of miles away from home and waited for a band if I wanted an interview. I've slept on stations, under trees, in photo booths - once even under a car because it was raining (which was stupid) all because I wanted to work for Rolling Stone. That didn't happen - in fact I never worked for any of the music magazines. So I stuck two fingers up at them and decided to do it myself. I'm not a name anybody would throw into the arena when it comes to music writing but that road led me somewhere else that I love just as much.

Finally... I think there are enough tools out there for photographers (or whatever else) to make their own way. Put a book together of your total best. Make it kill. Invest in the best "one copy only" print on demand service you can get. Shop it around. Make yourself hot property - don't throw it away on Facebook for the sake of somebody giving you a big thumbs up. Make ten copies and send it to your favourite bands management companies of nobody will give you the time of day.

Fortune favours the brave and all that. What we need right now is for someone to break the shitty mould that's been left behind by accountants.

Phew. Did I actually answer anything at all here?

As an afterthought/footnote - and I think Fin says this at the close of that interview - if you're busy, you won't know you're 'making it' at all. One day, after many years, you will stop for a moment for some odd reason - maybe you've run out of milk -  look back and say 'holy shit - look at all this work I've done'. The train of thought today is that you have to 'make it' but it's not something that's up to you decide even if you're fantastic at what you do. All you can do is The Work and the public will decide the rest...

When you're shooting Aeromsith in 1974, you don't know they are going to be huge. You do your best work - that's all you can do. The rest is nothing more than the world turning in a certain direction - but if you never turned up to take the shot, you're not even in the game.