If it happens at night and is not shot by nightlife photography masters Josh Sisk (WaPo, The Sun, Spin, XLR8R) or Kyle Gustafson (WaPo, WaPo Mag, DCist) chances are you don’t need to be there.
Together, the pair have nightlife photography market locked up from here to DC and back again.
We caught up with them on the eve of their opening at the Windup Space for the joint show, FULL SPEED OR NOTHING: Music Photography by Josh Sisk & Kyle Gustafson.
Gutter: Briefly explain your background in photography
Josh Sisk: I studied photography in college, worked in the industry briefly in
new york, but ultimately ended up seduced by dotcom riches and worked
on a lot of web projects. After a few years, I got the bug back and
started shooting, mostly concerts and bands, as I ran a label and
booked shows. Eventually I decided to focus on photography and now I
shoot music and nightlife/culture for a variety of publications,
mainly the Washington Post, the Baltimore City Paper, the Baltimore
Sun, SPIN.com and a few others.
Kyle Gustafson: I started a music blog called Information Leafblower in 2003 that featured album and concert reviews and when I moved to D.C. in 2004 I started writing concert reviews for DCist. I wanted photos to go with those reviews so I bought a camera and learned how to take photos in the dark. I quickly realized I like shooting concerts much more than writing about them.
G: Why the night? What attracts you to it?
JS: I love music, always have, and love going out, being social, etc.
Before I started shooting bands all the time I was still seeing bands
all the time, and involved in music, so it was a natural thing. Even
if I am not being social, I like being around people so bars, clubs,
and so forth are places I like to be. It’s also a pleasure to take
photos of people doing things they are passionate at/good at and music
culture lends itself well to that… musicians, DJs, even dancers.
KG: I worked in the music industry for 7 years before I moved to D.C., so going to 3 or 4 concerts a week is honestly all I’ve ever known. I used to try and take a photo or two at every show I went to, so getting some proper gear and seeing if I could make a go of it seemed like natural progression.
G: Can you give one best/worst anecdote about shooting in a live venue/celeb?
JS: Recently I was shooting an interview with the drummer of the metal
band Anthrax, and we ran into the lead singer, Joey Belladonna, outside of the interview and he talked with us for a bit. He asked me if I was shooting the concert, and I said yes, and he asked if that
meant I’d miss the rest of the concert (because at big shows the photographers aren’t allowed to watch the show after their first 3 songs are over). So he gave us extra tickets and said he would “see you out there”. I didn’t think anything of it, but when he came out on stage, he looked down into the photographer’s pit, saw me, waved, did a thumbs up, then flipped me off… giving me time to get a photo of each gesture. Pretty cool of him! The worst anecdotes are always the same… artists deciding at the last minute that we have to shoot from the back of the house instead of the photo pit, or deciding to not allow photographers at all at the last minute after we are already at the club… or springing restrictive contracts on us at the last minute. Stuff like that.
KG: Not sure if I have one that stands out as the best, but I am very appreciative of artists that do the little things to ensure that the photogs in the pit can get good shots. KISS is a great example. When I shot them at the Verizon Center a few years ago, they spent the first two songs playing directly to the photogs in the pit. As a result, everyone got great photos. Say what you will about Gene Simmons, but he’s a very smart guy when it comes to things like that. Some bands like Depeche Mode give you 4 songs to shoot instead of 3. Pearl Jam has a contract all photogs have to sign that says you will stay out of the way of their crew, but it also says “Have fun!” which is not the mindset of most bands when dealing with photographers. Springsteen and U2 also are very good about treating photographers well. I appreciate being treated like a professional instead of cattle.
On the other hand, I have a ton of stories about being treated like a nuisance by many lesser name artists, but I won’t name any names. I will say that hip hop shows are generally very challenging. Lights are always low and most rappers wear hats that cover their eyes. And the song medleys. Those are the worst. Last fall we were allotted 3 songs to shoot Big Boi when he played the 9:30 Club, which is the industry standard. But he did a medley of 3 songs that lasted exactly 3 minutes and 40 seconds (I checked the metadata of my photos). Situations like that are very frustrating. Especially when you’ve been waiting around for a few hours.
G: Do you have any tips for the hobbyist who wants to take better photos. What equip works/what doesn’t?
JS: Different tools for different jobs. The most important thing is to
think about your shots, what you would like to improve and then try to
figure out what you need to do to achieve that outcome. Don’t get
caught in the megapixel trap – how many megapixels your camera has
doesn’t matter. Good light and good optics trump all – that and having
the right mindset and knowing your gear. One thing I will say is that
99% of people I see shooting from the crowd at shows leave their
flashes on the cameras/phones. Unless you are within 5 feet of the
artist, that flash does nothing. Turn it off!
KG: Lenses are where you need to invest your money. If you buy the right lenses, they can last a lifetime. Cameras are disposable. New ones get released every year. Buy some fast glass (f/2.8 or faster) and whatever body you can afford. Learn and grow with that body and those lenses and only upgrade when it’s the cameras holding you back, not your skill level. I started with a Canon Rebel XT and a 50mm/1.8. And that did me just fine for the first year while I taught myself how to shoot. Buying expensive gear won’t make you a better photographer, but practice will.
Gutter: How’s business? Is there a lot of competition out there for nightlife photos?
Josh Sisk: Business is good. There are a lot of people shooting but so far it
hasn’t really hurt my ability to get by, I am actually shooting way
more music/culture work now than I was before the economy tanked. The
thing I am shooting less of is corporate gigs… I used to get asked
to shoot corporate events for Mountain Dew or Dell Computers or Scion
or whoever all the time. Those were very lucrative, and there is way
less of that now, or so it seems. But I’d rather shoot for print
publication anyway, so its not a problem.
KG: There are a lot of people out there who do it for free. And I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I used to do it and I certainly don’t begrudge people in that situation. Everyone has to start somewhere. But the market is saturated and not everyone values good photography. I started doing this because I loved it and after a few years it led to a decent amount of freelance work. But those jobs are scarce and budgets are being cut all the time. If you want to make money in photography, start shooting weddings. The key to being a successful photographer is being able to shoot a variety of different styles. Headshots, portraits, event coverage, food, etc. Truthfully, you’re not going to get rich shooting concerts or nightlife!
Josh Sisk & Kyle Gustafson will be showing a collection of recent
photographs with an emphasis on the music scenes of Baltimore &
Washington, DC. Artists featured include local acts such as Dan
Deacon, Rye Rye, K-Swift, Tabi Bonney, Double Dagger, Future Islands,
Pig Destroyer, The Dismemberment Plan and Beach House as well as
national touring acts like Wilco, Gorillaz, M.I.A., Pavement and many
The Windup Space
April 6th -May 1st. Opening on Friday April 15th, from 7-9pm.
Entertainment by DJs Simon Phoenix and King Gilbert. Official
after-party is at Cullen Stalin’s Ice Age at Club Phoenix.