Andrew Stuart: Documenting Rock from the Inside with a Leica M

If Andrew Stuart’s images of rock musicians seem to convey a special dynamism, intensity, and authenticity, it’s certainly a testament to his extraordinary talent as a photographer. But it’s also a result of spending a long time in the music business before becoming a photographer and having the good fortune to be mentored and inspired by some of the most outstanding photographers in the field. Stuart graduated from USC with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and had his sights set on a career in the music business. He interned at major record labels (Atlantic, Maverick, and Jive) during college and landed his first full-time job at Sharon Osbourne’s office, as the office assistant, then moved on to The Rick Sales Entertainment group, a hard rock/metal music management firm. Stuart’s recent photography projects include photos documenting the recording sessions for the current Foo Fighters album and HBO series, “Sonic Highways” and is currently in the recording studio with Slayer, full circle from his beginnings as a member of their management team.

Q: What camera equipment do you use?

A: A Leica M6 and an M (Type 240) Lenses currently: 21 mm f/2.8 Super Elmarit, 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux FLE, 50 mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH, 75 mm f/2 Summicron APO. The 35 and 50 are getting 90% rotation. I use the 21 for lots of restaurant interiors. I also shoot with full frame SLRs with the usual lenses, GoPro, various point & shoots, iPhone like crazy, and anything else that makes a photo within reach.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography as a mode of expression, an art form, or as a profession?

A: In late 2008 I was working in music management with a hard rock/metal act, Slayer, whom I had been working with for years. They were going into the recording studio to work on their “World Painted Blood” album. They bought me a video camera and had me come document the recording sessions. At the same time, my friend, tattoo artist Kat Von D was getting seriously into photography. She asked if she could shoot some portraits of me, which really piqued my interest in photography. So I grabbed my dad’s older SLR and began practicing and editing with her. Within a week or so I brought the camera into the studio with Slayer and became obsessed with photography over night. Low light recording studio documentary and similar situations are still my absolute favorite. From there I began to tour with Slayer, shooting photos and some video which branched into shooting many other bands. Eventually I began to make money, branch out from live and studio documentary into portraits, food, interiors, and about a year ago made the leap out of management into full-time photography.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: I’m really about moments, capturing special moments as they happen. With access to artists that most people don’t have, I try to develop a comfort level with my subjects. With street photography you want to disappear and be unintrusive. But with rock photography and documentary work, it’s no secret that you’re there and who you are. It’s essential that the artist feels comfortable with me to the point where they can be themselves and totally at ease, even when I’m potentially right up in their personal space. Sometimes they forget I’m there, which is great, and sometimes they acknowledge me and play to the camera, which is also great.

Sometimes it takes a bit of time to develop that comfort level, but when it happens it’s worth the effort – a laugh from a chef while cooking, a scream from a singer, a yawn from my dog at the park. I’m constantly asking myself, “What is potentially about to happen, and how can I be in the right place/time to capture it in an interesting way?”

I evaluate my situation in advance, the best I can, bring what I need, don’t over complicate it, spend my time composing rather than fumbling with tons of gear, buttons, lights, settings etc. I try to take a street shooter’s approach into a variety of situations. I like the feeling of being limited to certain focal lengths that I have at hand, love available light, love to move, climb and creep around to get my subject and light source how I want them. I’m always trying to find fresh perspectives, angles and compositions.

Q: You mentioned that you previously used a Leica M9 for much of your work, but now shoot with a Leica M6 and a Leica M. What are some of the reasons you upgraded to a Leica M, do you ever use it with the Leica accessory EVF, and what subjects or situations do you find most suitable for shooting on film with the M6? How would you compare your experience of shooting digitally with shooting on film?

A: To clarify, I had the M6 first and have used it all along. The M9 was, and still is, fantastic. What got me excited about the M240 was the slightly higher ISO capability, which I take advantage of often being a low light shooter. The video capability is also great to have. I don’t shoot video often, but when I do it’s amazing to be able to use the Leica lenses and get that identifiable shallow depth in the video. I do have the EVF, and was excited about it especially for use with very wide or long lenses that are hard to frame in the camera’s viewfinder. However, I’ve practically stopped using the EVF. It slowed the camera down too much for me, and I really enjoy keeping a constant eye on my subject through the range/viewfinder without having any camera delay or momentary blindness though the EVF when I click the shutter. I actually ended up buying a traditional 21 mm external viewfinder to use with my 21 mm and really love it.

Film – I try to incorporate a bit of film into each project. Sometimes the lighting conditions are too low, like a candle-lit recording studio, and I need to go digital, but conditions permitting I love it. I like being limited to one ISO, a limited number of exposures, and of course not being able to chimp/look at each photo instantly. I don’t look at these things as being limiting; I look at them as less ways to complicate my shooting, letting me stay in the moment and really concentrate on my subject without getting sidetracked. More thought goes into each frame, which usually yields better results. I try to bring this film mentality into my digital shooting as well. I’ll often shoot with two bodies and have the M6 and M240 side by side, which is also a great way to carry around an extra lens. I can easily swap them back and forth on the two bodies. I recently started making double prints of my film images when I get them processed. I sign everything, keep one set, and give out a set to my subjects. There’s just something magically awesome about handing someone a real analog print in a time where you can’t even take a cab ride without needing a cell phone charger — creating something without a computer that doesn’t live solely online.

Q: Evidently it is crucial to establish a comfort level with your subjects since you’re operating in their space and they generally know you’re taking pictures of them even if they’re into what they’re doing and sometimes tend to forget your presence. What are some of the ways you establish this comfort level with subjects who may know who you are but have not interacted with you before?

A: Honestly, when establishing a comfort level with artists/models/subjects, the best way is to just be yourself. If there’s an appropriate time to crack a joke or tell a story, I go for it. Sometimes it’s quick and easy, sometimes it takes a bit of time, and sometimes it’s just totally awkward and uncomfortable. For example, I recently shot stills in the recording studio for the Foo Fighters — their current album was recorded in eight different studios across the country and filmed for an HBO series, “Sonic Highways”. When I showed up for my first day of shooting, they were already a few songs in, the band knew the film crew and vice versa. Except for a couple people, no one knew me. I awkwardly went in, and literally started climbing around, and creeping under foot. There were a few “who is this guy lurking three inches from my guitar” kind of moments, but after a couple days, some stories shared, jokes cracked, a couple images shown, the comfort level set in and I was able to blend in comfortably and do my thing.

Q: Most of the images in this portfolio convey the intensity of the environment in which you operate. An obvious example is the image which shows a guy screaming or maybe belting out a song, but it’s evident even in relatively “quiet” pictures like the one of a sensual young woman putting on makeup, or the one of a tattooed young woman writing in a notebook. What do you think accounts for this and do you consciously try to capture this intensity or does it just happen?

A: The first one is of James A. Rota, front man/lead guitarist of the rock band Fireball Ministry, air guitaring to “Calling Dr. Love” by KISS, on vinyl, in his recording studio. It’s one of my favorite images of all time. I had the M9 and 35 mm Summicron set and ready; the excitement level in the room grew as he put on the KISS record.

The second one is of Heidi Shepherd, singer of rock band the Butcher Babies, a behind the scenes photo from a shoot she was doing with Scott Uchida. She was doing her makeup and I was able to position myself so she was between me and the white seamless, creating a unique opportunity for me to capture a candid moment, with such a clean studio feel, almost portrait-like.

The third one is of tattoo artist Kat Von D, working on lyrics for an album she’s currently working on. Sometimes I’m conscious of these moments, but even when they just happen and there’s an aspect of luck involved, I’m still aware of my surroundings, my camera settings, and as ready as possible for whatever might happen. I actually borrow some techniques from street photography, like always pre-setting my camera in advance, so I’m not fumbling around and potentially missing a moment.

Q: Exactly half the images in this portfolio are presented in black-and-white. What is it that draws you to the black-and-white medium and what are some of the advantages it offers for your kind of work? Did you shoot those black-and-white images on film with your M6 or were they black-and-white conversions of images captures with your Leica M? By the way, when you do shoot with your M6 which film(s) do you favor, and why?

A: I love B&W; it’s timeless and classic and I gravitate toward it as much as possible. I try to position myself in relation to my subject in a way where the available light creates a contrast and separation of the subject from the background; for me that’s what makes a particular image work in B&W. All these images are digital, RAW, edited later. Except for the James Rota air guitar image, which is a B&W jpg, and Mick Fleetwood on the beach with the camera, which was shot on Fuji Velvia 50, a vivid color slide film.

I pretty much exclusively shoot B&W when shooting film. Usually 400-speed Fuji Neopan or Kodak Tri-X, usually pushed to 800 or 1600 for extreme low light. For landscape/outdoors/nature, I love Fuji Velvia 50, such vivid amazing color.

Q: Speaking of Mick Fleetwood on the beach with the camera, this image seems to say, “I’m an artist and I could take a shot if I wanted to but I’m too busy enjoying being in the moment.” Do you agree?

A: This was a special day. I had the honor of going out to Maui to work with Mick Fleetwood. I shot his blues band performing twice on the island (where Mick lives), once on the roof of his restaurant in Lahaina, Fleetwood’s on Front St. I was also there to help Mick shoot some of his own photos for a traveling art show that was to go alongside a portion of the current Fleetwood Mac tour. We traveled across the island while Mick captured various Hawaiiana images — flowers, beaches, waterfalls, etc. He has a long history as a photographer and it was amazing to lend him a hand with his photography, and to get to shoot with him a bit as well. This image was shot on the M6 with Fuji Velvia 50 color slide film, while Mick was shooting a beautiful rock formation out in the ocean. It’s special to me not just because Mick is a famous musician, but because I was able to capture an image of an artist at work on an entirely different form of art than he’s known for, but is still very passionate about.

Q: This one presents a back view of an elaborately tattooed bald-headed guy sitting in a music studio. It’s a real stopper, and probably conveys more than it would have if the subject had been facing the camera because it captures the form and the emotional content of the scene. Do you agree, and can you tell us something about how you shot this image and what it means to you?

A: It’s Kerry King, guitarist of the legendary metal band, Slayer. This was one of the first images that Slayer released during their current recording sessions, to let fans know they are back in the studio working on a new record. To any Slayer fan, or metal fan in general, Kerry’s tattoos are iconic and unmistakable. Shot from behind it tells a story; he’s obviously in a recording studio, he’s obviously working on something, but it doesn’t show exactly what’s being worked on, creating a bit of mystery, which is exactly what the band wanted to relay to fans when they released this image.

Q: In this one, a handsome young guy is sitting on the floor of a studio set next to a drum with an intense expression on his face and microphone in his mouth. It is certainly powerful and enigmatic. Is this part of his performance, what is he actually doing, and can you give some of the background and tech data on how you took the picture?

A: It’s Dennis Sanders of the rock band Spirit In The Room, and this was at one of their first performances at a small club in Los Angeles. Dennis was particularly excited, possibly nervous, and I could feel this was going to be an exciting show. He was all over the stage, knocking things over, down on the ground, etc. His heart was way in it and I made sure I was ready for anything; this wasn’t a planned part of his performance as far as I know, and I haven’t seen him do it since. I’m not sure if he was singing or trying to swallow the mic, but I knew I wanted to capture the high-energy chaos that was unfolding in front of me. I shot it with the M240 and the 50 mm Summilux, probably around f/2 give or take, 2500 ISO, 1/90 sec, which is about the slowest I like to go for live rock, to keep everything sharp, but still shows a little movement.

Q: This image is of a young woman standing next to a microphone seems to concentrate on the sound-recording equipment itself, but it somehow manages to convey the essence of her experience quite effectively. Why do you think this is so, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: This is of Kat Von D recording vocals for the album she’s working on. I positioned myself so the light on the wall opposite me was directly behind the microphone; I liked the way it gave almost a halo effect to the mic and really separated it from the wall. I like the juxtaposition of the elaborate hard lines of the microphone standing out against the soft light in the room, and her pensive look. She particularly loves this image and asked me to include it.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years or so, and do you plan to explore any other genres, such as street photography in L.A., traditional portraiture, fine art abstractions, or something else entirely?

A: I want to shoot Keith Richards smoking a cigarette holding an acoustic guitar sitting on a chair in his back yard with his feet up. Until another style piques my interest I plan to keep documenting artists, but I really want to get into nature/animal photos, jungle, Alaska, snakes, tigers. Did I mention photographer Nick Brandt as an inspiration? If not, be sure to mention him too.

Q: Do you have any plans for collecting your music studio images into a print or online book, or for exhibiting these images at galleries or other venues going forward?

A: There’s been talk about possibly doing something with the Foo Fighters images and Leica; still working on that. Some prints of my Mick Fleetwood images may soon be available at his restaurant on Maui, Fleetwood’s on Front Street. I’m talking with Slayer about possibly doing some sort of collection, maybe a book, to go along with their 2015 album release. It’s not music studio stuff, but you can find many of my Kat Von D images in her most recent book, “Go Big Or Go Home.” Another photographer shot the studio portraits and I shot the photos of Kat tattooing in her shop, High Voltage Tattoo.

Thank you for your time, Andrew!

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of Andrew’s work, check out his website or connect with him on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

(Visited 754 times, 1 visits today)

2 comments

  • Great images, conveying a lot of energy. Photography and music meeting together, seen by a great eye with an excellent technical ability. These a re great photos!
    robert
    PS: all good but I really love the “microphone” photo!

Submit a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *