Jesse Lirola: Capturing Musicians, Fashion and Sports

Jesse Lirola is a photographer based in Chicago, IL and is known for shooting musicians such as Jay-Z and Lil Wayne. His work has been in publications such as Rolling Stone, Spin, New York Magazine & US Weekly. Leica Blog contributor Alex Coghe  conducted this interview.

Q: Hi Jesse. To begin this interview, can you tell to our readers about your personal background and how you got interested in photography?

A: I suppose photography played a great deal in my conception. My parents were two of six people at some French film whose title I really should know in NYC in 1980. As the story goes their bikes were chained by one another and they both had Leicas around their necks. I know my Mother had a M2R, which I’m still waiting to get my hands on, and I’m not sure which body my Dad had at the time. My father struck up conversation, and regardless of my Mother’s initial feelings for him, it turned out he had some lights she could borrow for an upcoming shoot. Let’s just say the rest is history.

I grew up around cameras and the darkroom. Even though I’d had a Mini-Lux since I was 16, it took me some more time to fully realize I wanted to make photography my career. Unfortunately when I was studying Creative Writing / Literary Studies in University, I thought digital point and shoots were amazing. I was apprenticing with a sculptor in Wisconsin named Dr. Evermor, and I was able to take my day’s images and manipulate them in Photoshop in my dorm-room when I got back to campus. I had the Mini-Lux around but really enjoyed the instant gratification of loading the cards into the Mac right when I walked in the door.

It was a good thing that my interest peaked at the time, but in recollection I look back at these 4MB files of really interesting work and wish I had just shot the Mini-Lux instead. So to answer the question, I suppose photography is something that I have been around all of my life, but it’s also an interest that I cultivated in my own life. I’ve asked my Father why he didn’t push me to use Leicas over the Canon Powershot cameras in University; his response was a good one in that if he had pushed me towards something at that time, I probably would have strayed further. He was just happy that I was excited about photography no matter what camera I was using at the time.

Q: On your website we can see your work at the fashion weeks. Recently I also realized a photo shoot for a client in this kind of event. The requested style is reportage, and also your work is marked by this approach. Do you think that the aesthetics of the fashion world has changed? Don’t you think a more artistic photography is required also in this sector? On the other hand, we are no longer in the 80s.

A: I feel that the modernization and immersion of cameras into cell phones has changed the rules at Fashion Week as well as in the music world. Some of my favorite images captured during Fashion Weeks of the past are those images that most photographers cannot capture today. The documentation of what is happening backstage is where the true beauty lies. Models transforming into what walks the runway is what defines those moments, and now a days unless you’re working for the designer, you’re not allowed to shoot the final transformation taking place. That being said, even when I’m hired by the designer directly as the house photographer I still can’t capture those moments, it’s really too bad.

I try and shoot as many different formats and lens combinations as possible to mix up the looks. If I had my way I wouldn’t use my Nikon or a flash at all. I much prefer to shoot with available light lenses, and for 35mm my favorite glass is Dr. Mandler’s designs. I stop down when I have to but for the most part I shoot wide open to isolate the subject or the point of interest. This type of shooting lends itself to the more artistic side of these jobs, and that’s where my favorite images reside.

Some of my favorite frames of Fashion Week were shot wide open with the Noctilux on my M9s. All of the other photographers surround the subject, and when they’ve had their time I’ll ask the subject to turn towards the natural light and shoot a portrait wide open. Not only are they not blinded by the strobe, but the images stand out in a sea of ƒ5.6 flash frames.

Q: On your website I’ve also seen your work on important rock music festivals. What is your approach in this case? How the energy of the musicians be translated into images?

A: In my festival work, I do my best to document that what most can’t see. When shooting the artists performing on stage, the possibility of capturing a unique image is quite slim. All the photographers get their 15 minutes in the Photo Pit, and, really aside from angles and framing, everyone has the same opportunity to capture the same moment. This isn’t to say that one can’t capture a moment during a live performance, but the only way to differentiate your image from everyone else’s is with your eye and equipment. I do my best to frame those shots creatively by capturing the things that make that performance unique. Be it the stage setup, the monitors towards the front of the stage, or shooting wide from the side to get some of the crowd in the frame, I do my best to have my images stand out. In a pit full of Canon’s and Nikon’s I find shooting my M bodies or R glass on a SLR gives me another way to have my frames stand out.

All of that being said the imagery that I enjoy most from festivals is what is happening backstage. By sorting access through the bands, I am able to have a vantage point which very few photographers share during those performances. Shooting from the back or the side of the stage lends to much more interesting images. Not only are they unique in the fact that very few photographers have that access to capture them, but you can also fit more of the atmosphere into the frame.

The moments I look for are what is happening while the band is making their way to the stage, and when the band turns their back to the crowd so I can capture their emotion with the crowd in the background. Those images as well as whatever impromptu portraits I can put together on site are the frames which count long after the festival has gone.

Q: Can you describe a typical day of work for you?

A: In my life there is no such thing as a typical day of work. When I’m at home in Chicago, my day begins with walking upstairs to my espresso machine to caffeinate while answering emails and IMs at my desk. I keep up with my contacts in NYC and LA for a few hours before continuing on to a shoot either at my studio in the downstairs loft at my apartment or on location around the Chicago area.

Otherwise I’m on a plane somewhere around the world with a MLC Think-Tank bag full of varying cameras, and a Billingham shoulder bag with my laptop, iPad, and whatever film and bodies that can’t fit into the roller bag.

That’s something I like about my job, there is never a week that’s the same as the next. For example I know I’m heading to LA for a job, but I could get a call tomorrow morning to go anywhere before then and that’s completely fine by me!

Q: You said that you use a pair of M9s and a M6 and sometimes a M3, and you always have one on you. I think we can say that you are a Leica lover, so I ask you: what’s so special about these cameras?

A: I would say I’m a Leica lover. I have a pair of M6s & M9s that I always bring to shoot. I have a full kit of glass : 21,1.4 ASPH, 28,2 ASPH, 35,1.4 ASPH, 50,1.4, 50,1 Noctilux, 75,1.4, 90,2, and a 135,2.8. I also use a Wide-Lux, a Rolleiflex, a Hasselblad 503 & X-Pan, a Holga, some Polaroid type 100 Cameras (195 & 600SE) some SX-70’s, and some point and shoots. I also use some Leica R glass converted to use on my Nikon DSLR and that’s my favorite option to use on the Nikon. I use a full kit of ƒ2.8 Zoom’s on the Nikon as well, but seldom do I want to make a print from it unless the R glass is on that body. That being said, I capture plenty of wonderful images from other cameras but there is something that about the M-System that allows me to make wonderful images. I’m sure I’m forgetting some other cameras, and there’s a long list of more to buy, but the one camera that’s always with me no matter where I go is a Leica and either a 35 or a 50mm lens.

The M-System is the 35mm camera that least affects the relationship between the photographer and the subject because it’s small in size. In my case, the more I use them and the more worn they are, the subject appreciates seeing a well used tool and one which doesn’t hide the photographer from them. The glass is outstanding and these days not having a full blown machine in the mix is something which people appreciate. In terms of musicians and models who are utterly accustomed to having their photos taken, they appreciate having a photographer who can take full control over their equipment choice and situation. They like seeing something different, be it any film body, or with the M9s when I can show them a shot they enjoy that as well. Not to mention the immersion of Leica into popular culture, everyone knows and loves the Leica brand and seeing a professional wield one!

Q: Leica Camera recently introduced many new products at photokina. Is there anything new you would like to definitely try?

A: I’ve been very interested in the Monochrom since it was announced. I much prefer B&W to color and have been processing my M9 images in SilverEfex for years now. I like the idea of having the ISO go up to 10,000 and being constrained by B&W digitally.

I would also like to try the new M. I’m excited at the aspect of melding the old and new technologies. The ability to use an EVF both for long and wide lenses is something that appeals to me. The thought of being able to focus a 90mm or 135mm in a high contrast situation such as a concert is something that appeals to me greatly! Not to mention being able to focus and frame when using a 21mm or 24mm is something that will help me get a higher rate of sharp focus shots when shooting wide open. I’m also excited at the prospect of being able to shoot upwards of ISO 6400 on an M body.

So yeah, I’m quite interested in trying these two new products and implementing them into my workflow!

Q: Let’s play. If you were forced to use a single lens for the rest of your life, what would it be?

A: I’m torn between the 35 Summilux ASPH and the Noctilux. I suppose it depends on which body I would be using the lens on, but really for the rest of my life I guess I’d have to go with the 35 Summilux ASPH. I am able to get wonderful portraits on that lens at minimum focal length, they certainly don’t rival the Noctilux at minimum focus on the subjects eyes. If I had to carry the Noctilux for the rest of my life, I’m sure I’d miss the lighter weight of the 35! Ha!

Q: Returning to the music. You are a photographer who specializes in music events. Is there any particular story you’d like to tell about some musician?

A: I had a good experience at Coachella a few years ago. I was shooting the Dead Weather and the Photo Pit was incredibly packed. I had artist access to the festival so I entered the Pit well into the second song and couldn’t get too far into the pit. I stood up on the barricade and was shooting across the stage getting some great shots of Allison Mosshart belting out the blues with her head of hair blowing in the deserts night breeze. I felt my wrist get caught on the fence and didn’t think much of it. When the Pit was clearing out I went to walk backstage and realized that my wristband was what got caught on the fence earlier in the set. The security guard wasn’t hearing my story so I stormed off to the stage manager to see about an escort back into the Pit for my credential.

I had to wait for 20 minutes to talk to the stage manager, and upon hearing my story he agreed to escort me back to where I thought I’d lost my credential. He gave me strict instructions that I was not to take any photos where he was taking me. Those words are torture for a photographer, but in the interest of salvaging my festival I agreed.

He walked me across the stage while the Dead Weather were in full swing and back into the Pit. He sat me on a concrete barricade next to Jay-Z and Beyonce who were enjoying the set themselves. So I’m sitting there next to the King and Queen of the Festival that year, and out of respect for the stage manager, I didn’t take a photo. As soon as the set ended and the Pit cleared out, I found my credential and even though I can’t make a print from memory, I do have some great images in my mind from the set!

Q: What kind of music do you like?

A: I am always turned onto a new band by shooting them, so I’m constantly getting hooked on a new group or song. Something that I love about music is its ability to transport you back to whatever magical moment you were immersed in while enjoying that song for the first time. I’m lucky enough to see all sorts of incredible bands at amazing venues all over the country so those magical experiences are ever growing for me!

Q: Is there a musician or group that you dream to photograph?

A:  I can’t say off the top my head, I’ve been lucky though I’ve had a chance to shoot lots of those acts that I love. I’ve never shot the Stones or Neil Young. I should be able to cross them both off the list before the year is out. I’d like to shoot Prince as well, but we’ll see if that ever happens. I am going to see him this week, and I put in a photo request so we’ll see!

Q: Are there photographers that influenced your work? Do you have a favourite concert photograph of another photographer? And what is yours?

A: My favorite concert photographer is the late Jim Marshall. His work has been influencing me since before I knew who he was. I was always enamored by the iconic photographs of the 50s through the 70s, beginning with the smoky images of the Jazz Greats and onto Hendrix burning his guitar at Monterey Pop, and many of the other amazing images that graced the pages of Rolling Stone magazine. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that most of those images I loved were all captured by Jim. I was lucky enough to meet Jim at the opening party at the Morrison Hotel in NYC. I was working across the street for the XX’s first U.S. performance during CMJ and had some time to pop into the opening party. I had a bit of time to talk to Jim. In true Jim fashion, he had an opinion of the M8s I had on my shoulder, he flashed his signature model M9 to me (before the M9 was released) telling me to ditch my M8s for the M9s. He signed a book for me before running off to talk to some friends who had just walked in, it was a great moment for me.

Q: What are some personal photography projects you are currently working on or have planned for the future?

A: I’ve had this bowling project in my mind for years, and I hope to get some time to work on that one soon! I’m going to be moving to NYC in the next few months, and it’s motivating me to document some of the aspects of the Midwest that I like best. One of those things is some large format photographs of my sculptor friend Dr. Evermor with his creations on his site just outside of Madison, WI.

I have an amazing project documenting all of the music involved with the soundtracks for a video game company. I can’t describe that further, but it’s an ongoing project that I am truly enjoying being a product of! It has me going all over the country thus far and I’m sure there’ll be some international destinations before it’s through.

This summer I was working for Manchester United documenting the players off the field in South Africa & China. That was a great job as I’ve been an avid soccer fan all of my life and having all access for a club like Manchester United was a great experience.

Thank you for your time, Jesse!

- Leica Internet Team

To learn more about Jesse, visit his website, connect with him on Twitter and read his blog.

Alex Coghe is an Italian photojournalist currently based in Mexico City whose professional activity ranges from editorial photography to events.