Gary Copeland: SXSW Music Festival and Rock Photography

Gary Copeland, a commercial photographer based in Los Angeles, specializes in shooting the contemporary music scene, covering on-stage performances and the backstage life of bands and individual performers. Gary recently returned from the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas where he shot live performances of bands on the Volcom Entertainment record label. He has used a variety of cameras over the years including Leica M6s, but now shoots almost exclusively with Leica M9s. Here’s a first-person account of his work and the personal motivations that drive him to pursue his mission.

Q: How would you describe the kind of photography you do?

A: It’s exclusively commercial photography in the sense that the clients who pay me use the images for commercial purposes and I operate in the music-fashion-lifestyle space.

Q: What equipment do you use primarily?

A: Right now I’m using Leica M9s almost exclusively, both in the studio as well as on location, but it’s been a gradual transition. I still use Nikons in the studio for some catalog and youth lifestyle images, but since I’ve been relying entirely on the M9 on location I’ve been steadily moving toward using the M9 for all my work.

Q: What motivated you to gravitate toward the Leica M9?

A: It wasn’t just a size thing, but size is important in backstage work because it’s situational. You create an environment and then capture it, and you want the camera to intrude as little as possible. I’ve been doing backstage work with 35mm Leicas (M6s) for quite a while. One reason for the slow migration from Nikon to Leica is that I couldn’t count on the gear. To cut to the chase, when I tried shooting with the M8 I had a lot of problems with it. It had awesome potential but it wasn’t ready for prime time. Flash forward to the M9. I was enamored with the M9 from the instant I picked it up, but I wasn’t comfortable enough to rely on it with the clients. It’s been a process, but I’m now using the M9 almost exclusively.

Q: What is it about the M9 that you like so much?

A: It’s simply a great camera for creating advertising images and it fits in perfectly with the techniques and style I’ve developed. I roll with two M9s and the cameras are rock solid. The M9s make me more aware and more engaged. So the kind of energy that I’m looking to evoke is able to bubble to the surface. In short, it optimizes my photographic style. I really believe the people when they say they don’t know they’re being photographed doing what they love, and that creates authenticity. I’m all about authenticity and so is Volcom, the apparel manufacturer that’s one of my major clients. The M-system is natural road into this space because it’s quieter and smaller.

Q: Is there anything else about the Leica M9 that impresses you?

A: This is no offense to any other camera — my Nikon kit is the best you can buy — but the quality with the Leica lenses is exceptional. People know the difference — they don’t give a crap what I’m shooting with, but they notice a difference with the quality.

Q: Do you think there is such a thing as “the leica Look”?

A: There definitely is —it is the sharpness and the smooth trail-off to the out-of-focus areas of the image (Ed: aka bokeh). It’s the unique relationship between the sharpest and the least sharp areas of the frame.

Q: What are your favorite Leica M lenses?

A: I love the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH (latest version) and the 24mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH, but I also own the 28mm f/2.8 Elmarit and the 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit which are also great lenses.

Q: Which lenses did you use to cover your favorite music event, the South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW) in and around Austin, Texas?

A: I brought both my f/1.4 Summiluxes, the 50mm and 24mm. That 24mm focal length is really where I shoot because you have to move in close and get an intimate perspective. I can’t get over how good that goddamn lens is! Of course it’s all about the camera too. I really love rangefinder technology because the package lets me integrate myself into that space. I become as one with the subject. I love seeing outside of the frame too, not seeing in a dark tunnel, and being able to open up my other eye. I have to be very aware of where I’m at when I shoot rock bands — it’s a chaotic situation. The rangefinder makes me feel more aware of what I’m doing. With a conventional DSLR I feel detached from the world.

Q: Do you think that the existential difference with the Leica, is that you’re “looking at the world, and by the way you have a camera”?

A: Yes, that’s exactly correct. That’s a much more eloquent way to say what I was saying.

Q: What exactly is the South by Southwest Music Festival (SXSW) and is  there anything besides your commercial interests that draws you to it?

A: In many ways SXSW is, in my opinion, the largest, most important music festival in the world, and it’s definitely the most significant event of its type to be held in the U.S. Essentially, the entire town of Austin, Texas becomes the live music capital of the world. Every bar, every club, every venue and every open field is filled with live music, from metal to hip-hop, to folk, to everything imaginable. It’s become a way for bands to get heard, older bands to reunite and fans to have an awesome experience. This is my 3rd year going for Volcom, whose “Road Tested Denim” line came from bands that actually use their brand while on the road. Volcom at their core is about authenticity, and the most authentic way to experience their clothing within context of an ad campaign is for me to the shoot bands that record for their record label, Volcom Entertainment, at SXSW. Volcom Entertainment, a full-fledged record label, has been part of the company for about 16 years. I’m there to capture everything I can that’s collateral for their 2011 advertising campaign for the denim line. The message: Here’s a band that wears Volcom denim jeans on tour and while performing. I was brought into Volcom because I was shooting their bands anyway.

Q: How long have you been shooting professionally?

A: I’ve been shooting for seven years professionally, and before that and now, just for myself. Photography is one of those interesting deals — you go from hobby to profession and then it transforms into something else. This SXSW experience for Volcom is all of the above. I’m friends with everyone I’m working with. I’m close friends with many of the musicians, and with the people at Volcom — this was my 7th SXSW event. Unless this festival really takes a nosedive, I’ll always be there no matter what. The Volcom experience is an integration of all of these aspects of my life. It’s this thing that I do best.

Q: How do your fellow pros react to your shooting with Leica M9s?

A: Coming up as a professional shooting Leicas I don’t meet many of us. Unfortunately, Leica hasn’t been the best at getting the word out to seriously critical users that it’s a great camera when you have to get the shot. Also, some people just want to autofocus and not figure out the aperture and whatnot. I still shoot a lot of film with my Leica M6 and in fact I’m scanning 35mm film as we speak! I shoot Fuji Press 400 and Tri-X, and I love Kodak Ektar. I’ll get film from anywhere I can — in my personal life it’s all film; in my professional life, all digital. The M9 has done a good job pushing me in the digital direction because the experience is so similar to film.

Q: How many pictures did you shoot at the last SXSW?

A: I’d say probably 5,000 photos using two Leica M9s. The one other thing that I should probably mention is that I was able to borrow the SF 58 flash — it’s killer with the M bodies. On camera, it throws a narrow beam, very spotlight — I was sure the thing was going to catch on fire. I was surprised how well it worked with these M cameras. I couldn’t find anyone online who was talking about it, but I’m definitely buying a couple of them.

Q: Are there any specific images you shot at SXSW that really move you personally or that you feel are particularly successful?

A: Well, one that comes to mind is a picture of a very good friend of mine from the Riverboat Gamblers putting a mic into my face urging me to sing along. I just snapped the photo, but it shows an intimacy that speaks to my relationship with the band and my relationship with the company I’m shooting for. I’ve shot that band many, many times; I’ve seen them grow and they’ve seen me grow as a photographer. To me that link, that I believe in them, they believe in me, and Volcom believes in both of us, is crucial. Photography to me has always has been a way for me to build relationships.

There’s another picture of Herbie, lead singer of another band on the Volcom label – Valient Thorr, shown in the trailer the day before . It links to the quiet moments that I’m a part of and that I can capture. It’s that look in his eyes that says, “We’ve been touring for 10 years and something is happening.” At the same time, that picture says,“Here we go again, another show.” It links past and present into the picture. There’s a lot of history in terms of their own story and my history with them. He’s loading gear and literally waiting for other guys to help him. We’ve done it too many times to count and I’m there, as a friend and as a photographer. It’s not the most interesting photograph, but for me this is a really good portrait of a really great person. I shot it with the 50mm f/1.4 Summilux-M ASPH.

As for my most commercially successful shot that captures the spirit of the event, it’s an image of a guy performing to a crowd while hanging from a tree. That’s it. You will see images that make this one look tame, but this one is very Austin, Texas. It’s rock and roll. It’s free. You do what you want.

I also like some of my backstage shots showing a guy in the band writing the set list. I’ve done it a million times, but I have a relationship. In general, what you need for this job is quick reflexes and a rangefinder camera.

Q: Would you describe what you’re doing as essentially capturing moments in time?

A: There’s no question about it and it takes practice, but once you do it becomes second nature. It’s like riding a bike and it frees you up to think about composition. I don’t spend much time thinking about aperture. Especially in my craft it’s really that practice, in getting to that level, in that comfort zone, that’s freed me up to be a better photographer. I don’t know a better way to say it, but I’m a better photographer because I shoot with a Leica. Yes, it’s all about the photographer’s vision, but the tool definitely aids or doesn’t aid the process. The Leica makes it easier for me to do the kind of photography I like to do.

Q: What do you think you’ve accomplished with this project?

A: When I was a kid growing up, the thing that I loved more than anything was music. I was a little punk-rock kid. But what I loved even more was the photography and I never really knew that – it didn’t dawn on me. I went to film school and didn’t pick up a camera until I graduated. I knew I loved to look at photos, but didn’t know anything about photographs or still photography. Then I took some photos of a friend of mine in a band and I discovered that it was the thing that I did best in my life — shooting. And by shooting I’d get to be part of the lineage of something I really cared about. Rock photography, real emotive rock photography that really finds a place in the raw street mentality — I wanted to be part of that in my own small way. I feel like I found something that I want to do for the rest of my life. I feel pretty unique. I was very lucky and I’m very thankful. My New Year’s resolution for the past seven years is simple: to be a better photographer. Every day I work at how I can take better pictures of the things I love.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Gary Copeland’s work on his website, www.kinofistpix.com.