Mark Murrmann: Just a Performance

Mark Murrmann is not just a guy with a camera. In addition to his commercial work for clients such as Jim Beam, Levi’s and Samsung, Mark is regular contributor to Hamburger Eyes and curated the Maximum Rocknroll photo issue (and accompanying exhibit) in 2010. Did we mention that he also works on the other side of the desk as Photo Editor at Mother Jones magazine? Mark turned to photography when he began to tire of writing about music. Now he photographs punk music live shows; music and photography have become inextricably linked for him. Mark also dabbles in street photography, fitting it into his schedule by going shooting on his lunch breaks. Blog contributor Peter Earl McCollough interviewed Mark about his passion for punk music, photography and zines (that’s right, we said zines).

Q: Hi Mark – tell me a little bit about yourself. What’s your background? Where are you from? What do you do now and what would you like to be doing in the future?

A: I am 37, grew up in Indianapolis, Indiana. I went to Indiana University, studied journalism and US History. I wanted to be a magazine editor or a music journalist. Right after finishing school I worked as coordinator (editor) at the longtime punk magazine Maximum Rocknroll. That was immediately following founder Tim Yohannan’s death. I then worked for Rhapsody music service, writing 30 reviews of bands, everyday. It crushed any desire I had to ever write about music again. So I went back to school, UC Berkeley’s Grad School of Journalism, to pursue photography more seriously. I went to London on a scholarship from the Alexia Foundation and while there I covered the Orange Revolution in Kiev. I was hoping it’d be a big step toward establishing myself as an international photojournalist. I was naive; it’s never that easy. Aside from not really being able to sell any photos while in Kiev, the day after returning to London, my flat got broken into — my computer and backup hard drive with all my digital photos from Kiev was stolen. Luckily, I still had my film. Back in the States, I covered Congress for a little while then moved back to the Bay Area. I heard about an opening for a photo intern at Mother Jones. I applied and got it. Since there wasn’t a photo editor at the time, once the internship was up, I slid into the photo editor position. That was about four and a half years ago. I’ve been here ever since. I still shoot. Not as much as I’d like, but I do a lot of street shooting on my lunch breaks. I shoot a little for Mother Jones and get occasional outside assignments. And anytime I go see a band, I take pictures. As for the future, I like working as a photo editor. I’d be happy to keep doing that. But I would definitely like to shoot more and just get more focused in what I’m shooting.

Q: I’m curious about how you started with photography. How did taking pictures become a part of your life?

A: I started taking pictures regularly in college. Bands would play in the basement of the house I lived in. I took pictures at those shows. I had access to the darkroom at the school of journalism at Indiana University and spent so much time there that I got offered a job helping out in the lab. That was a real education, where I learned about documentary photography. My boss, Rich Remsberg, would bring in books, like Eugene Richards’ “The Knife and Gun Club” and Gilles Peress’ “Farewell to Bosnia.” Books like that, were just laying around the darkroom. They totally blew my mind. Up to then, I mostly thought of photography in terms of what a newspaper photographer would do: sports, some music, spot news, light features, an occasional feature story and sure, geographic photographers too. But digging into a subject like that, like those books did, having an impact and the looseness of the shooting! Amazing black and white work like that made a huge impact. So, a few years later, when I totally burnt out on writing, that’s where my mind was. And the whole time I was writing, I was constantly taking pictures of bands, doing a lot of music photography and dabbling in street photography.

Q: Can you talk about your relationship to punk music and what the music means to you? How has punk intersected with your passion for photography?

A: Punk music is directly responsible for me being into photography. Taking pictures of punk bands performing and going on tour with them is how I got started taking pictures. I am constantly listening to music, constantly digging for more. I’m an avid record collector, but I also like going to see bands. Now it’s almost impossible for me to just go see a band without being able to take pictures. Music and photography are so interconnected for me. Those are my two main passions and they overlap nicely.

Q: What is it that initially made you interested in street photography and what keeps you doing it?

A: I kind of stumbled on street photography when I was living in Washington, D.C. in the mid-90s. I carried my camera everywhere and snapped some photos while walking to work. It just never occurred to me to do that. And then, looking at the negatives, it of course all made sense. I vaguely knew of photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Brassai. I was working at the Washington City Paper and their photographer, Darrow Montgomery, did a lot of street photography. It was all right in front of me, but it took me a bit to figure it out. From there I discovered the whole world of street photography, going back a century. I keep doing it partially out of compulsion or habit and partially because, well, I don’t know. Being inspired by Gary Winogrand, Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank – the usuals, but also Trent Parke and Daido Moriyama. It gets me out, keeps me shooting. I keep doing it because it’s one of the few, regular ways I am able to get out and shoot. I try to go out at least a few times a week on my lunch break. Of course, now I have hundreds and hundreds of photos that I need to pare down and piece together.

Q: From what I know of punk music, it seems similar to the more common strands of street photography. It’s loose, chaotic, high energy, gritty and in your face. It’s about doing your own thing, your own way. If I were to guess, I’d say they also share a fascination with the unsentimental aspects of life. Is there a similar ethos between punk music and street photography for you or is it more a case of you falling in love with two things at once and now they’re forever connected?

A: I’ve never deconstructed it like that, but yeah, that makes sense to me. There’s an element of trying to capture a realness, a kind of spontaneity to both that’s appealing. But of course in punk, like just about anything else, there’s definitely an element of performance, controlled chaos and building off of what’s come before. To that end, covering music, especially larger bands, reminds me of when I was covering Congress. It’s funny, when I’ve shown my portfolio to editors, I’ve been knocked on more than one occasion for including music photography. I was told that work is “just capturing a performance.” Hell, outside of spot news or street photography, just about everything a photojournalist shoots is “just a performance.” Sports? No doubt. Politics? Hell yes. Especially today, in the reality show soaked world we’re living in, you pull out a camera and people perform. That’s even becoming true for street photography. People see a camera and expect that you want them to act or look a certain way (or they’re pissed that you’re taking their picture).

Q: You recently released a zine of photographs called Sweat (Stains). It looks to be about eight years worth of photographing punk bands, mosh pits and tours. Can you talk about how that all came together for you? Did you learn anything from the zine publishing process and is this a precursor to publishing something larger down the road?

A: I’ve been putting together and publishing zines since 1992. I published my own zine, Sty Zine, for about eight years and as I got more into photography, I did a little photo zine that went with that called ACTION! photozine. This particular zine, Sweat (Stains), was put out by Hamburger Eyes. The idea came from a group show that a friend Erik Farseth put together in Minneapolis called “Sweat Stains, Beer and Cigarettes.” I built off the edit of 12 or so photos I sent him for that. Mike McQuade, a designer in Chicago who worked on some Jim Beam ads I shot, got in touch with the idea of collaborating on something. I sent him an edit of photos, Mike laid it out and Hamburger Eyes printed it. I’ve been trying to come up with an edit of this body of work for a while. Once you’ve been shooting something that long, you get the urge to try and figure out what’s there. I made a Blurb book of some of the photos, a different edit, but I think the zine format fits the photos and subject matter perfectly. It’s not at all precious, rather it’s somewhat loose and rough around the edges. It works.

Since doing Sweat (Stains), I did another zine. Again, it was sparked by a group show by Erik Farseth called Benign Neglect. I borrowed the title, built off the core edit of photos for that show, sent images to Mike McQuade and Hamburger Eyes put it out. Benign Neglect is more street photography oriented, though there’s some stuff from being on tour with bands, covering Haiti, Kiev, New Orleans. All this, these zines and working on different edits is all part of figuring out how the stuff I shoot fits together. I feel like I’m drawn to taking certain pictures, but am pretty unfocused about it. It’s subconscious. The Gary Winogrand quote, “No one moment is most important, any moment can be something,” rattles around in my head a lot. But I feel like somehow these moments that I’m capturing all fit together, but I don’t know how yet. Editing them together is like working a big puzzle. Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time editing my own work, because I’m trying to take on too much.

Q: The analog process appears to be an important aspect of the medium to you. Do you envision your routine or perspective changing if/when film no longer becomes an option?

A: I think film will be available as long as I will be alive and shooting. I do shoot digital sometimes, but honestly, part of what I love as much as the analog process is just shooting with the M6 (or M4-P), the Leica. All the hokey, borderline-religious fanaticism crap some people spout has a bit of truth to it. When I grab my M6, it’s like an extension of my hand. I don’t have to think about using it, at all. I don’t like shooting street stuff nearly as much with my other cameras, whether they’re film or digital. Other situations, like shooting bands in tricky lighting situations, make shooting with faster cameras more optimal, but in general if I can only bring one camera, it’s my M6.

I do prefer the analog process. I prefer spending time in the darkroom to sitting in front of a computer – especially since I sit at a computer all day at work. Looking at a sheet of negatives is infinitely more enjoyable than sifting through digital files. That’s a personal preference though. I’m comfortable with digital, have no qualms with digital photography. And right now, my analog process stops after I develop the negatives. I scan my negs and work from digital files. You have to today. But what I love that digital cameras are starting to really dig into is high ISO possibilities. I love shooting in available light, so that’s a real bonus in digital photography for me.

This touches a bit on the aspect of doing zines too. I love a printed end product, but it doesn’t have to be some special thing. It’s harder for me to connect to photos on a screen, even my own photos. I love prints; I like making and looking at zines and photo books and stuff like that. I am a very analog kind of person. I prefer shooting film and listening to vinyl and looking at printed books, newspapers and magazines, but not a purist about it. It’s my preference.

-Leica Internet Team

You can see more of Mark’s work on his website, markmurrmann.com.