Interview: Music Photographer Andrew Whitton

WHITTON 8694-2Andrew, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for our website. My Pleasure!

For those who aren’t aware of you or your work – can you give us an overview of when you started out as a music photographer to where you are now? I started out back around 2001 when I left University with a degree in photography and promptly moved to London. I had very little experience but at that time the only viable route into music and commercial photography was being in the centre of it all. I found assisting work with some reputable photographers working in fashion, advertising and music. Through my day to day assisting I managed to make some contacts with magazines and design agencies who saw something good in me and my work. Everything else after then until now has been just a lot of hard work and finding my way. I don’t know whether I’ve been lucky or not but I feel privileged to have carved a career in something I love to do.

What would you say was your big break into the music photography industry? It’s hard to define a moment as there have been so many little breaks here and there. Every job has been an opportunity to lead onto something else even if I didn’t know it at the time. But if I had to choose something I think it would have to be meeting Gered Mankowitz. Those of you who don’t know of Gered should check out his back catalogue. He’s been active in the music industry since the early 1960’s and is one of the photographers who help shape the blueprint of music and commercial photography. I had the enormous pleasure to work with Gered for 5 years or so. He took me under his wing and I used to manage and digitise his archive. That’s where I learnt a hell of a lot about how to conduct myself as a photographer in the music business.

I also owe a lot to a gig I shot back in 2003 which was a showcase for Keith from the Prodigy’s solo project, Flint. I was a massive Prodigy fan and one of my friends was supposed to shoot the show but couldn’t so I got asked to fill in. So I turned up with a little bit of the fan in me feeling nervous. Amazingly to me at the time the shots were earmarked for inlay artwork in the album. So try not to turn things down because you never know where things may lead. The album was never released in the end so never saw the light of day which was disappointing but I still see that gig as a defining moment for me as it showed me what was possible.

All my gigs back then were shot on film, as digital was in it’s infancy, so you had to be more aware and picky about the photographs you were taking. I must mention Steve Gullick too, who was a big hero of mine and he asked me to be a contributor to magazine he curated called Careless Talk Costs Lives and later called Loose Lips Sink Ships. It was a great opportunity for me to impress Steve and improve my portfolio. That was really vital in the early days, I owe him a beer or two! I can’t say that all my work was good back then but I was keen and eager and the NME soon noticed me so everything lead from there.

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Photo by Andrew Whitton

We interviewed Danny North a while back and he not only spoke highly of you but spoke about your music photography business together. Can you give us an update on how it’s going? Fanatic is exceeding all our expectations. We have a great summer of festivals booked in and numerous new festivals in the pipeline who are eager to work with us. We shoot official photos for some major UK festivals and their branding partners. 3 years ago we started out with 3 festivals but have since seen that list grow to 10+ with Apple, Live Nation and Broadwick Live among our regular clients. We’re always looking for more avenues to explore and we get approached by new clients quite regularly. It’s exciting to see how things are unfolding for us.

I always thought it would be a wonderful thing to work with your best friends so working with Danny has been the fulfilment of an ambition of mine. We have great fun working together. In the early days we didn’t really know where the business was heading but we had a vision for photography and the sheer enjoyment of working together as a team meant we kept our standards high and pushed each other to be better photographers. Now that has evolved into building bigger photography teams and bringing on board less experienced but no less talented photographers. Training them up to the Fanatic workflow and letting them loose to seek out and create incredible bodies of work. I’m really proud of how far Fanatic has come in such a short space of time and it has definitely proved that music and festival photography can be better.

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Photo by Andrew Whitton

What would you say were major highlights in your career to date? I have just shot an advertising campaign for MasterCard’s sponsorship of the Brits which was cool. The job took me to South Africa, Los Angeles, and a bank vault in London. It was a really enjoyable job and it was a real buzz to see my photos all over the billboards at the O2 in London for the Brit awards.

Gig-wise I’ve had quite a few, Slipknot and Rammstein at Download stand out massively. I’ve shot so many gigs over the years that I didn’t think I could be blown away anymore but I can honestly hold my hands up and gush about those gigs all day long. I’ve been lucky enough to shoot Download for the last few years, it’s such a fun place to take a camera. I love the passion and commitment to music everyone shares and the artists are as exciting as anything else I’ve ever seen onstage.

Being in the pit scrum at Glastonbury shooting Beyonce was an experience I’ll never forget. The access when you work for a magazine like the NME or indeed for a festival with Fanatic is always better than an agency photographer and I suppose that has spoilt me over the years. I’m not going to lie, being on the Pyramid Stage and looking at everyone in the crowd and the pit is a thrill and a half. But on this occasion I was camped down in the pit with all the other photographers with a couple of 200mm+ lenses either side of my cheeks and ordered not to move from my spot. I just kept thinking we must have been a sight from the stage angling our lenses in unison to get that special shot. I remember feeling quite happy with my frames, having said that there must be so many duplicates from varying angles it makes everyone’s frames almost worthless baring sentimentality.

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Photo by Andrew Whitton

What percentage of your work these days is taken up with portraits versus gig photography? It’s a hard one to break down because of Fanatic but putting it to one side I’d say the portraiture outweighs the live portfolio now. I moved from the NME to Q magazine about 3 years ago to shoot a more varied book and artists. I have been shooting gigs for Converse and Q but I’ll mainly shoot gigs for record companies and bands now. I never shoot just 3 songs anymore, I think it’s such a colossal waste of everyone’s time to attempt some good results. I love shooting different angles, testing the venues and telling more of a story. I think gig photography should be riddled with moments of high emotion and I’m sorry but I HATE being told no by a security guard. Like they know our job better than us? I guess that sounds a little arrogant but I’m just passionate about producing the right images for me and the artist and the bureaucracy is a total buzz kill.

Is that the way you’d like it to be? I’d like to be in a position where I can pick and choose the gigs and money not be a factor. One of the reasons Danny and I started Fanatic was because of the sub standard pay and conditions photographers were subjected to at festivals and similarly at gigs. I used to have to convince myself into shooting festivals because I needed to get a certain person in my book and that it would be bad to say no. But that was just where I was at in the industry and how it can play people. Who knows maybe in hindsight, as I mentioned before, by doing these things maybe it did lead me to a better path? But I can’t say shooting V Festival some years ago gained me anything other than a few grim toilet stories and a new found respect for concrete! Now, for me, shooting gigs is different. I’m lucky enough to have the clients I have after walking that road and I’ve managed, along with the help of some very good friends, to feed new life into my festival appreciation.

Are the gigs you shoot on assignment for publications / websites or are you privately hired to go on tour with bands? Sometimes record companies ask me to join artists on a leg of their tour and I did some short stints back in my NME days with bands like Enter Shikari and Beady Eye, but it’s actually a rare occasion that I go on the road with a band. I am now a family man and my priorities have obviously had to changed so for me to take work that involves a lot of time away has to be worth it. I do think that going on tour is an amazing way to hone your skills as a music photographer. So for younger photographers who aren’t as long in the tooth as me they have the advantage of no commitments and time to get out there and shoot gigs constantly as I did as a young photographer. Having said that, the festivals our company Fanatic do throughout the year are almost a tour environment for me with the gruelling hours and workload!

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Photo by Andrew Whitton

What are your first memories of going on tour with a band? How did you find that all access experience versus the first three song rule? I remember my first few years as a young photographer being a constant frustration at the 3 song rule. I do think some, not all, photographers get in the way so I can see both sides and believe me I do shake my head at some people and their etiquette. I think as photographers we should never be seen and I try and respect this personal rule as best I can. I’ve seen photographers using monopods to get their cameras in the singers face at the microphone. I’ve seen the pokiest little snappy cameras aimed at a festival stage. I’m sure we’ve all go stories like that that make our toes curl but I suppose the rule exists because of people like that. Though I did get a funny frame from Download last year when Aerosmith headlined. The photographers weren’t allowed by the management to be anywhere near the stage so we all had our best long range lenses ready with baited breath. The show started and our not ideal but clear sound desk shot had suddenly been interrupted by some guy and his girlfriend and their camera phones. Still, everyone’s a photographer, right? You have to laugh at it all sometimes.

When you do go on tour, how do you manage to keep your photos looking fresh, gig after gig? I think there’s an art to the approach of the photographer but you really are led by the elements you’re faced with. There are so many things out of your control you have to learn how best to cope with the problems you’ll inevitably face. The hardest thing for us all has to be lighting. Red lights, blue lights without an ounce of white light is a recipe for disaster so you have to be inventive, we’ve all been in those situations. It seems hopeless. I rarely use flash nowadays but sometimes it’s needed and I think it’s OK to break a personal rule or two to get something good.

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Being hired by the band seems to be the thing most music photographers are aspiring to these days, as opposed to wanting to shoot for the top magazines. Magazines aren’t quite what they were for getting your work seen. In my experience some magazines are too concerned with taking away peoples rights to their images and not enough time spent helping the photographers. The people who commission at magazines have a great heart and passion for iconic photography but the rules laid down by the publishers make it less attractive an experience to the photographers. The internet is such a good place to showcase your work but you have to put it in the right place which is becoming harder and harder. Ultimately you have to have one eye on the future and where you want music to take you. Not everyone is going to get the big jobs but that’s OK as long as you can make a living from something you enjoy.

How did you get into working directly with bands? I started out working with small magazines, then the NME gave me chance to get noticed and meet the right PR’s. After that it was about who I met and networking on each job. My reputation grew from there though it has been a long tough road. Gig photography was something I learnt on the job rather than being instantly good at.

In your opinion, what makes a great live music photo? Energy and spirit. I like to believe every artist I’m shooting is trying hard to put their emotions and music across to their fans. So I try and approach each gig with the enthusiasm I see in the front rows. We don’t have to like the music but I think it’s our duty to try and create pictures that a fan would love to put on their wall. I know I used to love seeing posters in magazines when I was a teenager and my wall was littered with photographs I loved.

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Photo by Andrew Whitton

When a photographer becomes a contributor to our website publish a feature called ‘Behind the Camera’. We always ask them which photographers they admire and your name gets mentioned quite often. How does that make you feel to know you inspire so many gig photographers? Does it? Cool, of course it’s a great feeling! Photography is for the majority of time quite a solitary career. You take photos, try your best and hope someone takes notice of what you do. To inspire others is not something you can dare to expect but if I can help someone to become a better photographer then that makes me very happy.

Looking at your work, one of the main things that stand out is the fact you seem to lean towards a more natural, almost analogue style with your colouring. You seem to prefer to reduce the vibrance and saturation, as opposed to boosting the levels like Todd Owyoung or Anthony D’Angio (Flex) – who are well known for their vibrance. How would you describe your style? I’d go along with that. Todd and Anthony are great live photographers but I think maybe there’s a difference in the way we all approach our work. It could also be a contrast in the way gigs are lit across the globe. Ultimately I think I have some conscious desire to try and be an individual as they do. It also depends on the clients I shoot for. Danny and I both shoot for Apple so those pictures tend to be cleaner in the process than my editorial work. As does the shots I produce for Fanatic. I think it’s important to have your own stamp on your work, it’s hard to make gig photos look individual to yourself.

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Do you shoot film or are you purely a digital photographer? I would say nearly always digital. I had my days of learning my trade with film and I can’t say I miss it. I have a lot of friends that love film and don’t get me wrong I do too but it just doesn’t suit my workflow or patience. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, I don’t ignore film but I don’t see the benefit in my day job. That’s just my opinion, I know a lot of people with disagree. I’ll contradict myself though by saying it made for a more professional career. Digital certainly saw the number of photographers increase dramatically making it less elitist.

What’s in the kit bag for a gig?
2 x Canon 5d mk3
1 x 24-70mm 2.8 mk2
1 x 70-200mm 2.8 mk2
1 x 50mm 1.4
Speedlites
Laptop and all the usual photographer paraphernalia and trinkets
I’ve just managed to upgrade everything in the last 12 months but Danny used to laugh at my kit. Until recently I still used f4 lenses through necessity rather than choice. I do have a wonderful kit bag mind you which the good folks at Think Tank sent me. It’s a Shape Shifter and it’s the best gig bag I’ve ever had. I’ve also been convinced into trading in my camera straps for a Black Rapid dual harness. I swore I wouldn’t but there you go, much to those who work with me’s amusement. I must admit it has helped my back and saves my cameras from slipping off my shoulders on the long hours we do at festivals. Now they just clatter into doors, walls, flight cases etc.

Are you a fan of post-processing? Definitely, I shoot RAW as everyone should so you need to tweak the files to get the best from them.

What is a your typical workflow after a gig? Most of my clients expect to see something very quickly so I learnt in my NME days to go the extra mile and have edits over to people by the morning at the latest. When I’m working with Fanatic we shoot live galleries during the festivals so I’m constantly editing and uploading when needed. We like to stay out and shoot as long as possible before we need to come back and edit but it’s good to take a quick break every now and again. The hours are always long but rewarding.

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Which music photographers do you admire? Lame answer would be Danny North. I’m lucky enough to work with someone I regard as the best in the business. Other than Danny a lot of people I take inspiration from tend to be older photographers such a Kevin Cummins, Steve Gullick, Danny Clinch and Gered Mankowitz. There are some amazing young guys coming through such as Conor McDonnell, Pooneh Ghana and I like Matty Vogel. Conor is a friend of mine so it’s great to see him doing so well. I met Pooneh about 4 years ago at Download, she’s a great talent. Matty isn’t someone I’ve actually met in person but I like his work. I can see he enjoys his craft and keeps me wanting to see more. There is also of course our amazing photographers at Fanatic who include Derek Bremner and Jenna Foxton among others, who have very promising futures ahead in photography.

How do you see the music photography industry in 2015? Hard to say to be honest. It seems to become more strained with each passing year and the budgets are decreasing at an alarming rate. Though you should have self worth and respect, never give yourself away for free. It screws everyone without you knowing it. People used to say that to me and I never understood why. But if you want to make a living from it all then respect yours and everyone else fees.

How important is it these days for a photographer to develop their own style and create their own ‘brand’? Probably more so than ever. For me it’s about work ethic, try hard and have conviction in all you do. That sets a lot of people apart.

What tips do you have for photographers who are trying to find their way in establishing themselves – what can they do to help them stand out in a densely crowded scene? Learn your trade, learn about light and the best way of coping in lots of situations. If you can make each gig you shoot hold peoples attention that’s a good start. I sometimes see people sharing boring photos of exciting bands and it does absolutely nothing for me. If I think that then anyone who commissions any form of photography may have that opinion too.

Hot topics amongst music photographers are the issues surrounding hobbyists who shoot for free. What’s your take on the subject? As I said earlier it’s terribly bad for us all. It filters all the way through music photography. Respect for your skills and other people who rely on that as a living should be something worth fighting for. Not that everyone does. It’s a shame it happens but I try not to get concerned about them. I can’t do anything about the way they work and apply themselves, I can only control how I work and who I want to work for. Fanatic was born out of these very frustrations and a desire to prove quality can outweigh the no pay cheque end of photography. Favours rarely have anyone’s best interests at heart.

How do we raise awareness of the issues surrounding photographers who work for free and the damage that that is causing? Tough one to say but I’ve heard people suggest a recognised photographers union could help? Though I’m sure there must be pitfalls to such a suggestion. There should be minimum requirements to work as a photographer I’m sure we all agree.

LEEDS-AWH-1975 1 BODYWhat advice can you give to those music photographers who don’t have any commercial experience and are finding it difficult to put a value to their work? It’s a hard question to answer without contradicting myself. If I were to go back and talk to myself 10 years ago I think I would tell myself stick with it, it’s worth it in the end. Take yourself seriously, try hard and contact the right people. Photography has always been about knocking on doors and networking. You’ll never get value to your work unless you take forward steps and stop treading water. I’ve been through this constantly since I stepped into the industry. I must admit having a good agent certainly helps me but it’s not the answer for everyone and that has only been a more recent thing for me so was not a luxury I had when starting out.

Another big issue these days is there are a lot of bands and artists putting rights grabs on photographers to sign before shooting a show these days. What’s your opinion on this issue? This is one of the biggest issues we all face. Photography isn’t always paid well or fairly and this restriction of trade hurts. I disagree that photographers should be held back in this way and I’m not entirely sure what the artists are protecting. I know a band like Rammstein swallow more rights than most. They justify it by saying that their show is creating the art in the photography and the talent lies with their vision. I kind of see that thinking but not everyone has the same stage show or pyro output they have. It seemed to suddenly be how tour managers and artists thought that’s how they should treat photographers without much thought or consideration to their actions. Ultimately as the photographer your choice is yes or no to shoot. I have walked away from a gig before when I was commissioned by the artist but the tour manager decided he didn’t like or trust photographers and the restrictions he placed on me were unfathomable. Despite my friendship with the band I had to walk away.

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Photo by Andrew Whitton

Have you ever been presented with an unreasonable contract? What did you do and what’s your advice to photographers if they are presented with an unreasonable contract? Sometimes, mainly regarding access at gigs but I’m usually able to negotiate with the promoter or press agent. If I can’t get what I want then at least I know I tried to do the best I can. At that point I think you have weigh up what kind of conversation you’re going to have after the gig with your boss. Sometimes it’s best to shoot the gig and then talk later.

What does the future hold for new music photographers? I think it’s too hard to predict. I imagine that work will always be there though there will always be too many photographers jostling for work if things don’t change. Maybe the prospects will get worse but it shouldn’t stop people from trying. Music will always capture our imaginations so I can’t see an end to it all just small adjustments to workflows. I don’t think there’s a utopian answer to all our problems. It’s just a case of getting on with it, be inspired and ignore the bullshit as best you can. Music is still a great way of learning how to be a photographer.

Drawing on your experience as a Professional Music Photographer, what tips do you have for someone starting out in gig photography? Buy some earplugs. Best thing you can own. Once your hearing goes that’s it and it will without earplugs.

And what advice can you give to those who are doing well and are on the verge of going pro? Keep pushing yourself. Once you feel you’ve made it, remind yourself you haven’t! Agency contracts and magazine commissions mean nothing more than you have a platform to show you can do a job. It’s just the start, keep pushing. Also look at your peers and try and learn new things. Invest in good equipment when you can.

How can we find out more about you and your work?

  • This is my website, though I don’t have a lot of live photography on there anymore: andrewwhitton.com
  • I have a Tumblr blog which I like to put shots on there that don’t get seen, sort of an out-takes indulgence for me: andrewwhitton.tumblr.com
  • And you can see follow Fanatics adventures on official festival websites and here too. We’ll be posting links to galleries of everywhere we go: fanaticcreative.com/
  • and we’re just getting going with our Instagram account too after a slack start: instagram.com/fanaticlive

Thank you very much for your time and sharing your photos with us Andrew.

Do not use these images without the correct permissions.

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