After learning his trade in the photo pit at London’s legendary Marquee Club, Paul Harries has risen to occupy the position of leading lensman for Kerrang! magazine, the world’s best-selling music weekly. Paul has closed his shutter on such groups as Nirvana, Muse, Green Day, Metallica, AC/DC, Biffy Clyro, Ozzy Osbourne, Red Hot Chili Peppers and, of course, the mighty Slipknot. Over the course of more than two decades, if a group has emerged that are loud and proud of it chances are its members have stood in the frame of this man’s lens.
Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for our website Paul – Danny North suggested we contact you. Have you worked with Danny before? I’ve not actually worked with Danny. I met him through Kerrang! magazine and obviously we were aware of each other’s work. I don’t really see him other than at Download festival or at the Kerrang! Awards and such-like but he is nice guy and pretty funny with it.
How did you get started in Music Photography? I was doing a really boring job; I used to be a clerk for the Bank of England when I left school. After 6 months, I realised that it wasn’t for me. But the bank produced an internal newsletter of job vacancies so you could transfer departments and one of them was for the Bank of England’s official photographer and I thought I could do that. I didn’t actually get that job but it fired me up to start taking photos again. I used to go to lots of gigs and so I just started taking my camera with me and that was it really. That inspired me to become a music photographer – not a bank clerk!
So you ended up doing a lot of work at places like the Marquee club? Yeah, it was for my own pleasure really as I enjoyed doing it. There was a band that I used to go and see a lot called Fields of the Nephilim and I got to know the guy who sold their t-shirts really well. He produced a fanzine that he used to sell at independent record shops and he asked me to do some pictures for him and that was when I started doing work that would be published, although not on a great scale. It turned out that he knew someone at Kerrang! magazine and they needed a photographer to do a job for them really quickly. They asked him if he knew anyone and he introduced me to them. That is how I got in with Kerrang! Once I got a foot in the door I never left!
So that was essentially your big break? It was, yeah. They just needed someone quickly and I made myself available and obviously did a job they were happy with and just carried on.
And you’ve been there just over 20 years now? 89 it was; so that’s 25 years now. Jesus…
We will get onto Kerrang! a little later, but do you shoot in film anymore or have you converted fully to digital? I was very reluctant to go digital but technology moved on and more & more people were expecting pictures that day or over-night. There used to be a lab in Wardour Street in London, it was open 24 hours and they would process film, usually within 2 or 3 hours. That’s how we used to do it but then not only were people expecting it the next day but they also wanted it in a digital format, so I had to take the plunge and get myself digital kit. I got used to it and I thought actually the skin tones were OK so I started shooting every thing in digital.
Do you still use film at all? No, I haven’t in years. The thing is, when I was shooting gigs you never really knew until you got the film back that you’d got the shot. And most of the stuff I used to shoot was on transparency. There’s no exposure latitude with that at all so if you have the wrong exposure you can’t do anything about it. I don’t miss that aspect of film at all.
I don’t think there is much to be gained from shooting gigs with film. I think if you were doing a portrait session and you are after something specific maybe, but there’s not much that can’t be digitally replicated now. There are so many photoshop actions out there, you can either buy them or create them yourself.
Obviously a great deal of your work is portraiture for Kerrang! Magazine. Do you still shoot live? Yes, I do – not as much as I used to, but I still do. I generally shoot bigger gigs now. I don’t like going down the front at small clubs without barrier. I’m too old for that now! When I was in my early twenties I was down there all the time, fighting my way to the front. I’d come out and have bruises and have rashes round my neck where my camera strap had been yanked. I didn’t care. I had great shots, I was the only one down there but I can’t be doing that anymore!
What would you say is a percentage of your workload between portraiture and live photography? 70% portraiture 30% live
With the live music gigs that you do, are they always on assignment with Kerrang! magazine or are they assignments that you’ve got off your own back. To be honest I don’t think there are that many people that want to pay for live shots if it’s not for a magazine anymore – so my live shoots are almost entirely for Kerrang!
Thinking about that 70/30 percentage as a photographer and what you enjoy – is that the kind of ratio you would like it to be or would you prefer it to be flipped around the other way? No, I think live music is getting harder and harder to shoot now. There are too many restrictions; bands seem to give only 3 songs although I have yet to hear a good reason for it. I am sure bands or management state 3 songs just because that’s what other bands say. I also don’t like the new LED lights that people are using because they don’t photograph well.
Do you get a choice of which gigs you can shoot for Kerrang!? Yes. Although generally I say yes no matter what it is but if there’s something coming up that I really want to shoot then I will ask for my name to be put down for it.
What sort of band would that be? Nine Inch Nails. I think Kerrang! would ask me anyway but I would obviously like to photograph them. Stuff that’s interesting. Bands that put on a good show; they are the ones I like to shoot.
What do you believe makes a great live music photo? I think it’s just capturing the moment and what the band are about. It might be a look to camera or maybe a jump – something that’s exciting. It’s great when the band know you and they do something to camera, that’s cool and that can make a great shot. The photo appears like they are looking right at the person viewing the image. That’s not essential but something like that is quite nice.
The thing about live photography is that you have no control over it whatsoever and the only control you could possibly have is if you are allowed to use flash. There could be something great that happens right in front of you, or you could be on one side of the pit, then something amazing happens on the opposite side and you can see a guy from a different magazine getting the shot. That’s annoying!
I guess you need a bit of anticipation. I mean you can sort of sense if something cool might happen so you can kind of put yourself in the right place but you really have no control over it. When I am doing portrait shots I have a lot more control; I can direct things.
Being the leading photographer for Kerrang! Magazine for such a long time, how do you stay current and how have you developed your own style over time? I’m always looking for new ideas for lighting and processing. I look at a lot of magazines when I’m flying to see what other people are doing. And when I watch films I look at lighting and think, “oh that’s clever, I like the way they’ve done that”, and maybe try and replicate something like it on a shoot or on location.
Do you have free rein at Kerrang! or is it a collaborative effort between the artist, the creative director and the album that’s coming out? It varies a lot. Sometimes it will be that Kerrang! have a very specific idea of what they want and they will take that up with the band. Sometimes I’m not even on board at this point. Sometimes something has already been discussed and then they’ll come to me and say, “This is what we want to do and this is what the band have agreed to”. Or it may work as, “We’ve got a new band coming in this month…this is what they’re called… this is what they are all about… what do you think? Kerrang! may have a vague idea and then I can take that idea further. Or, sometimes I just go and do my own thing.
Sometimes you don’t know what you are going into. You might go to Germany and meet a band backstage but you don’t know what the location is like so you really don’t know what you are going to get and so then you just have to think on your feet.
So there’s no such thing as a typical shoot for Kerrang! then? No, they are all different which is great. I like it like that. It’s never routine so it’s nice to keep me on my toes especially if I don’t know what I’m going to get.
For example, I went to LA a couple of weeks ago to do a shoot with Ronnie Radke from Falling in Reverse and we went to his house. I didn’t know what his house looked like; I had know idea what it was going to be like until we got there. Once you see what you’ve got you can go, “yeah, we can do this and we can do that”.
To be able to do that successfully only comes with experience I guess so, yes. I’m used to doing it like that with Kerrang! I go into all different places and haven’t got the time to go in a day before and scope it out beforehand. It’s like you are there and you have to get it done by a certain time usually.
Do you normally work alone or do you have a team with you? I usually work alone. If I have a big shoot on I bring people in. There’s another photographer at Kerrang! called Ian Collins who helps by assisting me every now and again if I have a big project, for example.
If you were to employ an assistant would you look through their folio or would it be someone you know and trust? Usually it would be someone I know and trust and working with Ian he knows how things work and how I work. Sometimes you get stylists come in and they treat the bands like fashion models and they don’t tend to like that. I find rock bands have low attention spans and if everyone’s messing around with their clothes and their makeup they just get fed up – which often kills the atmosphere. That’s another reason I like to keep it low key and not have loads of people, it just seems unnecessary to have my own entourage.
It must help keep it fresh and spontaneous as well and keep people on their toes. Yeah, and I like it just being the band and me. I like to build up a rapport with who I am working with and not be interrupted. I am talking more about stylists and makeup artists now, they drive me mad!
When you take yourself out to a gig what’s in the kit bag? I use a Canon 5D MKIII 24-70 f2.8 lens, generally I find that works for most gigs or I have a 70-200 f2.8 if I’m at a bigger show like an arena or stadium.
What if you are shooting from the soundboard? No, I wouldn’t shoot from the soundboard.
So, if an artist said only photographers from the soundboard you wouldn’t shoot the gig? I wouldn’t waste my time.
We have had some contributors to our site who have arrived to shoot a show to find that photographers have to shoot from the soundboard only. Do you know what, I am not going to go out and hire a massive lens just to take pictures from there because all I’m going to get is the same picture as the guy standing next to me. What’s the point? I really wouldn’t do that. The only time I will ever shoot from the soundboard is if I have already been in the pit and I need a wide shot of the stage to show off some kind of spectacular production.
How do you feel about post processing? Is it just as important to you as taking the photo? I’ve always been a big fan of pictures that don’t look like a photograph. When I used to shoot on film I used to do a lot of cross processing. I love that. I love images that are a little bit surreal.
You are trying to make the image work as hard as it can? I think so, it just takes it a step beyond just being a photograph. It looks interesting a bit more of an atmosphere.
Would you say it’s just as important to you what you do after you’ve taken the shot? Yeah, absolutely. Taking the shot takes a fraction of a second and you’ll then spend an hour afterwards retouching it.
Do you rarely use a shot you’ve just taken in camera? Very rarely! Of all my photos I do the least amount of retouching to live shots but I still adjust the levels, colour balance and sharpening.
We could not interview you without mentioning Slipknot. What’s it like working with them both in the studio and live on stage? I really like to work with bands like Black Veil Brides and Ramstein because they bring a theatrical element to their shows. But Slipknot take it to another level. They just look fantastic. Half of the job is done for me to be honest before I even start, as they look great. I’ve always got on well with them too. I first met them in ‘99 and we’ve always worked well together.
You must have a close bond with them which has allowed them to open up to you? Yes, they trusted me to be backstage and get some of those shots. They don’t let many people backstage to take pictures really but they knew if I was there I wouldn’t be putting in pictures that they wouldn’t be happy with. I was doing this before anyone even knew what they looked like behind the masks and they were cool with it then. I mean, they have been seen unmasked now and they have all their side projects so we do know what they look like. But back then it was a very guarded thing.
Are you their go-to man for a photographer or is that just in the UK? I think when it comes to the band being in Kerrang! I am.
Do you have anything in the pipeline with them coming up? I am actually working on a photo book about them now, which will be out next year.
Is that going to be your own book or a Slipknot released book? It’s by me with their approval. Published by Omnibus
Hopefully they will endorse it and give it the nod publicly? Yeah, they’ve given me some quotes and I’ve spoken to their management. I wouldn’t have done anything unless they were happy with it.
How do you see the music photography industry in 2014? There are not as many music magazines as there used to be which is a shame. I see a lot of people who think they are photographers and they’re not. I don’t know if they want to get into gigs for free or whatever but there are people taking live photos and all they do is put every single photo they’ve taken up online and it just devalues it.
People are going, “Oh look what I did” and I think, “Yeah OK that’s fine but you’ve just put the whole show up there” and I think that’s wrong. It’s selling themselves short and everyone else by doing that.
The expansion of digital photography has meant that a lot of people have access to half decent entry-level camera and a 50mm lens and that opens it massively. And that is a good thing but it bothers me that people just give away their work.When I shoot a gig I’m being paid by Kerrang! to shoot it. I think if you are looking to make a living by doing this then don’t give all your work away online.
It has got to a point to where it’s almost irreversible, don’t you think? There is an ongoing campaign to stop people from giving their work away for free as it’s crippling any aspiring music photographers that are trying to make any kind of living from it. There simply isn’t that much money in it because people are shooting for free. Exactly. How the people shooting for agencies earn a living now I don’t know.
There are a lot of bands that are putting out rights grabs these days. I have been exposed to that, I mean I wouldn’t be allowed to sign it as I’m working for Kerrang! but I wouldn’t sign that anyway.
What’s your take on it? I think it’s outrageous.
Which photographers do you most admire? I think the person that inspired me to look at photography as more than just a photograph is (the late) Bob Carlos Clarke. He was doing all this multi-negative printing which you could do quite easily with photoshop now but he use to do this in the darkroom on a sheet of paper. He was a real artist. I think his work is amazing.
There are some photographers out there now and I see some of their work and think oh that’s clever that’s good like Joey L his stuff is interesting.
What tips would you give someone starting out today in gig photography? I would say don’t bother!
Why is that? That’s a bit of a joke really, I would say DON’T GIVE ALL YOUR WORK AWAY! That would be my advice.
Shooting gigs is great but for me shooting portraits is much better. Being able to work and direct people and get what you want from them is a lot more rewarding than standing in front of someone playing guitar waiting for something to happen. Obviously live work has it own rewards when “that” something amazing does happen and you capture it.
Is there any advice you would give to anyone who has just managed to get a contract with a decent magazine like Kerrang!? Just get your work in on time. Especially with a weekly magazine like Kerrang! you’ve got to get your work in on time. As well as be technically spot-on with your work. If you piss of the Art Editor with getting your work in late you’re not going to get any more work. It’s looking after your own business by getting it in when people need it.
In a densely crowded industry of hobbyists, house photographers and semi pro photographers what do you think is the key to standing out from the crowd? What comes with experience is the anticipation of what might happen next. You can sense when someone might jump or pull a shape. Listening to the music – if you know the song well you know that there’s going to be something like a guitar going up in the air when they strike a certain chord. It’s getting used to those kinds of things happening. If you don’t know the band that’s obviously going to be difficult for you.
Do you have any tips for standing out of the crowd in terms of self-promotion? You need to have a good website obviously, a lot of people put too much on their website. They need to be really tough with themselves about what they put up. I’ve seen some websites where they’ve put 5 or 6 images from the same gig and it’s like 2 of them are good and the other are average so the end result is they all look average. I see that a lot from people who ask me to look at their work. I don’t need to see 20 ok pictures of the same show, I need to see 20 great pictures from 20 different shows.
In regard to your association with Proud Galleries and the various exhibitions you’ve done – is that something you would recommend others should do, or is that something that you would say other people could only really achieve from long-term experience and exposure? I think it’s long-term really because the attraction is the people you shoot. The Slipknot exhibition was really successful but that was because it was Slipknot. I mean, they were my pictures, but it was because people love Slipknot that they came to see it. The other exhibition I had at Proud was with pictures of famous musicians like Dave Grohl, 30 Seconds To Mars, Muse, Biffy Clyro and Nirvana. That is the draw, not so much because they are by me.
So unless you’ve got access to artists that people want to look at… I wouldn’t want to go to an exhibition of bands I had not heard of.
Thanks very much for your time Paul. Do you have a final thought for our readers? There is no secret trick to being a professional music photographer. All my peers have a different story to how they got to where they are. The one thing I will say is that success breeds success, if you shoot an artist of a high caliber future clients will think you are good by association. A famous face in your portfolio is always a winner.
You can see more of Paul’s work and connect with him via the following links:
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