In April 2008 I went to Chicago for the Strictly Business seminar held by the American Society of Media Photographers. While waiting for the program to begin on the first night I met New York photographer Ahron Foster. Since SB2, Ahron has been quite busy with his business in NYC and in the July 24th issue of Rolling Stone a portrait he did of Levon Helm and his daughter Amy is included as part of an article on Levon. In addition Ahron contributed all of the photography for Levon Helm’s Grammy Award winning album Dirt Farmer as well as his current release Electric Dirt. Living in a large city as a music photographer, I thought it would be good to have Ahron as the f/22 photographer for the month of July and the following is an interview I did with Ahron recently.
What was it which first got you interested in photography?
I grew up in Rochester, NY, the home of Eastman Kodak. The George Eastman House is a photography museum and I went there frequently as a child. The collection of cameras and history of capturing images definitely held my interest. My first camera, at 11 or 12, was a Polaroid. That instant gratification of seeing what you shot was great for a child and helped me learn about composition and exposure before I even knew about such concepts.
Having a background in theater how does this help you being behind the camera and working with various lighting situations or the other constraints, which would be similar during a shoot as on stage?
I studied at The Atlantic Theater under some great teachers and with some amazing students. My training as an actor definitely has an influence on my photography. Most acting training, in one way or another, teaches the actor about finding the truth in the moment. In photography, we are really finding the truth in one single moment. With the musicians that I work with, I try to capture who they are and what their music says. That can be found in a simple, honest portrait or in a highly art directed shoot that reveals a playful or a hidden side of an artist. The main goal is finding a connection with the subject and revealing what you find in a photograph.
Primarily photographing musicians how do you approach a live performance versus a portrait session either in a studio or on location?
First of all, in both situations, if I don’t already know the musicians or their work, I want to at least hear their music and if possible get to know the individuals. The difference comes in the equipment and preparation.
For a live performance, I pack my cameras and lenses and all my gear. No lights, maybe an on-camera flash for post show. I don’t like using flash for live performance or behind the scenes shooting if I don’t have to. It changes the look and feel of those “fly on the wall” moments that I’m trying to capture. I show up alone and dive in. It is guerilla photography.
Studio and location photography is completely different technically. If you can’t use available light, you’ve got to set up strobes. I come up with art direction or concepts prior to the shoot. Prop shopping. Styling. Do we need hair and makeup? If it is a large scale shoot, I’ll have an assistant. The musicians’ might have people with them, managers or agents or such. It can be a hive of activity, a group endeavor with me at the helm.
At a live performance, I try to find the moments. In the studio, I help to create them. Well, maybe suggest or steer.
Do you see video becoming a more important part of the music world and will it change your approach at all when photographing?
Of course, MTV changed the way we “listen” to music. Traditional videos for bands that are with labels are a necessity to sell a product. For the artist that is independent, self producing or with a smaller label, those high profile, big budget videos aren’t a possibility. That being said, low budget videos, EPKs, and live performances are great ways to promote yourself on the internet via social networking and video sites. I have starting making short films created from still images that show performances. I want to explore this concept some more. I feel that video and still photography are very different mediums, even though they both capture images. I don’t think it will change how I shoot, but then again, as a teenager I vowed never to shoot digitally.
Where do you see your photography career moving towards in the future?
I am based in NYC. I mainly shoot here. I was at Bonnaroo last year and I go up to Woodstock a handful of times a year. I’d like to expand nationally to begin with, eventually internationally. The majority of my clients and my networking base are here in the city and that needs to broaden. I’m working on marketing right now. The new ahronfoster.com is up and running and I’m starting a new blog. The portfolio is printed and ready to go out to magazines. I’m looking for a photo rep right now. I’ve been my own agent, rep and manager (when my wife wasn’t available) for the past few years and in order for the business to grow, I need someone else to take the reins so I can focus on shooting.
What photographers do you follow on a regular basis and how has their work helped inspired you?
Danny Clinch is such a great photographer. His work with musicians is the best. Talk about honest and in the moment. Spot on. Kahn & Selesnick create amazing and intricate alternate realities. The Starn Twins, Mike and Doug Starn, are the mad scientists of photography. Still images, video, sculpture, microscopic cameras; whatever it takes to create their vision. They not only create technology, they investigate long dead techniques to create new marvels.
Shooting for yourself is an important part of being a photographer as it continues to keep the creativity in place. Do you have any personal projects you are currently working on with your work and what was the thought process behind selecting these projects?
For me, my work with musicians is my personal work. I was lucky enough for it to become my professional work as well. I am working on a non-music project with my wife as the model, unimaginatively titled, “The Kaelin Project”. It started with a mock-up for Levon Helm’s ‘Dirt Framer’ using Kaelin as a stand in for Amy Helm. It worked so well, we are continuing it as a series. The images have a sense of longing and solitude, even distance. I am eager to find time to create more soon, although I believe this will be a life long project.
In your business is there one item you have learned which you would like to share with the readers who may just be starting out their own photography career?
Be prepared. That is broad, I know. Be ready for the next project or meeting or that last minute call for a quick shoot. Make sure your gear is prepped and always ready to go. Have your portfolio and marketing materials up to date and be able to drop them off or send them at a moment’s notice. Know your strong points and be aware of your weaknesses. If you feel you do have an area that needs improvement on, do it today. Take a class, read a book, assist someone or figure it out. Just be sure you’re able to bring you’re A game. If you are prepared and have all the tools you need to get the job done, you will be confident and people will want to work with you.
Ahron also shared some of his work which is on display below, as well as his websites after the images where you may see more of his work.
Thank you Ahron for taking the time as the f/22 photographer and some great insight to your work and business. To find out more about Ahron and see more of his work you may visit the following websites:
Be sure to stop back next month for another edition of f/22.