Joel Dowling is a Washington, D.C.-based photographer specializing in portraiture, and in his former life, he was a staple of the '90s Syracuse hardcore scene. Luckily for us, Joel brought his camera along to many of the shows he attended back then, and the shots he took perfectly translated the raw essence and spirit of why we all love hardcore and metal. I recently found Joel's Instagram page and noticed a series of portraits he took at this year's United Blood hardcore festival in Richmond, VA. The stuff is gorgeous. It's rare that you see the musicians that perform that kind of music captured in that elegance.
It was a lot fun getting to know Joel for this Photography Spotlight piece.
Where were you born and raised, and were your parents into the arts?
I grew up in Syracuse, New York, in a house filled with music. My mother has impeccable taste in music and exposed me to artists that I still listen to regularly like Tom Waits, Harry Nilsson, and Neil Young. I still had to branch out beyond my mother's blues, reggae, country, and R&B to figure things out for myself, though she supported my exploration of heavy metal, hip-hop, and hardcore rap from an early age. Thanks, Mom!
I think that my father may have thrown out my Cypress Hill fan club shirt—he wasn't a fan of the hard stuff. My parents both encouraged me to learn about the arts and to study illustration and photography from a very early age.
What came first, your love for music, or your love for photography?
I have always loved music. I used to spend hours of every day poring over album artwork and lyrics and watching ['90s cable music PPV channel] The Box and waiting for people to order videos that I liked. I had no idea that I could contribute to the world of music until I started going to hardcore shows.
How did you discover hardcore/punk?
I heard heavy metal and some other awesome stuff on skate demo tapes, though I had a hard time figuring out who was playing what - e.g., I bought a millionth-generation Toxic Skateboards demo video (1991) at Chat Street in Baltimore's Fells Point when I was in fourth or fifth grade and was hooked. I haven't watched it in years but I'm stoked to say that it was my first exposure to Metallica and Danzig.
In sixth grade or so (1993), my buddy Eugene showed me a copy of Maximum rocknroll and introduced me to punk rock. I thought that the artwork was pretty cool, but I hated the music that he shared with me. I was listening to Faith No More, Slayer, and NWA all afternoon and wasn't ready for anything else.
Come to think of it, my father also tossed out my Faith No More Midlife Crisis shirt.
Eugene started a band (the Disgruntled Postal Workers—good luck finding anything on them) as we headed into high school and played the first punk show that I ever saw. Another buddy, Emmett, was a year older and totally "punk rock" by the time I caught up with him in high school—blue liberty spiked hair, giant chain wallet, was playing in a snotty suburban punk rock band, etc. Emmett's band played around, too, and he introduced me to hardcore. I think that the first tapes that Emmett gave me were Chokehold, Slapshot, the Bosstones and,of course, Earth Crisis. Emmett used to terrorize his early band mates by playing Dennis Merrick's drum fills while they tried to tune. He later went on to play in Spark Lights the Friction and Polar Bear Club, and is still pretty punk rock.
I started photographing hardcore shows soon after. During college, I had a handful of gigs assisting photographers who encouraged me to work on band promo photographs, which ultimately lead to the portraiture work that I currently do.
Who were some of the photographers you looked up to during your formative years? Were there any music-related photographers you followed?
I grew up surrounded by Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Arnold Newman books—again, my mother has good taste. I must also thank my father for fueling my obsession with comic books, model kits, and hotrod art: Stanley Mouse, Big Daddy Roth, Von Dutch, etc.
I picked up Glen E. Friedman's first book well before I was making photographs at shows or of friends skateboarding. That book was a guide of sorts and encouraged me to get as close as possible to the action.
Growing up in the Syracuse hardcore scene, I was heavily influenced by John McKaig's photography. GEF provided the playbook for his generation of punk and hardcore, McKaig arguably contributed something as influential for a huge swathe of the hardcore scene in the '90s.
What is your camera and post set up?
For portraiture I use a Canon 5dsr and a 70-200mm f2.8 ii for the majority of my work. That combo gets out of the way enough for me to work without needing to think about gear. I don't have a "show kit," though if I was going to put more time into it and make a real go of it I would probably look into one of the recent Canon flagship models and convince promoters to allow me to mount strobes in the ceiling off of the stage. Overkill, I know.
I love your portrait work. One of your recent projects was at United Blood in Richmond.
Thank you for the kind words re my portraiture—I really appreciate it.
I stopped photographing hardcore shows a number of years ago and instead focused my efforts on portraiture. Taking time away from photographing the scene was a mistake —I missed the insanity of it. I still went to shows but had become a normal guy without a camera.
About a year ago I made a portrait of my friend DxJx Rose and floated the idea of further investigating the hardcore scene as a portraiture subject. DxJx was really supportive of the idea and told me to get out of my own way and to do it. A few months later I called him up and floated the idea of setting up a studio at a fest and he put me in touch with Foster, one of the promoters of United Blood in Richmond, Virginia.
I called Foster well ahead of the fest and asked for permission to set up a studio in the parking lot of the fest and assured him that I would need no support or special treatment—he gave me his blessing and I was off to the races.
In a moment of doubt I considered begging for space inside of the fest. The lack of reliable power outside of the club possibly jeopardizing the project scared me. I am relieved that I stuck with the original plan and worked out of the parking lot. I ended up using an 18' U-Haul moving truck kitted out with a hand-painted backdrop for the project—sitters sat at the end of the storage compartment and I dangled over the edge of the truck. I ended up relying on high capacity inverters to power my strobes and all worked out well. Between sitters I ran back and forth from the venue to the studio. It was pretty awesome to see a portrait sitter performing minutes after collaborating with me.
Another massive bonus was working on the project with one of my oldest buddies, Jared Flynn, who was a fantastic help with the weekend. Jared's a great painter and painted the backdrop that I used for the project—it was perfect. A side note—Jared was dropped on his noodle while crowdsurfing at a Bad Religion show in 1995 or so and his shaved head did nothing to conceal the giant egg on his noggin from his mother!
I wish that I never stopped photographing shows, though I really wish that I had started this portraiture project earlier. While I may not have had the technique down, the ever-changing nature of the scene would have made the earlier start worth it—people die, people move on, etc.
Who are some of your favorite bands, and/or people, to shoot?
I photographed Turnstile play Richmond a few months back and it was awesome. They had more energy than any band that I have ever seen. Brendan and Franz also sat for me during the United Blood project and were great sitters.
If you could go back in time, who are some bands that you would have loved to shoot?
BB King. Johnny Cash. Jimi Hendrix. No question.
What are the toughest aspects to shooting hardcore shows?
The wall of death, cramped stage space and horrendous lighting. Finding an outlet for your work aside from Instagram.
Tell me about some newer bands that we should all be on the lookout for.
D.C. Disorder, Give, and Syracuse's Trail of Lies.
Who are some modern-day photographers that you admire?
Angela Owens is so damned good that it makes me want to hide out in my studio. Her work from Sound & Fury blew me away.
What are the best and worst aspects about shooting bands?
The worst? No one ever has a budget and you lose control of your work as soon as you share it. Copping your old stuff on eBay 15 years after it was released without your knowledge.
The best? You were there and it all meant something.
I wanted to close on a note that reflects the "best" part of twenty or so years in the hardcore scene. The hardcore scene helped open my eyes to major political, cultural, and ethical issues that I may not have considered until later in life but for finding this place where I felt like I belonged and that accepted me. I thank all of the bands that I have worked with and my friends for encouraging me to do contribute to the hardcore scene in the way that I felt most comfortable—visually—and thank all of the promoters and labels that helped along the way. And, of course, thank you to the venues that allowed us to have this wild thing of ours: the OG Lost Horizon, the Westcott Community Center, Armory High (RIP), Club Tundra (RIP), and Hungry Charley's (RIP).