Chuck Johnson is an artist's artist. Based in Greensboro, NC, he's designed posters, merchandise, album layouts, and just about everything else, for such bands as Between the Buried and Me, Gut Feeling, and Torch Runner. If you live in his area, you might have even seen of the beautiful signs Chuck has painted throughout the years. But the way I became aware of his work was through his eye-catching photography, specifically of the music-related kind.
So, it's no surprise I asked Chuck if he would do me the honor of answering some questions for the Photographer Spotlight series.
Where were you born and raised, and were your parents into the arts?
I was born in Winston-Salem, NC and grew up in nearby Kernersville. Now I’m in Greensboro. My parents collected landscape watercolor prints from North Carolina painters. We had a piano in my house growing up, but it never got played very much. So I’d say they dabbled in the arts. My parents were always supportive of my interests in art and music.
When did you get into music and what kind of stuff did you gravitate towards early on?
I was into music as far back as I can remember. I have a sister that is 12 years older than me. She graduated high school in 1990, the same year I started Kindergarten. I would dig through her CDs and tapes of all the stuff that was popular during the early '90s, lots of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains. I still remember the day my mom drove me to the record store to buy Smash by The Offspring. I liked anything that was fast or sounded somewhat angsty. The first hardcore record I bought was Vision of Disorder’s first album. It was on a display at BestBuy with all the bands playing OzzFest ’97. I picked it up, looked at the crowd photo on the back with kids stage diving and going nuts. I thought it must be the craziest band ever. I bought it just because of that photo.
Who were some of the photographers you looked up to during your formative years?
My interest in photography grew 100% out of my love for skateboarding. Transworld was my favorite magazine just because the photography was always the best. I would never read the articles, just study the photos [laughs]. Everyone was shooting film back then and I just loved the look of it. Gabe Morford, Grant Brittain, Mike O’Meally, and Atiba Jefferson were all huge influences.
What is your camera and post set up?
I have too many cameras so I never really know what I like best. I mostly shoot film so my digital gear is pretty dated. For shooting digital at shows I use a Canon T2i with a Belarus made fisheye or a 10-20mm wide angle lens. Shooting film at shows I alternate between a Mamiya 645E or my old Canon Rebel X with my 10-20mm wide angle. For portraits and band promos my favorite is my Mamiya RB67 with or without the Polaroid back. And lastly my Leica CL for just shooting everyday stuff. I edit everything individually in Photoshop whether it’s scans or digital. I just do minor levels adjustments and some dodging and burning.
Who are some of your favorite bands to shoot?
SECT, Night Birds, Earth Crisis, Comadre. I used to sell merch for Between the Buried and Me, so any chance I get to shoot them is always a blast.
If you could go back in time, who are some bands that you would have loved to shoot?
My most honest answer is probably the most cliché; Minor Threat, Nirvana, and The Misfits (circa 1983). But I also think it would be rad to shoot late '80s Sepultura, Mötley Crüe, White Zombie, The Distillers, early AFI. I even wish I could just go back to recent years and shoot G.L.O.S.S. and Hour of the Wolf. I never got a chance to see them.
What are the toughest aspects to shooting live music events?
Venues that don’t allow flash, mic stands blocking your shot, looking like a nerd, blocking someone’s view, getting hit. I never want to keep someone from having a good time because I’m standing in front of them with a camera. It’s always on my mind.
Tell me about some newer bands that we should all be on the lookout for.
SECT has a new record coming out later this year, Protester, Tørsö, Posers. My most recent Bandcamp purchases have been Ladrón, State Funeral, KATASTROF, Bombers, Diaspora, Vaaska, and Gazm.
Who are some modern-day music-related photographers that you admire?
I draw more inspiration from the people I know than from anywhere else. It motivates me so much more to see people I know doing great work than a stranger. I wish I was half as good as my friends. Reid Haithcock is always killing it and pushing me to shoot more. Josh Huff helped me learn how to process my own film. Angie Owens is like a celebrity now. They’re all so good.
If you had to pick one of your photos that best encapsulates why you love shooting bands, which one would it by and why?
Probably the photo of Juan from Comadre singing in the crowd. That show was so fun. It was in Greensboro. There was no stage. The band set up a little closer to the center of the room so people could watch from all around. It was summer. Everyone is sweaty. It reminds me of how rad DIY punk can be. Your favorite bands can travel from across the country and play your town. You can build a strong community if you contribute and stay positive. That photo reminds me to do that. It reminds me to not get jaded. I hope other people get a similar feeling when looking at my work.
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