Nathaniel Shannon is a Michigan-born photographer and musician who is currently living in Brooklyn. My friend Damien Moyal (Culture, As Friends Rust), aka Damien Done, recently introduced me to Nathaniel's work and I'm loving not only his shooting style, but also the diversity of musical genres he covers. Join me in welcoming Nathaniel to the Photographer Spotlight series.
Where were you born and raised, and were your parents into the arts?
I was born and raised on the mean streets of Ypsilanti, MI. Home of Dominos Pizza, Iggy Pop, and the Enola Gay, which historically and culturally speaking (in order), made America deliciously fatter, pissed America off and/or got them to dance, and blew up Japan. Ypsilanti is the rough side of the tracks from Ann Arbor, the once birth place of Midwest punk and cultural rebellion, now a big safe adorable tied dyed dual college town, that like parts of Brooklyn (my home now) or Austin, TX, live in the nostalgia of a explosive influential past. My parents, thankfully, at a young age took me the Art and Natural History museums at the University of Michigan, and the DIA in Detroit as much as they could. Their influence at the time was great. My earliest interest in art came from these trips, obsessing over Monet, Degas, and the impressionists, Byzantine triptychs and basic surrealism. My parents were also into music in terms of it being played…it was never pushed on me, but they were pretty cool about letting me explore music and have control over the radio on road trips. I had a deep understanding of the Beach Boys, the Stones, Phil Spector, etc., and the foundation of the crux of rock and roll at a young age.
What came first, your love for music, or your love for photography?
Music came first. I was really lucky growing up in the suburbs of Detroit. Between the University of Michigan’s college-radio, a local high school radio station, and 89x, which once was a really amazing “college” mainstream radio station from Canada. 89x was able to avoid America FCC laws and play whatever they wanted, including having a local show, so between the 3 stations in middle school and high school, I was really exposed to a lot of music a lot of people at the time didn’t unfortunately find. In the long lost time of pre-internet you really had a to have a neighbor or older brother / sister to play or expose you to new shit. My neighbor also played in a ska band, so that was a good introduction to going to shows in Detroit.
I started playing saxophone in 5th grade school (and still do a bit) which got me into basic jazz, which then lead to ska/punk. Photography camera later when I was gifted a Minolta SLR101 in high school by a family friend. I basically checked out of high school by my senior year and just hung out in the art room, painting, collaging and listening to jams on my Walkman. A friend suggested taking a photography class at our local community college, and I was instantly hooked. Huffing dark room chemicals, listening to jams, and watching snapshots of memories I had witnessed develop in a tray satiated an art boner in me I was desperately seeking to connect with.
What was your first musical love?
I think Simon and Garfunkel hit home when I was really young. Their melodies floating between pop verses and minor hooks still can’t be fucked with. This question is really tough, because there wasn’t one thing. My young ears couldn’t get enough of everything. Growing up when rap, metal, hardcore, and punk were exploding and taking on different forms of cross pollinating with each other, coupled with beginning to comprehend the world threw adult eyes and ears…it was an exciting time to just listen to anything and everything. It was honest in a way I have a hard time feeling anymore. I would say Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here really blew my mind. Hendrix, the Isley Brothers, the Spinners, and Creedence Clearwater Revival all got a lot of rotation around our house. I would say maybe CCR was a really big one. They understood the blues, and pop music and really blended the two well, all with some Americana story telling. Dio played a huge part in getting me interested in metal.....and I eventually got into punk rock via college and local radio, specifically Bad Religion, NOFX, and of course Pantera and Metallica on mainstream radio.
Who were some of the photographers you looked up to during your formative years?
Glen E. Friedman. Richard Kern. Man Ray. Floria Sigismondi. You can’t mess with the Friedman’s catalog. Right time, right place. Before discovering his work, I didn’t have much interest in music photography, I didn’t really understand that was a job…I was, and honestly still am more interested in Film and Painting than I am photography. I make photography. I live photography, I love photography, but my work isn’t terribly influenced by other photographers. I was / am a huge Herschel Gordon Lewis fan. B-horror movies are what have influenced me the most. How can I photograph a band, or make a portrait and make it look like a band is playing in the Wizard of Gore? Photography to me has unfortunately become a really derivative medium. Hardly ever do I see any new or young photographers that blow my mind doing something I haven’t seen a million times. I include myself in that. I’m not doing anything new. I’m 6’2, I’m a decent sized dude, I can drop some bows in the pit and have a certain vertical stretch that allows me to hold a fill flash while shooting at a different height than other people. That’s why my work looks different.
What is your camera and post set up?
I still shoot on a canon 5D mark II, and for film a bit of a contax T2. Other than that it’s just standard RAW development, using bridge / lightroom / photoshop. While working on photo jams, I enjoy Lemon Echinacea tea and listening to my extensive LP collection, while sitting on my couch, or desk in my jail cell apartment in Brooklyn, soaking in the sunshine, and day dreaming of eating White Castle on a boat with the salty sea blowing in my face.
In terms of your non-musical photo work, what kind of stuff do you do?
I shoot a fair amount of editorial work. Shooting bands doesn’t make any money, and I’ve been fortunate to photograph a lot musicians I love, and learn some of them are dicks, and some of them are amazing people. I have a really diverse back catalogue of photographic work. Like playing or listening to music, I can’t really stick to one genre of photography. Different genre’s fit different parts of my personality. I love portrait work, interacting and pushing the limits of what you can get a subject to do or collaborate on. I’ve been working on a street photography series call Street Dicks for the last few years, documenting human’s decent in to distraction wondering about NYC on their cell phones walking into each other, traffic, etc. Mainly because I got sick of people walking into me, and got into a fight with a dude on the street one day, and happen to photograph him walking into me before we threw down with each other.
I tend to take my frustrations out on making photography work, be it documentary social commentary, or conceptual social commentary. Back to the film thing, I also make a lot of work that is more comic book/horror movie-based of fantastical situations, or illustrations if you will. I love to draw, but suck compared to what I can create with a camera, so I make these drawings come alive. My ongoing series Immortal Until Death, has taken me around the country documenting and making portraits and landscapes of cemeteries. I like to light graves as if they were physical people, creating dramatic noir influenced photographs.
Who are some of your favorite bands to shoot?
The Dillinger Escape Plan (RIP) were high up there. I’ve toured with them a bit, and have a massive archive of their destructive explosions. Their stage energy is unparalleled, and they will be missed. Their spontaneity always kept my attention. Goatwhore is another band I’ve spent a lot of time with. Sammy Duet is one of my favorite subjects. Outside of looking and being a gnarly dude, he and singer Ben Falgoust have a commanding stage presence that always makes for good picture taking. The Melvins, Eyehategod, Child Bite, Today Is the Day and anyone that throws down a high energy show.
If you could go back in time, who are some bands that you would have loved to shoot?
Pantera, Nirvana, Gravediggaz, the Catherine Wheel, Thin Lizzy and the Laughing Hyenas..unfortunately I was too young to ever get to photograph any of them.
I have been fortunate to photograph a few pretty iconic and influential (to me at least) people before they passed, such as Dio, Lemmy, and Peter Steele.
What are the toughest aspects to shooting live shows?
People! [Laughs] The times have changed. The worst part of shooting live music now is that everyone has an iPhone and camera. Live music photography is so oversaturated. Getting photo passes is easy since everyone and their mother has a blog. Photo pits are crowded which has made it annoying for musicians to be photographed and to shoot. This is an aggressive environment, if you are in my way, I will move you out of the way to get good photographs. I don’t have time for you to try and figure out how to use your camera in the line of action. There are so many rules at bigger venues and it’s taken away from a lot of the fun of collaborating (even if they don’t know) with performers making them look awesome doing what they do. The advent of LED lighting everywhere has also changed how I have to shoot, especially digitally because the lights look like crap.
Then there is the crowd. It depends on shows. Smaller shows, fans are annoyed by so many people shooting and are much more hostile towards photographers, and honestly I don’t blame them. The number of times I’ve gotten in fights just trying to document music I love is exhausting. How do you say “no, I’m a pro, I’ve been doing this for 20 years…I’m not some dude with a camera I got for Xmas from my parents because I swear my art school degree will pay off….”. Then there is dodging stage divers etc etc. I was kicked in face by an LAPD officer, if you can call him that, a few years back shooting Trap Them in Brooklyn, because he spun kicked into my face, putting me in the hospital for the night. I bit threw my lip and had to have 6 stiches in my lip, not to mention the mountain of medical bills. Fuck that dude. He also killed a homeless dude in LA, but I digress…just talking shit. But that’s the world we live in, hurt someone, brag on the Internet, and then go back to work.
Tell me about some newer bands that we should all be on the lookout for.
Damien Done, who you guys did a feature on. We’ve both transitioned into the solo musicians thing, and it’s been great to bounce ideas off each other. His new album, Charm Offensive, is really great. It’s so moody and brutally honest, isolating and socially aware. I’m proud of him for getting it together. Godmaker (also biased because they are my backing band for my solo music project Nathaniel Shannon and the Vanishing Twin) are a Brooklyn band that are heavy as fuck, and the best dudes. My hometown of Detroit has a lot of cool shit going on right now. Child Bite, Bear Vs. Shark / Bars of Gold, Old Gods, the Armed, Nolan the Ninja, Hellmouth, and Golden Torso, to name a few. My friends Thoughts of Ionesco, another Detroit band, who were a '90s hardcore/metal/jazz hybrid in the vein of botch, Deadguy, DEP, put out a new album last year, Skar Cymbols, which rules.
Who are some modern-day photographers that you admire?
Devin Yalkin, Dean Chooch Landry, and Richard Kern. Devin and Dean are close friends of mine in New York. They both have a romantic connection to their subjects and both still shoot a lot of film. I’m constantly blown away by the dramatic pull of their photographs and they push me to work harder. Kern, who’s work speaks for itself, allowed me the opportunity to assist for him back in 2008 when I first moved to New York. His work is always consistent and pushing the boundaries of portrait photography with a bit of fetishism and humor.
If you had to pick one of your photos that best encapsulates why you love shooting bands/artists, which one would it by and why?
I’m going to pick two, for slightly different reasons under the same umbrella. These photographs capture the essence of who the musicians are and what they sound like…the photographs of King Diamond and Coalesce. I love the King Diamond photograph because it represents a mature style of understanding lighting and documenting on at large venue scale. No flash, dodging security…an on the fly execution of skills accrued of years of practice within just a few minutes creating images of a legend on stage. This photograph, while at a big venue with a barricade and garbage lighting is very intimate because of his gaze into my lens…and it’s King fucking Diamond.
The Coalesce photograph of Sean Ingram also is a favorite, because of it being in the “punk rock” DIY category of a small bar, in the pit with a crowd throwing elbows to keep people off me and my camera, throw in some dramatic fill flash and brutal composition that conveys the bellows of his voice…this photo still to me is the crux of why I am good at what I do.
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