Concerts are something we look forward to for weeks or months. They mark our lives with a meaningful timestamp that interrupts the drudgery of our daily responsibilities. A concert can be a significant life event, where our idols’ lives intersect with our own, as we feel at one with a community of fellow fans.
Most venues remain closed as the future of live music is a continued source of speculation.
All music industry workers, from performers to busboys, are suffering the effects of the shutdown, as are fans mourning missed memories, and one byproduct of the live music ghost town is the wasted opportunities for concert photographers who make a living capturing influential images.
The rock music industry, in particular, seems to be built on song and sustained by myth. Music photographers play a vital role spinning these tales as they document culture and promote upcoming artists. In North Texas, a crop of female photographers were at the top of their game before coronavirus stopped their momentum.
Among them is Rambo, whose poetic black-and-white world has revealed the intimate sides of Leon Bridges and Abraham Alexander, and whose in-nature portraits of Teddy Waggy, lightly veiled by a colossal Valentino-red fabric, recall the elegant celebration of the human form by the masterful Herb Ritz.
There's Erin Shea Devany, whose Floria Sigismondi-like mixed mood board of rock stardom and the macabre has earned her a place as an in-demand music video director.
Carly May, an up-and-comer whose photos are colorfully sharp and tightly focused, works in Dallas but lives in a town to the northeast called Nevada. She was working on a degree in commercial photography with an emphasis on editorial portraiture when a friend suggested she combine her love of music and photography.
“I made friends with some of the right people and got a bunch of lucky streaks and have been fortunate to do some amazing assignments in the year and a half since I started,” May says.
Before coronavirus hit, she was photographing the likes of Lionel Richie and Blink 182.
“I felt like I was at a turning point,” she says of her pre-pandemic career. “I had a lot of contacts and potential clients I was talking to that I was really excited about as well as assignments with existing clients — and then it was basically all for nothing.”
May says that once the lockdowns began, she had to reorient her career entirely.
“Since the pandemic started, I’ve been really humbled by music suddenly disappearing and have worked on rebranding myself to be hireable for broader press and photojournalism assignments so that if something like this ever happens again, I don’t just have nothing all of a sudden.”
Anyone with a smart phone can capture a concert image these days, but concert photographers aim to make art and suspend a moment in time. They curate select moments to illustrate an experience between performer and audience in its full glory.
Competing with an audience that would sooner hold a phone up for hours to collect social media content than rely on professionals to take photos much better than they could already makes a career in concert photography harder. Spots are restricted for photographers at shows, and most established photographers are male.
Women are faced with some additional challenges. Making your way to the front of a show in an ocean of anonymous, grabby hands is one of them, and May says there’s also a tendency in the industry for women photographers to be taken less seriously.
“There’s definitely the groupie, fangirl aspect of the reputation that makes it hard for people to take you seriously,” she says. “A lot of a male bands won’t take female photogs on the road because it makes their girlfriends uncomfortable.”
For this reason, May says she prefers not working for musicians directly.
“That’s why I like working in the media as opposed to with bands directly because it’s definitely more anonymous and you’re judged more based on the quality of your work rather than whether or not they think you’re trying to get close to the bands,” she says.
Rachel Parker is a successful concert photographer and a regular Dallas Observer contributor who’s taken shots at many large venues of figures from B.B. King to Merle Haggard. She also says her business was thriving before the crisis.
“It looked like a good lineup of music coming to town," she says. "But now I will be surprised if I even shoot a single event this year.”
Parker recognizes that while her freelance career is temporarily halted, her personal situation isn’t as critical as it has been for others.
“To be honest, I'm one of the lucky ones, because my husband is an engineer, and even if I have the slowest year on the planet, it won't affect us that much," she admits. “ I kind of feel guilty about it and also grateful. It's a weird mixed bag of emotions.”
These days, she’s keeping herself occupied by shooting photos of her husband and dogs. Even if concert venues opened up today, Parker won't be jumping at the chance to resume business as usual.
“The biggest change for me personally is my hesitance to take a gig shooting an event, until the virus has run its course,” she says.
Parker says there are challenges she faces in the industry “that a man doesn’t typically get.”
She echoes May’s sentiment that there’s a misconception that women with cameras aren’t as professional as their male counterparts.
“Oftentimes female photographers get looked at like fangirls with cameras,” she says. “Sure, sometimes that is the case, and that's not to say I'm not a fan of the band I'm shooting. But to assume that I am less professional than my male counterpart, that makes my blood boil.”
She also says women tend to get fewer touring opportunities.
“I also notice musicians are likely to take a male photographer out on tour with them more often than female,” she says. “There are a handful of female touring photographers, but overwhelmingly the majority is male. It can mess with you and put you in a competitive headspace, when you really want to be in a creative head space."
Parker thinks the reason women get fewer touring opportunities is because of an assumption that it will be harder to accommodate them in touring crews that are mostly male.
"The entire music touring industry is male dominated," she says. "Maybe they see females as a bigger risk or harder to work with. But honestly it all leads back to assumption that men are more professional in an all access high-profile situation than a woman."
Parker points to the most recent I Heart Radio Awards, which have been postponed from their original March date, where no female photographer was nominated for Favorite Tour Photographer.
"Eight nominees and they couldn't be bothered to nominate someone like Catherine Powell who absolutely crushed it with Kacey Musgraves and Dan + Shay last year," she says.
Parker believes that, ultimately, as in most disciplines, ambition should be motivated by an attempt to top one’s own work, not anyone else’s.
“Your biggest competition should be yourself, and you should push yourself to do better," she says. "Be aware and be inspired by what other photographers are doing, but try to stay away from that competitiveness.”
Vera "Velma" Hernandez, a fixture in the Dallas punk scene who frequently captures mosh pits at their bloodiest, has been able to tour with her friends, bands like Rosegarden Funeral Party, with whom she plays guitar occasionally.
"Things before corona were rad," she says. "I was touring with my best friends, documenting their shows, going to different shows and shooting every other night, waiting on some amazing shows that were coming up."
Some of those jobs included shooting two Austin dates in May for Amyl & The Sniffers in Austin and taking photos of A Giant Dog in March.
"I don't know when these opportunities will come up again," Hernandez says. "But I'm hopeful for the reschedules, and I know that when these shows happen they'll be even more packed and wild than before."
Hernandez’s experience in the industry mirrors that of her colleagues.
"As a girl photographer, sometimes I feel like I don't get taken as seriously," she says. "Sometimes other photographers just see 'a chick with a camera,' but when I show them my work they look genuinely surprised at the caliber of work that I do. It's weird, but also, I kinda like that reaction. ... It motivates me to keep getting better and push harder."
Aly Fae, who works closely with her partner Cal Quinn, now lives in Nashville, where her career has taken off. She's gotten to tour with Margo Price, and film the likes of Beck (inside Prince's studio, no less) and Jack White. But she made her name in Dallas shooting new Americana icons like Charley Crockett and the Texas Gentlemen, along with Quinn.
"2020 was going to be sick, my biggest year yet," she says. "I had a lot of amazing things planned, shooting all over the country and working with some of my favorite artists of all time."
Fae describes her anxiety over the fact that festivals and tours will not resume any time soon, though she's also uplifted by a sense of optimism.
"There have been some dark days knowing that concerts as we know it won’t be back for a long time," she says. "But now more than ever, people need music and the hope they find in it — and music artists still need visual artists to tell their stories."
Fae says she's still finding ways to work with a "skeleton crew," creating "meaningful and beautiful content" with her partner.
"I’m very grateful to find work in this time when so many have lost everything," she adds.
Fae says it wasn't always easy to navigate the boys club.
"It was tough getting started and breaking in; music is still a male dominated industry that’s built on relationships, and it’s insanely easier for men to 'bro down' and get the gig," she says. "Whether it’s security hassling you in the pit or the manager that you’re negotiating with, a female has to be an even better hang, an even better photographer, more creative and more confident in order to stand as an equal next to a male."
Fae has run with some of these lessons, she says.
"However, once I learned that, I found that a lot of my artists preferred female creative energy as a more powerful way to develop meaningful art," she says.
Jessica Waffles is, like Hernandez, deeply entrenched in the music scene as a constant presence and popular personality. She moved to Dallas from Los Angeles in 2014 and fell in love with the local music scene. A few years later, she began taking photos of her favorite bands and eventually became an Observer contributor.
While she was busy covering events, touring and winning local awards, Waffles says she was "hoping to step up my game even more" this year.
She lists an interminable schedule of events that are now postponed or canceled: photo and video requests for recording sessions; music video series; SXSW in March and the Dallas International Film Festival in April; "along with single/EP/album release parties, live music video shoots and a fire performance video shoot.
"All of that fell through when all the artists essentially lost their income, and therefore couldn’t keep the bookings," Waffles says.
Since that time, Waffles has done a couple of photo gigs (a wedding and a pet shoot) and is taking on different work to get by.
"Nothing music-related was immediately viable," she says. "I’ve actually been working a content marketing job for a real estate investment company to keep me afloat."
Waffles says she hasn't experienced any challenges particular to her gender
"I’ve always seemed to be able to get gigs on merit," she says.
While other known photographers like Kathy Tran and Melissa Hennings shot Dallas stages before focusing their cameras on food, event and portraiture photography, this group of young women photographers is bringing a varied sensibility and style to an unappreciated art form.
Waffles, Hernandez, Fae and Devany in particular follow the tradition of Woodstock photographer Henry Diltz, who captured his subjects at the peak of spectacle onstage, but also bottled the folklore in their off time, painting a true full picture of the artist and the times.
Along with Parker and May, they are set to establish themselves as trailblazers. As soon as the show goes on.