Take a Picture, It'll Rock Harder: What You Need to Know about #WVmusic Photography

Jun 23, 2016

Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats ranging from Tyler Childers to Bud Carroll, Ona to Bishops and beyond.

But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day was this month (and with A Change of Tune’s second birthday on the horizon), we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new #WVmusic interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers and Parkersburg singer-songwriters to West Virginia music venues and regional artist management and beyond, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene.

And today, we are chatting with a West Virginia native who's been able to capture the look and sound of #WVmusic with just a click of his camera. As Charleston-based photographer (and Mountain Stage web producer) Josh Saul tells us, band photography might not be as important as the band's music itself, but it does play a crucial role in getting the band's music in front of as many eyes and ears as possible. So let's dive in, shall we?

Josh Saul stands in front of Lake Superior in Grand Marais, Minnesota.
Credit David Grinstead

Where are you from originally?

I'm from Lincoln County. It’s a great place to be from if you’re really into high school sports, ATV riding, and hunting, in that order. Those are all wonderful and rewarding activities (I really mean that!), but they weren’t for me at that time, so I was a bit of an artsy outsider. Thanks to my high school art teacher Terry Wiley, I was accepted into the very first Governor’s School for the Arts class in 1994, which was a defining experience for me. It’s also where I first met Larry Groce and learned about Mountain Stage. I had other teachers too: Rebecca Wiley, Sandy Lawson, and Julian Martin. They went to great lengths to show me that there was a different world out there waiting for me.

Did you listen to #WVmusic growing up? If so, what?

All of my earliest musical memories are of my dad playing and practicing songs around the house. Like, really practicing, and in a way that a person is practicing if they’re trying to improve, and not just doing it for fun. He played in bands of all different types, from country to rock to bluegrass. Later when I was old enough to drive, I started going to Mountain Stage shows regularly. I think it was the first thing in Charleston I ever drove to by myself. I saw Todd Snider play the show for the first time, and I saw Townes Van Zandt’s last appearance before his death. In college, when I was old enough to get into 123 Pleasant Street, I went to shows at least every weekend. I think there was a period of years where I never missed a Cheap Truckers’ Speed gig, and I tried to see everything that Todd Burge and Mark Pool were doing.

How about you? Did you play music growing up?

I played (and still play) guitar. I’m not great, but it does give me some insight into how musicians (and guitarists in particular) think, and it continues to be a great way to break the ice with someone if I’m trying to rapidly build a rapport. One of the great music photographers of our time, Danny Clinch, is an accomplished musician himself, and has said that he’s been able to use that to earn trust with his subjects quickly. It really helps if you speak their language.

An original portrait by Josh Saul.
Credit Josh Saul

How did you get into photography, specifically music/show photography? 

OK, bear with me. My background is in painting. That was my studio concentration in college, but nearly all of my paintings relied heavily on photographs. I saw Chuck Close’s work in 1994, and it made an impression that’s with me still. All of my opinions on portraiture start with the way his paintings made me feel. But I was taking a lot of pictures, too, even if they were just source material for paintings.

In college, I finally took a photography class… and kind of hated it. I was the only person in the class who wasn’t a graphic designer, and I felt like there was a lot of fundamental type stuff that wasn’t being covered (years later, I discovered how right I was about that). I walked away with a "C" in the class, and I didn’t do anything serious with a camera for a long time. Fast forward many years, and I’m working for Mountain Stage. I finally get an iPhone, and suddenly I have a halfway decent camera with me at all times.

Marty Stuart's historic Telecaster, as seen backstage during this 2012 Mountain Stage.
Credit Josh Saul

I was really into taking picture of the gear that artists bring with them, and there was one moment in particular where I was taking photos of this legendary guitar that belongs to Marty Stuart. I decided that with this kind of access and opportunity, I needed to invest in a better camera to document things. So I started shooting the live show too, alongside the show’s real photographer Brian Blauser, who is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a professional mentor. I’ve learned so much from him. And after that, I started drifting back in to portraits more and more, which, funny thing, is exactly where I started. But this time, instead of trying to get a photo that I could use as the basis of a painting, I put all of my effort into nailing really awesome photographs. I won’t lie: part of me wonders if that’s where I should have been all along.

When I moved a couple years ago, I found a box of photos that I had taken as a teenager. So many of them were just simple head and shoulders shots of my friends, similar to what I do now. I realized in that moment that I’d never really given this thing up.

Josh Saul designed the packaging for Mountain Stage host Larry Groce's newest record Live Forever.
Credit Josh Saul

Where have you taken photographs in West Virginia?

I stick to Mountain Stage mostly, because of my schedule. I’ve joked about how taking pro DSLR and a 70-200mm 2.8 to a summer festival sounds like a great way to ruin a perfectly good time. But I do like to take my camera to bars and club shows every once in a while, especially for friends. There are so many musicians around here who have meant so much to me over the years, and it’s nice to be able to use my creativity to finally give something back to them.

Legendary jazz pianist and Mountain Stage band member Bob Thompson.
Credit Josh Saul

Back to Mountain Stage though - it is a challenge to keep my photos fresh and interesting show after show. I always fall back on the quote by the great war photographer Robert Capa, who said, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”

So I try to move around the stage and use the access I have to capture something that you might not be able to see even if you were sitting in the front row. More and more though, I’ve been trying to get closer in other ways, by photographing certain artists backstage under simple studio lighting. I don’t always do it though. So much of it hinges on that thing I mentioned at earlier, being able to quickly build a rapport with the subject, who probably isn’t in the mood to have a camera pointed at them no matter what they say. I’m also leveraging the trust that artists have in the show, which is something I do not take for granted. And finally, it’s on me to use whatever talent I have and skills I have developed up to this point to capture a piece of the artist in a very short period of time. There’s some chatting, and about 10 clicks of the shutter, and that is it. It’s very intense for me.

Grammy award-winning blues musician Keb Mo', as seen on Mountain Stage.
Credit Josh Saul

What's been the highlight of your #WVmusic journey (in terms of seeing/working shows or taking photos)?

There’s a picture of Keb’ Mo’ I shot from the side of the stage that blew up on Tumblr without me even realizing it. I think that’s when I first realized that I can use the access I have to make something that can’t be seen from the audience.

I shot James McMurtry backstage the last time he was here. He’s a musical giant to the show, and to me personally. It’s not the best photo I’ve ever taken, but it’s pretty good, and whenever I look at it I think of the trust he has in the show, and me personally. It means a lot.

Malcolm Holcombe backstage at a 2015 Mountain Stage.
Credit Josh Saul

And there’s a portrait I shot of Malcolm Holcombe where, for just a split second, he was giving me a part of himself. And I got it. It’s my favorite thing about portraiture, that when it’s really working, it’s like part of the subject is forever trapped on my camera’s sensor.

And finally, I’ve done some promo shoots for people like Todd Burge and Bob Thompson, and I designed all the packaging for Larry’s album Live Forever. If you could go back in time and tell 16-year-old me that one day I’d get to do any of that, there is no way he would believe you.

Why is a good band photo important? I mean, shouldn't the music matter more?

The music absolutely matters more! Obviously. But think about it: it is impossible to imagine a single note from Born to Run without thinking about that cover photo of Bruce and Clarence. I can’t do it.

You’re not always going to be able to represent yourself through your music alone. A lot of people are going to see your photos before they ever hear you. How you choose to present yourself matters. It’s part of your art. And finally, almost no newspaper will do a story about you unless you have a photo. A good photo. And “good” to the newspaper means high resolution, so they can print it, and almost always color. They love color. So if you want press, you need photos.

Parkersburg singer-songwriter Todd Burge on Mountain Stage.
Credit Josh Saul

What are the basics of a solid band photo?

Because my work for Mountain Stage, I have to use photos that artists send us for promotion on a regular basis. So I’m in a unique position, having knowledge on both the creator and end user side. In many ways the difficulties with band photo are the same as with any group portrait. It’s hard enough to take a good picture of 1 person, much less 5 people at the same time. The problem I run into over and over again is that the photographer isn’t thinking about how the photos are going to be used. An artist’s promo pictures will be all portrait orientation when, I need at least one landscape shot for web use, one where there’s room to put copy, etc. There’s a reason why shots against grey, black, and especially white have never gone out of style. See again: Born to Run.

What tips would you give to bands who are looking for professional photos or album covers?

Don’t let your photographer take a picture of your band against a brick wall. There used to be a website called “Hall of Douchebags” that was nothing but a collection photos of bands against brick walls. You deserve more from your photographer. Also, make sure you have photos sized for both web and print use, and make sure someone on your team knows which ones to send to people, depending on the end use.

Music in motion: William Matheny and Bud Carroll rock out at The Empty Glass at a March 2016 gig.
Credit Josh Saul

Do you feel held back by being in West Virginia, or does it feel like a musically-inclusive place?

I do not feel held back by living here at all. There are challenges. Magical opportunities do not fall out of the sky here like they seem to in big cities. But this is a land of short ladders, and if you decide you want to do something, you can just go out and do it, and people will take you seriously, at least in the beginning. The only problem here is one common to all small towns, and it’s that first tier work is not always recognized as such. But this is a very inclusive place. I was invited to Bud Carroll’s house once to help his friends shoot some video of a band he was working with. I knew him, but not as well as I do now. And when I had to leave, he walked out to my car and gave me a big bear hug and said something like, “I’m really glad you came, man.” You don’t get any more musically inclusive than that.

The late, great Allen Toussaint played a special set during this spring 2015 Mountain Stage in Huntington, West Virginia.
Credit Josh Saul

Josh Saul is the web producer of Mountain Stage, the home of music discovery on public radio, which you can find and follow online @mountainstage. You can also find Josh's photography business and book a session with him through his website. To hear more #WVmusic (some of which he's taken photos for), tune in to A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic.