It’s about as social media a story as stories can get. Without a tweet about the Kina Grannis cover of XCENTS’ issue no.1, Derek Brad might have never known about this magazine. And without Derek tweeting about XCENTS and without XCENTS subsequently checking out his Twitter account and spotting a Kina Grannis video there, we might have never known about the Musician Portrait Project – two-minute videos in black and white, without sound, of musicians and bands. Which would have been a shame, because the video project of photographer Derek Brad is a YouTube Age type of project after XCENTS’ own heart. Whimsical, different, interesting and a great way to find new artists you have never heard about. So of course XCENTS had to sit down with the man behind the quirky and charming project and talk shop.
► Do you remember the first professional camera you bought?
Yeah, that was about ten years ago – the original Canon 5D model.
► How would that compare to the camera you have in your phone right now?
Hah, that still doesn’t compare. Sure, cameras in smartphones have gotten pretty good, and you can do fun stuff with them. But professionally? No, it just doesn’t offer the same quality. It’s not about the amount of megapixels, but the quality of the pixels. The sensor is the big difference. That first camera is now ten years old, and I don’t use it anymore, but I can still shoot better in the dark with it than I could with the one on my phone.
► What are you currently using?
I’m only using the next version. There have been two upgrades since I started, but I always buy them used. Like many photographers, I like it when they bring out a new model because that means the model before that suddenly becomes really cheap. So now it’s the 5D Mark II for me. And during shows it’s the 7D. So also a Canon.
► You hear a lot from photographers that, once they picked a brand, they’ll stay loyal to it. But that is more of a circumstantial loyalty, isn’t it?
In a way it is. I honestly think that between brands like Nikon and Canon the differences are so small that you shouldn’t get hung up on it. I had a bunch of friends who were shooting on Nikon, but I happened to get a good deal on a Canon when I started. And the thing is, the lenses last forever. It’s the bodies that tend to go bad on you. You can still keep using the lenses you have when you stick with the same brand. But if you suddenly switch brands, you’d have to buy all new equipment, and that gets really expensive really quick.
► What made you get into photography in the first place?
When I was a kid, I used to draw a lot. I was always very visual. At some point, I got a little Fisher Price camera that I started taking pictures with. I guess you could say that is what got me started or at least that’s what it goes back to. You know, I am a creative person, and being such a visual person, too, photography seemed like the logical thing to do. I’m not a musician, so I couldn’t express my creativity in that way.
► But you are a huge music fan and probably shoot musicians more than anything. Was that happenstance or a conscious move on your part?
Again, it’s something that just seemed to fit. Before I even started with the photography, I used to go to concerts a lot. With a buddy of mine, I once went to something between 180 and 200 concerts within one year – from one June to the next. And when I got my first professional camera, I just took it to the concerts with me and started taking pictures. In the beginning it was small venues and local musicians, of course. It escalated from there, and I started getting hired for jobs because I already had a portfolio to show. There was a time when I was working almost every day of the year, just shooting different concerts. Now it’s ‘only’ between 100 and 200 per year.
► You know you have a problem when that is your benchmark for the term ‘only’…
(laughs) I guess it is some kind of addiction.
► You basically already answered a question that even I, as a music journalist, get asked a lot, although I’m not keyed into that end of the business: How do you get into concert photography? Especially: How do you get to the big names?
Start with the small names. There are some photographers who are able to jump into the deep end right away, but that is rare. And usually that’s because the photographer knows someone. It’s like athletes – you don’t start out as a pro. So if you want to get into this type of photography, go out there, go to small venues, shoot local musicians, build your portfolio. Personally, I often paid the cover charge, so I could get into a bar or a club where I could take my pictures. Of course once you start doing it, you’ll start meeting people. You’ll meet managers or the people from the venues, or people who book gigs. You’ll meet bands, you send them some of the photos you’ve taken of them, and that way you don’t just build your portfolio but also build relationships. Venues, bookers, record labels, PR people – you have to put yourself out there so you can meet these people and start communicating with them.
Also, there is no better way of learning your craft than at a small, dark and possibly very crowded venue. You might get hit, you might have your own camera smashed in your face by accident, but once you know how to take good pictures there – and you can show people the results – you’ll get booked for bigger jobs. That’s how I started: I wanted to get one good shot per night. And I’ve been through a lot to get some of those.
► Without the portfolio you’ve built over the years you probably wouldn’t have been able to start the Musician Portrait Project…
Well, it’s not like it’s easy now. I still get turned down a lot. You probably know the difficulties of getting people for interviews. But you’re right – if I didn’t have anything to show, I probably couldn’t have started the project.
► We’re talking about an art project, a labour of love, rather than a paid job. Where did the idea come from?
I had the idea about five or six years ago. I was already working with musicians a lot and I was looking for a way to make portraits more special. Of course that’s not an easy task to set for yourself. I mean, go and try to invent the wheel again. (laughs) So it took me a while to figure out that I wanted to do moving pictures. But when I finally had the idea, I started experimenting with the concept on my own. I knew it would have to be black and white. A lot of musicians like to use very loud colours, and that can take away from a portrait. Also, some musicians use these bright colours and others don’t, and that’s bad if you want to have a portrait series that has a certain look and feel. Black and white eliminated those problems. But in the beginning that’s all I knew. So I set up a camera, set it on ‘record’ and experimented on my own. I started with five minutes…
► Ouch. Bad idea.
Very bad idea. I remember sitting there, wondering, ‘Did I forget to set the alarm?’ It felt like 20 minutes, not five. That’s how I came up with the two-minute concept. It’s the perfect length. After about a minute you can see how people start reacting towards the camera. Then you have another minute. Any longer and it would be too long. Also, it works for the audience. The idea is to catch people’s attention more than you would with a still picture. If you go to a gallery and watch people who go there explicitly to look at something, you’ll see how they blow by the pictures. Moving images are more likely to catch your attention and keep you standing still for longer because you want to see what happens next. In a still image there simply is no ‘next’. But you can’t make the videos too long either because people won’t stand there for ten minutes. Like I said, it took some experimenting until I arrived at that perfect length of two minutes.
► What about the lack of sound? There are some videos where the musician in question says something, and of course you always wonder what that was. But even when nothing is said, the complete lack of sound is quite eerie. Why no background or ambient noise?
I know what you mean, but there is a good reason for not having any sound. What I envisioned from the very beginning was to have all the videos play on dedicated screens in a gallery. Now, imagine 20, 30, 40 videos screens on a wall in a gallery, each on a two-minute loop, each with its own sound. That just wouldn’t work and that is why I decided to not record any sound at all. Of course if you look at the videos on the website or on YouTube, you look at them one video at a time. That’s where the eerie feeling comes from. You’re used to videos having sound in this environment. But other than the technical requirement for a gallery exhibition, I also think that the lack of sound, just like the black and white, further reduces the portraits to their essence. It makes part of the fascination of the videos.
► Every video in the project is different, which leads me to believe that there are no strict instructions of what the participants should do…
To be exact, for the most part they have no idea what’s about to happen when we meet. I go through PR people or managements, and usually they don’t tell the musician what I want from them. To them, it’s just another point on their agenda that day, and a lot of the musicians actually think it’ll be an interview. Which is kind of good because that way they don’t prepare and they don’t start to overthink what they could do during the recording of the video.
► So what exactly are the rules or instructions?
Well, when I meet the musicians, I explain the whole concept to them: It’s a two-minute video, there is no sound, and it’s in black and white. That’s it. There are no further instructions and no rules. I simply set up the camera, start recording and leave the room because that way they get more comfortable than if I stand there, watching them. And the two minutes start when I leave the room. After that, it’s two minutes during which they can do whatever they want. When the time is over, I come back in, stop the recording, take a few still pictures, and we’re done. It’s really that simple. It doesn’t take very long. There is no preparation necessary. I can do it anywhere. It’s not an intrusive thing to do, and afterwards I often hear, ‘This was cool, because it was different’.
► Do you look at the video right away or do you wait until you’re home?
I usually wait until I’m back home. And in most cases I really have no idea what it will be that I will see. Some musicians will tell me what they did during the two minutes, but I never ask, and most of them don’t say anything because they want it to be a surprise for me when I watch it the first time. There is also a very technical reason why I don’t look at it right away.
► Which is?
I don’t want to accidentally delete the video. (laughs) It’s a big fear of mine that one day I look at the video on the camera and accidentally hit that trashcan button. That’s why I wait until I’m home. That way I can transfer it to my computer first and can be sure that I don’t accidentally lose it.