I love good rock photography, always have. The power of an image is something that still draws me even today in this age of YouTube and photoshop excess. When I saw the work of photographer Russ Brockel I was immediately blown away and just knew I had to find out more from somebody who I think is a genius with a camera. His embrace of black and white images provides for some stunning snapshots in time and I am pumped that he has agreed to have a talk with us about his work, his motivation and why he does what he does. Make sure you check out the gallery at the end of the interview for a generous sample of his work.
RRR: How long have you been into photography and what inspired you to pursue it?
Russ Brockel: The easiest way to answer the first part of that question would have been with a photograph which I unfortunately no longer have. The photograph was of me aged 5 years taking a photo of the person taking the photo of me. I don’t actually remember taking that photo but I also don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have a camera in my hand. I didn’t spend much time at school, I found it intensely boring and preferred to be out with my friend, a Yashica Penta which I think was a hand-me-down from a pretty lunatic alcoholic uncle..he was my hero!
Although school drove me crazy, for many reasons, the one thing that held my interest was the art class. It wasn’t the class itself that interested me but our teacher. I suppose he would be called a ‘hippy’ these days and he certainly filled the criteria but to me he was a breath of fresh air. His classes were an ‘experience’ in themselves. If the weather was poor we would stay in but the door would be locked and the stereo would be turned up. All students were encouraged to bring in their favourite music, mine being Black Sabbath, which would blast out as we let rip with paint on canvases, with knives on pieces of wood and hammers on blocks of sandstone..and any combination of the above! If the weather was good we would be out in the town, in the country, up trees, in rivers, running through the streets but all with a mind to recreate those feelings when back in the classroom. I have wonderful memories of the interest he took in my images. He was himself a keen photographer and seemed to recognize something in me which he invested in. I suppose he is the answer to the second part of your question. Any creativity I may now display is mainly thanks to his mentoring.
Those years were certainly formative but I put the camera down when my hormones kicked in. Girls, music, alcohol, drugs and motor bikes…but that’s another story!
RRR: Where are you based?
RB: I am based in the back of beyond, literally. I live in a very beautiful part of the Marches, the border area between England and Wales. It is a part of the UK where the pace of life is a little slower and people give you room if you need it. When I moved here 5 years ago that was exactly what I needed. I suppose I operate at 2 speeds. 95% of the time I’m bordering on manic and the remaining 5% is spent catching up. The 20 years before moving here had taken their toll but I have recharged my batteries so bring on the next 20!!
RRR: You have a very distinct style. How did you come up with this look?
When I look at a lot of rock photography I see a lot of great shots but I would hesitate to call them “artistic” whereas your work definitely has an artistic flare to it.
RB: I really have no idea where my ‘style’ came from. I suppose I do strive to maintain a certain look, is that the same thing? Much of the imagery we see in the media is produced in studio settings, by teams of highly trained ’experts’, with arrays of high tech gear and with a great deal of help from ’Photoshop’. I never work in studio’s and I don’t even own ’Photoshop’. Perhaps my ’style’ is that it is none commercial…even anti commercial. The subject/s in my images are all important. Anything else is just canvas. I have been told by several people in several different ways that I “paint with light”. To me an image has no depth if there is no contrast, so I would say that it would be more accurate to say I ‘paint with shadow’. When I’m on a shoot I am constantly assessing the natural/ambient light and how I can best mess with it using staged lighting and reflectors. I have battery powered lighting that I can use anywhere and I just love to point it in the wrong direction!
Is my work ’artistic’? That is very much caught up in the ongoing debate as to whether photography is an art form. Personally I have no idea if photography is or should be considered an art form and to be totally honest, I really don’t care. What ’good’ photography definitively is, is a highly creative process. Photography is perhaps set aside in this debate because there are at least two distinct forms of photography. There is the recording of time, the ’snapshot’ and there is the capturing of moments, the ’artistic’ image. In painting for example it is also possible to create both these things however it is not possible for everyone to sketch well whereas with a camera anyone can take a ’snapshot’, you simply point and shoot!
The images I produce have a great deal of thought invested in them, even the live performance shots. The end result is very much the consequence of that investment. What you see in my images is what I saw on the day. The priority of the shoot is to produce the image, not to produce a ’sketch’ that will be painted in ’Photoshop’.
I would love to think that one day “experts” will examine my work as part of that ongoing debate…and be completely baffled by it!!
RRR: Do you feel that the art of the still image is receding in importance in this day and age of YouTube and similar sites?
RB: The first fixed image (photograph) was produced in1827! Since then we have seen the invention and growth of silent films, talking movies, ‘Technicolor’, television and the miniaturization of the video camera. Throughout that process the still photograph has remained with us. The way we ’can’ capture the image has radically changed but its essence remains unaltered. YouTube etc are the inevitable result of the digital age within a global society but have they made YOU look at still photographs any differently? That is the test. Personally I feel that although the digital age has been a liberating experience in many ways it has also produced a virtual ocean of mediocre tripe. That means that a still image now has to be better than ever to stand out. Unfortunately the flip side is that ’mediocre’ has become the norm due to its accessibility and low cost.
My answer must be that with all the advancements in video and the exploitation of these by YouTube etc YOU are still interested in the still images produced by myself and other photographers and YOU are sure your readers will be. That teenagers want to have posters of their idols on their walls even though they all have a computer in their rooms and can have streaming videos 24/7.
I hope there will always be a place for still photography but I fear the “art” is becoming polluted by technology..
RRR: What have been some of your best experiences photographing bands?
RB: I could describe so many great experiences here but I will stick to just two. The two that made the biggest impression and will always remain with me..
The first was with the first band I ever worked with, just over a year ago now. They are called Zico Chain and at that time they were approaching the release of their debut album ’Food’. They loved my style and after our first live shoot they asked me to document their big day opening main stage at Donington Download Festival. After this they did a couple of gigs supporting Velvet Revolver and again asked if I would document one of these gigs which I did. The result was that my images are plastered all over their debut album, which was also my debut album of course. On the back of the album is an image of them sat on one of Matt Sorums’ equipment transport crates and the insert is a collection of my images overwritten with the album lyrics.
When I took collection of the finished article I remember sitting on my bed listening to the music and thumbing through the photo’s, just as I had when I was a teenager with the albums of my then favourite bands. It gave me a huge thrill to think of the excitement of teenagers all over the world doing exactly the same thing I had done all those years ago. At that precise moment several of my dreams came true!
The other experience is almost the opposite of the last. I was working for a record label who had commissioned me to produce promotional images of one of their bands. The band comprised of four young boys, average age 19 as I recall. We did the first shoot in an old disused cinema. The boys were all very nervous and self conscious as this was their first shoot. They had no idea what to expect but I guided them through the ’ordeal’ and although I was confident we had some good images I could tell they thought their lack of experience of being ’Rock Stars’ would make the images seem, at best, ordinary.
When I met with them a few days later to view the images from the shoot I could again feel their lack of enthusiasm. Comments like “my hair was a mess” and “I was covered in spots” pretty much say it all.
This is where my special experience happens. I gathered the boys around the my laptop and gave them the remote control so they could flick back and forth through the images. At this point I left the room to have a meeting with their producer. After perhaps 30 minutes I returned to the boys and this may sound corny but I found four young men. I had turned them from four ‘ordinary’ people into the ’Rock Stars’ they aspired to be. They could now picture how good they would look in magazines, on posters and album covers.
I have had many similar experiences since but none have had the impact of these first two…dreams can come true!
RRR: What equipment do you use?
RB: Too much to list here without boring you all senseless! Suffice to say that I only use professional level equipment from several manufacturers. The mainstay are my cameras, lenses and portable lighting which are all Nikon.
RB: I have been asked the first part of this question many times and translated it usually means “what BIG bands have you worked with?”. My response in the same whatever and is something I take pride in. I specialise in working with developing bands and musicians. The “big bands” are already in a position to use the “big reputation” photographers etc so I get a kick out of giving the struggling artists something special. There are several BIG name bands and musicians I would like to work with but only for aesthetic reasons.
RRR: Your photographs pack an emotional wallop, especially the black and white ones. Do you prefer black and white for artistic reasons?
RB: There is no specific reason why my images are mostly black & white, they just are. When I started photographing within the music world it was as if someone flicked a switch. My images up to that point were generally in colour and very different in texture. Now I am told that my images are quite dark and gritty which is not something I have consciously worked at but the notion pleases me. I think perhaps my personal view of Rock & Roll is quite dark and gritty…or is it that Rock & Roll just brings out that side of my personality?
Linked into that is my stubborn unwillingness to be commercial. I know from experience that when I do produce the occasional colour photo for a band they will almost always use it over the black & whites. The generation I am working with have mostly had little experience of the black & white music photography that I grew up with but its power as an conduit for emotion is unmatchable!
From my very first music shoot I realised that it was changing me. I have worked for many years in psychiatry but this was a phenomenon I had not encountered before. My intent had been to make this a business venture but I was far too emotionally involved from the start. I have always loved music, I mean real love but for all my attempts I have never had an aptitude for playing a musical instrument and my singing voice leaves a lot to be desired so this was an area I could move within music and still be highly creative.
If I am unable to produce the emotion through making music then I can at least channel my passion into capturing the emotions of those creating it….
RRR: Anything else you want to add?
RB: There is really so much I could say and probably so much I should say. So firstly let me say thank you to all the people who have given me the ammunition I now shoot with. Some I have mentioned here, some I haven’t because I have temporarily forgotten their input but that makes them no less important and some who are perhaps part of what I class as my future.
A major thank you goes out to Troy. Troy is an American artist, known as Halfmast, who linked up with me some time ago on Myspace and can be found in my top friends. We have stayed in contact as he understands where I’m coming from and because I see something very special in his art. I now have an amazing logo thanks to Troy. I gave him my thoughts on what I saw as ’Me the photographer’ and as I fully expected he came up with something that was within what I saw but what was unexpected was that he saw the me that was within me and that I could never have described…such a great artist!
Next some very personal thank you’s. Firstly to my mum. She was my inspiration. She died when I was very young but she instilled in me a vision that I will always be proud to call ’hers’. Next is my dad. He passed away 8 years ago but before he did he instilled in me the man I am proud to call me. I just want to say to him that “the bike we built together will always roll”.
Finally thanks to my partner, Zoe, who has put up with my over confidence, under confidence, low moods and highs. My desperate need to improve my ’art’ and my crazed longing for recognition. She has been the stability behind my mania and the beauty I strive to translate into ’art’. She has been the peace to my inner battles and the nurse to my injured pride. Thank you!