Q&A: John Lyons on his debut exhibition, creative process & techniques
John was the recipient of our 2022 Live Music Award with his striking image of David Mrakpor which was on display alongside other captivating shots of Mansur Brown, Lauren Lucille, Luna Cohen, Andria Antoniou and many more. We sat down with John to discuss more about his debut exhibition, his favourite pieces from it and overall creative process.
Hi, John. Can you tell us more about your debut exhibition?
The exhibition is in Hoxton Cabin, a bar, cafe & events space located in the heart of East London. Entry is free and you can browse my photos whilst enjoying a drink in this lovely venue. I came across the venue through a contact who organised the London Open Art Vision (LOAV) arts festival which I was involved with in 2022.
I have been photographing musicians performing live since 2016 and, over the last two years, have branched out into portrait work with some of my favourite musicians.
The aim of the exhibition is to show a cross-section of my music photography work, covering both my live music photography, recording studio shoots and portrait work. Prints are available to buy but, as much as anything, the exhibition aims to raise the profile of my work and display it in physical form.
There are 34 of my images on display in the exhibition.
Could you elaborate on the theme or concept behind this exhibition?
The images are displayed in the following sections:
- my earlier work (2016-2018)
- live performance
- jazz musicians
- in the recording studio - shots taken at Abbey Road Studios and Dean Street Studios
Do you have a favourite piece in this exhibition? If so, what makes it special to you?
That's a tough one - there are a range of pieces in the exhibition that are important to me for different reasons:
- there's a shot of Brazilian singer Luna Cohen dancing whilst singing. This was one of the first live music photographs that I took and it played a major role in convincing me to pursue music photography as a passion
- there's a recent shot of saxophonist Tony Kofi, emerging into the spotlight during a solo, one of those moments where I was able to catch the right moment with the right lighting and the right mood
- there's a lovely colour portrait of singer-songwriter Lauren Lucille, posing with her beloved Ibanez semi-acoustic guitar. Whilst posed, it feels like a really natural image that captures her personality and reflects the fun we had in the shoot. Lauren also performed beautifully at my exhibition launch party in early December
- and, of course, there's the image of drummer David Mrakor 'Waiting for the Head', which was the photograph that won the Live Category in the 2022 Abbey Road MPAs, which was such an important moment for me
However, if I had to choose one image, at this very moment I think I'd choose my portrait of singer Andria Antoniou. This was taken in a studio photoshoot in November 2022. It's quite a simple image but I love the expression on her face - maybe a little reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn - and the combination of the pose, engagement with the viewer and lighting gives it quite a classic feel. I think it's also one of the images that benefit most from being in physical form, printed and framed.
Which artists have you collaborated with in the making of this exhibition?
I have a very broad taste in music but many of my images are of jazz, soul and blues musicians captured in clubs and other small venues in London and the North East of England.
I enjoy the intimacy and relaxed style of the smaller venues and the opportunity to capture highly talented musicians performing 'up close and personal' with their audiences. Many of the subjects I have photographed have become good friends over time.
A wide range of musicians and musical styles are represented and range from rising stars such as singer-songwriter Ruta Di to global legends, such as Billy Cobham.
Also captured in the exhibition are some of my favourite singer-songwriters outside the world of jazz and blues - Joan Wasser (Joan as Policewoman), Polly Paulusma and Kathryn Williams... and opera singer Isin Turan, recording at Abbey Road Studio 2.
In the exhibition, no one appears in more than one photograph, so there are 34 different subjects for you to enjoy if you visit.
What equipment / techniques do you primarily use in your photography?
For my live music photography, I use a Sony Full Frame Mirrorless camera, which I find really fast and easy to use in the relatively low light situations that I generally encounter in small venues. I like to capture the emotion of the performer, so tend towards close-up work - using a long zoom and telephoto primes. The zoom gives me flexibility but I do enjoy the discipline of using prime lenses where position and distance from the subject are important.
For my portrait work, I use a Hasselblad Medium Format camera with prime portrait lenses and also have a vintage Hasselblad film camera from the 1980s, which I use with a digital back. My mum was a professional photographer and I discovered the camera in her house after she passed away in 2018 - so I'm really delighted that I can use the same camera and vintage lenses that she did. I don't have my own studio, so tend to do most of my portrait work either on location or in rented studios, so I have a simple portable lighting setup with speed lights, small umbrellas and soft boxes and a collapsible backdrop stand.
Can you describe your creative process when working on a shoot?
With live music photography, obviously, a large part of the process is reacting to the performance but, increasingly, I'm trying to use a combination of light and shade to capture the mood. For a lot of the work I do in smaller venues, I'm not subject to the usual 'first 3 songs' limit, which means that I can take the time to observe what's going on and plan a bit - both in terms of where to shoot from and waiting for the right moment - topics that I talked about in my previous blog post on the MPA Skills Hub.
Recently, I've done a few recording studio shoots, which I really enjoy - with a combination of shots of the musicians performing and more candid shots of the overall process. It's great to see and capture creative minds at work (and play).
What do you hope viewers take away from this exhibition?
Probably two things:
Firstly, I'd love them to feel that they felt the emotion and character of my subjects coming across as they viewed the images.
Secondly, I hope that they enjoy seeing my photographs in physical printed format. Instagram and websites are great for making images available to a wide audience quickly but I believe good photographs are always best viewed in high quality printed form.
... and if any of the viewers want to buy prints to take away, that would be a bonus!
Are there any upcoming projects or themes you're excited to explore in your future work?
Alongside the live music work, I definitely want to do more portrait work in 2024 - I've got a couple of potential album cover projects that may happen soon that would be really exciting - and I'd love to continue to do more candid work of artists in the process of creation, both in the studio and other locations.
I'm also starting to think about my next exhibition, which might take a slightly different format, maybe with a smaller number of large images to really use the printed format.
... but I'm trying not to be too prescriptive in my planning, as some of my most interesting and enjoyable projects in the past have come out of the blue, so I'm looking forward to what the New Year will bring.
The exhibition is open at Hoxton Cabin until 31 January - don't miss your chance to visit!