Photographer Spotlight: Mark John
Mark’s focus is on jazz photography and supporting the ecosystem of recordings and cover art. He has been taking pictures for over 35 years, albeit his current focus on music photography started only in 2017.
As a conceptual and collaborative photographer, he is training his eye on abstractions, composition and street scenes which influence his approach on jazz photography. Mark is a member photographer of the Center of Photographic Art in Carmel, owns a nice and inspiring collection of jazz photography photobooks and has been taking several masterclasses including with Magnum photographers Eli Reed and Alex Webb.
Mark was nominated in our In The Studio category last year for his striking shot of Gutfleisch-Schuermann-Frey featuring Hendrik Meurkens.
How did it feel to be nominated in the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards 2023?
I felt very grateful, happy and humbled with a pinch of disbelief. Abbey Road Studios is such an iconic place where some of the world's most well-known records have been recorded. The fact that ARS took it on to recognise the interdependency between recording and performing music, and documenting and help market it, is just so important to elevate the contribution that photography is making to seeing and sharing what music is about.
Why do you think it is important to create a platform like the MPAs to showcase music photography?
Music is a performing art. We can listen to it, we can dance to it and we can look at it. Why do we go to concerts or are interested in the behind the scenes? It is to get the full experience, to see how the art is being generated and who is the person or team behind it, for the energy transfer that happens both ways between musicians and audience, and which propels the experience to a different level. Photography can help us feel music when we experience it outside of live performances. Calling out the best contributions of a year via an award backed by competent judges feels important and timely.
Have you seen any benefits to you since being nominated?
I think the biggest benefit is a confirmation that I am on the right track. That the art is seen and recognised, that I feel like I should keep doing it and push myself harder. That it was worthwhile. Of course, it also helps with the way one shows up.
Thank you again.
How did you fall into music photography specifically?
I have two passions in my life, jazz music and photography. The way to combine it is to take pictures of jazz. So I focus mainly on a subgenre of music photography which is jazz photography.
Was there a particular image, body of work or photographer that was a major inspiration when starting out?
As an image, it is probably an iconic shot of Jimi Hendrix by Jim Marshall at the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967. As a body of work, it was Jazz Street by Dennis Stock. And as a photographer, it might sound unusual. In 2015, I attended a workshop by Magnum photographer Eli Reed. He is an important documentary photographer and in the world of music has e.g. some remarkable shots of Aretha Franklin or Thupac Shakur. Getting under the skin of a person and being as close and authentic as possible to what you see and feel is what I took from it as a vision for what I try to do in my jazz photography.
What makes a good subject in music photography and what makes a good music photographer?
Emotions, interactions and bringing out the sensitive side of people is what I find good subjects. Kind of the intangible. A good music photographer will try to create something new and unexpected, which is a hard thing to do.
What advice would you give to someone getting started?
Ask yourself about your motivation, be prepared to practice and challenge yourself.
How did you go about building a portfolio?
My portfolio sits on three pillars: portraits of jazz, images with people in them, images without people. For my portraits in jazz series, I try to collect images from those at the top of the genre and supplement them with regional and emerging artists. The other pillars might contribute to cover art or interest me for other reasons and purposes as I am not just doing music photography.
What are your top tips you can give to any music photographer?
First, practice at performances where it does not matter. Like any craft or serious art, you need to put in the hours to get somewhere. Most musicians would tell you that before you have practiced 5 to 10,000 hrs you are not there yet. The goal is to get and analyse as many individually framed scenes as possible (not to confuse with burst frames of the same thing). Be critical about your B selects and hyper-critical about your A selects. Ask others for opinions. Don’t worry about not getting paid to do that, consider it an investment in self-taught education. Second, work on the 70/20/10 mix. Initially, 70% is developing and maintaining your skill as a photographer, no matter what you shoot. 20% is particular to the type of music photography you do like mastering low light or motion, 10% is the environment of music photography like the business, access, logistics... Over time the percentage shifts. Third, study photographers, buy photobooks and do workshops – press repeat.
What are some post-processing techniques that can enhance your music photography?
Bear with me while I try to answer that question: I am probably a bit unusual in that I do not work with a particular visual preset I have in mind and have all my portfolio look consistent. I would find that limiting and boring. Of course, when I work on a series of images at an event, I tend to have the same look and feel for the set. But going in (unless pre-agreed with the artist) I am not necessarily fixed if this is going to be a black & white portfolio, or color, if in colour whether it is going to be cooler or more saturated. What is the key image and how can I transport best what this picture is going to say is determining my post-processing. So I cycle through a lot of Lightroom presets and when I feel I have the right one, then I tweak it and this will impact the rest of the series. The picture is more important to me than the brand behind the lens if that makes sense.
Outside of music photography, we can probably more readily identify images from Peter Lindberg, Christopher Anderson, William Egglestone, Alex Webb or Steve McCurry for their style or visual identity to name a few. But this has been done. There will be a few more styles coming up for sure, but I want to see an AI that tells me who was the photographer behind an image with accuracy from the billions floating in Instagram, I do not think this will be possible with a few exceptions, but maybe I will be proven wrong.
How do you create a distinctive style and visual identity in your music photography?
Great question and it overlaps with the above. There are formal aspects, the grammar of photography, that needs to be answered. There are technical aspects. There is a sense of time, decisiveness and story that needs to be answered. Then there is either a documentary or a staged context, like group shots or headshots for promotional material. The staged context requires creativity on both sides, openness and collaboration. If there is no spark then it will be difficult to create something new, and not just an encore. Doing all of that well does not necessarily lead to a unique style, but is a prerequisite to develop one. Maybe your style will be subconscious and only when you look at the best pictures of your body of work you will find or understand the unifier.
When shooting a live show, how do you prepare? What challenges do you typically face?
First I do offline research, then I try to see the artist in a different performance or at least the location before its showtime. The biggest challenge to me is access and restrictions, like being able to shoot just the first few songs, or being confined to a particular angle of view. So you will miss shots which would have been great but which you were not allowed to take.
Do you have a preference for working on location/on tour vs in a studio?
No, and I would love to spend a week touring Japan with a band doing jazz photography and behind the scenes shots.
Creativity / Inspiration:
Can you share some insights into your creative process? Are there any specific techniques or equipment you prefer to use?
I think the process is probably similar for most photographers: do your offline research about your subject, on stage or in the studio study your subject in as little time as possible (what is going on, how do the guys interact), portray people and record interactions with your gear, and post-process your images. I mostly use Leicas (film and digital) and Lightroom. Leicas are tools with a lot of mojo and a tradition that you can try to honour. They also have limitations as technically they can not compete with the latest Sonys. So you work with what you have which is a great discipline. Remember, most of the iconic music shots before the millennium have been done with pretty basic material by today's standards. In the beginning, Lightroom had only tools which resembled what you could do in a darkroom. So that is close to where I want to be. Over time I got seduced to sometimes use some of their more advanced tools as the software capabilities keep growing. Naturally I am most proud of the shots which require little post-processing, and those shots are also the most efficient when it comes to time management.
In your opinion, what distinguishes a remarkable photograph from an ordinary one? What elements do you prioritise when framing your shots?
It would be great if I knew the recipe for the secret sauce. There are formal and technical aspects that need to be answered. Then there is the element of surprise and the unusual, so it needs to trigger an emotion in the viewer, and then if you keep lingering on it for more than a split second before you swipe to the next that is great. Pictures of well known artists have an advantage here as we are fascinated by them, that gives the pictures a bit more sticking time even if it is an average photo. I did a workshop with Magnum photography Alex Webb some years ago and he said about himself that he only takes about 2-3 exceptional shots per year when he looks back at it. This is someone who holds himself to impossibly high standards. But I think this is what it is about, getting close to an impossibly high standard.
Do you think there’s a genre of music that naturally lends itself to photography?
I currently don’t do rock or pop music photography. But these guys are usually dressed up, have some sort of choreography and play engaging music. That seems to me a bit easier to represent on an image than a jazz or classical concert which is on average a lot more introverted.
Who is someone, alive or dead, you’d love to photograph?
As a jazz photographer it would be Miles Davis even though many great pictures of him already exist, hence it would be a challenge to add something meaningful. Maybe AI will produce some unseen images of Miles in the future.
Working with Artists:
How does your approach differ when working with upcoming talent versus established artists?
It does not differ, I hopefully give everyone the same attention. Because music gives me so much, it is a way to give back. Upcoming talent is usually a bit more appreciative, mid-career people tend to be more closed or guarded, and senior artists seem to have a more humanist approach again as they don’t need to prove it anymore, at least in my experience.
Can you share an interesting or memorable experience you've had while collaborating with an artist?
Via a friend, I got access to Chick Corea and was able to shoot his final concert at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2019 before he sadly passed away. There was no agent in between, no one trying to control the image of the artist, just trust and probably an attitude to help others, of living and let live. He did not say it, but it felt like a “how can I help you” moment.
How does the photographic process differ between working with introverts and extroverts?
I am more of an introvert, so when two introverts meet someone has to initiate the talking. Have a few ice-breakers ready to get started, usually it flows from there. Extroverts sometimes have a different challenge as they might divert their attention quite quickly.
Have you ever been starstruck when photographing someone? How do you overcome that?
Not really, but there is internal pressure to produce good work. My own stage fright peaks just before it all starts, once I am shooting it goes away very quickly.
Business / Social Media
How has social media shaped music photography, both as a craft more generally, as well as your personal work?
Social media activity has probably contributed to trillions of photos taken by smart or not-so-smart phones at music events. Some of them are really good. People get better at taking photos and the software keeps getting better to support good shots. Most of them are wide-angle, hence close-ups are still more the domain of pros as are shots on stage, if they are allowed. This will change as the capabilities of smartphones continue to evolve. So we are competing with them, competition is good.
What are some common mistakes new photographers make when starting out on the business side of things, and how can they be avoided?
I am not sure if I am the best to answer this, but there is likely at the beginning (and the end) little money in music photography and you need to have additional streams of income, via commercial photography or something else. Just because you might take music shots for free in the beginning does not mean there is no value in what you do. And I find it a lot of fun, which is value to yourself. Think about how the music business has evolved. Musicians make more money from gigs than from selling records or from streams. How can we fit into this and support it?
In one word, how would you describe your photography?