Local music photographer Zoe-Ruth Erwin recently sent us a series of photo diaries as she toured with Death to Anders down to SXSW, so we checked in with her with a few questions about how she got started and why she does what she does (so well).
How did you start taking photos? And doing music photography?
The way the whole obsession of photography started for me was extremely unconventional and, in fact, had very little to do with an inherent interest in photography. About two years ago, I had a dream about a woman named Laurie, who had been like a second mother to me between the ages of ten and fifteen. I hadn't spoken with her in several years and, as a result of the dream, felt compelled to call her and see how she was doing. However, when I finally got her on the phone, she informed me that she had terminal cancer which she had been battling for five years or so, and that she only had a couple of months to live.
After hanging up the phone, I sobbed uncontrollably for hours. My makeup was smeared all over my face and clothes. My eyes were ten-feet thick. It looked as though someone had beaten the living shit out of me. After three or four hours, this strange calm came over me. And, for no reason at all, I had this strange urge to pick up a camera and photograph my face just as it was. I wanted to know and remember exactly what primal emotional pain really looked like.
From there, I began collecting. Anything and everything that resembled a camera had to be mine. It took me less than a year to build up an arsenal of over 150 cameras. Everything from Polaroid, to large format, to digital. For the first year or so, however, my focus was on perfecting my self portraits and developing an understanding of my own identity. I didn't feel as though I could properly depict anyone else before I learned how to do the same for myself. As Frida Kahlo once said : "I paint self-portraits because I am the person I know best."
As time wore on and I dug myself deeper into the indie music scene of Echo Park and Silver Lake, I found myself fascinated with the vigor and passion of the local musicians. As I observed them, I wanted to be able to capture the sincerity and grace that I saw with my eyes and my heart, through my lens. I knew that in order to convey my respect and love through an image, I had to begin by choosing musicians that I genuinely connected with on a personal level.
Through this knowledge and desire, my relationships with Death to Anders and One Trick Pony were strengthened and embellished on levels beyond what I ever thought could be possible. It takes a particular and rare breed of human being to allow themselves to be portrayed at the discretion and vision of another person. And, moreover, to perform and behave unabashedly in front of a camera, not knowing or caring how that person is going to show you to the rest of the world.
With that said, I am still dumbfounded at how it is that I have come to know and befriend so many musicians of this caliber. Because of these bands' utter non-concern for "looking cool," and instead, placing priority on creating something genuine at its core, I’ve learned to develop the ghost of the human condition within my photographs.
To ensnare the rapture and dysfunction of human beings that I have always found to be so obscurely beautiful. Music photography has spread like a happy plague in my body of work now primarily because musicians are the most naturally vivid beings in the world. They are the binds to which we are able to connect ourselves together. They are the liaison between notes and emotions. The catalysts of what real change and love is in every instance of a melody. In my mind, there isn't any other choice but to photograph musicians. Because there is nothing else.
What do you like about it most?
The most rewarding part about music photography is the personal connection between myself and whoever I am shooting. I have always been under the firm belief that, in order to capture who a person really is, there must be a fundamental state of trust and respect on both of our parts. If I don't feel something on a reasonably deep level for the person I am photographing, and if they don't possess the same for me, then how exactly could anyone expect a picture that exhibits something real? My addiction to photography stems from my addiction to people. I tend to fall in love with people behind the camera just as much and as furiously as I do in front of it. Falling in love is the best part. And staying in love is a certainty.
What was the best time you ever had shooting a band or show?
It's a tie between two heavily entertaining experiences...
In January of 2008, Death to Anders wanted to do a photographic interpretation of their song "Great Plain States," which included a makeshift body bag, Bassist Pete Dibiaso's eerily illegal looking car, and several shovels. We shot the whole thing under a freeway overpass which was caddy-corner to an fully functional rail line. In documenting the complete process of committing murder and trying to cover it up, photographs ranged from unloading the body from the car trunk, to digging a large whole bearing an obvious omen, to the final burial of the corpse. Four hours later and we had a tangible and poignant story. Needless to say, I don't think I've ever laughed so hard on a shoot before.
The other photo session was for One Trick Pony in September of 2007. Randolph wanted to experiment with the concept of gender bending. He borrowed his sister's black dress and baby blue scarf. I applied lipstick, rouge, and eyeliner on his face. As his counterpart, Jen dressed in a pair of cleanly pressed slacks, a white button down shirt, and a bow tie. The series was shot in two locations : One on the floor of the bathroom, and one on the bed of an otherwise empty room. The bathroom photos were grungey and emotive, and overall very indicative of the physical space ; crammed and almost helpless in a sense. As he lit up a cigarette and breathed it in and out, Randolph had this consistent gaze of grief and desperation. While Jen maintained a strange look of emotional vacancy.
The second portion of photographs in the bedroom were more about the partnership between the two. Despite the fact that they weren't interacting with each other directly, there was an unseen synergy linking them together.
Both of these shoots were instrumental in teaching me that to impart who a person or band really is to an observer, you can't tell them what to do in terms of things that come naturally to them. I never direct people how to look, where to look, or what to think of. Because I feel like when you start to dictate to your subjects, you are making yourself more important than the photograph. Instead, I like to let people interact and do whatever it is that comes to them, all the while making sure my finger is always on the trigger.
Where can people find your work?
What's next for you?
Honestly, I've always been a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kind of person. I don't like to plan anything. I prefer it when experiences crash into me head first. Though… starting in June, I will be traveling to Brazil for 2 1/2 months to photograph for "Love and Art," which is a non-profit art program geared towards enriching the lives of orphans and foster children all over the world. They spend near 8 weeks working on these large scale three dimensional paintings which are auctioned off at the end of the program. The proceeds go directly to the schools and surrounding community.
from these two things, my plan is to continue shooting three to four live shows
per week, getting to know and photographing as many bands as possible, and
driving to random remote locations with my camera and tripod; letting whatever
(All photos by Zoe-Ruth Erwin.)