Houston's Best Music Photographers: Todd Spoth
Back in June Rocks Off brought you Houston's ten best music photographers, as selected by a small panel of insiders and professionals. Now we'd like you readers to choose the best. Before voting opens, though, here's a little more about our finalists, in alphabetical order -- and a lot more of their spectacular photography. Best of luck to all ten.
Meechy Darko of Flatbush Zombies
Photos courtesy of Todd Spoth
Rocks Off: Tell us a little more about yourself. Todd Spoth: I am a full-time commercial and editorial photographer based here in Houston. I was born in Galveston and grew up in Paris, France, before settling back in the Clear Lake area. I graduated from the University of Houston in 2006 with degrees in both Political Science and Psychology before ditching the idea of law school for something a little more creative.
I started out with internships with the Houston Astros, Colorado Springs Gazette, and Patuxent Publishing in Baltimore, Md. before moving back in Houston as an independent freelancer. Although I shoot for several great editorial clients such as ESPN the Magazine, Billboard and Complex, my focus in recent years has been on commercial and advertising work.
I am currently working on an on-going photo essay of hip-hop in Houston and beyond. High school photography was the only class I ever failed. @toddspoth on Twitter and IG and Ello and everything else.
Portrait of the artist
What inspired you to become a music photographer? While I don't necessarily consider myself solely a "music photographer," music has always played a huge role in shaping who I am. I played in bands going back to 1998-99 and when I'm not performing or writing/recording my own musical ideas, I'm constantly swerving between new music and the comfortable nostalgia of the era that shaped me most, 1993-2003.
I photograph a bit of everything, but it's completely natural to be drawn to photograph the things that you're passionate about. I'm passionate about music and I think that's evident in my work. I can rifle off a list of amazing music and celebrity photographers that I am constantly inspired by, but I truly believe that photographing a musician or music, in whatever form that may be, makes me feel the way I do when I'm playing or performing myself.
I like that feeling. I chase that feeling.
Do you prefer concerts or portraits? Why? I definitely prefer portraits. In a portrait, at least in the traditional sense, the subject is going to be engaged with me the majority of the time. Making someone's portrait typically means you're going to shake their hand, look them in the eye and really try and get to know them.
This gives you a chance to break down the wall they will likely have up and let you into their world. If you are in a pit photographing a performer, you're most likely not going to be meeting them and will be catching them performing. That's not to say that you cannot take a transcendent live-music photo, it's just more challenging.
In a live setting you're often not able to use lighting as a creative tool the way a photographer would if they were making a portrait. Sure, you can use settings to dial in a certain look, but you're mostly forced into piggybacking on whatever the lighting designer is doing at the time.
I love meeting a musician, especially if it's someone I particularly enjoy, and making a portrait of them. I'm confident in my abilities to make people feel comfortable and have them walk away feeling good about the experience, even if we only have a short amount of time to work. Making a portrait is an intimate and collaborative process that's uniquely yours.
I love shooting live music because you're photographing the artist whilst listening to their music. That's pretty magical. It doesn't hurt that I'm getting paid to be onstage or at least right in front of the stage, which is something most people don't ever get to experience.
It's also worth noting that being a photographer can be very lonely and isolating, so the "pit" at a show or festival is really one of the only places I get to be around other photographers at the same time. It's often sweaty and hot and cramped and miserable, but the camaraderie and unspoken competitiveness are welcomed.
What is your favorite camera(s) to use at concerts? How long have you had it/them? I'm notorious for switching up my gear semi-frequently. I have owned a ton of different cameras and have loved them all for different reasons. I've shot concerts with everything from an iPhone to a medium-format digital setup. I believe in working with whatever you have and keeping it fresh.
Currently I'm using a Canon 5D mark III setup and my Fuji XT1, which I love for live music. Occasionally I'll bring out my Fuji Instax or other random Polaroid or film cameras. I like to limit myself to one lens, usually a prime, for a particular performance. Other photographers will approach shooting live music with lots of options, several zooms, etc. They are the ones that move around the pit constantly trying to shoot a huge variety of photos of each performance, which is perfectly fine and probably necessary for some gigs, but 99 percent of the time I like to work a set and really experience the music and the artist(s) themselves. I like to watch for subtle moments where the artist lets their guard [down], and if I come away with a single unique photo that brings it all together, I'm happy.
What would be your ideal camera to shoot live music? That's a tough one. I absolutely LOVE my Hasselblad 501cm kit and have even taken it to a few festivals. However, it's a bit cumbersome for that application, which is why I'm currently looking to sell it to make room for possibly a Mamiya 7II. I've always wanted a quality medium-format camera that was a little more portable, so hopefully it all works out. I've always been intrigued by the Widelux and other interesting specialty cameras. Who knows?
Do you prefer shooting at small clubs, larger venues or outdoor festivals? Why? As a performer I have played in a plywood hut on a Navajo Indian reservation and on larger festival stages. As I really started to experiment with photography, I naturally gravitated towards shooting live music. Most of the venues and shows I photographed back then were smaller venues with limited access and terrible lighting, but that's what being a photographer is all about, controlling the light.
In the end, it doesn't matter if you're shooting Lollapalooza or a New Brunswick basement show, you take what you're given and bring back a photograph. That's the mission, regardless of the venue's capacity. Smaller venues can sometimes help give the viewer that intimacy that shooting in a huge arena can lack.
The feeling that you're right there with the artist and not behind a huge barricade, 50 feet away is something that a tiny venue can provide. That said, larger shows will typically have better lighting, but moment trumps cool lighting all day in my book. Good lighting is only part of the equation.
Several years back when there were only a handful of outdoor festivals, I would love to shoot them, regardless of the extreme heat, just because it provided a chance to photograph live music and the energy of a performance against a blue sky. It was a very much welcomed change of pace from the same monotonous club lighting I was used to. Now, it might be the other way around.
Story continues on the next page.
Erykah Badu and the Flaming Lips
What is your best/hairiest photo-pit story? Every show seems to be an adventure. Oftentimes it's a battle to make sure that you're on the list or you have the right credential secured, etc. Each show, each venue, each artist is another potential story and I've seen a lot in my years photographing musicians. I've snuck into shows, had to dodge beer bottles and various other objects, and lost gear; however, luckily I haven't had any personally bad or embarrassing moments while working. I'm sure there are a few but I'm drawing a blank right now.
Lately I've had the tendency to lose my patience quickly when the pits fill with bloggers eager to block working professionals by dancing or holding up their ipad in the pit, which should be reserved for actual professionals but it happens. Since the rise of HD DSLR video, a large majority of the pit shoots with their camera held up high rather than up to their eye, which only adds to the frustration/challenge. I'll let you know if I think of a good story.
How often do you make eye contact with the performers? Has anyone ever called you out onstage? I'm very low-key, comparatively, when shooting. It's probably the former photojournalist in me that keeps me in the background, observing, rather than trying to interject myself. That said, I have an odd knack for being able to get the artist to interact with me in some way, whether that be cheesin' for my camera during a song or what have you.
I have a whole portfolio of live-music moments where the artist is interacting directly with me/the camera. It can definitely add another dynamic to the image when it happens in the right way.
What to you is the most rewarding aspect of being a music photographer? There are lots of things I love about shooting music. Getting to be the closest person to the artist during a performance is special. Not having to pay however much for a ticket is special. Getting paid to be the closest person to the artist during a performance is special, and getting paid to do what you love, whilst having the best seat in the house is special.
I love preparing for what I'm going to shoot and knowing more about what the artist might do before the other photographers. I love the amplified chaos of trying to make a picture in however long it takes to play three songs. I love reliving those same moments hours later, in the solitude of my office while working up the photographs and I especially love having a beautiful object, albeit usually digital, to help me remember whatever it was that I experienced.
It's a tough, niche industry where everyone wants everything for free and others are willing to work for free, but if you can make it work, there's nothing better in the world.
MEET THE OTHER FINALISTS
Come back next Tuesday, when Rocks Off will introduce you to our tenth and final finalist, Marco Torres.
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