Three Songs, No Flash: Mark C. Austin's Life In The Pit

Gwen Stefani of No Doubt in The Woodlands, May 2009
Gwen Stefani of No Doubt in The Woodlands, May 2009
All photos by Mark C. Austin

This evening, local rock photographer Mark C. Austin unveils his first exhibit of his work since he began shooting bands almost five years ago. Austin's work has appeared in print and online for the Houston Press and Rocks Off, Village Voice, Paste, SPIN, People and the Houston Chronicle.

Three Songs, No Flash: Mark C. Austin's Life In The Pit
Poster by Jason McElweenie

The opening reception for "Three Songs, No Flash: A Photo Exhibit By Mark C. Austin" begins at 7 p.m. in the Green Room at Warehouse Live. The title will sound familiar to anyone who has ever shot bands professionally - photogs at major concerts are given only the first three songs of a show to get their snaps off while in the photo pit, and using flash is verboten.

Along the way, Austin has amassed a treasure trove of concert pics from some of the biggest national names, while also capturing live moments of locals like Robert Ellis, B L A C K I E, and the Tontons, most prominently.

We have had the pleasure of being in the trenches with the redheaded photog at SXSW, ACL and many of the biggest shows to hit Houston in the past three years. During our own days shooting bands, he was a big help in learning technique; for instance, shooting artists away from the mike, looking for the best times for action shots and using perpendicular angles.

Kings of Leon at ACL Fest 2009
Kings of Leon at ACL Fest 2009

Rocks Off also bunked with Austin in Austin during our first SXSW excursion for the Press in 2008. When he wasn't snoring like a beast or editing pictures, he was telling us about this singer-songwriter named Bon Iver that was currently blowing his mind. Over the next year Justin Vernon's project would become ubiquitous.

Rocks Off: How did you get into photography?

Mark C. Austin: Well, I've kinda always snuck cameras into concerts, I just got sick of taking really crappy photos and then having to pay to develop them to find that out. Truth of the matter is that an employer of mine had given me a small bonus that I had to use to buy myself something, so I broke down and bought a Canon Rebel with it.

While it was in the mail being sent to me, I was already busy emailing Kings of Leon's publicist asking for a photo pass to their gig at La Zona Rosa in Austin. I already had tickets to the show, I just wanted to bring my camera along.

Well, they denied me. So, I wrote again, this time admitting that I didn't even have possession of a camera yet, but given the opportunity, I would happily share all images with them if she let me shoot Austin and Houston. This was March of 2005, I believe, and Kings of Leon had already made their mark in the UK and were working feverishly to bring that success stateside and I knew this.

She acknowledged that they could use some photos and gave me passes to both shows, but only if I would send the pictures to her within two days. I agreed. I shot both shows, sent her the photos and she almost instantly replied, stating she loved the photos and [asking] was I going to any more shows on the tour.

Next thing I know, I'm traipsing across the country snapping photos for Kings of Leon. It was almost instant gratification, and I was totally hooked. To my benefit, Kings of Leon became pretty popular on that tour and many publications were interested in my photos. Those photos are still on Kings of Leon's site. Please don't go look for them. They are horrible and I may or may not have had a lot of whiskey to drink before taking them.


B.B. King at House of Blues, November 2008
B.B. King at House of Blues, November 2008

RO: What was the first band you ever shot?

MCA: Like I said I always snuck disposable cameras into shows, so some of my early photography, which you will never see, included Counting Crows, Flaming Lips, Red Hot Chili Peppers and a couple of others. Once I got my first camera, that Kings of Leon show was my first. The opener, the Features, was my official first band to shoot. They are still one of my favorite bands making music today.

RO: Who is your favorite band to shoot, by far?

MCA: While digging over my archives for shots, I did run into a few sets that brought fond memories. I'm a fan first, so enjoying the bands that I shoot is very important to me. I'd have to put Nine Inch Nails, Flaming Lips, Amy Winehouse, Pearl Jam, MuteMath, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Black Keys and any band with Jack White in it in that category of "favorite to shoot." All for different reasons, though.

Flaming Lips are not only a great band, but fun as hell to photograph. You never know what the hell is gonna happen on their stage. Nudity, confetti, smoke bombs, mouse bubbles, space ships, astronauts, Santa Claus, you name it. Its a photographer's dream to shoot a band like that. You almost can't take a bad photo of those guys.

Bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Mute Math are also super fun because of their stage antics. Every photographer who knows them goes to shoot just try to catch that craziness on film. Never a dull moment.

The Dead Weather, ACL Fest 2009
The Dead Weather, ACL Fest 2009

RO: Who has been your least favorite band to shoot?

MCA: Man, there's at least one or two of those at every festival. Someone you know that you need to shoot, but you just have no desire because it's the same freaking photo every time. The National is up on that list. I just cant seem to capture anything good of them. Maybe that's because there's not a whole lot going on on their stage.

I could say the same for Kings of Leon, but that happens when you've seen a band as many times as I've seen them. DJs are usually pretty boring to shoot, but I don't guess that is really their fault.

I take that back. Its is their fault. Freaking Girl Talk is always fun to shoot. Never seen someone do so much with so little. Dude's a beast and a very nice guy.

RO: Your pictures have always been attached to Rocks Off reviews. Which show was the best you have shot for us?

Jay-Z at House of Blues, October 2008
Jay-Z at House of Blues, October 2008

There's been so much. The Houston Press Music Awards are always fun to shoot. Even with the mud and the muck, ACL was pretty fun last year. Groovehouse and I covered a lot of ground and a lot of really great bands.

Jay Z at the House of Blues was awesome. I was the only photographer allowed in the pit for that one. SXSW is always a lot of work, but always a lot of fun, as long as you are not Craig Hlavaty's elbow or liver.

My cover shoot with Cornbreadd was a lot of fun. There's so many to choose from. That's like asking me to pick my favorite child.

RO: What shots will be in this exhibit?

MCA: I think the final count was 48 images in all spanning almost all six years of photography. Everyone from Willie Nelson, B.B. King, to Tom Petty and Ghostland Observatory. It's a rather eclectic mix to be honest. Much like my musical tastes.

RO: Who have you not shot yet that is on your dream list?

Mark C. Austin at U2, October 2009
Mark C. Austin at U2, October 2009

MCA: After shooting U2 this past year, there's not a ton left honestly. Most are dead. I had tickets and an assignment to shoot Michael Jackson in London, but that fell through.

Sadly. I'd really like to shoot more portraits. I really enjoy staging a good shot. I would love to take a good portrait of Bob Dylan. If only for historical reference. I can always use more shots of Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine and Daniel Johnston. Always fun.

I've never gotten to shoot AC/DC, and they are definitely on my list. Other bands on my dream list would be Led Zeppelin, though I have shot two of the three surviving members. The Doors are up there too, and I missed Robby Krieger at Bonnaroo one year. Nirvana for sure, though I've gotten to shoot Dave Grohl a few times.

The photos of those bands in Rolling Stone always had me in awe. And are still very inspirational to me.

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