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How a love for music created a career in photography - Stuart Leech is a freelance music photographer who has photographed some of the biggest names in music including REM, Bloc Party, The Strokes and Massive Attack to name but a few. James Sharp spoke to Stuart to find out more about his work and to discover his views on breaking into what is widely considered one of the most competitive forms of photography.
Bloc Party by Stuart Leech.
How did you first get into photography?
"I always used to have a camera in my hand when I was younger, as photography has always been a hobby of mine. I started taking it more seriously when I was able to study photography as one of my A Levels."
Why music photography?
"When I was attending gigs standing at the front, I would see the photographers walk into the pit and I would ask myself why can't I do that? The combination of music and photography is a merging of passions and there is nothing like the adrenaline rush a live show gives you."
How did you get started with music photography?
"I didn't really go with what is considered the conventional route in to music photography, generally it's encouraged that you start out at local venues shooting local bands and building up a portfolio in order to get commissioned for larger gigs. I shot two shows of small-signed bands in London and by luck, the next show I shot was REM in Hyde Park. After that I was able to get assignments from websites and magazines."
What is the key to good music photography?
"I think getting a different perspective is important, when you're in a pit with twenty other photographers you've got to make your images stand out."
Where do you get your ideas and inspiration?
"I like to look at the work of classic music photographers and of course I keep my eye out on the rest of the music photography scene."
Tell us some of the bands you have photographed?
"There's quite a long list, as mentioned REM, I have also photographed the Strokes, Depeche Mode, Massive Attack, Goldfrapp, The Flaming Lips and Richard Ashcroft -to name just a few!"
Who has been your favourite band/artist to photograph?
"The REM gig I mentioned will always stand out in my mind as I was very inexperienced and it was an amazing rush photographing a show of that magnitude. They're also a great live act and one of my favourite bands."
Is there anyone in particular whom you would love to photograph?
"David Bowie is top of my list, I think he's still as a compelling as he was thirty years ago."
Who was the first band/artist you photographed?
"It was a band called the Casanovas, an Australian band at the Bar Academy in Islington."
Is there a downside to music photography?
"I think the fundamental downside is the lack of access these days compared to what photographers would have got 20 or 30 years ago. Being restricted to shooting the first three songs for instance is a good challenge and I don't particularly mind it, but every now and then it would be great to be able to shoot songs later in a band's set."
As a young photographer how have you found working within an industry that it so competitive?
"It's a double-edged sword really; I think it is quite easy to get into by the way of taking pictures of a gig and getting some exposure. However, getting to the next level - making money and getting that all-important exposure, that's the hardest part. I think that is proven by the small amount of really successful photographers in the field."
REM by Stuart Leech.
How do you promote yourself?
"If you know the right places to show your work then the internet is the best promotional tool. Bands tend to have massive online communities so posting on forums and places like flickr provides good exposure. Also by having a website clients and bands are able to see your work and contact you instantaneously. I first set up my website back in 2005 and I am intending to completely overhaul it in the next month or so."
Have you had a go at any other forms of photography or do you prefer to stick to music?
"I don't like to limit myself in any way and music photography is only part of my photography work as a whole. I have recently graduated with a degree in photography, which has given me many more skills, and a collection of concept based projects including documentary landscapes and portraiture."
Do you prefer Digital or Film and why?
"Although I use digital for shooting music, I use film for almost all my other photography and I think I still prefer it, I think the quality and the method of shooting film is still a winner for me. It makes you slow down much more and consider what and how you are photographing something."
Do you think digital photography is changing photography for better or worse?
"I think it has its advantages and disadvantages. The turnaround times and ability to upload, edit and publish your images using just a computer are the obvious advantages. I don't think it has improved photography as a whole but has obviously changed the industry in many ways both good and bad."
Who are your greatest photographic influences and why?
"Terry O'Neill, Annie Leibovitz and Gered Mankowitz for me have taken many of the defining images of musicians over the last few decades, I could happily look at any of their portfolios forever."
Of the hundreds of photographs you have taken, do you have one that is your favourite or particularly special to you, if so why?
"I don't think I can highlight one photograph in particular, but when I look back I can pinpoint when I reached a consistent level of music photography and that was when I photographed the Strokes back in 2006."
Have you had any of your photos published?
"I have been published in quite a few magazines and many websites from small local websites to sites such as the BBC."
As it's festival season what advice would you give to people who want to a get a few snaps of their favourite bands/artists?
"If you are shooting from the crowd you can still get good shots even on a compact camera, just remember to set it to the lowest f-stop and the highest usable ISO if it's inside or at night. If you are shooting during the day try and depict some of the atmosphere, taking pictures when they turn on the smoke machines or when the lead singer comes into the crowd - try and capture the key moments."
What advice would you give to other young people who aspire to work in the music photography industry?
"I would tell them to just get out there and do it, contact bands, venues, anyone who can give you a chance don't be afraid to make first contact with people."
Beth Orton by Stuart Leech.
Will you be visiting any festivals yourself this year?
"In the past I have been at a different festival every weekend, this year has been much quieter for me but I intend to attend a fair few before the season is over!"
What do you think the future for you is photography wise?
"I'd like to turn professional at some point in the next few years, for the moment though I will continue shooting gigs and festivals and generally try and get my work seen by as many people as possible."
Visit Stuart's website here .