Acoustic Masters - Part I
May, 2016 / Photo Adventures
If you're a regular follower of my work then you probably already know that lately I've been completely obsessed with the emerging genre called "New Age" Fingerstyle Guitar. It seriously just blows my mind. The capability of each guitarist is pushed to superhuman levels, the culture behind it is very closely knit, and definitely the best part for a portrait/music photographer like myself is that it is full of unfiltered, raw expression.
Thankfully just last year I had gotten an introductory crash course in fingerstyle knowledge from Adrian Bellue, a rising artist who surprisingly lived in my hometown of Sacramento. We first met through a studio shoot and a few months later he called me in again for a fantastic photo session at Lake Tahoe to capture the cover of his new album Steppes (which can be read about in my previous blog post here). After the Tahoe shoot - wet, cold, and absolutely thrilled with the results - Adrian mentioned that I should come along with him to the 2016 National Association of Music Merchants Show (NAMM) in Los Angeles. Not knowing what that was, I then had to stare at him with a blank face as he explained that it was the largest music trade show in the world, spanning over 4 days with over 100,000 people in attendance. He also mentioned that he would be staying at a house filled with some of the best fingerstyle guitarists in the industry and I was welcome to come along. It was a bit of a no-brainer to say yes, and after a few months of eager waiting it was finally time.
Los Angeles Bound
Like a typical photographer, I stayed up far too late the night before our trip and brought way too much gear when I arrived at our rendezvous. For this adventure I was traveling with pro violinist and good friend Joe Kye and his manager Elliot Prestwich (who also manages for Adrian), and with three people and only one car I had to leave a good amount of my studio gear behind. We frantically rearranged our already packed to the ceiling vehicle and were able to squeeze in a speedlite, an umbrella, and some stands. I was four lights and a 12 ft. background down, which kinda bummed me out, but I knew that regardless of how much gear I was lacking it was ultimately my imagination and my connection to these musicians that would make or break the final shots.
And so we were finally Los Angeles bound! Over time the vivid greens of the Sacramento Valley transitioned to the golden-brown sands and gray concrete of Los Angeles. The traffic, the noise, and the number of people naturally intensified, and soon it fell to night with the orange haze and skyscrapers looming above. It was great to be back.
We had a brief stop with some of Joe's band members, which was a perfect opportunity for Joe to quell his craving for chocolate covered raisins and for Elliot and I to grab some beer, and later at 1AM we finally reached our destination: the rental house, a.k.a. "The Fingerstyle House". This was the place that Adrian previously mentioned that the guitarists and myself would be staying at, but even if he hadn't told me I would have easily been able to tell just by hearing the mayhem that was going on inside.
In the house was where the adventure truly began. As soon as we opened the door a flurry of notes danced around our ears and we curiously tracked them to the living room. Dozens of guitars beautifully littered the scene, and both of the calm, zen masters Adrian and Kris Schulz had claimed a corner and were grooving away. Joe, who I swear was exhausted at this point, quickly reanimated like it was nothing and joined in to play along on one of Adrian's songs. These first jam sessions contagiously grew and became the core of our NAMM experience. They also gave birth to some of the best memories of my entire photography career.
NAMM in a Nutshell
The next day was the official start of NAMM. Now it might seem strange to write a blog about my trip to this event but not focus too much on it, but I'm mainly choosing to do this because NAMM itself revolves around selling merchandise, networking, and business (not as fun to blog about) and less about photographing musicians (way more fun to blog about!). I'll give a short description though for anyone who is curious. NAMM is big... really big. It's one thing to imagine what 100,000 people under one roof would look like, but then it's totally another when you see it firsthand. Everywhere I went there was a tremendous buzzing of conversation generated from a literal sea of people, and every person in that sea was on an individual mission. Thousands of exhibition booths were demoing their newest gear, hundreds of seminars were being held, musicians were running about for interviews and gear sponsors, live shows were being played on dozens of stages, and mixed in were thousands of merch buyers and fans. During the day we would jump into this rat-race too and worked to get ourselves introduced with various companies. As a photographer I wasn't part of the usual NAMM demographic, but then again I wasn't going to waste such a large networking opportunity. I would spend my time showing my portfolio, handing out business cards, and sticking close with musicians who were willing to introduce me to any professionals that they knew.
There were some decent breaks from the networking madness, however, especially when Adrian and Joe played concerts on the main stage in front of the convention center. Both of them did an outstanding job and after working these two so many times in the past it was great to see my friends getting the large scale attention they deserved. I also have to give mad props to the lighting crew of those shows because the backlighting generated some wonderful photographic results.
Return to the Fingerstyle House
Each evening after our business at NAMM was concluded we would return to the "The Fingerstyle House", so everyone could party, get to know one another - and of course - cut loose with some mighty impressive jam sessions. Word about the fun spread fast and we had plenty of visitors stop by to join in on the action, like Da Ukulele Boyz from Hawaii, Austrian guitarist Thomas Leeb, and in some completely unexpected surprises I was able to sit down with world-touring guitar legends Andy McKee, Don Adler, and Antione Dufour. Cold beer and warm music broke down all the barriers; and that was the real beauty of the Fingerstyle House - Regardless of anyone's reputation, nationality, music genre, whatever, we all quickly bonded through the camaraderie of art.
As the days passed we all became a little closer and the laughs definitely got bigger. Some of my favorite memories included watching Trung Bao (a pro beatboxer with a great sense of humor) jump into the fray of guitarists with hilarious results (watch the video below) and also seeing guitarist Travis Bowman drink so much that he passed out in a tiny children's race car chair. There were also many powerful, inspiring moments though, like witnessing Kris Schulz's beautifully peaceful morning meditations, talking to Maegen Wells about her incredible perseverance to become one of the only female international guitar builders, and simply observing the hard work and creative dedication that each one of these artists brought to the table.
I was learning more about these wonderful artists every day, and for the first 3 nights at the house I decided to not take a single studio photo and instead focused on capturing them in behind the scenes material. This was the perfect way to get everyone used to me being around them with a camera and it also helped me build some genuine connections before asking to take their portraits in a more personal, sincere light.
A Cheap Studio is a Happy Studio
On the fourth day I decided it was finally time to capture the long awaited studio portraits. This was a critical reason for me being at NAMM, and as I mentioned earlier I unfortunately had to leave the heavy majority of my gear back at home before I began this adventure. Now I desperately had to improvise.
The first needed item was a background so I spent some time tearing through the closets of the house and luckily I was able to scavenge a few solid colored throw blankets. They were old and wrinkled but they would do. I ironed the wrinkles out and brought them into the garage where I clamped them tightly between some cabinets. It really pains me that I didn't take any behind the scenes photos of this as it turned out to be one of the most amusingly tacky yet surprisingly successful setups I had ever assembled. Next up was the lighting, composition, diffusion, fill, etc., which are techniques that I will explain in further detail for my fellow photographers in a future blog.
Before calling the guys in I slowed down just to think on everything that I had learned about their genre over the previous 4 few days. From what I had observed, fingerstyle guitar was a very personal, natural, and organic style of playing - A process that brought elements of deep emotion and hard earned physical skill harmoniously together as two necessary parts of the whole. These musicians ate, breathed, and slept in their craft, and it was important for me to show that symbiosis.
One by one I had them enter the "studio", and since I had to photograph all of the musicians in the same scene it was crucial for me to give them each a unique identity. Thinking about who they were and what their music stood for was where I found the diversity. A great example of this, for instance, were the characteristics that I had learned about Antione Dufour and Blake Goodwin. To me Antione was a quiet prodigy, a thoughtful person who usually listened more than spoke, and revealed his feelings to you through complex, detailed songs. Blake on the other hand was more bold and direct, injecting heavier emotions into his strings to excite and uplift people front their deepest lows. Kris Schulz was a perfect example as well, since he and I had long talks about inner peace and how he used his music as a catalyst to share that joy with others.
The results were surprisingly easier to achieve than they would have been if I photographed them on the first day, and I like to think that came from us spending quality time together - building meaningful, long lasting connections that would communicate beyond the lens.
Goodbyes Always Suck
The day after the studio shoot was our final day at the house. None of us wanted to say goodbye but unfortunately we all had to return to the world of responsible adults. We were happy though, because for 4 days we completely immersed ourselves in art, pursued some of our most sought after creative goals, and in a sense, became a second family.
Half of the group took off for the airport and the other half that had the task of driving decided to stay in town for one last group meal. We ate at some killer Vietnamese food and then after that we couldn't find any more excuses to procrastinate. We gathered in one last last group huddle, exchanged hugs and goodbyes, and all went our separate ways.