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Behind the Lens: Music Photographer Jérôme Brunet — Licensed to Shoot (Q&A)
Jérôme Brunet is arguably to music photography what James Bond is to espionage. Like 007, Brunet has a great eye for taking aim. But instead of armed with a Beretta or Walther PPK, Brunet packs a Leica or Nikon. And rather than being licensed to kill Bond villains, Brunet is licensed to shoot the superstars of sound. He’s not so much a spy, but as he calls himself, Brunet is “a fly on the wall,” observing and freezing images in time with his candid camera.
As such, for envious music fans, Jérôme Brunet has the ultimate backstage pass. His talent as a photographer has given Brunet coveted access and permission to get up close and personal with countless rock, blues and soul icons. The award-winning shutterbug has lensed a who’s who of legends, including The Who, Eric Clapton, Slash, James Brown, Steve Miller, Tom Petty, U2, Santana, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin, Foo Fighters, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and many more.
Born in France, Brunet grew up in Ontario, Canada, before studying photography at the prestigious EFET art college in Paris. He later took a master class at San Francisco with Jim Marshall, that renowned guru of rock photography. By 1994, at the Banlieues Bleues Festival in Paris where B.B. King was the headliner, Brunet started to bring his naturalistic sensibility to documenting musicians onstage, as he caught them in the act at the moment of creation. By 2000, Brunet was a full-time professional photog.
Recently, he compiled his finely etched images into a retrospective coffee table book, Into The Light: The Music Photography of Jérôme Brunet, with exquisitely expressive photos of King on the cover and bookending the handsome 207 page volume. The author says: “After twenty years into my journey as a music photographer I thought it was time to put my work Into The Light and share this collection with music and art lovers everywhere. As a musician and music fan, photography has allowed me to channel my passion and I hope you enjoy these photographs as much as I did taking them.” The book also features a foreword by one of Brunet’s famous subjects, Steve Miller.
In this candid conversation, Brunet takes readers on an insider’s tour into the “photo pit,” exposing details about his creative process and the nuts and bolts of what it’s like to shoot Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend and other musical immortals who have moved our feet — and souls — for all time. In the process, Brunet also frankly discusses his artistic influences, the rocker he’s personally closest to, aging, his most embarrassing professional moment, the paparazzi, his camera gear, film versus digital, color versus black and white, Annie Leibovitz and much more.
Rock Cellar: Your book is called Into the Light. In his foreword, Steve Miller comments on your “use of light.” How do you use light in your music photos? What role does light play?
Jérôme Brunet: Obviously, for photographers, it’s the most important thing. Without, there’s no photography [Laughs]. If there was ever a style I’ve been known for, it is “contre-jour,” which is French for “shooting into the light.”
Rock Cellar: So stylistically, is light more important to you than composition?
Jérôme Brunet: It’s all equal. Composition is definitely up there. Because if the composition is not right, the image falls apart, and the eye moves on to the next image. What you want is to have a composition that is solid, that keeps the eye in the image.
That is done by studying the masters, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastiao Salgado and the Godfather of rock photography, Jim Marshall! I come from a documentary background. A lot of my schooling was done studying these masters and their use of light and composition.
Rock Cellar: You mention the celebrated French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, whom you met in your youth. Among other things, he was known for a style called, in English, “candid photography.”
Jérôme Brunet: The “grandfather of photojournalism,” I would call him. A legendary photographer.
Rock Cellar: What influence did this more spontaneous, naturalistic style of unposed picture-taking have on your photos of rock stars, celebrities and entertainers, who are usually aware that they are indeed being shot?
Jérôme Brunet: You said the word there: “Unposed.” Another comparison is being a fly on the wall when you’re shooting — that hopefully, actually they don’t realize that you’re shooting. I think that’s where you could capture some magical moments, when the musicians are completely in their moments, into the music. I strive to try and capture the soul the musician taking a photograph.
Rock Cellar: Into the Light is mostly in black and white. Why don’t you shoot more in color?
Jérôme Brunet: [Laughs.] Um, I think it goes back to having studied the masters and having studied in black and white. I believe it just has more impact than color does. Color can sort of wash a bit of the impact, the strength of composition and lighting by potentially confusing the eye. If there’s a big splash of red or a big splash of green, the eye tends to get lost in that. Can easily be confused. I think stripping it down to monochrome really shows the strength and the bare bones of the image. If the image is strong enough composition-wise and lighting-wise, then it will be a lot stronger than color. Color is more flattering.
Rock Cellar: Rock ’n’ roll was largely the musical expression of the youth culture. Yippies like Abbie Hoffman famously declared: “Don’t trust anybody over 30.” In “My Generation,” The Who famously sang “Hope I die before I get old.” You started shooting professionally around 2000. By the time you started lensing professionally, some of the original rockers like Hendrix, Joplin and Lennon were already dead and most of the survivors were by then already middle aged. Towards the end of Into the Light are fairly recent shots of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Pete Townshend performing, and they are all in their seventies. Tell us about shooting rock stars when they are in mid-life? And when rockers are senior citizens?
Jérôme Brunet: [Laughs.] For me it was almost having love for guitar-based blues-rock. I immediately focused on shooting the greatest musicians that were still alive, trying to capture that. Because as you said they were approaching the twilight years, if I may. So it was very self-evident there were still amazing musicians from the past that were still playing and I really wanted to document that. In the blues genre, B.B. King, of course, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, who passed only a few years after I had met them and shot them. That was essential.
The same thing for rock. I immediately started shooting the Stones, the remaining members of Pink Floyd, The Who, etcetera. Age was never an issue — for me, it was who I was photographing, and to try to capture that the best that I could. A collection of these legends before they were gone.
Rock Cellar: And I think on behalf of lots of fans one could safely say we’re delighted Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, etc., actually didn’t die when they got old.
Jérôme Brunet: [Laughs.] I couldn’t agree more. And some of them have gotten better … You look at musicians like Jeff Beck. It seems every time I see him, he gets better and better. Even though he was a master already in the seventies.
Rock Cellar: One of your few color photos is of Sly Stone. In a 2007 picture in Into the Light, he’s about 64 years old and looks well past his “sell-by date,” as if his shelf life has expired.
Jérôme Brunet: That was rare — kind of like Tom Waits, they’re super rare birds. Obviously, [Sly] has had a storied past. It was an honor, I haven’t shot that much, but I did get to shoot legends of funk like him, George Clinton, Parliament Funk; James Brown; I shot a few.
Rock Cellar: B.B. King graces your book’s cover and appears in Into the Light’s last photo, in a 2013 picture.
Jérôme Brunet: He’s on the cover; he’s the first picture; and also, the last.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about the influence of “the King of the Blues” on you and your photography and why B.B. King is your “cover boy”?
Jérôme Brunet: B.B. was literally the first, I’d call it “semi-professional” show I had shot. I believe it was 1994 at a blues festival in Paris. Just completely randomly I happened to go to this … I was absolutely enamored by the majesty of B.B. Every chance I had to document him over the last two decades I shot him, at festivals, at shows. I think B.B. sums it all up for me when it comes to what I see as the greatest entertainer — a storyteller, a master of his instrument, a leader of leaders. I could go on and on about B.B.
I was extremely lucky, one of the shots I got, the vertical one on the cover — this is a shot; I only have a couple of these. Quite honestly, a photographer usually in his entire career is lucky if he can get one to three truly iconic images. And somehow, around 2008, I shot this image. I knew it was a strong image; I knew it was potentially a cover image. But I had no idea it would win multiple first-place awards around the world, be published on covers around the world, and to the extent that people are getting it tattooed. It’s literally taking on a life of its own. I’ve been extremely lucky with that particular image.
Rock Cellar: Which musicians have you evolved close working and/or personal relationships with over the years?
Jérôme Brunet: Undoubtedly, that would be Steve Miller, who I first met at a blues festival I was the original photographer for in Santa Cruz, California. He was the headliner that particular summer. He, I didn’t know, was also a part-time photographer and was actually shooting side stage throughout the day. So, I finally mustered up the courage to introduce myself to him and asked him for permission to officially shoot his gig, as I understood there were some restrictions. And then I immediately complimented him on his gear [laughs] and we immediately started talking about photography, and he finished off by saying: “Jérôme, you’re the only one allowed to shoot. Here’s my card; send me the pics.”
From that day on we kept in touch; I’ve had the honor of having dinner with him. I’ve jammed with him on his bus; he’s just a complete gentleman, super down to earth. And then when the book idea came along, I remember designing the cover, placing, of course, B.B. on the cover, I [thought] who was the biggest musician I know concerning doing a foreword? Of course, Steve Miller! So, I mustered up the courage to send him an email to ask him about doing the foreword and within a couple of days he emailed back, “no problem,” and he was onboard. When it comes to [closeness], that’s definitely the biggest Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, Steve Miller.
Rock Cellar: What’s it like shooting legends such as Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend? Share some memories, highlights of them with us?
Jérôme Brunet: It’s like the fan’s ultimate dream, essentially, to be that close, almost intimate with an artist that’s part of your life and your heart. And to be that close, and to be able to capture that and hold onto an image that will live on. Not only the artist, but myself, as well.
A lot of what I shot, of course, has the restriction of just the first three songs in the photo pit, where I have no physical contact with the artist. Shot professionally, of course, but from the photo pit. Usually, only the first three songs.
Although I have met quite a few legends, by no means do I get to meet every [laughs] musician when I shoot a show.
Rock Cellar: What is the “photo pit,” Jérôme?
Jérôme Brunet: So, the photo pit is an area that is four feet wide by the distance, the length of the stage, that is placed right in front of the front row. And usually, if it’s a standing room show, there’s usually a barrier that you stand in front of. That’s usually where the bouncers, the security, usually stand in the photo pit.
For the most part, the press is allowed to shoot the first three songs. And there’s usually about 10 to 20 photographers in a photo pit, depending, of course, on the size of the show … The rule, which has been around for some time, probably since the ’80s, is first three songs, no flash.
Rock Cellar: Interesting details. Have you ever shot an event with other photographers who’d be considered to be “paparazzi”?
Jérôme Brunet: Very, very seldom. I think I’ve shot one red carpet, which I’ll never do again [laughs]. Because it is literally full of paparazzi-style photographers that will just — the worst — I can’t stand that style of personality and … sensationalism. It’s absolutely not my bag. If anything, I’d shoot them, because they’re like crazy animals.
Rock Cellar: Rock stars have often been known for their outrageous behavior. Keith Moon comes to mind, trashing hotel rooms. So, Jackie O. took out a restraining order against celebrity photographer Ron Galella —
Jérôme Brunet: The football helmet guy?
Rock Cellar: Yeah. Marlon Brando broke his jaw.
Jérôme Brunet: That’s probably why he wore the football helmet afterwards [when he continued to shoot the actor].
Rock Cellar: So, can you dish some dirt? Were any of the rockers you shot difficult to deal with?
Jérôme Brunet: Yeah. One that comes to mind would be — I don’t know if I should start naming names, but … A very [well] known female blues guitarist — we were at a blues festival. We were told we were only allowed to shoot her second song, just one song, just the second song. I think it was me and two or three other photographers, we wait until the second song and then we go into the photo pit and I literally just bring up my camera and then she stops the show, points at me, and on the microphone, and says, “Oh great, you’re going to take a picture under my chin?”
It was just the most embarrassing thing. If you don’t want pictures taken, just say “no photographers.” But don’t allow one song, and then dictate the position of me as a photographer … Those are the kind of things you don’t want to shoot as a photographer.
Rock Cellar: There was a 2012 documentary Beware of Mr. Baker, about Cream’s Ginger Baker.
Jérôme Brunet: Of course, classic, legendary. That’s who I got to shoot.
Rock Cellar: The very first rock concert I ever attended was Cream’s farewell show at Madison Square Garden … I’m wondering if you have any colorful Ginger Baker or Iggy Pop stories to share?
Jérôme Brunet: [Laughs.] I shot both; I did not get to interact with them or meet them personally. I don’t recall Ginger doing any hissy fits. I did get to meet, on the other hand, at the same jazz club in Oakland called Yoshi’s — it’s part sushi joint and part legendary jazz club — I shot both Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce at different shows at that venue. But I did get to meet Jack Bruce backstage, who was a total gentleman and one of my favorite rock singers of all time.
Rock Cellar: One of my favorite photos in Into the Light is your Dr. John portrait on page 139. Was that a posed shot? How did you manage to capture the keyboards reflected in his sunglasses, which seems to express this pianist’s essence?
Jérôme Brunet: Yeah. So, again, it was actually shot at that same Yoshi’s, very small club. I was, I’m pretty sure, in the front row, shooting for that. I prefer to shoot closer with wider lenses. But in this particular case, when you’re that close to an artist, depending on which lens you have, you can really tighten up the frame and for this one, I could clearly see the keys in the glasses. So, I think I used a 70-200 zoom lens, and really cropped the face super tight. But I was probably no more than six feet away when I shot that. Yeah, that’s one of my favorite pictures. That one, and Pinetop Perkins — legendary blues pianist from Muddy Waters — I would say are my favorites.
Rock Cellar: Tell us about the cameras, lenses, etc., you have used over the years? Why do you feel those pieces of equipment empower you to capture the quintessential photographic moment of truth best for these musicians?
Jérôme Brunet: I’ve been shooting both Nikon and Leica cameras. Nikon for its speed and reach, and quality of lens. For the Leicas, M bodies, currently the M10-P for backstage, documentary-style photography — an unobtrusive style of photography. But for me, less is more. I usually only have one camera, with two, three lenses. I like to be mobile, to not have three, four bodies flipping around your neck. If I could get away with it, I would just shoot one camera, one lens. But since a lot of time we’re restricted to where we’re situated, where we could shoot from, that’s where you need to be able to change different lenses, to go super wide or super tight.
Rock Cellar: Are you shooting with digital cameras now? If so, what year did you switch over to digital and why?
Jérôme Brunet: So, I switched over in 2006. I had been shooting almost entirely black and white film up to that point. The digital thing happened around 2000-on. But I waited till ’06 for I believe the first camera that came close to the quality of film, that would be the D2X Nikon. Those were two things: full frame and the quality that you could achieve with film and digital. And I haven’t shot a single roll of film since 2006.
Rock Cellar: Your pictures have been published in a wide variety of outlets, including Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Time, The New York Times. Have you always worked on a freelance basis with these outlets or have you ever been a staffer?
Jérôme Brunet: I’ve never been a staff photographer. I’ve been a house photographer for —
Rock Cellar: What is a house photographer?
Jérôme Brunet: So, a house photographer is the official photographer for a designated concert hall, musical theater … I’ve been the official photographer for festivals, like Outside Lands in San Francisco — but I’ve never been a staff photographer for any magazine. Everything has been freelance, editorial-wise; through a photo agency. That’s how I’ve been published internationally.
Since my book came out, I’m now being represented by fine art galleries around the world to present my photographs … [including] online and physical galleries, [such as] Rock Paper Photo; the Modern Rocks Gallery in Austin … I also sell the prints myself.
Rock Cellar: You’ve won a number of awards. What is the Graphis Silver Award? And what exactly did you win it for?
Jérôme Brunet: Graphis is one of the biggest awards given to photographers, designers … Every year, the top graphic photographers show up, like Annie Leibovitz … Going back to the vertical B.B. King that I had submitted to Graphis, I guess it was 2009, it won gold and actually out-won Annie Leibovitz that particular year for that photograph. I had shot one picture of B.B. King, first three songs, no flash, whereas Leibovitz had submitted an entire $100,000 photo shoot for Disney, with famous movie stars. I actually had beat her out on the gold and was pretty damn proud of that [laughs] … I think I’m on my third or fourth silver Graphis.
For more info about the photographer see: www.JeromeBrunet.com
For more info about Into The Light: The Music Photography of Jérôme Brunet see: www.IntoTheLight.photo
September 17, 2021
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