Greg Interviews Paul Harries (2017)
Paul Harries is a renowned British photographer best known for his work with rock and metal bands. Over the course of more than two decades, he has amassed a portfolio to rival the best snappers in the business. He has risen to become leading lensman for Kerrang! magazine and shot luminaries such as Nirvana, Green Day, Metallica, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, and Slipknot. In recent years, Paul has exhibited his photographs in prestigious venues in London, Manchester, and Los Angeles, including his most recent exhibition 'Access All Areas' which ran from March to May 2017 at the Proud gallery in Camden. A selection of Paul's work will form part of the RAM Gallery at Bloodstock 2017.
Q. How did you get your start in music photography?
“To be honest, I'm a bit of a failed musician, really. I could never really learn guitar, I was hopeless. But I was a big music fan and getting into photography seemed to be a good way of doing it. I used to go to the old Marquee a lot, in Wardour Street in London, and it just started with me capturing gigs I was going to. They didn't care if you took a camera in. It was through doing stuff there that I started doing stuff for a fanzine called Helter Skelter, and the guy knew someone at Kerrang! They were desperate for a photographer for a job so they called him and asked if he knew anyone. He said 'Yeah, give Paul a call' and they did. That was 1989.”
Q. What was it that first drew you to photographing bands?
“A band I always enjoyed going to see was Fields Of The Nephilim and because they were such a visual band, that kind of theatre that some bands have, really appeals to me, and that's why I wanted to start taking pictures. That love of theatricality has really stuck with me which is why I get on so well with bands like Slipknot and Rammstein. When bands are playing live, I like to be more or less invisible, really. It's always cool if someone does something to camera, but generally you're documenting what's going on.”
Q. Which do enjoy most – shooting gigs, or photo sessions in a studio?
“I like doing studio shoots best because then I've got an input into it. I can come up with an idea or work with the band on an idea. The lighting's down to me, all those sorts of things, whereas if I'm shooting a gig I'm literally at the mercy of what's going on, good or bad lighting. I've seen some amazing gigs performed in near darkness and you think 'Well, I can't capture any of this.' So, doing a studio shoot and having control is what I really like doing.”
Q. You talk about working with theatrical and visual bands – how do you approach subjects who dress down or who appear otherwise less image conscious?
“Well, you can always do something with lighting or whatever to make it look a little bit more spectacular. I suppose that's when skill comes into it and you think 'OK, this is a nice location, this sort of lighting would probably suit the band well.' Also, with bands like that you need to try and get them to relax a little bit, and when they're relaxed you can get a bit more from them.”
Q. What so far has been your best experience photographing a band?
“I don't want to go on about Slipknot too much, but they are definitely one of the best things that've happened to me during my career. I shot the very first Kerrang! cover with them. I wasn't expecting much to be honest. There'd been bands who'd worn masks before and they'd always come up a bit short. I was kinda expecting the same with Slipknot but I was like 'Wow, this looks amazing!' It was quite scary and creepy and when I actually got to work with them, the way they were posing when I was taking the pictures was really cool. And [drummer] Joey Jordison came up to me after the shoot and said 'You get us. You get what we're all about. We like you.' That was great and I was really in with Slipknot from then, so much so that I ended up bringing out a book ['Slipknot - Dysfunctional Family Portraits'].”
Q. Music photographers – and artists, producers etc. - who've been privileged to work with a band over quite a long period of time have sometimes become a very significant part of the overall creative process – the look, sound, and overall image of the band.
“It's nice to gain a band's trust and that they understand I'm trying to get across what they're trying to get across. Especially with Slipknot, because at the beginning they were so guarded about everything. Their identities were top secret and all this kind of stuff was what it was like when I first met them in '99. They trusted me to be backstage but not take any pictures until the masks were on, and I got a lot of those early pictures of them that other people weren't allowed to get.”
Q. What makes a great rock photograph?
“It varies from band to band, really. With some bands there's loads of energy and it might be a cracking live shot of someone jumping in the air. With other bands it might be something that's quite still. What I try to achieve is 'Would this make a great poster that someone would put on their wall?' More so than 'Would this make a good front cover?'”
Q. You mentioned being with Slipknot backstage, during relatively private moments. Have you had any opportunities to document the other side of the rock'n'roll life, bands or musicians unscripted, away from stage and studio?
“I love all that stuff, but unfortunately we don't really get the opportunity to do those kind of pictures any more. There are often restrictions on access, and you've got a set time in the studio, so doing those sorts of 'off road' or 'at home' features are really good. I did an 'at home' thing with Ozzy Osbourne and that was great. I did a thing with Bruce Dickinson and he was just hanging out with his replica First World War triplane, and that was really good.”
Q. How has the digital revolution, gradually moving away from film, affected your work over the years?
“For me, transitioning from film to digital, I had to learn a whole new set of skills. But if you're just coming into it now, the learning curve is so much quicker and the expense of it is a lot less. You can see results straight away. You can go too far with Photoshop or whatever, but the nice thing is that you can change the look of a photo quickly. Make it black and white or give it a cinematic look. The digital darkroom is endless really. You can do so many different things with your pictures to give them a vibe. But there is a limit, and you can't have people looking like they're made out of plastic.”
Q. Another aspect of the digital revolution is that, since the advent of the Internet, everyone is a critic. And of course, with affordable digital photography – including modern phones – everyone is now a rock photographer.
“There's not as much money floating around as there used to be, but we're all still working, for a number of reasons. There's always been people who will work for nothing just so they can get into the gig, or shoot things because they wanna get the exposure. We've all done that type of thing just to get our foot in the door. Going back to the learning curve, there seem to be a lot of people now who wanna do it, but the only thing I don't like is when they put all their pictures online. It kinda devalues what people who are working have done, in a way. Put one or two up – you don't need to put up 30! That's all your work and you've just given it all away. It'll just get to the point where if everyone's working for free no one will make any money because once they want to start being paid they'll just move onto the next person who wants to do it for free.”