Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Other Side with photographer Alicia J. Rose

Born and bred in Los Angeles, Alicia J. Rose has been a professional photographer for nearly a decade now. She’s been working her way up the west coast since she left the roost at 18 and called San Francisco home for a while, before relocating to Portland in the mid 90’s, where she lives today. Although she spends most of her time taking photographs for artists like The Thermals, Menomena, Y La Bamba, Stars of Track and Field, and Golden Bloom, Rose’s interest in photography was sparked by her own love of music. She explains, “I started playing accordion as Miss Murgatroid in the early days, but I kind of lost my [interest in] it a few years ago. Only recently have I started enjoying myself again as a player. Oddly enough, it’s the drums that have drawn me in. I started playing at the beginning of this year and now I’m singing and drumming in a new duo called White Widow with my pal Shawna Gore. Apparently, I was a drummer hiding in an accordion player’s body. Who knew?” In the future, Alicia plans to take up film making, since directing is her new obsession. Through photography, she came to the realization that she had been directing all along. Making music videos was a way to incorporate a new energy and passion into her work, while applying a trained photographer’s eye.

We were able to convince Alicia J. Rose to step away from her double life as a music booker/promoter/partner at Mississippi Studios to tell us what it’s like to be on The Other Side:

Y La Bamba, photo by Alicia J. Rose
 Green Light Go: How did you get started as a music photographer? Was there a defining moment that inspired you to work in this field, or was this career path always in the cards?

Alicia J. Rose: I started photographing bands when I started booking and working in college radio (at KUSF) in 1990. It was a natural progression for me to combine these two loves, especially after I had some killer band photos taken by Don Lewis in Los Angeles for my Miss Murgatroid release, Myoclonic Melodies. Lewis was a film shooter who employed multiple light sources and long exposures to make photos that truly blew my mind. They were a perfect representation for me as an artist. It was then that I realized what a difference proper photography makes.

I considered photography as a hobby in the early days, but I photographed a lot of rad bands, like Steel Pole Bath Tub, Tilt, Ovarian Trolley and a few others who were mostly pals from the scene I was getting to know. I also had a sweet (but smelly) darkroom in the basement of the first club I booked – The Chameleon on Valencia Street. My first camera was an Olympus OM10 that my dad gave me when I left to attend S.F. State. The camera served me well until I got my hands on a medium format Yashica Twin Lens, which slippery-sloped me into the Hasselblad, a Swedish magic camera system that I am still obsessed with.

I think I became a “professional” music photographer somewhere in the early 2000’s, after I had worked with The Decemberists. I had a day job for nearly a decade with NAIL Distribution. When I left to take on the talent buyer’s position at Doug Fir Lounge, I was able to focus my energy on photography more. My proximity to musicians was quite synergistic for my photography career.

The Decemberists, photo by Alicia J. Rose
 GLG: Over the years, you’ve shot for quite a few music magazines, such as Under the Radar, CMJ Magazine, Spin, and Magnet and have earned an impressive roster of clients, including The Thermals, Golden Bloom, Vagabond Opera, Stars of Track & Field, and The Decemberists. Who are you shooting for these days and what bands are you working with?

AJR: This year, my work has mostly been with northwest bands. I just spent the weekend shooting one of my favorite new Portland acts, AgesandAges. They have a new album coming out in February with Knitting Factory/Partisan. I’ve also recently shot press photos and album art for Menomena, Fences, Hey Marseilles, Y La Bamba, Sean Flinn & The Royal We, Mackintosh Braun, and Musee Mechanique. To be honest, I’d love to get out of town (or out of the country) a bit more and shoot bands outside of the northwest. New locations and people provide new inspiration, which is good. I love being plopped in the middle of a new city and eye it from a photo-location-emotional-relation perspective.

Menomena, photo by Alicia J. Rose

GLG: When you set out to photograph a new band, how do you determine a location and how to set up the shoot?
AJR: I usually start by talking to the band and I spend some quality time listening to their music. I’ll find out what (if any) concepts they have been toying with. In listening to their music, I’ll glean for myself for some of the inherent themes present [in the tunes]. We talk about their inspirations, who they are as people, and what their music is about. I also like to talk about the places they feel a connection with or have access to. This can yield some fun results. Once we have things sorted out, I’ll determine whether [the shoot will be] a daylight or strobe affair. I’ve been really into mixing light lately to make sunlight my bitch with different reflectors and film stocks. Geek alert!

Sometimes there is collaboration [with the artist], but other times, I’m called upon to “wave the wand” so to speak and find the right setting, look, or theme on my own. Not everyone has a clear vision of how they should be represented in the public eye, because that can be really tricky. There are a lot of bad band photos out there. Luckily, I have been booking, promoting bands, and promoting shows for as long as I have been a photographer, so I can be the “band whisperer” and pocket psychologist in difficult creative situations. I usually get to the root of someone’s vibe or creative ethos through casual conversation and a genuine connection with their own process and musical vision. There is a way to bring out the best in every subject, if you know what you are looking for.

GLG: From a photographer’s point of view, how do you know that you are a good match for a band? What things do you have to keep in mind before agreeing to work with an artist?

AJR: Well, I definitely have to respect someone as a human being and appreciate what they’re doing creatively and professionally. I look at every shoot as [a way to add] to my body of work, so there is some pickiness on my part, but I also am up for new types of clients and technical challenges. I put a lot of work into my own process, so I tend to go deeper with folks on an art direction level, especially when I fall in love with [their] record. The bonus is that by creating unique and intuitive images for an artist, they become armed with the proper tools to forge a path in this messy little business.

GLG: What is the best piece of advice you’d give a band that thinks they are ready to hire a photographer?

AJR: DO IT…and understand that band photography is not an afterthought, it’s a statement and an investment along the same lines as recording, manufacturing, or graphic design. If you are a brand new band, have a friend that shows some photographic promise shoot you and [don’t be afraid to] be creative. After a spell, the amateur stuff won’t hold up, so to become successful and play bigger clubs, you will need a decent image for advertisements. This is when imagery, band branding, and aesthetic really start to matter. If there’s a specific photographer or artist that you resonate with, hit them up. If you’re nice, [the photographer] may do you a favor. In the meanwhile, save up [to hire a photographer]. It’s worth playing a couple extra shows to pay for band pictures, because sweet photos will lead to better bookings and a lot more press!

GLG: What are the most challenging and rewarding things about being a music photographer?

AJR: The biggest challenge I have faced is not being in the way of the right work [at times]. I live in Portland by choice, not in LA or NYC, so I often feel like I’m missing out on the big stuff. Plus, I remain unrepresented by a legit agency, but I maintain the belief that my work speaks for itself. I know [word] gets out there by proxy of my subjects’ travels, so hopefully, people who feel passionately about [music photography] will continue to reach out.

The best thing is getting the chance to consistently collaborate with other artists to help define their point of view through my own…that jazzes me to the core. It’s satisfying to dial talented artists in with images that compliment and help expand their own artistic and musical vision. Getting to apply my filter to [the band] is really a blast, but I don’t think it’s necessarily respected as its own art form. My years as a promoter have gifted me with the ability to key into aesthetics as a driving force of cultural zeitgeist. It is challenging, yes, but I figure it’s best to lead by example. My goal is to do my best to elevate my perspective by kicking ass and making more stunning and effective pictures. Lately, I have been on a kick to do more “holy trinity” work with bands. [This is] where I contribute to general art direction, create album art or take press photos, and create a music video for the release of a record. These 3-part zingers have proven to be my favorite, most challenging projects to date.

The Builders And The Butchers "Golden And Green" from Alicia J. Rose on Vimeo.


  1. Janelle5:27 PM

    Alicia, I love you. Thanks for such a great interview and sage advice.

    I can attest to the fact of your photos making a difference with the industry taking an artist seriously.

    Oh and the Menomena bathtub/red toaster photo remains one of my favorites. Only because I have the same toaster, and well, I love red.