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Music Photographer Brenton Giesey Believes in the Power of Film

Music Photographer Brenton Giesey Believes in the Power of Film

All images by Brenton Giesey. Used with permission.

Film isn’t dead. If anything, pop culture’s current fling with analog is fueled by nostalgia. It’s seeped into various parts of the arts and photography. “Caroline Kole and her team came to me at the beginning of the year and asked to do a shoot that was 100% analog and it was so much fun,” said photographer Brenton Giesey to us in an interview. Brenton shoots a ton of analog and film photography for his work with musicians. His work is something that reminds us of the most elegant Tarantino movie you’ll ever see. But beyond that, his mind provided us with some wonderful treats and stories.

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“I think the reason why I have gravitated towards this look and why it connects with my clients and artists is that I do most of my developing and scanning myself – b&w, E6, C41. It fulfills the ‘hands-on’ visual artist in me. It’s a very cathartic process after staring at computer screens all day and gives a sense of consistency to what I do. “

The Essential Photo Gear of Brenton Giesey

Brenton told us:

“I’m pretty basic when it comes to gear- although anyone who’s worked with me knows I’ve always got at least 3 cameras on me at shoots! My trusty 5D3 is my go-to digital camera on shoots or on tour. I have a Sony a7Rii that I use a lot for video and travel/landscape shots. By far my favorite digital camera, though, is my Fujifilm X100F. What a killer camera. I call it my ‘digital film camera’ because it’s so natural and easy to get great shots and bring anywhere. Also, the 23mm lens is a lifesaver in those moments when I have a longer lens on my 5D and need to quickly shoot something wide. I shot my first major cover (Hunter Hayes’ “Dear God”) with that camera.

On the film side, I mainly use a Contax G1 and Pentax K1000. The Contax lenses are awesome and the Pentax always comes through for me, I love the meter. I’ll rent a Hasselblad 500 for bigger shoots or studio work. I stick with Tri-X for b&w and Ektachrome or Portra for color films. 

Most of the work of being a music photographer is learning how to see and anticipating the shots in the moments in between. I use the cameras I do because they work consistently and quickly. That’s why I LOVE shooting on the iPhone as well. It’s a great camera that’s always on you! In the same vein, I like having disposable cameras or polaroids around- they’re simple and you have a classic high-key flash look right at your fingertips. One of my disposable shots was used for a single cover earlier this year (Caroline Kole’s ‘DUI’) and it made me so happy. Yes, specialized gear is important but ultimately a camera is a camera and a light is a light. If you can learn to make compelling images with simple gear then you’ll be fine.”

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Brenton Giesey: My father is a fantastic landscape photographer, and I grew up watching him and admiring the photos we looked at in Nat Geo or old car magazines. I was very artistic growing up and in school, and I found myself getting more opportunities to learn to photograph in high school. I got my first real camera in college and fell in love with exploring and capturing documentary-style moments and places I went. 

Phoblographer: What made you want to shoot musicians?

Brenton Giesey: I’ve played music since I was a kid and developed a deep love for the visuals that accompanied music and for poring over records and reading the liner notes, and looking at the pictures. I went to school in Nashville to study the music business and ended up having lots of friends in bands or who were singer-songwriters. I would do shoots for them and eventually ended up connecting with labels and other artists. 

Phoblographer: When I was shown your work, I was very drawn to much of it. You shoot film, and you’ve developed a look that I is like the most elegant Tarantino movie I’ve ever seen. What and who has influenced your look?

Brenton Giesey: Wow, thank you so much! I draw a lot of inspiration from street and documentary photographers- Bresson, Erwitt, Leiter, Meier, Capa/Taro, Meier, Kertesz, etc. My college professor would spend entire classes just showing us their photos, and I fell in love with how artistic their images were and how, after decades, they’re just as powerful and emotional. My music and portrait work draws heavily from Anton Corbijn, Peter Lindbergh, Andy Warhol, Pennie Smith. I’m drawn to work that also highlights nature and draws influence from the natural world, from people like Ansel Adams to Georgia O’Keefe and Josef/Annie Albers. 

In recent years I’ve adopted the brand and logo ‘five red stripes’ and for me, it’s a shooting philosophy that I always strive to abide by. The moniker is meant to represent the five traditional elements of design (line, shape, form, pattern, texture) as well as the five senses. I want my work to convey both timeless art and emotion.

Phoblographer: The looks you produce aren’t just from shooting film, of course. A lot of it has to do with working with the artists themselves. What sort of control do you dictate over the scenes, wardrobes, locations, etc.? I know each photographer has their own levels of wanting to control various aspects.

Brenton Giesey: Yeah, it really depends on the project! A lot of times, I’m hired to shoot portraits and stills on the set of music videos. Usually, I only have short moments in between takes or setups to get shots, so I have to work quickly and find the best ways to shoot in the space I’m given. 

On the other hand, I love collaborating with artists and their teams on the pre-production of photoshoots. Luckily I have great relationships with my clients and work regularly with them, so there’s a lot of collaboration, and most of the time, they also have existing relationships with MUAs and stylists they’ve used throughout their careers. 

I think the reason why I have gravitated towards this look and why it connects with my clients and artists is that I do most of my developing and scanning myself – b&w, E6, C41. It fulfills the ‘hands-on’ visual artist in me. It’s a very cathartic process after staring at computer screens all day and gives a sense of consistency to what I do. 

Phoblographer: Has a musician ever made a specific comment to you about working with film vs. digital? What’s that been like?

Brenton Giesey: Yeah! It’s been a great conversation starter on sets. Over the last few years, I’ve been asked more often than not to shoot more film because they’ve seen my other work. Caroline Kole and her team came to me at the beginning of the year and asked to do a shoot that was 100% analog, and it was so much fun!

“…I know that the constant craving for ‘content’ is terrible for photographers. It reduces images to momentary social currency…A lot of newer photographers now get tricked into signing bullshit ‘work for hire’ agreements and losing their copyrights.”

Phoblographer: Much of your work, when I look through it, reminds me of the 90s and the 00s. Those were pivotal times for me. Did any of the musicians from those times have an influence on your work?

Brenton Giesey: Yes! Absolutely. Growing up in the 90s, I was raised on loads of different music, from folk to punk to new wave to reggae and definitely grunge. Records like Achtung Baby!, Nevermind, Dookie, Ten, and countless others were huge influences. We didn’t have cable growing up, so with the rise of the internet in the ’00s, I was able to learn more about my favorite artists, watch music videos and find new music that would ultimately influence me- Coldplay, The Killers, Radiohead, etc. 

Phoblographer: Obviously, you’re photographing musicians. Some photographers and models like to put on music during a shoot. What’s that like when shooting a musician? Do they ever want to listen to their own tracks? 

Brenton Giesey: For my shoots, I’ll usually create a playlist of tracks that fit the mood we’re going for or that I know the artist is a fan of. Sometimes an artist will put on their own music, especially if the tracks are unreleased, because it helps guide the mood and tone of the shoot- and gives the artists excitement for the release. 

Phoblographer: How’s work been during the pandemic? What are some of the biggest things you have needed to adapt to?

Brenton Giesey: Honestly, not easy! Finding new clients has been especially hard, I think because networking and in-person connection opportunities have been non-existent. I’m incredibly grateful for the relationships I have with my existing clients, and luckily I had a few opportunities to collaborate with them during the pandemic. 

The need to adapt has definitely been a learning experience, trying to find new avenues to monetize work or collaborate. For me, it was working to get a hands-free print shop going through ShootProof. I’ve never been one to try and ‘sell’ a lot, but the pandemic almost made that a must. 

But, the pandemic was honestly great for personal work. I’ve spent much of the last year documenting American life during covid for an upcoming book, exploring the distance in our society. Taking the time to document like this as well as working on other visual art pieces, went a long way in taking care of my mental health. I made a series of pieces using recycled materials. 

“I think remembering that making art is about the long-term instead of the short-term helps pull me out of the social media wormhole. That’s one of the reasons I think I subconsciously prefer film- I take comfort in knowing that my binders of negatives and contact sheets serve a bigger purpose than just social media. “

Phoblographer: Many years ago, the music industry had changes that protected many artists from theft of their music, issues with licensing, etc. What are your thoughts on this for photographers? It’s still a major problem for us.

Brenton Giesey: Yeah, I agree. I’m not sure I have any answers, but I know that the constant craving for ‘content’ is terrible for photographers. It reduces images to momentary social currency. It’s a far cry from the days of getting enlargements or prints- and needing to go back to the photographer if you needed to re-use images. A lot of newer photographers now get tricked into signing bullshit “work for hire” agreements and losing their copyrights. And on top of that, the real money comes from physical licensing of images, but less of that is happening now- it’s cheaper and will get way more views for the artist if they mainly use digital. It doesn’t make photographers any more money, and our images are spread all over the internet, copyright owners be damned. 

“I HAVE had lots of run-ins with security guards at shows though! Sometimes, getting the shot is way more important than getting yelled at.”

Phoblographer: When you started photographing musicians, what was one of the biggest and most difficult things you needed to overcome? And how did you do it?

Brenton Giesey: Honestly social media has been hard. On the one hand, you want your photos to perform well for the people who are hiring you, so others will like your work and hire you, but I think it becomes a rabbit hole that becomes about performance and expectations. I’m still working to overcome it, honestly. But I think remembering that making art is about the long-term instead of the short-term helps pull me out of the social media wormhole. That’s one of the reasons I think I subconsciously prefer film- I take comfort in knowing that my binders of negatives and contact sheets serve a bigger purpose than just social media. 

Phoblographer: What was your first real, big music photography gig like? What would you have done differently in retrospect?

Brenton Giesey: I’d say that going out to shoot on an arena tour was a big deal for me and a huge bucket list moment. It was everything I’d ever wanted! I was shooting stills and video, so I was constantly shooting. It was a blast. I wish I’d worried LESS about what gear I was going to bring and need and more on telling a larger story- I think I was a bit nervous and just wanted to make the label happy.

Phoblographer: In your opinion, how much of the modern photo industry relies on networking vs. just the quality of your work? Obviously, you have both, but given what you see online, I’d love to know your thoughts.

Brenton Giesey: Honestly, I think it’s a little bit of both; it just depends on the industry. Editorial and larger productions favor comfortability and therefore working with people you’ve worked with before, understandably. But music is nice because it can be more open-minded and give different perspectives from different creators—exceptions notwithstanding. 

Phoblographer: What was one of the most nerve-wracking moments you’ve had on a gig?

Brenton Giesey: Ha, I don’t know that I’ve had many nerve-wracking moments on shoots, per se. I HAVE had lots of run-ins with security guards at shows, though! Sometimes, getting the shot is way more important than getting yelled at. The stage managers at the Grand Ole Opry were never very happy with me.

Phoblographer: What are your thoughts on NFTs? Are you doing any at all?

Brenton Giesey: Honestly, I think I’m still hung up on the environmental implications of NFT’s and blockchain. I’m not sure that the benefits outweigh the negatives. As of right now, I have no plans to make any. I did make a piece of art addressing NFTs, though.

Phoblographer: How do you want to evolve as an artist over the next year?

Brenton Giesey: Over the next year, I think I’d like to work on more long-term projects. As I’m currently working on a book, it’s given me a lot of perspective, and I like putting a larger context behind my work. 

Follow Brenton on his Instagram and website. And if you’d like to purchase prints, you can do so here.