—This article is dedicated to recently lost souls; Andy Anderson, former drummer for The Cure and Keith Flint, infamous frontman of The Prodigy. May you find peace.—
I was wearing my 1930 Leica when I first met Jason Nicholson in the streets of downtown Frederick, about this time last year. I noticed him strolling by because he was wearing a digital M.
We immediately started into the usual camera nerd babble. You know the kind, where you find yourself saying things in agreement but looking for chances to one-up the last comment to demonstrate your knowledge and see about the other guys’. You know the kind!
It’s been said before that a good reason to shoot Leica, if for no other reason, is because you meet the most fascinating characters. And meeting Jason Nicholson has turned out to be a perfect example of this.
Nicholson is a self-taught photographer who pursues his interests with such devotion that anyone in his vicinity cannot help but get swept away by them too. Nicholson famously cares for 1% of the Black Welsh Mountain sheep population of the United States. The only beer he drinks is Belgian. And he is well on his way to photographing every important post punk band/new wave act who continue to grace the stage!
[edited for clarity]
MARTYR: Please tell me how long you’ve been a photographer.
NICHOLSON: Hi Johnny, thanks for the opportunity. I guess one could say I have been a photographer since childhood winning my first photo contests when I was about 10. I received a Canon AE-1 from my mother as a present around that time and used it for many years, but I became very active in film photography around 2001 when I purchased my first Leica, a new M6 TTL Titanium edition which I still own and shoot with regularly. I had been traveling around the world for my job in the telecommunication industry and love to squeeze in short walks when I had a break in between checking in at airports, hotels and attending meetings so the Leica was usually with me. More touristic shots, but I became a shutterbug and never stopped. The Leica inspired me to get out and shoot. I have had a dedicated film dark room at home for many years and develop photos on a weekly basis,
MARTYR: How did you get started shooting concerts?
NICHOLSON: I have been an audiophile since my teens as well, was in a couple bands and love many genres of music from opera to punk but my go-to music genre is post-punk a bit more on the dark wave side of music. I attended a lot of concerts and recitals around the world over the years especially when I lived in Europe and always admired the photographic aspect combined with the music of many of the bands and artists I followed, so it was a natural progression to shoot concerts. I started out at small venues with liberal camera policies and it took off from there.
MARTYR: Do you shoot posed work also?
NICHOLSON: Yes, I shoot other genres, but I would consider myself more of a portrait photographer especially over the past 5 years. Many have commented that you can see that aspect in my live concert work. I gravitate to freezing the action as if the artist is standing still posing both in my digital and analog work. I prefer very sharp photos with shallow depth of field, so I shoot mostly wide open with very fast lenses, i.e., f/1.4-2.0. I have applied that to my concert work. It takes a bit of practice, since the approach comes with its own set of challenges, e.g., with variable lighting, moving subjects, etc. My approach probably comes from shooting analog for so long with fast prime lenses, e.g., Leica Summilux lenses etc. you have the tool might as well use it, right?
MARTYR: You shoot digital and film, about how much of each for a typical concert and how do you choose which medium?
NICHOLSON: Short answer is 2/3 digital 1/3 film. It depends on who I’m shooting for, which venue and where I am shooting in the venue. Traditionally there is the 3-song limit for shooting in front of the fan/stage barrier, i.e., pit. In which case, I generally shoot the first two songs digital and the third on film, but sometimes mix it up. If I am shooting for a blog such as Parklife DC I make sure the digital is sorted out, so I get the shots. Shooting digital to start also helps to get a good feel for the settings and spot metering to use for when I switch to film. I can get a feel for how fast the artists are moving on stage, where they are standing, best lighting and the lighting levels etc.
MARTYR: What camera/lenses/films do you used the most?
NICHOLSON: Analog: Leica all the way. My Leica M6TTL (the one I bought back in 2001) or my M6. I prefer the M6TTL since the speed dial is more logical (or I’m just use to it) turning clockwise decreasing in shutter speed in the direction suggested by the meter LEDs (the M6 is smaller and counter clockwise). Also, the TTL version has the 3 LEDs for metering with the middle “OK” LED versus just the two arrows on the M6. The lenses I use are either the 35 or 50mm f/1.4 Summilux occasionally the 90mm Summicron and I have a vintage Leica 50mm Summicron Dual Range which offers a lovely rendering which is usually on my M6.
MARTYR: All on Ilford Delta 3200 rated at 3200? And processed in?
NICHOLSON: For the film process speed it depends on how much lighting there is, etc. I don’t like a lot of grain so most of the shots are Ilford 3200 but at 1600 and processed at 1600. A couple were Ilford Delta 400 @ 800, one is definitely Kodak 3200, e.g., Mike Rutherford. The film was just release before the show so I was excited to try it out. A couple, e.g., Peter Murphy and David J and Gang of Four were at Ilford 3200 @ 3200 since I needed it. I also switch developer on the high speed to the Microphen which I’ve found pushes it ~1/2 a stop. My DD-X was getting old and B&H was out of stock so I tried the Microphen with nice results.
MARTYR: What is it about b&w that commits you to it even when some shows may be lit with so many brilliant and dazzling colors?
NICHOLSON: I attend/shoot a lot of punk/dark wave/goth shows and they tend not to use a lot of colored lights in their staging let alone any lighting at all (laughs). Don’t get me wrong, I love a concert with beautiful lighting if it makes sense and adds/enhances the performance, but in general I prefer to focus more on the subject/artist with some shades of black and white lighting accentuating the photograph and the artists. I think it draws you into the artist which is what I’m trying to communicate. Good lighting is critical to photography regardless.
MARTYR: What are some of your favorite bands to photograph and why?
NICHOLSON: There are so many. In my photography, I try to capture the artist as I’ve imagined them when I was growing up and listening to their music and try to capture what they’ve meant to me in my imagination when I hear their music etc. So, each photo I produce is somewhat personal. I’ve been fortunate to have met and hung out with a lot of the bands, so it becomes more personal each time I reshoot them, especially, if the artist style matches my photography style. Some stand outs are: Gary Numan, John Doe (X the band), OMD (Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark), Gang of Four (recently shot them again last week) and Johnny Marr (ex-The Smiths) is always a favorite. Others such as Peter Hook (formerly of Joy Division and New Order), Shirley Manson of Garbage and shooting Roger Daltrey of The Who last summer was a great opportunity and an artist that was on my bucket list. I recall editing Peter Hook’s photos after shooting him last year in Philadelphia and was almost in tears. Joy Division and New Order music were both somewhat of a soundtrack to my life and just seeing the photos I took brought back so many memories.
MARTYR: Would you rather be a rock star photographer or a rock star?
NICHOLSON: I was in a couple bands back in high school so a rock star would be cool, but I’m happy photographing them and if possible, meeting them and sharing stories.
MARTYR: Do you have any interesting stories, related to photography, maybe even film specific, about a famous musician?
NICHOLSON: On many occasions when I meet the artists, I bring previous photos I took of them to personally autograph and its always a pleasure to receive a compliment or when they ask if they could have one. I’ve recently gotten into medium format as well so if the circumstances warrant, I’ll bring out my Rolleiflex or Hasselblad. You should see their eyes light up when I pull one out. Besides a talented painter, Ric Ocasek (The Cars former front man and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer) is an analog guy. He still has his Leica M6. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him a couple times and he’s always great to talk with. He was a friend of Andy Warhol of course and has taken some great photos during his lifetime.
MARTYR: Some will say that concert photography is easy because the stage is already professionally lit for the photographers. Do you think this is true?
NICHOLSON: Geeze I’d like to attend those concerts that are professionally lit for photographers (chuckles). I’d disagree, the issue with concert photography I find is its inconsistency and can be quite challenging to master well. Granted some venues are easier to shoot or some artists will stay with a basic lighting pattern throughout the concert, but many shows I shoot use low or minimal lighting, or a variety of mixed lighting and kelvin temperatures, e.g. strobes, flashes, spots, LEDs, etc. i.e., mixed lighting that can change from song to song and often within split seconds during a song. Also, sometimes you are not permitted to shoot in the pit, so you need to be behind the soundboard or shoot from the sides, so you’ll need to use longer lenses, which in general, have narrower apertures (allowing for less light). I often try to watch live concerts recorded on YouTube etc. to prep before I attend to get a feel for the type of lighting and where the artist stand.
MARTYR: Do you attend shows without a camera anymore? What is that like?
NICHOLSON: I have a small Leica digital point and shoot I usually take with me everywhere, but if I’m just attending a concert, I generally refrain from taking photographs. I’m just not a fan of using iPhones etc. I prefer to enjoy the concert and leave the photo taking to the other professional photographers and check out their photos online afterwards especially those of my colleagues I work with and others I follow.
MARTYR: Any amazing upcoming shows/shoots we can be on the lookout for?
NICHOLSON: Photo passes are never guaranteed, but in the next couple months I have about 10 concerts I’ve signed up for, but I’m looking forward to Billy Idol at the Lincoln Theater in DC, Swervediver and Charlotte Gainsbourg both at the 9:30 Club. I’ve put in to photograph the Rolling Stones when they come to town in late May so one can always hope.
MARTYR: Thanks so much for your time, Jason!
NICHOLSON: My pleasure. I always enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for inviting me.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview and seeing some highlights from Jason’s astounding, relentlessly growing, portfolio! You can follow him and check out more of his photos at the links below. Let’s see if he gets the Stones! Thanks so much for reading!
Oh, and if you’re interested in reading about another professional film photographer who works with shapers of culture, check out my blog on William Grey, movie and television photographer. I’ll be working to bring the film community more interviews with other engaging and successful 21st century film photographers, please stay tuned for these and my other contemporary film related ramblings!