Behind The Lens: Dese'Rae Stage
August 6, 2009 - New York, NY
Behind The Lens
Dese'Rae Stage describes herself as an artist, poet, and all-around troublemaker extraordinaire. As a photographer in New York, Dese'Rae lives and breathes the cultural depths of her city while trying to capture a small glimpse of her life behind the lens. We asked Dese'Rae a few questions about photography, and she kindly shared some of her thoughts and photos.
I know you're one of the more prolific music photographers in the New York area, but refresh some of our readers on who you've shot for?
Ha! Well, aside from this glorious publication, I contribute fairly regularly to Brooklyn Vegan, PopWreckoning, QRO Magazine, Prefix, and Stereogum. I've also shot for CMJ and the Creative Artists Agency. There are other one-off publications here and there. I try to make sure my photos find nice homes.
Do you have a favorite of the bunch?
I'm really bad at favorites. I'd say that, right now, I have three: I love Rockscope because I love the large-format of the layouts. It really allows the images to shine. Oh, and the gift baskets. I love the gift baskets. Stereogum's great because of the amazing assignments and, I'm not gonna lie, the exposure's really nice.
My longest standing favorite is PopWreckoning, though. I've been with them since I started this craziness. My editor, Jess, had faith in my talent when it was still raw, before I had any sort of grip on it. The blog was still young then, too. We started out together and grew along with our big dreams. We even got to do some promo portraits of the Walkmen for their You & Me touring cycle last summer, which was an interesting experience, mostly because it was last minute and we were extremely unprepared. My photos never saw the light of day, probably because the band insisted that I use this silly fisheye adapter I had with me and, upon inspection, their PR people weren't having it. I still got paid, though, so I can't complain too much.
What I love the most about the PopWreck kids is that they allow me the creative freedom that I thrive on. They've allowed me to expand past my photographs. I've gotten to dabble in music writing, which I hate--when it comes to writing, I'll stick to more personal forms, like poetry and blogging. I've also gotten to interview some of my favorite artists (Amanda Palmer, Tegan Quin, and Melora Creager, among others). Doing the requisite research and designing an insightful, unique interview is a really rewarding process. Transcribing sucks, though, so if anyone wants to play intern.
How did you get into this photography 'career'?
It was a marriage of two loves, really. I've always gone to a lot of shows and I've always documented my life somehow, be it through snapshots or journaling. My photos were never anything special--words had always been my thing--until I picked up a Holga when I was 21 or so. I was living in Johnson City, TN, and I was bored, so I took a course from a local friend and photographer, Laura Grant. It changed my world forever.
I had a couple of bad years, and photography fell by the wayside until I found myself working on my Ph.D. back home in Miami. I had a large chunk of change (read: college loans!) burning a hole in my pocket and decided I needed a dSLR. I took it everywhere with me, and eventually, I learned how to use it. I'd never had a problem getting my camera into shows until I moved to New York City. Most venues here consider even the lowest grade dSLR to be professional gear because of the interchangeability of the lenses. At that point, I was still shooting with a kit lens, so I wasn't getting quality images at shows because my lens couldn't register detail in low light situations. Even so, one day security tried to turn me away from a show because of my camera. I think it was Feist, actually. I convinced them that the camera was broken and they let me through. After that, before every show, I'd pull the lens off and shove it in my cleavage, throwing the body into my bag. Once I got into the venue, I'd re-assemble and things would be just peachy (until security caught me shooting at a Rilo Kiley show one day and escorted me and my camera to coat check, but that's a risk you take when you're breaking the rules, I guess).
I didn't realize I had any sort of marketable skill until I shot She & Him the first time they ever played NYC. People went nuts for those photos, and they weren't even that great. Several friends encouraged me to put together a portfolio, suggesting that I should be shooting on assignment. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I e-mailed every editor I could get contact information for, and it worked. I got my first photo pass for Laura Veirs at the Bowery on May 22, 2008. If I ever get famous, though, I'll be thanking Zooey Deschanel.
I also heard you work in the music industry. What's that like?
I do digital licensing for one of the major labels. It's interesting to work in two very different sectors of the same industry, that's for sure. Licensing affords me the opportunity to see the way the industry is structured. I get to see and interpret contract language, which allows for the reality that musicians are people too, and they need to make a living just like we do. Basically, I can connect on deeper levels than my emotional attachment to a particular artist or piece of music.
I also have the unique opportunity to see first-hand how the digital age has changed the way music business is conducted and how this fact frustrates both artists and labels alike. Honestly, we're still in an embryonic phase. The digitization of music has torn down all the walls. Protocol changes on a dime. You have to constantly be on your toes.
I never thought I'd find myself doing the whole nine-to-five office job thing, but no one seems to mind my tattoos and they crank their music just as loudly as I do mine.
Pick a favorite photo.
Impossible. I have a new favorite every week. It just depends on who I've photographed or what I've learned most recently, like different shooting or post-production techniques. I'll admit that, right now, I'm really enjoying this photo I took of Jenny Lewis on the Fourth of July. She's got an American flag tied around her neck like a cape, and the light is shining through it just so.
That Jenny Lewis photo was amazing. I love her!
Favorite artist to shoot?
Crystal Castles. Alice Glass is fucking nuts. The last time I shot them was during All Points West last weekend, but the craziest gig I ever saw them do was during CMJ last October. They played this packed show at Webster Hall, and security was non-existent. The stage is flanked on either side by these massive speakers that stand about five feet high. I shot the show standing on top of one of them, the one house stage left. I could feel the bass thumping through my entire body. At some point, Alice literally crawled off the stage and into the center of the room on top of the crowd. It was intense. But really, I'm happy shooting any artist that moves, that challenges me. I love indie rock, but you can only shoot so many greasy navel-gazers with guitars who do nothing but stand motionless in front of a mic before you get bored.
I totally agree with you on Crystal Castles. I was fortunate to shoot them twice (well three if you count Coachella), and I swear, you'll either come out with the best photos of your life or your worst.
Is there someone you've been dying to shoot but haven't shot yet?
Tori Amos. I know, I know. Don't worry, I'll leave my faerie wings at the door. Anyway, I've shot her before, but never with credentials. That changes in about two weeks.
Any claims to fame?
Oh, they're all silly and only tangentially related to photography, if at all.
My favorite is probably from 2006. I was still living in Miami and had recently fallen madly in love with Amanda Palmer (at the time, of the Dresden Dolls). The band was touring, but they were sticking to the northeast, so--again with the money burning holes in my pockets--I decided to fly up to see them. It was their last show before Halloween, at the Starland Ballroom in Bumblefuck, NJ, and I decided to wear my custom-made Snow White costume. I managed to weasel my way onstage to sing backup for "The Jeep Song." Amanda was like, "Hey, it's Snow White!" Oh, and after the show when I asked her to kiss me, she did. She also pretended my very-exposed chest was a fancy set of bongos and tried her hand at playing them.
More recently, after I shot Santigold, Amanda Blank e-mailed me to tell me that she loved my photo of her crazy light-up pants, and that she and Santigold appreciated that my photos were flattering and that I used discretion at not posting "whatever's clever" from the show.
(One day you're going to have to introduce me to Amanda Blank.)
Seems like everyone with a half-decent camera wants to take pictures at a show these days. Any tips to the youngsters wanting to get into photography?
Learn about your equipment and how it works. Learn how to take technically correct photos. The best way to do that is to shoot in full manual mode. Trial and error. Try to compose your photos in-camera while you're shooting instead of during post-production. You can always crop later, and sometimes you need to, but I think the photo loses authenticity that way. Never stop being eager to learn new things. Practice. Experiment.
At the show, be polite and courteous to the people around you. Don't parade around with a false sense of entitlement. This becomes harder the more shows you shoot, but really, the fact that you're credentialed doesn't justify being a douche to people who actually dropped cash to see the show. Don't crowd people, and don't put your elbows in their faces when you're shooting. In other words, make yourself as compact as possible. If you see someone in a prime shooting spot, ask if you can jump in for a few minutes. If they let you, get out of their way when you say you will. If you're feeling generous, offer them a print of your best shot in return for helping you out. Build a contact list and positive rapport with the people handling bands. Get your work done in a timely fashion, and make sure to follow up and thank them for setting you up.
DON'T GIVE YOUR WORK AWAY FOR FREE. It does have value. Your photo would look great on a band's promotional poster, but if they're not paying, you shouldn't be forking over your high resolution files. Not only does that sort of behavior screw over your peers, but there's also less of a likelihood for you to make cash later if people think they can get what they want from you for free.
Most importantly, be fearless. Interpret that as you will, but fear has always been my biggest hurdle, and it still is.
So, what's next for you?
Next? Oh, I don't know. Bigger and better shoots! More technical skill! Learning how to setup my own lighting instead of making due with available light! Guerrilla street portraiture! Gallery shows! Books!
In the more immediate future, I'm scheduled to shoot Tori Amos in Philly, get crazy with the one and only Rachel Fine, and then I'll be at Austin City Limits in October.
Thanks Dese'Rae! You can check out more of Dese'Rae Stage's work on Flickr and ifeelinfinite.net