The Other Side with Photographer Doug Coombe
Detroit photographer Doug Coombe talks about how Outrageous Cherry motivated him to take photography courses, explains why he is still kicking himself for forgetting to bring a camera to Nirvana's show at St. Andrew's Hall, and reveals why it takes hard work, patience, and a decent sense of humor to shoot live bands.
Originally from Dearborn, Michigan, photographer Doug Coombe’s deep-rooted love of record collecting may have inspired him to “work in record stores longer than [he] cares to admit,” but for the last twenty years, he has dedicated his professional life to documenting the past, present, and future of rock and roll. Although Coombe’s work has more recently been sighted by music fans across the globe in Rolling Stone, SPIN, NME, The Wire, Mojo, Q, XLR8R, and Wax Poetics, he explains, “My first photos were published by the great music writer Scott Sterling at Orbit Magazine, so you can thank (or blame) him for that. I got my start contributing to Current in Ann Arbor, but they only paid me $10 a photo. When I asked for a raise, they offered me $12, so I quit.”
In 1999, local booking agent Greg Baise introduced the budding music photographer to the (then) Metro Times music editor, Chris Handyside. Coombe recalls, “I went over to the office one day to say hello, [which happened to be the same day] one of my favorite Detroit photographers, Bruce Giffin, had quit. George Tysh, the Arts editor at the time asked me if I wanted six assignments for a summer guide…and the rest is history.” When Coombe isn’t contributing to the Metro Times, he works as the managing photographer at Concentrate in Ann Arbor and books talent for Woodruff’s in Ypsilanti.
From Friday, March 30th through April 28th 2012, Detroiters can see Doug Coombe’s work on display alongside photos contributed by Trever Long and Marvin Shaouni at “Detroit Music. A Photographic Retrospective,” presented by the Whitdel Arts Gallery.
It’s possible that Coombe’s success is due to his humble beginnings, or his nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic, or maybe, he’s just out to prove that not all nice guys finish last. If there is one thing we know for sure, the future is bright for the man behind the camera.
We were able to convince Doug Coombe to take a break from his recent art show in San Francisco to tell us what it’s like to be on The Other Side:
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?
Doug Coombe: I started documenting all of the cool shows I got into, because I worked at record stores. Initially, I was inspired by the photographs [captured by my] stepfather growing up, but I also found inspiration in the Art History courses my mother had asked me to take at the University of Michigan. I managed to [improve my own photography skills], so when some of my photos were used on the first Outrageous Cherry record and Big Chief’s Mack Avenue Skull Game, I decided to study photography at Washtenaw Community College.
GLG: Over the years, you’ve taken thousands of live shots of artists such as The Stooges, The Detroit Cobras, Great Lakes Myth Society, Chris Bathgate, The Sights, The Dirtbombs, Mayer Hawthorne, and Saves the Day. What artists might you like to work with in the future?
DC: I’d like to work with whatever cool band just had their first practice. I hope to have better equipment to work with in the future, because I just broke a few things while taking pictures of Danny Brown at Chris Koltay's studio. Midwest Camera Repair in Wyandotte loves my clumsy ass. I'll knock myself for the things I didn’t shoot and think to myself, “Why didn’t I bring a camera when I saw Nirvana with Urge Overkill at St Andrew’s Hall?”
GLG: When you set out to photograph a live band, what aspects do you need to consider during the shoot? How do you hone in on a perfect shot?
DC: The bigger challenges I consider include the space I shoot the band in, how packed the venue will be, and what the crowd will be like. I try to capture moments of passion, which I need to anticipate slightly...this is where my skills as a half-assed guitar player and crate-digging music nerd have proved to be very useful. I also appreciate the fact that being on the other side of the lens isn't always easy. Some people know how to work the lens and I love them for that, but I also try to respect those who are shy in front of the camera.
If I shoot a national band at a large venue, I need to assume that everything will go wrong…the photo pass I have arranged won't be at will call, the steroid-taking security guard will yell and scream at me for photographing the band even though I have a pass, the artist will give me shit for taking pictures (what's up, Mark Kozelek?!), the drunk person in the crowd is going to abuse me or ask if I’ll shoot their porno, and I can only take photos during the first two songs of a set, even if I am standing in complete darkness (I got the photos anyway, Tricky), so I have to be ready to roll with [the punches]. I remember when Scott Sterling hooked me up to shoot Laika (who I loved) at The State Theater; they were warming up for Fiona Apple (who I thought was some overrated next big thing), but after one song I understood what all the hype was about.
GLG: From a photographer’s point of view, what things do you have to keep in mind before agreeing to work with an artist?
DC: I only shoot people who I think are great, which is the most important piece of advice - shoot what you love. Unless you have mad business skills, you probably won't make much money photographing bands. So, shoot who you love and shoot what you love.
GLG: What is the best piece of advice you could give to a band that thinks they’re ready to hire a photographer?
DC: Bands hire photographers? Please send them my way! There are so many good music photographers in Detroit, so if you don't personally know one, a friend of yours in another band will. Check out the photographer’s style to see if you dig it. I still can't believe national magazines fly photographers out to shoot [events or shows in] Detroit, our photographers are just as cool as our musicians.
GLG: At the end of the day, what are the most rewarding aspects of working as a music photographer?
DC: Getting a front row seat to one of the best music scenes in the world, forming friendships with some of the most inspiring musicians in the world, collecting all of the funny stories I have about taking pictures, seeing a photo I took proudly framed by the subject's mom/dad/loved one, and that occasional decent paycheck to help me fix all of the shit I break.
GLG: So, what have you been listening to lately?
DC: A lot of Queen (I blame that on Tim and Jamie Monger), a lot of The Monkees (for fuck's sake Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, induct them, you music critic turds!), a lot of soul music and disco from the late 60's through the early 80's (I thank Brad Hales, Mayer Hawthorne, Dave Shettler, and Mike Trombley for that), The Complete Motown Singles Box Sets, Danny Brown, the new Matt Jones record, The Kinks circa 1965-1970, Stepdad, the new Lightning Love EP (it's amazing!), The Glossies, Doop and The Inside Outlaws’ last record, Barry White, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. I've also been checking out musicals lately, since I used to actively avoid them, I like Swervedriver’s Raise, a mix CD Brad Hales at People's Records gave to Danny Brown that was left in my car, Soul Town on XM, Sonic Youth circa 1986-1992, Neil Young, DJ Assault circa 1996-1999, Colin Stetson, anything on the Numero Group label, Sugar's first two records, Fugazi, and Laughing Hyenas.
The following artists at this year’s Metro Times Blowout blew my mind: Matt Jones, Belle Ghoul, Passalacqua, House Phone, Cold Men Young, Danny & The Darleans, Duane the Teenaged Weirdo, the return of Mick Bassett, The Wrong Numbers, and The Dirtbombs.
This week's Other Side is brought to you by: Lauren Mercury Roberts
Video Credit: Turn The Camera Around is a short film directed by Scott Allen