CD: Jackie, you have this incredibly diverse background in photography that has saved you and also given you a well rounded approach to business. Tell us about how you got into digital teching and how that led to life on the road as den mother, manager and all around go to person for a rock and roll band?
Jackie Roman: I decided when I was quite young that I wanted to shoot music for magazines and album covers. The influence must have come from the images of Annie Leibovitz, Bob Gruen, Jim Marshall or Pennie Smith. I had no idea how one would go about landing that kind of career, but I took a running start at the Hallmark Institute for Photography- after which I promptly landed an illustrious day job in the rental business. I worked at the counter, checking out equipment and cleaning cameras. it was a great way for a young photographer to cut their teeth. I not only learned about lighting and grip equipment but also about the needs of photographers who were working on larger scale productions. I got to talk to a lot of different kinds of photographers and was challenged daily to meet their demands. A new digital era was booming, and I was fortunate to be able to do some hands-on training while digital backs and tethering softwares were still in beta.
The state of flux in technology varied so greatly over the next few years that it was nearly impossible to keep up without a designated Technician to navigate the support for medium format digital backs and their various tethered workflows. That era has since plateaued with the advance of more stable operating systems and robust hardware, but there was a time when it was very fast-paced, unpredictable and mentally demanding, not unlike touring and documenting punk rock bands. At the time, a lot of photographers in New York were transitioning from film to digital, among them, celebrity and fashion shooter Perry Hagopian. Although I’ve worked with many different crews as a freelancer, Perry has been my most consistent. Working on his set has taught me a whole lot about masterful lighting for fashion with very controlled studio and location setups and also about digital workflows for magazines.
Working on these shoots during the day enabled me to shoot rock shows for SPIN in the evenings, which is how I really got into the lifestyle of rock n’ roll shooting. It’s worth mentioning that all my education in fashion photography has actually served me in an opposite way, since it all goes out the window when I shoot my personal work. Much like learning everything about the rules before you break them- or taking fashion photography production methods and applying them to DIY punk rock photo projects. After building up a body of concert photography I started shooting more festivals and tours, and that led to doing promo portraits for artists. Now my work is a mix of music, documentary and portraiture and all of it is informed by the variety of experience I’ve had.
CD: Talk about what it is like to be a rock and roll shooter – the good, the very bad and the joy of it all. How and why did you get into this area of photography?
Jackie Roman: I always say, being a music photographer is in many ways, akin to being the photographer who likes to shoot gorgeous women on the beach, except it’s men with guitars, haha. Shooting “Rock n’ Roll” is really about communicating a fantasy to the viewer. I got into it when I was a teenager. My best friend’s older brother played in a pop-punk band in suburban New Jersey, and we would pile into his station wagon to see them play at VFW halls and basements. The camera was initially a social device for moving up to the front row while simultaneously masking my own teenage angst. Although I barely knew what I was doing, it was something to hide behind. Later, I realized that what I was really doing was making a social document of the music and scene kids around me, and that’s when it really started to become important to me, as a historical document. As I developed my craft, I learned how to take those documented moments and organize them into little books and how to tell stories with them.
Aesthetically, this type of shooting will always have an inherent sense of danger and it can be very life-affirming. On the flip-side, the fantasy also has a dark side wherein the responsibility of keeping artists’ legacies in images can bear an immense weight. Music photography today is incredibly saturated, so a decision to make it your life’s work requires a whole lot of patience and strategy. I suppose the greatest joy comes when good collaboration results in an image that eventually becomes iconic to the music or the culture surrounding it.
CD: Your images have a distinctive look and feel to them. Any thoughts on workflow and approaches that help you create your look?
Jackie Roman: I like to create images that feel cinematic and provocative. Shooting musicians usually provides an opportunity for portraits to hold a certain conviction, and those are the most interesting shots, usually. When shooting real people one must always be considerate of the subject’s personal space. The real challenge is in getting the subject to connect through the lens, either with their eyes directly or in some way with their attitude. In order for that to work successfully you need to sometimes be cunning. You need to always have access, and you need to be able to gain their trust enough so you can get really close. Once you gain that privilege, it then becomes important not to abuse it, and to get out as quickly as you got in, without spoiling the mood.
Workflow wise, I don’t like to over-shoot. When faced with next-morning deadlines I like to be able to narrow down the selects to the most impactful images as quickly as possible. I value sequencing and story telling and based on the assignment, I will often mix color and monochrome images, environmental portraits and live performance shots. Though, as photographers, we spend a minuscule amount of time actually shooting than we do all the “other stuff”. In that light, I put a lot of emphasis on cataloging and organizing my work. Every file gets put into a folder and renamed with a yyyymmdd_descriptive monicker using words that directly correlate to keywords that get loaded into the metadata of the file. File requests and potential sales come up suddenly, and it’s a time/money saver if you can quickly recall images that were created months or years ago. That alone requires an enormous amount of dedication.
CD: The video world is here and you’ve taken advantage of it. What is it like for you, to be a part of the team shooting, producing and also being directed?
Jackie Roman: I’ve been dipping a toe into the water, although it’s still something I feel that I’m breaking into and learning so much about. Last summer I accepted a position as part of a team as a Digital Tech and part of the job requirement was also to be able to operate a RED Epic Camera. They were catering to a set of commercial photographers who were doing cross-over type work like short fashion films. It was a full-immersion learning experience where I worked as a camera operator and DIT under an in-house Director of Photography (DP).
Later that summer I was the DP and Co-Producer for an indie music video shot with 35mm DSLRs and a GoPro. I fell into a producer-type role because there were only two people doing everything. It was a team effort for the storyboarding and the logistical planning of all the shots. We were able to shoot it over two weekends on a very low budget enlisting the help of friends as actors and friendly neighborhood locations. The real magic happened in post when the Director (who also happens to be a 3D animator) put some special effects over the footage and I was able to see my images in a whole new way.
CD: How and where did you start shooting and what are you earliest memories of photography?
Jackie Roman: When I was very young, my mother married a Drill Sergeant in the U.S. Army and we lived on base at Ft. Dix in New Jersey. One of my earliest impressions of photography was the formality of the military portraits in people’s homes. More casual photos of friends and family were stuck into adhesive pages of yellowing albums- snapshots of my grandmother in mid-century Puerto Rico, then Allentown, PA after immigrating. In more recent times I’ve come across some lost family photos from my father’s side which show family members in NYC’s Spanish Harlem in the 60s.
My first exposure to 35mm SLR photography was through a neighborhood friend. Jenny was a few years older than me and would give me rides to high school. When she went to college I took her hand-me-down photography books and resolved to teach myself the more technical aspects.
CD: What advice do you have for young photographers about to enter this career?
Jackie Roman: Be obsessed with the process.