great weather for MEDIA’s Peter Darrell chats with photographer Bill DesJardins
Peter Darrell: Bill, first of all congratulations on your photograph (above) being used for the cover of great weather for MEDIA’s latest publication: Puma Perl’s Retrograde. The imagery suits the book so well. Do you think there is a little “retrograde” in your work?
Bill DesJardins: Thanks for interviewing me, and I’m very happy to be involved with Puma’s book. Speaking of which, I think you could say my punk rock photos appear to be “retrograde” in the same way a planet can appear to move backwards due to the relation of its orbit to earth’s. That’s because the punk photos are all shot in color and then converted to black and white using a digital technique that makes them appear to have been shot thirty years ago, when punk was in its heyday.
PD: Rock n roll is clearly a passion and that comes through vividly in so many of your photos. When you go to a gig, do you go first as a fan or as photographer?
BDJ: As a photographer the passion you see comes from the performers. It’s highlighted by the fact that most of the photographs are close-up portraits, rather than wide shots of bands.
PD: Have you been in a band yourself, or have you always been the fan/documentarian?
BDJ: I have no musical abilities. Neither am I an advocate of using a camera to ingratiate celebrity circles. I like shooting punk rockers because they are full of energy and movement. This produces variant expressions in individual shots. Lighting in many places they perform is also a fun challenge; it’s so low that it is difficult to freeze motion without a flash, which I never use.
PD: Having grown up in the UK, I was a late starter in getting to enjoy the downtown NY music scene first hand, but I quickly grew to love the vitality and the heritage of it—and am making up for lost time now! I suspect you have enjoyed it a little longer and seen so many changes. What makes it so special for you and how has it evolved over the years?
BDJ: I know a lot of the photographers covering this scene; most can answer that question better than I can. What I see myself doing is depicting the remnants of the Warhol-Factory/pre-Blondie CBGBs crowd still doing their thing many years later. Still playing for one another in LES basements, accompanying poets at East Village readings, attending each other’s shows at the few remaining venues that will book them, etc. By shooting it I got sucked into it. It’s arguably one of the best kept musicological secrets in New York. However, once Retrograde is a New York Times best seller and Puma’s on Oprah, it’s all over!
PD: In your Underground Rock 1 series, you cover venues large and small, and artists famous and less so. I won’t ask you to name a favorite artist as I’m sure there are too many, but what kind of venue do you feel most at home working in?
BDJ: The ones that pay attention to lighting. The tricolor LEDs illuminating the basement at the Delancey are most challenging. Bowery Electric downstairs is good if the lights are properly set. Webster Hall upstairs is real good. And of course Best Buy Theater, Lincoln Center, and other larger venues have professional light shows. So when I shoot there, my work is indistinguishable from that of the other photographers.
PD: The Underground Rock 2 series captures some fantastic local performers, including Cynthia Ross and Alison Gordy. I’m sensing a Johnny Thunders connection here, and of course the movie Looking for Johnny has just been released to rave reviews. Is he someone you would liked to have photographed back in the day?
BDJ: Cynthia and Alison are friends of mine. And I almost worked on “Looking for Johnny” with its producer, Danny Garcia, who is also a friend. Johnny Thunders is way before my time here in New York. Yet his friends and followers and compatriots form the center of a web of relationships I am a part of. I’ve been in and out of New York since the late-60’s due to family ties here. And been living here straight since 2000—mostly in Brooklyn. Been shooting stills for about forty years, and news and documentaries since the 90’s.
PD: Over the years, is there a particular artist that you love to come back to, or one that you feel you capture the best in your work?
BDJ: That would be Lisa Ronson (right). She was the first music performer I photographed. The first time I reviewed the images I saw how good they were. So I had the same experience other do when first encountering my larger body of work. The reaction from Lisa was similar to the reactions I would get from performers I subsequently photographed, and thus acted as a precursor to theirs. This cycle of shooting, reviewing shots and getting positive reactions encouraged me to photograph other musical performers, and to develop post-processing techniques that define the “© DesJardins” style of live performance B&W rock portraiture. My favorite rock performance photograph is from the series I shot of Lisa Ronson.
PD: Away from the rock n roll portfolio, your Reportage series is really fascinating. I see a mixture of an almost romantic solitude juxtaposed with a carnival-like humor. Would that be a good description of Bill DesJardins behind, or away from, the lens?
BDJ: Wow. What a nice image. Thanks for saying that. The actual gritty reality is that these images capture moments in time and which requires carrying a camera with you at all times. Just like any photojournalist does, which is where my background lies. Always be ready to shoot some thing or some composition or some moment whenever it presents itself to you—however fleeting the invitation may be.
Retrograde by Puma Perl is published June 1st 2014.