A Beautiful Art Form: Music Photography and Why it Should be More Valued

Posthumously, photography preserves the memory, honours the legacy and helps to continue to sell the music.

Music photography is an art form that we rarely hear much discussion about yet we visually see it on a daily basis. The image is extremely powerful within the music industry and we take for granted the photographs we see of singers and bands because it is something we automatically expect to see; whether it’s an album cover, festival highlights or a gig review, photography is always there. However, it is not very often that we stop consider the artist behind the lens, fighting for that perfect shot, that perfect depiction of the band’s vision. It’s a beautiful art form with a significant and important purpose, but sadly and increasingly the image, and thus the photographers’ work, is being devalued. Since the dawn of the internet, there has been a major shift in our perception of art in general and how much we now expect to see, hear and read for free. It is no secret that artists have always struggled to receive the return they deserve for their work, but we’re now facing a modern era that suggests that artists, because they are acknowledged for their work, and the work often gets noticed worldwide, their far-reaching recognition is becoming an accepted financial replacement, a justification for working for free. This concept couldn’t be more felt than amongst music photographers as this year has shown; the open letters by the two photographers, Pat Pope and Jason Sheldon alone, brought important issues surrounding contracts and copyright infringements to the forefront.

image 1In the photo: Bring Me the Horizon @ Download Festival June 2014

By talking to two UK-based, photographers Steve Johnston and Steven Haddock, IMPAKTER hoped to provide a clearer  picture of what it is really like working as a music photographer in the industry today, and thus shed some light as to why the image has decreased in value. They both agree that the best part of being a music photographer is having the chance to photograph great bands and artists and, at times, photograph the artists they greatly admire. Johnston, who is currently a freelance photojournalist and contributing photographer for an independent London agency distributed by Rex Features, and has previously photographed the likes of Asia, Echobelly, Shed 7, Love/Hate and Carter USM, comments that “having the opportunity to capture and record a perfect “moment” from their live performance” is something he feels very privileged to be at the centre of. Despite the positive elements associated with music photography, unfortunately, the negative elements are never too far away. Haddock, who started his photography career taking photographs of friends in punk and metal bands, and is currently working freelance, states: “I have had images taken from my website without consent and used in publications” and adds “having to enter a discussion of the legalities of image ownership and copyright laws with someone is not a nice conversation to have when you’re on the receiving end.” He also confirms that this type of thing is happening “more and more”, and is an extremely “important conversation to have”. Johnston agrees in revealing that he often has “to travel to a show…only to find that your name has not been added to the list or to be asked to sign a rights grab contract.” He further adds that it is only worsened by the fact that “there’s always a chance the lighting production will be so poor that you can’t capture anything or you will get less time in the pit than expected.” 

royal-blood-steve-johnsto-credit In the photo:Royal Blood @ The National Bowl, Milton Keynes, September 2015

Pat Pope is a photographer who recently spoke out about similar issues when he wrote an open letter to Garbage back in April. Pope refused the request from the management company to use his work for free in their up and coming book about their career. The letter raised some valid and important points and despite Garbage replying and trying to justify their proposition, Pope’s final words to artists was significant: “Stop working for free.” Pat Pope highlighted, however, that speaking out is not always the easiest decision to make by stating to Garbage: “I’m obviously committing professional suicide when it comes to ever working with you again, and probably it won’t do my reputation any good within the music industry to be seen as troublemaker.” Pope clearly highlights the risks to speaking your mind so openly, but he also confirmed that he felt it was worth it, by stating: “it worries me more that musicians and others are saying one thing publicly about the needs for artists to be paid for their work whilst privately people working for them are doing exactly the opposite”. (1) Pope was right to say what he said, and those that have made a mark in the industry should try and do the same, even if that’s just being more open about similar situations that they have faced to help change things for future photographers because as Johnston points out:

To sign your work away and be given no rights of use, and to be regarded by many as paparazzi is a sad state of affairs

Another documented open letter and perhaps, more well known because of who it involved, was the letter written by Jason Sheldon to Taylor Swift. This time round it put the focus on the unfair issues surrounding photography contracts. Both Johnston and Haddock, in talking to IMPAKTER said they fully supported his decision to write an open letter of this kind, confirming that this sort of situation is again, a “common occurrence”, but should hopefully serve to “mark the beginning of a change.” Unfortunately, it is rare to find a photographer who hasn’t experienced contracts of this nature, which takes away all rights from the photographer. However, this treatment seems like outrage to music as well as artistry because, as Johnston quite rightly reminds us, “posthumously, photography preserves the memory, honours the legacy and helps to continue to sell the music.” Music photography is extremely important in the industry because, it not only “plays a huge role in the on-going promotion and marketing of any band or artist”, but the photographs produced for a band or artist “throughout a career… brings the artist closer to the fans, defining the emotion of their music or expressing a message.” Haddock suggests further that the image is a means to “break down the walls of a live review” because it gives people something that they “connect, feel and engage with”.

 music 3 In the photo:Ben Howard @ Manchester, June 2015

With the difficulties photographers often face and the changes to the industry, it is hard for a budding photographer to start out. Johnston admits that he “would be less inclined to start out as a music photographer” as he did 25 years ago “simply because there are so many people out there doing it.” However, looking at it from a different perspective he also outlines that in “the advent of digital photography, the internet and social media, allowing newbies to connect with other photographers and the artists themselves, music photography has become far more exciting to be involved in.” Haddock agrees in that regard as “there are definitely a lot more avenues and directions a photographer can take in the music industry, which is very exciting.” The majority of music photographers now work freelance and although this is liberating for new photographers it can only work if “copyright & ownership laws are understood, fair pay is agreed and the understanding and respect for both parties is in place. It isn’t a healthy working relationship otherwise.” So perhaps the direction the music industry has taken in the last 10 years is why it is more important than ever for photographers like Pat Pope and Jason Sheldon to speak out when they are unfairly treated. The image has become increasingly devalued and this has a lot to do with increase of technology and the use of camera phones and tablets, but you only have to look at the work of two current photographers working in the business today to realise how inspiring and significant their work is to the music industry as a whole. 

For more information about both photographers featured in this article, visit:

Steve Johnston

Steven Haddock

 More on Music: 

(1) Pope, P,, 7th September 2015




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  1. Claude Forthomme

    Many thanks for this excellent article that draws attention to a totally under-valued part of art photography. One comment Johnston made struck me, that he “would be less inclined to start out as a music photographer” as he did 25 years ago “simply because there are so many people out there doing it.”

    This is something that could be said about a lot of art and literature. And it is all due to the rise of the Internet cponnecting all of us of course, but also opening up an immense market. What Johnston said is just as true for writers as it is for photographers. A newbie today writing her first book finds herself facing over 4 million titles in Amazon’s Kindle Store…

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