Ian Bell is a pop culture renaissance guy. Legendary Indie Pop DJ, journalist, collector, music historian, former record store owner, mega fan boy and music photographer.
For close to forty years he has been pointing his camera at rock stars and musicians in
arenas, concert halls, festivals and dive bars. Like his taste in music, his subjects have
been extremely diverse: punk rockers to country music greats, head-bangers to dance acts, and all manner of pop.
He has shot some of the most legendary performers in popular music including The Rolling Stones, Kiss, Foo Fighters, White Stripes, Lou Reed, Michael Jackson, Robbie Williams, Motley Crue, Motorhead, Chuck Berry, Brian Wilson, B-52’s, The Ramones, The Cramps, The Sex Pistols, Kylie Minogue, Pink, Nick Cave, The Cure, Morrissey, Oasis, Nirvana, Jeff Buckley, Joan Jett, Green Day, U2, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Smashing Pumpkins, Tori Amos, Tool and thousands of others.
Some of these artists will be featured in Ian’s exhibition My Camera Never Lies, the first public exhibition of his photographic work. I speak to Ian about his exhibition and close to forty years of shooting some of the greatest acts of our time.
How did you stumble in to photography all those years ago?
Like almost everything I do in my life, photographing bands was really an extension of my fan boy obsession with music and bands. I have always been a collector (records, toys, posters, autographs) and wanting to capture the excitement I felt seeing these great bands was a natural extension of that.
Has music photography always been your passion?
My love of music is really the passion. Photography, music journalism and even DJing all stem from that. Photographing bands well isn’t a skill that can be taught, you just get better by trial and error.
When you look back at the journey does it amaze you how much the art of photography has changed?
Lots of things have changed substantially. A lot more rules and restrictions. A lot more shooting heritage acts from the mixing desk to hide wrinkles. And equipment changed the game a fair bit. Digital means you can shoot a lot more frames in the couple of songs you are allowed. But it does seem that access to expensive gear that does a lot of the heavy lifting, has meant some people shooting bands rely less on timing and a good eye, than they do on shooting a billion shots, so there will be something in there, then spending time tweaking, editing, massaging average shots to look better than they actually are. It’s certainly a skill set, but I tend not to use too many bells and whistles. I am just looking for a great image that looks like the person it’s supposed to look like.
What have been your favourite shoots and why?
Well I love to shoot artists like rock acts like Kiss, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Rolling Stones and Steel Panther and big pop acts like Kylie, Pink, Michael Jackson. Partly because they are iconic performers and shooting legends like that is a great privilege and partly because all of those acts understand that they benefit from making sure the photographers get good images for their publications and media outlets. So they play to the cameras, make sure there is masses of good lighting, etc. Some bands will play in almost complete darkness, or use only red lights or strobes, all of which make our job really hard. They’ll do that for the three songs we have to shoot then as we are leaving, up will come all the lights.
If there is only one piece you could hang on your wall which one would that be?
Tough question, because I like different pieces for different reasons. I have nice big items of Nick Cave, Blur and The Cramps at home.
Have there been many times where you’re shooting one of your favourite bands and everything has gone completely wrong?
Thankfully not many. The first time I shot Oasis I was one song into our three song shoot and my only camera’s whole shutter system fell to pieces. There was nothing no way to fix it. I had some good images before it happened though.
What piece of advice would you give and up and coming photographer?
Shoot as much as you can, whenever you can. Don’t think shooting bands is going to make you rich (it will not). Don’t think I’d like to be a music photographer and expect to instantly be shooting the Foo Fighters. Go and see local music and shoot those bands. It’s a good way to be shooting up close, working out how to get results, work on your own style and doing things. Also, most local bands love to see and share images of themselves and it’s a good way of forming relationships and building your skills, portfolio and reputation.
Are you excited about your up coming exhibition?
I’m freaking out a little bit to be honest. I have been talking about doing it for at least ten years and now it’s crunch time. I’ve had a little difficulty being referred to as an ‘artist’, as I mentioned earlier I feel it’s just something that I do. I’ve become pretty good at it and it has been fantastic going through my archives to present a selection of my favourite images that go back quite a long time. I am particularly excited to be staging an exhibition of music photography,that includes musical elements. Two of my favourite Australian artists are coming down to play in the space.
On Saturday April 7th, Brisbane singer Jeremy Neale, the singer in Velociraptor, makes brilliant power pop records with the Raptors, as a solo artist and in a bunch of other collaborations. We have been buds for a few years now and he was looking to come to town and do an in-store for his excellent debut solo album Getting the Team Back Together and jumped at the chance to do that in my exhibition.
Then the 14th Ash Naylor from Even is popping in to do a cheeky acoustic set also. Even are one of the defining bands of the 90’s for me and Ash is one of my favourite songwriters and guitar players. He is playing later that night at Rhino Room, but will pop in at 1pm to play in the gallery, which is going to be aces. Each Friday night from 5pm to 8pm, I’m going to DJ in the room as well, so people can grab some drinks, hear some tunes, have a chat and look at the work. It’s going to be really fun.
Does the camera ever lie?
Well the exhibition is called My Camera Never Lies, which is named after a single by Bucks Fizz. I guess the answer is of course all cameras lie, especially these days. That’s why you see people spending twenty minutes taking and re-taking the perfect Instagram friendly ‘candid’ photo on their phone, with all the tagging and filters that are so popular. The camera can make you look younger, older, sexier, more important, less attractive depending on all sorts of elements from the photographer, the subject, lighting, timing, etc. On the other hand however, MY camera never lies! LOL.
Interview by Rob Lyon
MY CAMERA NEVER LIES : 40 Years of Shooting Bands is at Urban Cow Studio, 10 Vaughan Place, Adelaide (down the side of The Exeter) from April 4th.
Official Opening on Wednesday April 4th 5:30pm – 7:30pm
Each Friday night Ian will be DJ-ing in the space from 5pm – 8pm, so you can pop in look at the work, hear some tunes, have a drink or two and a chat.