Words By Jill Woodnutt
While a musician’s songs are our primary gateway into their world, it’s often an image that captures their essence and imprints it on our minds for years to come. As a country steeped in both musical and artistic history, it should come as no surprise that Ireland has produced a host of photographers that have shot some of the music industry’s most eminent images. We got behind the lens of some of the country’s most interesting photographers to find out how they began ‘shooting sounds’.
Dara Munnis is renowned as one of Ireland’s leading music photographers. He’s shot artists for every major music label. He was an early adopter of pocket digital cameras and admits that “I was that asshole on nights out who took photos of everyone”. Munnis never fully intended on pursuing photography professionally, but being a musician himself he soon ended up taking pictures of his friends in bands. This association with up and coming artists led to bigger and bigger gigs and Munnis has now photographed the likes of Coldplay, Gavin James and Hozier.
On his breakthrough:
“I found myself working with a lot of artists in their early stages and one or two became really successful like Hozier. After they blew up my photos went with them and then other big bands would say ‘oh he must be good’ even though I maybe wasn’t that good. So my break wasn’t my break, it was the other artists’ breaks”.
“I’ve burnt some bridges over sticking to my guns on a certain point or being slow on delivery. I used to be quite outspoken about music I didn’t like, but that’s totally inappropriate to do in the Irish music scene where everyone knows everybody. Best tip to anyone is don’t be a dick.”
On making his subjects feel comfortable:
“You can usually tell meeting someone what their vibe is, so I try to reflect that. Sometimes we’ll do briefs or moodboards to try and get an idea of what they’re after. I don’t want to make them look like anything although I often work with stylists and sometimes it looks like they’re trying to sell clothes and the artist looks uncomfortable.”
On the Irish scene:
“If I can’t do a job here I could list five photographers straight away who I could give it to, the scene is very supportive. In places like London or New York people are very competitive and everyone’s fighting for the job. However there is a ceiling in Ireland and once you’ve worked with the biggest acts there’s nowhere else to go.”
Dublin photographer Ruth Medjber has photographed all of Ireland’s most notable festivals and gigs and her work has previously appeared in NME and Rolling Stone. Medjber is also responsible for creating Women of Notes, a photographic series launched in 2016 which celebrates Irish female musicians featuring artists such as Wyvern Lingo and Saint Sister. Despite spending a brief stint working in London, Ruth soon returned home due to the ‘lack of craic’ she experienced in the industry there.
On working in London:
“I was freelancing for loads of different papers and magazines. I was getting the work and it was cool but I realised I didn’t really like the scene. They don’t have that same sense of support. I missed the Irish people. We all look out for each other in the industry here. We’ll go for pints after a gig and there’s a nice vibe.”
On shooting women:
“It’s an idea that came to me two years ago on International Women’s Day. I was in a carpark waiting for a band listening to Claire Beck discuss how summer festivals had so few women on the bill. I realised I was on my way to shoot a band who are guys, then I thought back to everything I’d shot and realised that nearly all the bands I’d been shooting were male. So I thought OK, if nobody is sending me to photograph these women, I’m going to do it myself. ”
On encouraging other female photographers:
“There’s loads of amateur female photographers out there but not as many going professional compared to men. I feel there needs to be more female role models in photography but the industry can be very ignorant. For example. Nikon recently sent 32 male photographers across Africa and Asia to try out its new D850 camera. Apparently they couldn’t find a woman who was available to do it. When stuff like that comes out it’s so painful to watch. If I was a young girl and saw 32 male photographers I wouldn’t identify with them at all. It’s not encouraging for women”.
Twenty-one year-old photographer Conor Clinch was just 18 when he was chosen as Dazed co-founder Rankin’s protégé on Sky One’s The Ones to Watch. He moved to London shortly afterwards and cite it as an essential step for building his career, but one that proved to be particularly daunting for someone so young. Now working primarily in fashion photography, Clinch has also shot musicians such as Lion Babe, Rejjie Snow and SG Lewis. He believes that a powerful photograph is integral to an artist’s appeal and that persistence is crucial for success.
On moving to London young:
“There’s so much competition here and you have to take everything on the chin. I constantly battle with waves of demotivation so it’s important to always remind yourself how far you’ve come. The toughest challenge I’ve faced is moving here at the age of 18. I up and went as soon as I left school so I had to grow up very fast. I hated being young and being in school, I hated the other kids and being told what to do – so I sort of rebelled. Now I’m like shit, this is harder than I had imagined.”
On a musician’s image:
“A photograph creates an identity, which is hugely impactful on the success of a musician. Imagery plays a huge part in how an artist is perceived and so I’m always very precise when photographing a musician.”
On doing things “the right way”:
“You’ll get something if you want it enough so it’s all about focus and determination. Also, because I’m self-taught I’ve always been thinking I’m “doing things wrong” (but) there’s no right or wrong way – stop googling the rules, there are none.”
Another product of the fertile London scene is Dubliner Charles Moriarty, best known for his stunning, candid shots of Amy Winehouse for her album Frank. Moriarty credits his success to the breadth of opportunity in London, but also recalls almost being warned off working in Ireland. Moriarty’s photographs of Amy Winehouse for her 2003 debut captured a very significant moment in the artist’s trajectory and one that almost mirrored Moriarty’s nascent career. After landing the Frank cover as his first professional job, Moriarty started working for music producer Arthur Baker at his Return To New York club night in London. Moriarty recently ventured into publishing, releasing the previously unseen images from his shoots with Winehouse in his book, Before Frank in 2016. The work follows Winehouse through both London and New York and offers an intimate and honest sense of the singer far removed from the tabloid image she encountered in her final years. Despite the acclaim for these images, Moriarty now seldom photographs musicians as he feels the development of digital technology has left the industry less lucrative.
On working in Ireland:
“I remember being told years ago in Ireland that three or four guys run the photography world and that it’s very difficult to get into. In London, I was able to end up in the right crowds to get the right jobs and work with the right people.”
On shooting Frank:
“I was 21 when I took the photos for Frank. I started off in a slightly haphazard way, I had no formal training and wasn’t really sure what I was doing with a camera. I was good with people and that’s what helped me capture things the way that I did.”
On working at Return to New York:
“People from the CBGB club and Blondie and all sorts of big DJs would come to London to play it and I used to photograph a lot of that. At 23 I got sick and went back to Ireland for a while which led to me becoming a medical photographer. I then came back to London when I was 24 and studied photography… I was a bit all over the shop really.”
On Amy Winehouse:
“When I first met Amy before we did the cover I was like ‘what do you want?’ and she said ‘I just want it to be me’. In the music industry, there’s always those typical images of artists like ‘girl with guitar against a wall’. We were trying to get something a bit more unique.”
On seeing the 2015 documentary Amy:
“I was so upset that this would be the last thing people would hold onto of her. I thought I need to give more balance to how people see her. I went home and that was the day I decided to make a book. I was trying to share a different image with the world. It’s just her. In those photos was the Amy I liked to think was the best version of her. At that point she was really on it and she knew what she wanted. She was so vibrant and beautiful, those images are magnetic.”
On the rise of digital photography:
“Now everyone has their own camera and I think a lot of people are doing it themselves. I remember doing lots of photos for a friend once and then the record company ended up using a photograph that her mum took.”
Colm Henry no longer works as a photographer but was responsible for iconic shots of some of Ireland’s biggest musicians in the 70s and 80s. Henry started street photography at 18 years old and entered the industry after his pictures were used in the book Me Jewel and Darlin’ Dublin by Éamonn Mac Thomáis. He was involved in the earliest editions of Hot Press and photographed artists because he wanted to do his own thing and work with like minded people. Although he built an impressive client base – including U2, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and more – he grew bored of gigs and lost interest early on in his career due to changes in the industry. Despite this, Colm’s work remains some of the most seminal music photography of the era and is still displayed and revered around the world.
On photographing Irish greats:
“My biggest opportunity in music was photographing Phil Lynott. Phil was glamorous but shy, he was a nice guy. He didn’t have much ego, he was shy and Rory Gallagher was the same. Many of them are, that’s why they go on stage… to express themselves.”
On getting the right photo
“It goes without saying that you need a good amount of technical ability and a trained eye. It’s hard to express but both you and the artist must use your intuition to establish a common vibe. You have to use your head as you’ve only got so much time before everyone ends up getting bored. Afterwards you realise most photos are terrible but there’s one which is a possibility. I remember doing a shoot with U2 and using 80 rolls of film and they ended up using one picture.”
On deciding to lay down the camera:
“I stopped music photography when I started repeating myself and when the record companies and bands took ownership of their own imagery. In about the late 80s they made you sign everything away. I faced so many restrictions and got bored of it. I’d been to so many gigs and met so many bands so I just gave it up.”