“How long would the jihadis at Charlie Hebdo, Westgate, Mumbai – and many other terror attacks to come – be able to continue killing if they were surrounded by armed citizens? Interpol states that the only way to stop such attacks is to allow citizens to carry arms (the only alternative to an armed citizenry is ‘extraordinary security’ surrounding every area where many people meet – train stations, super markets, schools, etc. – which is of course completely unrealistic). If guns are illegal, only violent criminals, fanatic jihadis and our over-worked, understaffed police will have them.”
Act Natural: The Portraits of Music Photographer @tomspray
To see more of Tom Spray’s music photography, check out @tomspray on Instagram. For more music stories, check out @music.
There’s this one shot of Interpol. The image is monochrome, head-on, austere and if its striking shadow dance evokes the music of the band, then so too does it reflect the vision of the man behind the camera.
England-raised, Denmark-based music photographer Tom Spray (@tomspray) has photographed everyone from Pussy Riot to the Rolling Stones. Despite the breadth of his work, his portfolio has recurring themes, like spontaneity, nature and – as with Interpol – intimacy.
“I like to capture a natural expression on people,” says Tom, who has just returned from an assignment for the music website Pitchfork that saw him tasked with snapping “portrait, candid and atmospheric shots” at Spain’s Primavera festival. That’s where he ensnared Interpol (among others) – but not before he captured Tyler, The Creator, looking all in-your-face, up close and pensive.
Did Tom have time to bond with Tyler before he raised the lens? “God no,” he says with a laugh. “Tyler arrived about 30 minutes before his set, and I think he was trying to recreate some sort of Compton hanging-out-on-the-front-porch vibe with his crew. So I just approached him and asked if I could take a few frames. It was against this really ugly concrete backdrop and there was absolutely zero light. I did it all within about 30 seconds, but I hope I still captured who Tyler, The Creator is – albeit within a very short frame.”
Tom’s portraits are deceptively casual. He prefers to snap mid-conversation, rather than setting up elaborate poses. (Which is just as well, as he’s rarely granted the chance for the latter on festival shoots.) In doing so, he effectively catches people unaware, and they reveal something in return.
“I’ve been doing quite a lot of tight framing and low depth of field on individuals recently,” he says. “That gives you this extremely intimate vibe. It’s almost like me with my lens pressed up against your face, which is extremely intrusive, but at the same time you capture a sort of vulnerability about a person when you break down a barrier like that.”
Perhaps that’s what’s so remarkable about the Interpol shot: they appear closer, their features larger. They seem less untouchable.
“Again, the Interpol shot was very rushed,” recalls Tom. “Daniel [Kessler] the guitarist was very ill, and there was this whole media circus around, trying to get them to say a few words on camera. It was all very chaotic.” None of this is evident in the photograph. Its atmosphere appears to be one of absolute calm. “That’s the beauty of photography,” he nods.
Interpol has long drawn comparisons with Joy Division, whose bleak aesthetic was infamously captured in monochrome by Anton Corbijn. Is he a reference point of sorts for Tom? “Yeah, Anton Corbijn’s someone I have a lot of respect for,” he says. “And Annie Leibovitz, especially her ‘70s and ‘80s stuff.”
Tom’s style and approach is entirely his own, but there are shades of Leibovitz’s ‘80s-era flair for bold color in his work – particularly a bright and surprisingly floral portrait of Swedish pop livewire Robyn.
“I took that at Pitchfork Festival in Paris in 2012,” recalls Tom. “I got to build my own studio on-site, so it was taken under controlled lighting. Robyn was extremely easy to work with – you don’t really have to direct her – she’s quite playful and goes with the flow. We gave her a bouquet of flowers
…” She wields them like a weapon.
Tom’s photos often raise a smile – Robyn’s floral arsenal; Black Lips’ leery, wine-wielding all-nighter – but few are more heartening than his portrait of blues and funk troubadour Charles Bradley, his smiling eyes brimming with tales untold. “That’s one of my favorite shots from last year,” Tom offers. “It was at Primavera again, but he came up to my hotel room, and we just hung out for half an hour. We chatted much more than I took photos.”
“It’s pretty much all down to light and luck,” says Tom with a laugh. What he does not say is that it takes a patient hand to capture a person’s essence; that it takes a brave man to square up to Tyler, The Creator; that it takes a keen eye to capture the magic of music. But seeing is believing.