Loving The Reveal: An Interview With Photographer Kelly Hadden, Part One

Kelly Hadden

I’ll admit it: The first time I encountered Kelly Hadden, at a Del-Lords concert at Bowery Electric, I was jealous.  Tall, cool, and confident, she slipped through the crowd, intently shooting the show from every angle.  I wanted to be her.

The next day, Kelly’s dynamic black and white photographs of the show were all over Facebook, which was how I learned her name and became acquainted with her work.  A glimpse at her website will give you a sense of her range.  In addition to her stunning concert photography and portraiture, she takes evocative landscapes of the American West and thrilling cityscapes of Manhattan.  

I thought it would be fun to share some of Kelly’s photos, and, while I’m at it, to interview her.  Kelly has been very generous about answering my questions,  Today we'll discuss her concert photography; tomorrow we'll move on to her cityscapes.

Grant Lee Phillips (formerly of Grant Lee Buffalo) at City Winery

AL: I’d love to hear a bit about your history as a photographer. How did you get started?

KH:  Well, I've been a performer all of my life (acting and dance), but I always loved looking at photos. I took a photography class in summer school at UC San Diego, where they taught all the basic stuff (back then), composition, developing our own film and all that. I used my mom's Pentax. I fell in love with it. 

Unfortunately, my professor didn't much care for the type of photos I took: too controversial for her. So I thought I had no talent. But I took them, on and off over the years anyway. It was in 2007 that my mom died.   After I spent the better part of a year in Colorado taking care of my mom, when I moved back to L.A., acting just seemed so shallow to me. I wanted to express my feelings in a different way. So I started with a point and shoot Canon, and just started to lose myself in being behind the camera for a change. 

I finally got a real SLR (single lens reflex) and started renting lenses to see which ones worked for the type of photos I like to take. I didn't think of it as a "career" at all; I just wanted to do something that fed my soul again. And photography definitely did that.

Dax Young of 9Tomorrows

AL: And how did you start photographing musicians?

KH: That's something I've been asked a lot. And it's so cliche, but it's true--I didn't plan to do so much rock photography; I just kind of fell into it. I've been an avid music lover since before I was a teenager. I started going to hard core shows when I was 14, and my love all all forms of music evolved over the years. It was my saving grace. Acting was my emotional escape, but music was always very visual for me. I'd listen to it and dream of all kinds of stories (some that I later wrote down). It was a natural marriage I guess, to take photos of all of my friends and then just of musicians I appreciated.

Probably, in truth, like so many of us, I have always secretly wished I could be a rock star. I even played drums in a band in high school and would jam in NYC in my early twenties from time to time. But that's as far as I ever got! But when I picked up the camera and started watching the musicians and bands do their thing, I loved the feeling of losing myself in all that passion. 

Steve Almaas of the Del-Lords

I have a great respect for musicians, as I do all artists. But it's a particularly hard life-being a musician- with so little reward; so just about each guitar player, bass player, drummer, lead singer, have this profound passion for what they are doing up there. 

I do also like taking portraits, some landscape, and branching out into other areas, as well. But the musician who is really committed to doing their thing, especially the ones in it for the long haul (as opposed to the 20 something' who just want to dip their toes in the dream)--those guys and women I just find make incredibly compelling subjects.

I think that's why, as much as I like a pretty photo of the entire band, especially if you can get a moment between band members, closeups are my kind of my forte. I love getting close enough to see the yearning and passion in their eyes. Because, for me, just about everything you need to know about someone is in the eyes. No matter how tough some guy thinks he is, the lens can see what the naked eye can't. I love looking through photos after a shoot. I have an idea of what I'm going to see, of course. But sometimes I am actually surprised at how much I can see in a person from his or her photos. You can't hide behind a close lens. I love that reveal.

Joe Purdy at Hotel Cafe, Hollywood

AL:  Are there any tricks to taking good concert photos?
KH:  Haha. Good question. If you find out the answer, let me know. Ask Bob Gruen or Henry Diltz. Like them, one of my all time favorite rock photographers, Jim Marshall, also said something to the effect of "Taking photos was never job. I was just there....I was part of it...it was my life" (something like that). Well, I would never compare myself in any way to those guys, but if there is a "key" to taking good live photos, I do think you have to feel like you're in it, not outside looking in. I was lucky; I've always had a plethora of friends who have been musicians, and who have let me have access, even to the stage during some performances.

There's this photographer named Moonie who has shot a lot of photos for a musician I know, Shane Alexander, in Los Angeles. The first photos I saw were taken at the Hotel Café, a tough venue because it is not only so small, but so very dark and orange/red lighting, usually. There are so many awesome rock photographers; but his photos blew me away from the first one I saw. I have never been, for the life of me, able to figure out how he does what he does. His photos are incredible! But I guess I'd have to say what makes them so magnificent is the fact that they have HIS style written all over them. No one else could have taken that photo.

Spence Decker  of Last Exit, taken at the Key Club, Hollywood

I don't think there is any right or wrong or best way to shooting live bands. Except that you'd better love music. And musicians. I would not presume to have an answer to that question. I consider myself very new to this, coming to photography later in life. There are people younger than me who have been doing it for 10-15 years! So I try not to compare myself to them. I just turn on the camera, and I let myself go.

Some bands, I end up shooting more full band shots and others, I'm using my close lens and the band members are so in the moment that I get lost in it too. The only thing I'd say you have to have--and it's not a trick, but a necessity-besides a love of live music- is at least two lenses (more if you're in a large venue): you need a wide angle for band shots, and at least one close lens. I know the standard is 50 mm, and I do use it. But I have what I call my "magic lens"-- My 85mm fixed lens that goes down to 1.2 aperture. You've gotta' have a lens that can shoot in the dark without a flash. I refuse to use a flash. Ever. It not only interferes with the process you are trying to capture, but--for the most part-- flash photos in live shows look like shit.

AL:  For a fan like me, there's such an appeal to being the person a band trusts to photograph their shows.  Can you share any last words about how you came to have that kind of access?

KH:  Although I do have a lot of musician friends, I started the opposite way at first, just trying to reconnect with the joy I had when I was living in the East Village in my early twenties, when I went out to hear bands (and those were all my friends!) with friends three to four nights a week.  I found bands and musicians that I enjoyed by myself when I got back to L.A.  So, really, I guess I was just trying to find my way back to live music.  Since most of my L.A. friends weren't into going out to hear music like my N.Y.C.  friends were, my camera became my best friend and partner in crime.

I really started finding these bands and musicians on MySpace, but ended up befriending them (and friends of theirs) over time, because they liked and encouraged my photography (and some of them actually  hired me down the road).  

Now that I'm back in New York City, I have friends from the Nineties when I lived here before who are still doing their music thing.  So it's been awesome to be able to not only go out and see them play again, but to get to see them from a different perspective than I did before.  When you watch a band through your lens, you are seeing things in a completely different way.  And I get so caught up in capturing the energy of everyone on stage that I often have to go back and listen to their music with my eyes closed with earphones, so I can really focus on the sound.  Because, when I'm watching them perform, for the most part, I'm not hearing the music nearly as much as I'm seeing and feeling it now.


Tune in tomorrow for part two of this interview, and for more of Kelly's gorgeous work.


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