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Kevin Westenberg, the last music photographer
Kevin Westemberg at BDC's Photography Departmnet

Kevin Westenberg, the last music photographer

19 December 2014

World-class music photographer Kevin Westenberg visited BDC to give advice to our students on how to survive in the music industry.

BDC students had the rare opportunity to meet one of the last old-school music photographers, Kevin Westenberg. The American photographer, based in London for 3 decades, earned his position in the music industry with more than 25 year of passionate and hard work, dedicated to take pictures of the most renowned musicians in all kind of environments.

From Nirvana to Coldplay, going through Sting and Marilyn Manson, Westenberg has captured the most admired and also controversial figures of the music industry from which he still keeps loads of priceless memories. He delighted our students with unique stories such as crazy shootings with Pete Doherty or the constant moaning of Brian Adams while trying to portray him. BDC students were able to throw questions at him at any time, and he was speaking straight as an arrow about all the things he experienced.

Westenberg was also interested in knowing if our students were shooting film or digital, and told them that “nowadays if you want to survive in this world, you need to shoot digital, all professionals are being forced to swap to digital for the demands of the industry” and warn them that “this change not only affects the technique of shooting but also the meaning and weight of the images.”

But although he’s been forced to shoot digital for commercial shootings, he still prefers the timeless factor of the film process:

“I’m looking things at long term. I like to shoot images that will have credit still in 20 years’ time. Now everything is fashion, fast, and no one pays attention to images anymore. But, do they mean something?”

He wants to create images that are going to last in peoples’ minds. He also enjoys “the waiting of the film” and he describes passionately the process of the developing when the picture is inside the bucket and starts showing up and reveals itself.

His pictures have a really characteristic signature. This is the result of using Boke (the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens)  and depth of field in his pictures which allows the person to be the centre of attention and at the same time the background still tells a story. He also likes to include textures and architectural lines in his pictures as he has a great knowledge of composition thanks to his architecture studies.

But what makes his images unique is how he makes the soul of the artist break through the image. He even made Nick Cave look vulnerable. He explains:  “I like to show different sides of people that no one has seen before.” And continues: “The technical side is like maths, but there is a lot you can do with communication and how you communicate. It’s the difference between getting what you want and failing.” In most of his photographs the artists have serious looks, that’s because he wants to capture “the mood and what does it say about the person.”

But to get that, he assures, “you need to photograph them fresh; the more they wait the more you lose.” When dealing with famous people is important to be in control of the situation. The more famous they are, the less time you have with them. He explains: “I like to talk to them a little bit before but not say too much, to show that I’m in control of everything, if not, you lose. You need to be in charge. When I was on my pick I was working with a lot of ‘trouble’ bands because I was one of a few who knew how to deal with them.”

With the Artic Monkeys, for example, he decided to portray them as a gang for the release of their album at the United States to break this overseas image of cute boys from Sheffield. But it’s not always easy to materialise his ideas, he explains: “When I work in commercial shootings there is a whole lot of people staring at my pictures while I take them. Every frame and photographers' power is being taken away on a daily basis because technology allows everyone to stare straight away and have an opinion.”

He argues:

“I will be one of the last people in this industry; everything is downloadable now. It’s better to be a fashion photographer because clothes are not downloadable. Now I have to create my own work and I finally have time to create books and exhibitions. We live in a “culture free” world, is all gone.”

The last 14 years he’s been a staff photographer at MOJO Magazine producing many covers and features. But he also tried to start a business, which was impossible.  He confesses “is hard to get a good intern or assistant because people just want to meet the musicians and when they realize there is a lot of hard work to do, which comes with the profession, they drop out and make a career change.” 

He warns our students:

“The hardest think when you grow up is to balance your art with responsibilities. If you want to work for this industry is all or nothing, if not your priorities change and you can’t fulfil the demands of this profession. If you want to truly succeed, you need to leave everything behind. I’m married with my work.”

He ended the talk speaking about his referents, Richard Avedon and his work ‘In the American West’, who inspired him to get into photography, and David Lynch, who he was able to photograph during the premiere of Mulholland Drive back in 2001, and is one of his favourite portrayals.

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