I’m standing back stage at a venue called Iron City in Birmingham, Alabama and I’m waiting for someone who I have wanted to photograph for more than five years. Any minute now he’s going to walk out of the green room and I’m going to have a few minutes to make that portrait. The opening band is finishing their set so there’s no possible way those few minutes I’ll have will get extended. I have my trusty Fuji X100T with the TCL lens adapter, the Instax printer, and a $9 flashlight I bought at a truck stop a few hours before. I’m reminding myself to stay calm, don’t go full fan boy, and it’s just photography. Then Glen Hansard comes out of the green room and says he’s ready for his portrait.
Meghan’s present to me on Christmas morning was tickets to this show and that alone would have been fine. Glen Hansard is the only musician we’ve ever gotten on a plane to see and since his current tour was not coming through Atlanta we were hitting the road again to go see him. I was ecstatic! Then she said, “The other part of this present is — you may or may not have a chance to shoot his portrait. I’m working on it.”
A few years ago I was in Chicago and saw via Glen’s Twitter feed that he was also in Chicago and I thought I’d see if I could connect with him to shoot a portrait. It didn’t happen. Later that same year I was in New York and saw, again, via Twitter, that he was in New York so I tried again. That time we connected, and he seemed open to the idea, but our schedules couldn’t align so it didn’t happen. The next year he was playing in Atlanta the day after I returned from a big trip and I tried connecting again but it fell flat. Three strikes and I was out. Thankfully Meghan doesn’t accept baseball metaphors.
Here’s my chance. Now what in the hell am I going to do?
Knowing there was a chance I’d finally get to shoot a portrait of Glen I began pre-visualizing what I would do. I know his music. I know the photos that are out there of him. Photographer Paul Mac Manus hit me up on Twitter at some point when I was trying to connect with Glen and told me that if I showed up with a Leica Glen would probably respect that a lot. Ok. So he’s more of an old school film / analog guy than something new and digital. That makes sense. Glen has a video that was shot entirely through the ground glass of an 8×10 camera and one of his official press photos looks to be shot on type 55 film.
There’s a certain analog feel to much of what Glen does so I decided I wasn’t going to show up with the PhaseOne and lights and all of that. I also found out that this Birmingham show was the first night of his current US tour and that can bring a lot of anxiety and stress to anyone connected with this tour much less Glen himself. Just the fact that his management was talking with Meghan and had not completely written her request off was a huge surprise. I’m sure that if this had been a request for a major news outlet then of course they would agree to a portrait but I’m just another fan who wants a minute of Glen’s time. On his first night of a new tour. As the opening band is finishing their set. I think showing up with a full rig of gear would have been the wrong move.
I decided I was going to use my X100T and no lights. I’d just figure it out when I got there and make the most of whatever was available. As soon as Atlanta was in my rearview mirror I immediately began to regret my decision to not pack a light or two. My dear friend and fellow photographer, Cary Norton, lives in Birmingham so I thought that I would call him and borrow a light or two. Three maybe? And some stands. And a background. NOOOOOO!!! I was nervous as shit and started thinking about what the backstage area would look like. Not only did I not want to rush in and overwhelm him with all this OMG photo gear, I actually wanted to enjoy the evening with my wife, watch the show, and not stress about a ton of gear. When you’re on the date night of the year it’s best not to have bags of gear in tow.
There can be this glorified idea of what “backstage” must be like. There are probably some cool little rooms where the artists hang out. Surely they are filled with character and offer visual options at every turn. The truth is, for the vast majority of backstage areas that I have seen in my life, backstage sucks. It’s predominantly cinder block walls painted some ugly ass color, folding tables filled with partially devoured sandwich platters and a bowl of mayonnaise. There will be no less than four people sitting around in folding chairs staring into laptops. The couches will be some furniture store floor sample rejects. All of this will be washed in overhead fluorescent lighting. Shit. As I finished fueling I solidified my game plan.
“I’m going to find one of those bright little LED flash lights, find as plain of a background as I can find backstage and light Glen with that flash light. If it’s bright enough it will overpower the ambient as though I’m using a flash. It’s lo-fi. It’s has the right amount of ‘WTF is this guy doing?’ but will be an interesting enough light on Glen’s face that when I print out some Instax for him it’s going to look pretty cool on those little prints. I’ll set my camera to to shoot a film simulation bracket of normal, Classic Chrome, and B&W so I have some options when I’m printing. That’s what I’m going to do.”
And that… is exactly what I did. I bought a cheap LED flash light at the truck stop and drove on to Birmingham to shoot my portrait of Glen F*cking Hansard. One of the greatest songwriters alive today.
I shot a handful of portraits, thanked him for his time, and pulled out the Instax SP1 printer to make a few prints for him and, again, I can’t tell you enough, everyone loves the Instax. The images above are straight from camera. I shot auto WB because that LED flashlight had some sort of funky cast to it so I just let the Fuji figure it out or at least get me close and that’s what it did. Glen was fantastic to work with and I’m so thankful both to him and his management for giving me a few minutes to make a portrait of someone I respect so much. And Meghan… I don’t have the words to thank you enough for this.
Lighting is fun. Flashes, strobes, softboxes, grids, beauty dishes, c-stands with arms and knuckles, and all of that. I love all of that shit as much as anyone but sometimes it’s all too much. Sometimes you just need a flash light from a truck stop. My portrait of Glen isn’t going to define my career or my “legacy” as a photographer but damn it all — I got to photograph Glen Hansard. I got to meet the man, and shake his hand, and personally thank him for all of the music he puts out into the world.
Dear Jack White,
May I please take a portrait of you?