Music On Photography
MARCH 16, 2011
The Nat Geo Music Interview: Melissa Auf der Maur
Nat Geo's Music On Photography Catches Up With An Alt-Rock Iconby Tom Pryor
Melissa Auf der Maur is probably best known as the ass-kicking bassist for the iconic '90s alt-rock bands Hole and Smashing Pumpkins. But most folks don't know that this groundbreaking rocker is also an accomplished photographer, who studied the medium as an undergraduate and has had her work published and exhibited internationally.
Auf der Maur - or MAdM, as she likes to abbreviate herself - will be the next artist to participate in Nat Geo Music Live's Music On Photography project. She will join National Geographic's Robert Michael Murray at our Washington, D.C. headquarters for a discussion of her work - and her new Out of Our Minds multimedia project - on April 8th, 2011.
Nat Geo Music caught up with Auf der Maur recently to talk about the upcoming event and her career behind the lens.
Nat Geo Music: How did you first get into photography?
My interest started around 12 years old. I used to look at my mother's Time-Life books, mainly cookbooks, actually and the richness of the photos fascinated me... [They] looked so real, but far away. By the age of 13, my mother gave me her Minolta - it was a manual, but simple 35mm camera.
You studied photography formally, too? What set you on that path?
Melissa Auf der Maur: At my alternative art High School school, M.I.N.D. (Moving in New Directions) there was a small dark room in the art room, and I became the official yearbook photographer. iIt was more like a punk fanzine of a publication, but I shot and processed all the photos for it. When I expressed my interest to study photography in college, my mother set me up with a great French-Canadian art photographer, Guy Bourmance, who had photographed her often as his nude muse in the 60's and 70's, and he was the first to really show me how to print.
He asked me to shoot what I "saw" and sent me on street shooting missions, and helped me build my photo portfolio that got me accepted into the BFA program at Concordia University, majoring in Photography.
I loved the department, my teachers and worked very, very hard all the time on my photos. Lots of exploration of intimate self-portraits, private parts of rooms, or overlooked city corners and alley ways... typical nineteen-to-twenty-one year old self discovery...
So how did you go from that to a music career?
Meanwhile I was working as a DJ in a local rock bar, and getting close to the local music community. I started a band on the side, and was learning to play bass, but photography and my studies took priority always. Then the once in a life time opportunity to join an up and coming international female rock band [Hole] came about. It was hard to turn away from my visual art plans, but I accepted the offer.
My camera and photography became a very, very important part of my private journey in both Hole & the Smashing Pumpkins. It was my personal art project on the side. As music had once played into my photography, the roles were switched.
Was there a difference between touring with Hole and The Smashing Pumpkins when it came to taking pictures?
Not at all, actually. All the backstage and hotel room things remained similar, [the] only difference was onstage. Courtney used to invite loads of people on stage, so it was a bit more chaotic, but made for more dynamic photos. The pumpkins' stage was very controlled, so I have more controlled photos, and [had] more opportunities to use more cameras and triggers.
What kind of formats and equipment do you prefer to use? Do you still develop your own work?
I use 35 mm mostly. My old 1980's Nikon FE, a few different point-and-shoots: Yashica, Lomo & Nikon, an old Russian panoramic camera, which Lomo have reissued. So I use both of them.
You were the first musician in the Music On Photography series so far who "shot back" at the audience... what makes you want to take pictures from stage?
It began as simply wanting to capture the moment, as it was with everything from backstage to alone time in hotel rooms. But then it became almost a courtesy to the audience, and acknowledgement that they were there; recognizing them and thanking them. The pictures were so interesting, seeing the difference between the faces that didn't know they were being watched, and the ones who knew it. People watching is a big part of photography and it's history: a CROWD! It's just amazing to have access to such a subject, so regularly.
There are other more subtle layers, like I wanted to capture the ritual of people coming together for music, and I am a woman, and it's more often the woman on the side of the stage or in the crowd, so I wanted to document a female perspective of something [that's] usually male.
Does being on the other end of the camera ever influence the way you act when you're in front of the camera?
My time behind the camera has definitely made me quite used to the photographic process and ritual, yes. Especially as I have been in front of the camera for myself a lot, exercising what I am trying to project and communicate to the lens and eventual viewers?
Like a lot of rock photography, your photos are very kinetic - a lot of action and a lot of motion - are there any rock photographers who have influenced or inspired you?
Actually, I have never been a real fan or viewer of rock photography, mainly because I've lived the rock life, [so] I don't need to see it any more.
I have appreciation for rock photographers I've met along the way, like Danny Clinch and seen great work of older NYC photographers who shot the CBGB era of punk and rock, but my influences in photography don't come from the music tradition.
So where do they come from?
In art school I discovered Francesca Woodman, who is now, 25 years after her death quite celebrated, but when she died at 22, no one but her family and friends knew her work. Now there's a massive Phaidon book of her work, and she's seen as a seminal art photographer in a defining age of photography becoming a recognized art form, and breaking away from just [being] a commercial tool.
My black and white photography teacher gave me a small book of Woodman's work, after I began my self-portrait series at the age of 18. It blew my mind to discover another young woman on the same path of self-discovery years earlier. I still look at her work, and it inspires me to pick up a camera.
What else inspires you as a photographer? What do you look for as subject matter?
What outside of photography inspires me? Beyond music, certain mythological eras like ancient Egypt and certain painting movements, like the Pre-Raphaelite era of story telling in painting. In some way or other I'm trying to channel some of these things into the photos
How does photography influence your music, if at all? Does thinking visually impact your playing? Or are
they two separate idioms for you?
The emotions, intent and message all meld together, but the process and ritual are very different. So I suppose they are created similarly within me, then executed very differently from one another, and then shared dramatically different, so the root is the only common ground.
I don't think they influence each other in any way, other than the themes intertwining within me. I'd say film and music have more of an alliance, due to the fluid movement. Making Our of Our Minds as the film component of the album made a lot of sense, and they did relate to each other more. [But] still photography is very, very still, and boxed in, music is the opposite.
Yet your still photos don't seem overly composed - they're more immediate and spontaneous. Is that kind of "messiness" and randomness part of the aesthetic for you?
It's more a matter of the situation at hand: the chaos of touring life and fast moments that need to be captured quickly and sometimes subtly. I am not particularly a fan of messy, point-and-shoot photos. In fact I find them so over used with the rise of digital and everyone having a phone in their camera? But when I was doing it, in the 90's it seemed fresh and lively to me.
I have actually stopped taking as many photos since [then], and feel I may reconnect with the more structured and composed parts of photos in the future. I like to work in series, and less as individual photos, so within the chaos of the photos, my editing, and grouping of photos is more structured and thoughtful than messy.
It seems like you use your photos to date and pinpoint various events in your life - like real snapshots in a photo album. What role do the photos as objects play in your life after you've taken them?
There's definitely is a historic log-keeping aspect to the photographs in my life. The ritual of shooting them is also often in the intent to capture so as to not forget, and then to share and review later. I certainly have thought about the time capsule element, that these photos document what it is -- or was -- to be a woman, in a male-dominated filed at the turn of a millennium.
If an alien race came down post-apocalypse, and these negatives survived, they'd be clues of what it was to be human at a certain time and place. They play the role of clues to me in my life after the fact as well, a new perspective to emotionally process the past, learn or laugh!
Why did you want to participate in Nat Geo's Music on Photography program?
It's an honor to be invited to present my work within such an established and old organization as National Geographic, which is centered around so much incredible photography. The invitation also ignited a fire I've been waiting for, to begin the archiving process of my 20 years of negatives! I needed this to get moving on this, and I have, thank you!