Writer Jeannie Pawlowski interviews
JOHN HUNTINGTON NYC’s Top Rock Scene Photographer - Professor of Sound Engineering – Storm Chaser - Author
John Huntington is a modern day Renaissance man. He is a Professor of Entertainment Technology at NYC College of Technology (CUNY) who teaches sound systems and networking, and author of the industry standard reference book ’Show Networks and Control Systems’ on backstage control technology. Huntington is also a highly regarded photographer covering a diversity of subjects. In addition, he is an avid “storm chaser” and a special events sound engineer.
A photographer like John Huntington is as essential to the music scene as any of the performers. Without someone like Huntington, who is devoted to his art and passionate about rock & roll, the bands he photographs would not have these singular, spectacular, and lasting impressions of their hard earned efforts. It takes a team to meld both image and sound: the performance, the crowd. He makes these events come alive and live forever. The importance of a great photographer translates and helps define an artist for those who were not there to experience the event themselves.
Amidst the chaos and unpredictability of life, whether during a screaming high decibel rock show, catching a wave, or chasing a Kansas twister, he skillfully manages to isolate that single perfect moment which somehow captures the essence of the entire event.
As Helmut Gernsheim said in Creative Photography, 1962: “Photography is the only ‘language’ understood in all parts of the world, and bridging all nations and cultures, it links the family of man. Independent of political influence – where people are free -- it reflects truthfully life and events, allows us to share in the hopes and despair of others, and illuminates political and social conditions. We become the eye-witnesses of the humanity and inhumanity of mankind”.
What inspired you to go into photography? How long have you been in the business of exploring the world and its endless offerings with your camera?
First off, I want to say thanks for talking to me! It’s a real honor.
I started doing photography back in high school, and was on the yearbook. This was back in the old days of film, and I had access to the darkroom there and later in college, where I studied theatre technology. After graduation, I lost darkroom access and sort of drifted away from personal photography (although I was working on 35mm movie cameras and projectors for a feature film special effects company), but gradually drifted back into it, and then in 2009 got my first serious digital camera (DSLR). Since then I’ve really reconnected with my passion (much to the detriment of my bank account, of course). I love digital photography, since it allows me to do things today that weren’t really practical (or affordable) in the film days.
What is it about your subject matter that captivates you and makes you want to document it?
When I was a kid, I daydreamed about being a photojournalist, and I think that’s the mindset I still have as a photographer today. I don’t have the patience for the photo studio, nor do I have that kind of imagination. But I really enjoy going into chaotic or fast-changing situations and trying to capture a moment in time. And so I guess my photography ends up being a way to capture moments of things I’m passionate about, and the biggest passion in my life has always been music, and especially live shows. I always get involved in the things I’m passionate about, and since I’m way too shy to be onstage (and don’t have any performing talent), I’ve been working backstage for about 30 years now on live shows professionally in various capacities (primarily as a sound system engineer, although I don’t usually tell my musician friends that). I’ve worked on some large feature films, commercials and other similar projects, and while that is exciting, nothing can match that excitement of a live show, when everyone is in the same place, in the same moment together. That’s a powerful experience that has survived lots of other experiential challenges, from film to the internet.
So while engineering systems for high-tech, large-scale shows (and teaching that at my college) is my career, photography has let me connect with performers who I admire on a much more personal, intimate scale, so it’s a whole different kind of satisfaction. Capturing moments of intimacy, joy, or quiet amongst the chaos and noise of a rock show is what I’m always striving for.
So many performers have benefited from your artistic interactions with them. What drives you out several nights a week, after working all day at the University as a Professor to photograph these performers?
Of course, there’s absolutely no money in it, but many of my performer friends are just scraping by or have day jobs, so I don’t worry about it (although it is nice to get on the guest list or get a drink ticket). But the upside of not getting paid is I shoot whatever show I feel like going to, and then it’s the cliché: a true labor of love. It’s a way for me to give back to these amazing musicians who mean so much to me, and one of my favorite things is seeing someone’s Mom from their hometown “liking” one of my photos.
You have stepped into a richer and deeper life photographing local rock shows and becoming part of the music scene with your invaluable contributions. This seems to be an integral part of your life. What is that collaborative experience like, where you are creating your art by capturing live performances? To quote writer Susan Sontag “To possess the world in the form of images is, precisely, to re-experience the unreality and remoteness of the real.”
It’s interesting, while the shows are inherently social; the photography is pretty much a solitary pursuit, and therefore a more personal way of creative expression for me. And that may be one of the things that draws me to it, since in my professional career I spend a lot of time collaborating on merging art and technology to realize others’ vision. But it’s in my nature to be collaborative, and even in the solitude of photography I guess there is a collaborative aspect, since I try to post photos that performers would find flattering, even if it means I lose some shots that I like.
Who are some of the outstanding bands or performers that you have encountered? What makes them so interesting to you?
I’ve been in NYC for more than 25 years now, and every time I travel somewhere else, I figure, “oh, I’ll go see a band”. So I look at the local music scene in Tulsa or somewhere on a Tuesday night and realize what an embarrassment of riches we have here in NYC, despite all the changes and increasing homogeneity in the city. But that said, all my music photography connections emanate from a NY music institution, Joe McGinty’s Loser’s Lounge (http://www.loserslounge.com/). I started going to their shows back in 2004 at Fez, and started bringing a camera in 2009. As I got better cameras, and Facebook started getting popular, I started posting shots there, and it was a lot of fun for a while since I was a bit of a mystery--no one in the Loser’s knew who I was, but these photos of their shows kept showing up. Now I’m friends with most of the regulars, and I’m sort of the unpaid un-official Loser’s live photographer--some of my photos are even on their website. From that circle I connected with Cathy Cervenka, who does all kinds of amazing tribute shows through
Guns n’ Hoses (http://gunsnhosesband.com/),
The Rocket Queens (http://www.therocketqueens.com/),
Lez Zeppelin (http://www.lezzeppelin.com/),
And our mutual friends in Girls Girls Girls (http://www.girlsgirlsgirlsnyc.com/ ).
So I’m pretty immersed in that whole really fun, vibrant, and very theatrical part of the NYC tribute scene, made up of tons of amazing musicians who also have their own original projects. And that led to connections on the original side like the brilliant
Corn Mo and his band .357 Lover (https://357lover.bandcamp.com/),
The Deafening (featuring Lena Hall) (http://www.thedeafening.com/),
Mother Feather (http://www.motherfeather.com/),
Sanhedrin (https://sanhedrin.bandcamp.com/) and dozens of others.
You not only photograph rock concerts, but are fascinated by and experiment with other subjects such as Coney Island, of which you have created a truly magnificent 2016 tribute to this iconic and beloved New York location. When I visited your space at Artists & Flea’s in Williamsburg, there was a lovely display of the calendar art and a compilation of your other works. Can you tell us about putting this project and its images together for the Coney Island calendar?
I’ve long been fascinated by boundaries, borders, and intersections. Coney Island is all of those things; it’s a literal border of the sea and the land, and it’s also the intersection of the city and nature. I feel at home where I can see to the horizon, and the best places for that are the seas, or the Great Plains, which just feels boundless. And Coney Island of course is also a show place, so it’s sort of an intersection of all my passions. I’ve been going down there for 25 years-- and in recent years with the camera--and I’m glad it still has its edge.
An additional passion of yours is storm chasing - a la the Wizard of Oz - evidenced by the tattoo on your arm of a ‘twister.’ What is it like following these dangerous storms and trying to capture them on camera? Where do you go to chase a tornado?
I was (of course) inspired years ago by the movie Twister, and as the technology has evolved and I’ve been able to make some room in my schedule, I’ve been chasing out in the plains for a few weeks each spring. My tattoo is inspired by a photo I shot of the first massive tornado I saw in Kansas in 2013, which was amazing. Fortunately it was out in a field and didn’t hurt anyone, but it was a classic Kansas storm, right at sunset, and just incredible. And of course if there’s a storm in NYC I’m on my roof with the camera or down in Coney Island or Rockaway.
Standing in front of these storms is truly awesome (in the actual sense of the word) and shooting these storms is actually a lot like shooting a live show (although a lot less dangerous): the light is terrible, everything's changing, you have to be constantly aware of your surroundings, and maintain an escape route. It’s funny, I was out in Salt Lake City last week to speak at an entertainment technology conference and Trump scheduled a rally when I had some time off from the conference. So I took the camera down there to see what was going on. There was a large and very loud demonstration and a lot of confrontations. I felt totally comfortable in the chaotic crowd until I lost my escape route and then my storm chasing reflexes kicked in and I had to reposition. That’s the kind of thing I like to do for fun.
Another area of your interest is the sub-culture of surfers at Rockaway Beach. How did you get into that?
I remember when I first stumbled onto the Rockaway boardwalk about 20 years ago. I had ridden my bicycle out from Manhattan, and in those pre-internet days, I had heard rumors of this place (and of course the Ramones song) but it just seemed like another planet, and in some ways still does. I won an award from the Rockaway Artist Alliance for a photo I shot out there: http://www.johnhuntington.photography/Rockaway/i-sQjVFdZ/A
I chased Hurricane Sandy out there and left just before things got bad, and went back right after to document the devastation. Gothamist ran some of my photos (http://gothamist.com/2012/11/01/photos_haunting_photos_of_the_rocka.php?gallery0Pic=28#photo-18) and it helped let a lot of people know how badly the storm had devastated the area. Of course since then Rockaway has gotten hugely popular and I still go out there all the time throughout the year. I’ve been selling my photos at street and boardwalk various events out there and just love it. Some day when I don’t have to commute to work as much I’ll probably move out there. Just being able to see the ocean every day makes me happy.
Besides traveling all over the city and the nation to photograph your subjects … amazingly! … you also have created and run a famous Haunted House during the Halloween season in Brooklyn … a wonderful gift to the people of this city.
That’s an interesting project (http://gravesendinn.org/) that just evolved from a little school project that was an excuse to teach our students some theme park technology into this massive attraction where we had almost 4,000 attendees last year. I design the interactive control systems and networks (also wrote a book about that http://controlgeek.net/bookinfo/), the video systems, and oversee the audio technology. It’s a really fun project but it does tend to eat up my fall season.
Being an artist requires a lot of alone time and focus. It is a contemplative practice. What does the solitary nature of your work entail?
Sometimes when I’m shooting out by the ocean I’m literally alone, but I find comfort in being the observer in many situations--it’s a way to participate without being the center of attention. And of course the digital editing process is kind of solitary, but it’s also exciting when the moment I was trying to capture the night before pops up on the computer screen (and it’s exposed and in focus--always a challenge in the terrible lighting of most NYC clubs).
What are you working on now? Do you have any special projects coming up in the near future? Would you like to share what’s in store for John Huntington?
I have a bunch of stuff submitted to various art shows and so on, and I hope one of those will come through. I’m also already working on the 2017 calendar, and made several trips out to the beach during snow storms this year to make sure I had those images covered. So I’m planning to run a Kickstarter for calendars again this summer. I’ll also be selling photos at various events in Brooklyn and out in Rockaway this spring and summer, I’ve opened an Etsy shop for the Coney and Rockaway stuff, and of course I still see as many bands as my schedule allows. And I know that Patti Smith has a place out in Rockaway, I think the ultimate convergence of my worlds would be if she bought one of my photos!
MusicRealms would like to thank John Huntington for taking time to speak with us.
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You can Also Visit Him Atjohnhuntington.photography