Photos: Tyler Andrew. Archival photos courtesy of Colin Lane
When you’re in a band, it’s one thing to sound cool. But in order to be a verified, accepted cultural phenomenon, you have to look cool, too.
The Strokes, at the turn of the millennium, looked fucking cool. This is due in no small part to the photographer who captured them as they were—in all their converse-wearing, leather jacket-having glory—and presented them to us, a grateful and eager public, to adore and mimic, beautifully posed on the cold, disgusting New York streets that made them. That photographer’s name is Colin Lane.
Colin has had a long and illustrious career shooting international marketing campaigns, fashion institutions, and producing works of fine photographic art. His photography is gritty yet pristine, with an emphasis on natural light and a dedication to organic backdrops that enhance his subjects. His images are composed with intention, but permit a bit of breathing room that allows his subjects to shine.
Colin’s photography is the reason rock and roll became cool again. Bands like The White Stripes and The Strokes are the ones that saved us from years of Korn-flavored sin, and Colin introduced them to us. His photos revealed another way of being; a world of style and coolness that we didn’t even know we were starved of. Hearing ‘Last Night’ made it okay to turn the Limp Bizkit off, and seeing the photos on the inside cover made it okay to retire the JNCO. Thank god for that.
I met up with Colin at his 16th Street apartment to ask how he got started, who his favourite subjects are, and to have a rifle through his archive.
Were you always a rock n roll fan?
Growing up my parents were really kind of square. Their record collection had some Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, but a lot of John Denver, The Lettermen- my dad liked Russian Choral music. Luckily I had an older brother. We didn’t really get along until we were older, and he got me into Frank Zappa, Yes, King Crimson. When I was 11 years old I joined the RCA Record Club where you paid a penny and picked ten albums and they’d send them to you. Then every month, they’d send you the pick of the month, and you were obligated to buy like six albums a year at normal cost. Part of that first ten was like, Foreigner’s first album.
They’re actually a solid band!
I love Foreigner! I stand by that pick.
How’d you mix that with photography? Were you always shooting?
My dad had a camera, he was always snapping shots of us. I was probably around 13 when I saw Apocalypse Now and that movie blew my mind. It was the first movie that made me think, Wow I want to do something visual! I got into high school and there was a little photography department taught by this dude Mr. Ray, who was this frustrated guy, not very good to learn from. Luckily, I was also taking a graphic arts class taught by a guy who was a better photographer than Mr. Ray, and after a year or so, he brought me into the darkroom and taught me to print for real. I went to college to study film but ended up getting really into still photography. My professors were these very intellectual amazing photographers, but because I was a film student, I was more into staging a car accident with fake blood in a deserted road at night with headlights illuminating the scene or whatever. I just wanted to have fun and learn how to technically take a good photo.
Do you still print or shoot film?
Dude, I haven’t shot on film since 2008. I held out as long as I could. Now, I can’t even think about going back, especially professionally. I’d like to shoot film, but I don’t think I can afford to, and going digital was very liberating because I like to shoot a lot.
I see some Polaroids behind you…
Don’t get me wrong! I love film. The best photos I’ve shot were on this Polaroid Big Shot camera, the camera that Andy Warhol used to shoot all the time because it’s easy and it’s a rangefinder. I used to use this film called 665 that’s been out of production for a couple of decades now, but I’ve got two packs in the fridge saved for whenever I get to shoot Bob Dylan. That’s the camera that I shot The Strokes’ first album cover with. Their portraits on the inside sleeve were Polaroids, and the cover shot of Is This It—the glove on the ass—that’s a polaroid of my ex-girlfriend shot on this camera.
How’d you get started in the rock and roll photography game? Do you remember the first band you shot?
The first band I shot… I think it was The Donnas, at Maxwell’s in New Jersey for Nylon magazine. That was probably around 1998. My girlfriend at the time—that same ex-girlfriend—was kind of a journalist, she got the job to interview them so I shot the photos. I brought this big 4×5 camera which was just so slow and I had the thing draped over me and a flash… It’s a good picture but it was just too much. I’ve never done it since. After that, i-D magazine sent me up to Montreal to shoot Rufus Wainwright when his first solo album came out. I didn’t even spend the night, I think I got there in the morning and left that night. It was cool though, I went to his house and it was his mom’s house. Do you know who his parents are?
An odd piece of trivia that I would never know the answer to.
His dad is Loudon Wainwright III, the famous singer-songwriter, and his mom is Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters—the famous Canadian folk singers. They sang all the harmony vocals on Nick Cave’s No More Shall We Part. So I knock on the door and Kate McGarrigle answers the door and she’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, Rufus is expecting you! Just walk up those back stairs to this whole other apartment kind of thing.’ I shot with him for five hours all over his apartment, the Ritz Carlton—we drove all over Montreal shooting for five hours, and then the magazine only published literally the very first frame that I shot of Rufus at the piano. That day got even weirder because I was asked by another magazine to shoot some DJ that just won a scratch championship in Paris, who just happened to live a couple of blocks away from Rufus, and it turned out to be a 16-year-old A-Trak. We met up and he was like, ‘Alright we can’t shoot too long because I’ve got math homework.’
Rufus and A-Trak on the same day. How’d all this happen? How’d you become the guy?
Well, I had an agent at that time in London. Before that, I was just a photo assistant for this fashion photographer, Enrique Badulescu, based here in New York. He’s really good, shoots for Vogue and all sorts of high-end things. I worked for him for three years which was awesome. It felt like being in a rock band because he was a party animal and we were always somewhere doing something amazing—on some beach in Mexico with these models, that sort of thing. I became really good friends with this hairdresser he used to work with all the time who knew two girls who were starting an agency and were looking for young photographers to represent. He told them about me and I about them and when I was in London we had a meeting. It sort of clicked, and they became my agency. That’s when I moved to London for about six months until I ran out of money and had to come back to New York.
And that’s when it kicked off for you?
I think things really started to take off once I shot The Strokes.
How’d you get hooked up with The Strokes?
Through my agent in London, they got me a job shooting for The Face which was an English music magazine. They called me up in early 2001 and asked if I’d photograph this new band and mailed me that 3 song EP, The Modern Age. I listened and thought it was great so I told them to come over. I remember being really broke but I went out and got them a 6-pack of beer anyway so that I could at least offer them that. I remember Nick showed up first, and he had never heard of Link Wray, so we listened to some records. They just showed up one by one and I shot them outside in the courtyard of this apartment. I shot their headshots in my bedroom.
What was that shoot like?
It was great, really easy. I told them I knew this cool rooftop in Midtown and they said they were up for it so they drove us up there in this crazy rental van they had. I don’t think they were signed yet, but they knew someone else was paying for the van and whatever tickets they got so they just parked it in the middle of the street. I brought them to the Essex Hotel that overlooks Central Park – that one that says Essex in huge red letters – where I had been on the roof a few times without any issues. Of course, the time when I bring a band for a job is the one time we get busted which was sort of embarrassing. I was like, ‘Ah man, these guys think I’m an asshole.’ I knew another rooftop right across the street from Penn Station and they were down—they were just down for anything—so I shot them at sunset in the cold on that roof with the Empire State Building’s lights on in the background.
Were you just their guy after that?
Maybe a month later I got a call from RCA saying they got my number from the guys and were asking if I wanted to do their first press photos. We rented an RV and were driving around to as many locations as we could cram into that day. Sometime during that day, Julian was looking through my portfolio and found the ass shot and decided that that was the cover. After that, I think I just became the guy that they trusted to be in their space or backstage. We all got along and they knew me. It was just easy. Shooting them sort of kicked off my career. Those photos got me jobs with other artists, companies, all kinds of things.
Who are some of your favorite subjects over the years?
Anybody who is exciting to shoot. Definitely The Strokes, St. Vincent. St. Vincent was amazing because she had such a vibrant style and direction, it made it really fun. I had been shooting so many of what I call ‘Jeans and Hoodie’ bands who might be a great band but don’t necessarily have a great sense of fashion or style. Cigarette’s After Sex, do you know that band? They were tough to shoot because of how mellow they were and just sort of standing there, and then I went to see them play that night and I was like, ‘Alright, I get it.’ It was all couples and it was all dreamy and romantic. As soon as they started playing, the guys would put their arm around the girls and it was just this big make-out session. I understood the vibe.
You have a very naturally urban, gritty photographic style. How do you achieve that style? What do you look for in a photo/photo setting?
Well, I spend a lot of time location scouting. I try not to have too many preconceived notions in my mind, I don’t like gimmicky pictures; I like it to be as natural and spontaneous as possible, but I also like to have a lot of options, so I prepare by scouting out as much as I can. This photo of The Strokes, I just happened to walk by this garage and saw all the car pictures. I poked my head in and it was such a cool wall for a picture, and I was just like, ‘If I come back here with a band tomorrow, can I take their photo here?’ I also pay a lot of attention to light. I’m not a big lighting guy, so I try to find as much natural light as I can in a location. If I have to use lighting, I try to make it as practical, DIY as I can. Like in this photo, I built the circle out of foam core. I just taped two half circles together and put a light behind it to make this halo effect. That little sliver of light was a recommendation from my assistant because you could make shapes out of it, so even though there are lighting rigs, it’s still practical effects being shot. Minimal, minimal photoshop.
Do you have any advice for photographers who would like to pursue a similar career path?
Don’t do it! ha-ha! Well, alright that’s bad advice. You just aren’t going to make a lot of money. The people who make money are the fashion photographers because they’re shooting Beyonce and all the big stars who have money to spend. I would say, never turn down a job because you never know where it will lead you. I shot The Strokes for The Face that first time. That’s how I met them, that’s what kicked everything off, and I probably made $75 for that. I didn’t know who they were, I was just happy to shoot. Through that chance meeting, I’ve gotten to do these huge campaigns for Levis, Ikea—I’ve had clients come up to me after a shoot and tell me that they asked for me because of my photos with The Strokes. That’s the best advice I can give. Shoot everyone. Shoot anyone.