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F-Stop Blues

Bluesinlondon staff photographer Andy Hall has launched his own online gallery and print shop, featuring many of the top blues stars we've encountered in the five years we've been running. We thought it was a good opportunity to find out a little more about the man behind the lens...

BiL: How did your involvement with come about?

AH: Rick (the editor) and I have been good friends and partners in a graphic design business for years, so when he started the site back in 2005, I sort of volunteered to help out with photographic duties.

BiL: So you're not necessarily a 'Blues' fan then?

AH: Well no,not really. Although I'm a big music fan, I certainly wasn't steeped in the Blues when we started out. I was more of a New York art-rock, jangly guitar, folky, Sub-Pop sort of person... I'm also ashamed to admit that like most suburban white boys, I was much more familiar with Cream's version of Crossroads than Robert Johnson's!

BiL: What about photography - how did you get into it? Who are the photographers that have inspired you?

AH: I was a slow learner and late adopter! My Dad was obstinate enough to use a medium format TLR camera right up until the late 80s, and I think that made photography seem very mysterious and technically inaccessible to me for a long time. Gradually though, I took more of an interest and eventually got given my first 35mm SLR when I was about 23.

As for the photographers I most admire, they split into two camps... from a music-journalism perspective, it's Kevin Cummins, Mick Rock, Nat Finkelstein, Jim Marshall, Pennie Smith and Elliot Landy... and I'd like to mention one of the Observer's regular contributors, Jamie-James Medina - who produced an excellent portfolio of Armerican music legends recently. Then, as for more general photo-heroes, it's the usual suspects: William Eggleston, Stephen Shore, Robert Frank, Walker Evans, Martin Parr, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and David Bailey.


BiL: Had you done much 'professional' photography before Bluesinlondon?

AH: Not at all, I was a keen hobbyist and doing lots of off-the-cuff urban photography. If I had to point to a moment where things got more serious, it was probably a session where I shot Rick's band The Velours in a dingy practice room underneath some railway arches. It was a fairly low-key shoot but I really enjoyed the process and the resulting images turned out pretty well, which really spurred me on to do more.

BiL: Was it nerve-wracking turning up for your first 'job'? How did it go?

AH: Geordie harmonica hero Paul Lamb was our first proper interview and it couldn't really have gone much better. We met him on a cold January afternoon in a quiet boozer in New Southgate, and spent several hours sinking pints and chatting. He turned out – like most of the artists we've encountered – to be a really sound guy and good company. Looking back now, my photos of Mr Lamb were a bit weak, but I learnt a lot and decided it was an experience worth repeating.

And I suppose yes, that first time was a bit nervy, but because we were doing it off our own bat there was really nothing to lose. If we'd returned to the studio with a half-arsed article and no decent photos (what do you mean 'If...'? - Ed.), no uber-editor Anna Wintour type was gonna be there to unleash all hell.

BiL: What have been the standout shoots you've done for Bluesinlondon?

AH: Wilko Johnson was such a force of nature that we felt immediately intimidated by his mere presence, especially as he turned up effing and blinding and calling some Spanish promoter a C**T at high volume - the first thing we heard him say was literally "Tell 'im, to fack awff!" After this initial bluster subsided, he was obviously tickled (and mellowed a bit) when Rick explained – in no uncertain terms – that Bluesinlondon wasn't all about Clapton-inspired plank-spankery. Anyway, he turned out to be a lovely guy and was obviously still very much affected by the then fairly recent death of his wife Irene.

Clarence Fountaine had such an amazing story and what a face! We met before the Blind Boys Jazz Cafe gig in his room at the Holiday Inn in Camden. I'd borrowed a friend's Hasselblad but also took a backup camera just in case. I ended up shooting only two rolls of 120 film (24 shots in all) but it turned out that I'd loaded the Hasselblad back to front and so lost half the pics! Luckily the other 12, shot on my Dad's old TLR turned out really well. I was lucky.

We first met Seasick Steve when he was playing a quiet-ish night at the 12 Bar in Denmark Street. It was roughly five months before the Jools Holland Hootenanny appearance, after which of course he went all 'stellar.' Steve and his label were pretty keen on the shots I took that night, and one of them ended up being used on the inner sleeve of Doghouse Music, which was pretty cool.

BiL: Since being published on your shots seem to pop up all over the web. How do you feel about the idea that many people seem to think that if it's on the web they can help themselves?

AH: It's a tricky issue and becoming ever more complicated as more licensing regulations are introduced. On the one hand it's quite flattering when someone 'borrows' an image, but it would be preferable if they politely asked permission and gave an appropriate credit or link. I'm fortunate in that I don't rely on photography for a living but for those that do, the ongoing abuse of ownership and copyright must be extremely worrying.

Part of the problem is that because decent equipment is now so accessible, there's very little value attached to photography these days. So that means everyone expects you to blithely hand over any decent shots, simply as a favour, or for the perceived kudos that attributes to you.

BiL: Can you tell us a bit about your working methods? Is it true that you still use film? Why is that?

AH: Like Captain Willard, I'm not sure I see any 'method' at all, but I do always try and cope with the available light, and never use a flash. For portraits, I prefer to shoot during the course of the interview when the participant is nicely relaxed and sufficiently engaged in conversation. I think octogenarian photo-legend Jane Bown has an admirable approach to assignments. She turns up with a battered Olympus OM (in her handbag), shoots one roll of black and white film with available light (aperture wide open of course), then buggers off!

Yes, I'm a big fan of film and also slightly fetishistic (but not in a pervy way!) about analogue cameras. I like the grain, the depth, the colour, the contrast and the warmth. Digital versus film is a controversial and extremely nerdy debate and it's a bit like comparing vinyl to CD or MP3. Essentially they're the same, but for me film's somehow got more soul, more humanity... But having said that, if I had to try and flog my pics to picture editors, there's no way I could ignore the commercial reality of going digital.


BiL: What about cameras - what sort of kit do you use?

AH: At the moment it's a Nikon FM2 with a Vivitar 70-210mm zoom lens for gigs, and a medium format Mamiya 6 or Yashica 635 TLR for interviews or portraits. I've also recently picked up a Voigtlander Bessa with a 40mm Nokton lens. It's a hugely impressive little 35mm rangefinder camera, and is basically my poor man's excuse for a Leica,

BiL: What are the differences between shooting a live gig or doing an interview portrait?

AH: At a gig, you're often stuck with a pretty shitty environment for photography. It's busy, there are two many tall people, the light is awful, and you have to try and maintain a certain level of personal focus and sobriety. Also, if it's a 'proper' venue like the Barbican, you're literally only allowed to shoot for the first three songs, and are then expected to slink off quietly.

Interviews can also be problematic of course, but it's always an interesting challenge trying to extract the best from the situation. Admittedly I've screwed up a few times, but usually manage to produce a few usable images. It's also handy when the interviewer's bedside manner has put the subject in a nicely 'fluffed' and cooperative mood.

BiL: Who is on your 'People I'd Most Like To Photograph' checklist?

AH: Whether you're photographing Angelina Jolie or a hairy-handed trawlerman, I think there are always interesting angles and possibilities. So I suppose my motivations behind this list are pretty selfish, but how about: Tom Waits, Neil Young, Keith Richards, Dr John, BB King, Chuck Berry and Bob Dylan!

Check out more of Andy's photos, and buy prints (proceeds go towards the running costs of Bluesinlondon) at Andy's website:

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