Blake Pouliot holds his violin, standing against a wall

Photography Part One: Creating Your Story

When violinist Blake Pouliot won Canada’s Michael Measures Prize, he was given a big opportunity: a national tour as soloist with the country’s prestigious youth orchestra. Making an impression with the Sibelius Violin Concerto would be one thing, but he also needed professional photographs that struck the right chord. Nothing too flashy.

“As an 18-year-old stepping into the scene, I didn’t need anything shouting out that I was Lady Gaga or Liberace or anything,” Pouliot says.

“[Photos] are what people are going to see before they hear you, before your music, before you step on stage.”

From that tour, Pouliot received press and recognition, and more invitations to perform with other orchestras, so he needed photos that could convey what he was all about: a young, promising violinist with a point of view who was going places. That meant putting in the time to research and find a photographer who could draw out those qualities in him and put them on display in an image. Choosing one was careful work, as intentional and well spent as practicing, he says. And it was worth it.

“[Photos] are what people are going to see before they hear you, before your music, before you step on stage,” Pouliot says.

Pouliot’s photos, by Toronto-based photographer Donna Santos, are splashed across his personal website—hair coiffed, shoes weathered, stance unfussy, gaze sincere—more eye-catching than the glowing reviews cycling across the homepage. But perhaps The Toronto Star puts it best: “Pouliot has the whole package … the look, charisma and talent.”

Taking photos of musicians that communicate a complete message is what inspires Kate Lemmon. A professional photographer and flutist based in Boston, her expertise in both arts makes her an obvious choice for young musicians. She has been photographing musicians since the early days of her career, as an undergraduate at Eastman, where her shots were in high demand for recital posters.

A woman smiles and leans on her harp

Photograph by Kate Lemon

Many of her clients are still musicians, and being one herself, she understands what young musicians are looking for in a shoot. It also helps her give better, tailored advice. For instance, she wouldn’t recommend a shoot outside on a frigid, snowy day with a violin, or moving a harp to several different locations in the span of one shoot. She also knows when to instruct her clients to put their instruments away.

“A musician is not just defined by his or her instrument, and I recommend taking at least a few photos without it,” Lemmon says. “These solo shots often come in handy in unexpected ways [online applications, dating profiles, etc.].”

Musicians may not be defined solely by their instrument, but Lemmon says that should not take away from how important it is to have a strong message and brand presence in professional photos. It’s not just a way to introduce yourself and your art; it’s also a way to distinguish yourself from others, she says.

“Music is such an intangible art, and when someone can’t hear you play, your headshot is the next best tool you have to showcase your personality,” Lemmon says. “Representing yourself with quality imagery is so imperative in this business, and I love helping musicians stand out from the crowd.”

But what if you’re just starting to figure out who you are as a musician and what you want to say to the world about yourself and your art? Violinist Eduardo Rios did his best to think about those things before a recent shoot—his first session with a professional photographer.

“Right now, I’m at a point in my career where I want to show people that I’m not just a good player,” Rios says. “I wanted to embody my personality in the pictures and my playing, which is very sincere, honest and loveable but at the same time fun and edgy.”

Going into the shoot, Rios says he was not sure what that would look like in a photo. He knew the shoot would be in a studio, “so I imagined a black background. Then you see the studio, and you’re like, really? I’m taking pictures here? But then they turned out really good.”

The clarity started to come as his photographer let him peek at the camera during the shoot. With that came an unexpected confidence boost.

“I haven’t even seen the actual photos yet, but from the previews I got, the pictures really reflected the greatness in me,” Rios says. “It sounds cocky, but it’s kind of true. It shows how much value you have.”

Rios says he imagines that he’ll want different things out of his professional photos as his career develops. The City of Tomorrow, a wind quintet, has worked with Portland-based photographer Tarina Westlund, whose work with rock bands originally caught their attention. Their working relationship has grown over the years as the ensemble has taken on new projects.

Five people stand in a forest

The City of Tomorrow photographed by Tarina Westlund

“Her photographs tend to be very dramatic and eye-catching and high contrast, and not ‘We’re going to all stand against this brick wall and look sour,’” says Elise Blatchford, who plays flute in the ensemble. “Each time we’ve worked with her, it’s gotten more fun and more interesting.”

And their needs have changed as well. The City of Tomorrow have done a lot of programmatic concerts and projects, and their most recent album, Nature, released last year, explores themes of the sublime and nature through new and edgy compositions. Those themes appeared in their photographs as well.

“That’s easy to incorporate into a photograph, so [Westlund] ended up taking this beautiful photo of us in a swamp, and some really pretty photos of us in water,” Blatchford says. “This particular year, we told her we’re working on a lot to do with decay and apocalyptic scenes. She had fun with that.”

Blatchford says the ensemble’s photos have opened one obvious door for them: publicity and good photo placement in media outlets. As a touring ensemble, the group sends listing information and photos to local weekly papers and other publications ahead of their concerts. Having a really beautiful and interesting photo makes it more likely their listing will be published—and prominently.

“Even if it’s just a listing, they’re more likely to print a really good photo with it, and people will look at that,” Blatchford says. “We were featured on the cover of one newspaper’s fall arts preview. They just loved the photo. And our concert did really well, and it was just a one-off concert.”

Good, thoughtful photographs will serve musicians well at any point in their careers, whether they appear on a personal website, on an album cover, in a program or in the press. Musicians of all levels should realize that investing in a photographer who understands them will result in striking, authentic images. Those images could be the key that opens a door.

“If you put in the effort, it’s the same as putting in the work in the practice room. It’s marketing,” Pouliot says. “People say that a photo is worth a thousand words. Well, sometimes it’s worth more than that.”

Sara Fay

Sara Fay is a journalist and editor who lives in Los Angeles, but before that, she was a clarinetist. She can whistle Mozart’s clarinet concerto from beginning to end. …more 

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