BY PHIL HOOD
A few years back I got a call from a photographer I knew of but had never met named Sayre Joan Berman. She was photographing drummers, mainly at concerts in the Miami area, and was persistent in wanting to shoot for Drum. At first the thing that fascinated me was the sheer volume of her output. She would send out a monthly schedule and she seemed to be shooting every night of the week. Eventually, she began shooting for Drum as well as many other music titles. I interviewed her about her experiences.
DRUM!: How long have you been shooting and how long have you been shooting drummers?
Sayre Berman: Most of my grownup life I was photographing but I’ve been doing this kind of musician photography since about 2005. I started shooting for local media in Miami, contributing content for music and entertaintment sections. I wound up being the regional entertainment photographer for them and for Corbis [a stock image company that is now part of Getty images]. I was shooting a lot of shows, not just musicians. But for concerts it was typically just getting to shoot three songs from the pit with all the other photographers.
The drummer thing started when I met [Modern Drummer editor] Billy Amendola at a Ringo concert. Like most of the photographers in the pit we never notice the drummer unless he’s part of the band because we’re usually shooting the lead singer or guitarist. After that chance encounter I started noticing drummers more. From a commercial standpoint their face is closer to any logos that are onstage and from a photography standpoint the drummer’s face is framed by beautiful stuff, cymbals and stands and accessories. The drummer is seated and all the energy he or she expends is coming of the face. They can’t dissipate it by dancing around the stage.
So from that point on, after I had shot what I needed of the band or the lead singer I’d start shooting drummers.
You live in Nashville now. How does shooting there compare to Miami?
Well, there’s actually not a lot of photographers that come out for shows here in Nashville. When I was in Miami there were lots of paparazzi. They would paparazzi by day and then shoot concerts at night. They just wanted shots of the lead singer or sometimes the guitarist. And, those photographers were also trying to get unflattering shots of famous rockers. So if the lead singer is ever arrested they’d have a picture of him onstage with his eyes rolled back in his head that they can sell [to the tabloids].
When I first started shooting drummers I would talk about a drummer and the other photographers would say, “Who?” But later they realized I was an asset . I was often getting pre-show access. Then they’d want to grill me. They’d want to know when the solos were or when the lead singer would make his entrance and from which direction.
You’ve shot a lot of drummers live. During your years in Miami and now Nashville it sometimes felt like you were at every event in town?
That’s what shooting for daily papers does. I was there to shoot the band but I’d intentionally shoot the drummer to build my archives. I was at every show. You had to go through the promoter to get approval to shoot and working for local papers gave me an advantage because a lot of bands wouldn’t give access to photo agencies. Some of the paparazzi I knew started getting magazine assignments just to make it easier for them to gain access.
Photographing drummers is logistically more difficult than shooting lead singers and guitarists. What are some of the challenges?
Unless it was Levon Helm or someone who sits in front, drummers are sitting behind everyone and they aren’t well lit. They don’t get principal light. You can forget it if the drummer is a hired gun. Even if you are a full band member you may not get a lot of lighting attention.
When I really got into shooting drummers I would start asking for pre-show access. I like to have a style to my shoots, I think it’s my style. I want to incorporate light into the shot. That’s what makes them look live even when they are not.
Also if you want a full-kit shot it needs be pre-show. The drum riser is a coffee table for everyone else in the band, with solo cups, sweaty towels, bottles of beer and water. If you’re getting wide shots, solo cups is not what I’m looking for, so pre-show access is huge. Even getting stage access during a live performance isn’t necessarily the best. You aren’t going to stand right in front of the drummer. Even then they want you to be invisible. I like to shoot from a four-foot ladder. It’s been part of my kit for shows for a long time. With that, I’m not shooting up someone’s nose or straight in to their cymbals.
What are some of your favorite venues in which to shoot?
I like the larger venues because for me it’s all about lighting, and larger venues typically have better lighting.
What are some of the worst?
That’s easy. Revolution in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. I haven’t been there in three years. It’s awful. I don’t think they ever cleaned the bulbs. The floor is four feet below the stage. Maybe it’s better now.
Are there any photos that are most meaningful to you?
I was asked by another drumming magazine to do a shoot with Eric Singer. At the time Kiss would not allow photos without full makeup. They said I could shoot the whole show but that was the only option. The only place to shoot would have been on a ladder behind the kit. I called it the Birds Nest. His riser was so high. We were discussing it and Paul Stanley came over, and Paul said, “She can go onstage when you’re doing your solo.” That was the first time I could go onstage and not worry about where I was. At first I was a little tentative but then I thought, Screw it, this is my only opportunity. I was given strict instructions by Paul to make sure I was out of there when it was time for the band to run back onstage. I probably got offstage a little early but it was all right, I got plenty. From that experience I Iearned that non-musicians grab a beer during drum solos. Afterward I asked friends if they saw me onstage and they said, “Oh, that’s when we went to get more beer.”
My first shot with David Garibaldi was memorable. I was nervous because he is one of those musicians who are super highly regarded by their peers. I had just gotten into my drum lessons so I read some of my teacher’s Dave Garibaldi books before the shoot. I couldn’t play it but I got it. He was already at the kit when I got there. “Far be it from me to tell you where to put the one,” I said. “Play your permutations and we’ll get it.” He looked up and gave me a crooked smile and started playing. I was very pleased with the take on that one.
I loved the Barry Kerch shoot for Drum. It was in a warehouse, it wasn’t a stage, it didn’t look like a stage. But Shinedown’s lighting director brought in some accent lights. I knew it would be challenging and fun and a chance to be creative, since we were shooting in a warehouse. I watched several YouTube videos of Shinedown in action to be sure that if he had any signature moves, I would be able to get him to replicate them.
Years ago I worked at a guitar magazine. An art director handed me a blurry photo and I said, “Use a different one. Musicians want the pickups and tuning pegs and everything to be in focus because that is important information.” As a drummer shooting drummers, is there anything technically about the kit or the music you try to bring out in photos?
My shots of Daru [Jones] are a perfect example. His cymbals are pitched forward. That’s the thing drummers notice in a photo. What I want to capture is authenticity. Readers want to see everything. I think they want to be able to picture themselves behind the kit. Detail is important. The position of the drummer’s body, hand positions, everything. I send a proof page to an artist because I want them to see it. I want them to feel comfortable that the photos represent them and how they play. I have a way to elicit certain shots when I’m working with a subject. If my way of doing that is not his or her style we have a conversation. Then once they are playing and I’m shooting, if I start seeing drummer faces I know I’m where I want to be. I want to be the fly on the wall. They’re just being natural and playing and I know, Okay, I’m there.
What’s your go-to camera setup for concerts?
I have a 300mm fast 2.8 lens for front of house. I like using a 16-35mm when I’m alongside the riser. With the 300 it is nice because I can get the whole kit and not much else and then with a quality shot I can crop in tight on the drummer. No stage managers ever say no to shooting front of house. You’re out of the way. A lot of time I’m within the barricade. I have a good angle. With my ladder I’m not shooting up noses or a lot of cymbals.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve learned interacting with artists about how to be successful as a photographer?
Two things. They’re not putting on the show for you to get images. It’s the other way around. So wear black, and be respectful to everyone, especially the tour manager and the stage manager. They have to get a million things done and you may be the only non-essential person on the stage. If you are shooting a drummer and you are not noticed by anyone else that may be a successful shoot.
Steve Distanislao was touring with David Gilmour. We did a pre-show shoot. I think we had five to ten minutes, tops. Now, I’m going to shoot until someone taps me on the shoulder and then I’ll pack up and go. Don’t ever say, “I just need two more minutes.” People will remember you for being an asshole. When you’re given pre-show time, it’s precious time. Later after the shoot we were in catering just sitting around. Steve said everyone was pleased with how the shoot went and how I was. I said, “I didn’t do anything.” He said, “That’s kind of the point.”
The second thing is plan. You have to look around, you have to be ready. You can’t assume anything. Talk to the lighting director. You need to know when the solos will come and what your opportunities will be. I was shooting Todd Sucherman and I was not given pre-show access but I got access to shoot the live show from wherever I wanted. Todd sets his kit up high and there’s lots of cymbals. I looked at the kit and found one little window to his right where I could see his face. But the only way to shoot that was to go ten rows out in the audience and shoot with a long lens. But every time his face appeared in that window I shot. Now, it’s turned into a Pearl Drums ad.
Check out more of Sayre’s shots at SayreJoanPhotography.com.
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