British photographer, David Corio, is well-known for his photographs of famous musicians. Join us for behind the scene stories on his works of art.
Were you always interested in photography as a child? How did your career start?
Well my Dad and Grandad had both been into photography and had done their own printing of family snaps. I first took photos with an old Kodak and Polaroid camera which I enjoyed and went to night classes at a local college when I was 14 and 15. I wanted to leave school as soon as I could, so I applied to art college when I was 16 at Gloucester college of art and design in the west of England and got accepted. It was a good two year course that taught the practicalities, history and theory. I was going to gigs then as it was an exciting time for music from 1976 to 1978. After I finished college, I moved to London.
I was lucky as my sister was going out with a guy called Wreckless Eric who had just signed to Stiff Records and he invited me to go to some shows where I got to photograph Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, and others. I went on tour with some of them for a few dates and got the bug to do music photography.
I worked in an industrial darkroom in London when I was 18 for a couple of years, went to gigs to take photographs and home afterwards to develop and print them and handed them in to New Musical Express (NME) the following morning. After a few months, they started to give me work. By 1980, I went freelance and have been ever since.
You’ve photographed plenty of rock icons. Where they easy to photograph? What was the experience like?
I have done a mixture of portraits and live stuff over the years and every job is different. You can’t control live events really so it depends on how good the lighting is and if you can get in the photo pit. Normally if I am shooting for magazine it’s not a problem, but you normally only get the first three songs to shoot and then get thrown out and that is just when the artist is beginning to warm up.
Most musicians are used to being photographed so that does make it easier generally, but normally there isn’t much time to photograph them so you have to think quickly and try and scout locations. I prefer to use available light as it makes it easier and quicker. Some people are really easy to shoot – people like George Clinton, Lee Perry, Curtis Mayfield, Dennis Brown were all photographers’ dream as they were friendly, considerate, and have great faces. James Brown was a pain in the neck. I waited 12 hours to photograph him and when I first met him he had his hair in curlers and told me he would throw me out of the window if I got my camera out of the bag. I told him that the photos would only take a minute to do and he took me literally and timed me and then chucked me out of his dressing room.
Were you a fan of rock ‘n roll music?
Yes big time. I saw Slade when I was 12 and Led Zeppelin and the Who when I was 14, but never photographed them unfortunately. I was into blues and r&b from a young age and got into punk and reggae when I was 16 or so. I’ll listen to most types of music, though reggae and funk are my favorites.
I have a nervous reaction if I hear anything like heavy metal though. It’s horrible.
What’s your favorite photo that you took? Why?
I suppose the one of Bob Marley with him flashing his locks is one of my favorites as a live photo. It was a challenge to take as I had to wade into a lake at the front of the stage at Crystal Palace to get near to him. I had my camera and 3 rolls of film in a carrier bag and was up to my chest in water. I was holding out to try and get the best shot I could and that was the 37th frame on the last roll (you can squeeze 37 frames on a roll if you load the film right). As far as portraits go my favorite is probably one of another reggae legend, Alton Ellis. He was a big musical hero of mine and I used a very wide aperture to focus on his eyes with daylight from a nearby window. It reminds me of an old 19th century picture.
Do you prefer shooting in black and white or in color?
Black and white every time. If you develop the film and print as well it means you can control the whole process and put your own stamp on it. Black and white seems to have so much more character to it as well and the photos look more dramatic if they are portraits or landscapes I think. I’ve always shot black and white with a manual exposure and focus camera, which means you can control things the way you want to much more and it improves your photography because of that. With color, and especially with digital, you just press a button. It’s a shame I think. Now people just use their phones and leave them on a computer and forget about them.
What are other activities you enjoy doing besides photography?
All sorts of traveling when I get a chance, collecting old reggae records, yoga, ancient history and archaeology, Arsenal, and collecting stereoviews of Coney Island.
If you had the chance to photograph somebody, dead or alive, who would it be? Why?
I saw Muddy Waters twice live and never got a chance to photograph him. He was a brilliant musician and singer although he was past his peak when I saw him. He had an amazing face and I would love to have done portraits of him. The other major regret was not photographing King Tubby. A brilliant sound engineer and dub producer who made hundreds of classic reggae dubs. He had a tiny studio in Kingston, Jamaica which he rarely left and wasn’t photographed very often.
If your life had a soundtrack, what would it be? (song title and artist)
What one song! That is hard to come up with one song where the lyrics correspond to my life. I’ll go with ‘Declaration of Rights’ by The Abyssinians on Studio One Records not that it represents my life or career but it’s a magnificent tune with powerful lyrics and glorious harmonies. It has to be played very loud too.
Do you have upcoming projects?
Well I’m touting a couple of book projects – one of my black and white and color reggae photos from the last 30 years and another of my general music photos from the late 70s to late 80s with anecdotes accompanying all the photos. So if anyone knows any serious book publishers please tell them to get in touch!
I’ve got an exhibition in Florence of some of that general music at the SACI gallery in September and some similar but different images at the moment at Chats Palace in Hackney, London called ‘One Good Thing About Music’. I have a few photos at the Annenberg Centre for Photography in the ‘Who Shot Rock & Roll’ exhibition and a few of Bruce Springsteen in a group show in Milan at Photographia that are both currently on. Hopefully there will be some of my old photos of the British reggae scene somewhere at the O2 in London in August and I’ve a small show of my black and white megalith photos in Stroud in Gloucestershire at the end of September.
What advice can you give our readers regarding photography?
I think what I said about shooting black and white improves your photography and it is always good to experiment and try different things even if they don’t work. I’ll use different cameras from Holgas to Hasselblads and panoramics to regular 35mm as it can make you look differently at subjects. I think it is really useful to go to exhibitions – classic and contemporary and look at as many photography books as you can especially of the old masters to see how they made such timeless classic images and try and work out how they took them. In the end I guess you should just keep taking photos.
Visit David Corio's website to know more about this wonderful man and his inspiring work!