Live music photographer James Warman’s solo exhibition 'Backstage Pass' is at the Shrewsbury Coffeehouse on Castle Gates from September 5th - 30th, 2023. It's the culmination of years of hanging about backstage trying to photograph his music idols and bands he loves.
Given that James Warman's dual passions are music and photography, he admits it was 'kind of inevitable' that he'd end up getting into live music photography.
It was a key moment in the 1990s that really tipped his lens towards the stage. Back then, he was a fan of 'Lloyd Cole and the Commotions' (remember Lost Weekend?). Lloyd had just gone solo and an article in Q Magazine caught James' eye. It wasn't the words, but the pictures that arrested him: "I found myself being fascinated by the photographer, Ken Sharp, and the fact that someone got paid to fly to Paris and take Lloyd Cole’s photo. It was the first time that I realised this was a profession and maybe, just maybe something I could do."
James describes himself as a self-taught photographer; he served a long apprenticeship as a full time 'jobbing freelancer', taking whatever work came his way, including weddings, interiors, motorsport, product and corporate photography. Obviously, the dream was to follow bands around the international circuit - and James came pretty close, before the need for a steady income took precedence.
He recalls one of the first times he got his camera out at a gig: "I was at a festival watching a band called ‘The Bushbury Mountain Daredevils’ simply because the name intrigued me. I sent the photos I took that night to the band and I was blown away when they decided to use some of them in their promotional material. I ended up seeing them whenever they played in the region, sometimes travelling up to two hours just to catch them."
James loves shooting bands he likes, especially if they are well-known, and was delighted to be able to photograph the Britpop band 'Cast' at Heal Music Festival at the West Mid Showground in July.
Britpop band 'Cast' in action at Shrewsbury Heal Festival
"I love 'Cast' and also 'The LA's' which was the band that singer (John Power) was in previously, so to see them live and photograph them was incredible," James says. "Little did I know back when 'Cast' were in the charts that I'd one day get front stage access to photograph them."
James also enjoys meeting artists before or after gigs: "Perhaps not the big names who have security, but most bands are happy to chat," he says. "Local punk band ‘Plutonium’ (from Telford) are an example of this. I’ve only seen them once but I’ve kept in touch with their guitarist Gary Sewell who has been very supportive of my work."
Telford Band 'Plutonium' at Albert's Shed
James admits he's had a few slip-ups, especially in the early days shooting on film, when he'd only get 36 shots before having to change the roll. At one of those early gigs, he was snapping away, confident he'd got a few bangers, when the frame counter clicked over to what he thought might be a lucky 37th shot. Unfortunately, it kept on winding - "I realised the film hadn't wound on in the first place, so all those great shots I'd imagined I'd taken were never captured!"
Getting ahead in live music photography is as much about chatting to security and roadies, as about seizing the moment: "I’m a strong believer in you create your own luck, so networking is important," James adds.
'The Christians' lead singer Garry Christian
You'll also need at least some technique and good knowledge of your subject is paramount: "You can have a comprehensive technical knowledge of photography, but if you don’t know your subject it will show in your images. Because I love music so much I believe I can capture the feeling of performance not just the facts. I am able to anticipate how the artists will behave and how the audience will react. For me the thing I look for, and the thing that is most difficult to capture is atmosphere.
"Sometimes you know the second you hit the shutter button you’ve got a winner, other shots reveal themselves to you only after you’ve spent time with them."
Of all his shots, James' favourite is one of the American band 'Mipso', taken during a pre-show shoot, in the back streets of Manchester: "The band spotted an abandoned shopping trolley and decided to jump in and push each other around in it. It was all very spontaneous. The band were clearly having fun and I feel I’ve captured that in this photo. Ironically, whilst I love it for the mood, it’s not a technically great picture as it has fallen victim to motion-blur."
'Mipso' messing about in trolley in a pre-gig shoot in Manchester
Success is also about being in the right place at the right time and James came frustratingly close to getting his big break. His friend Mark ran a garage renovating classic American muscle cars and one of his North London customers was Paul Young. The singer, who is best known for his chart-topping 80s successes, also has a passion for all things Americana and fronts the UK's leading Tex-Mex band 'Los Pacaminos', which he founded in 1992 during a break in his music career.
Mark spotted an opportunity to do his mate a good turn whilst working on Paul's classic Mustang: "He suggested to Paul that I should do 'Los Pacaminos’ next promo photoshoot, using a classic car that Mark had just had imported from the States," James said.
Paul was up for the idea and suggested James should get in touch when he returned from his tour.
"This was the break I needed," James recalls. "I imagined dining out for years to come on the fact I did a photoshoot with ‘the’ Paul Young!"
Unfortunately, before the two could arrange a date, Paul suffered a tragedy as his wife Stacey Young lost her two-year battle with brain cancer in 2018.
"Any plans of photoshoots were obviously put on hold and as time went by, the likelihood of ever getting it restarted dwindled," James said. "It turned out to be the right place but wrong time. Had it worked out, my photography career could have really taken off.
"Obviously, I’d love to make a living from live music photography, but it’s a competitive business. The bigger the artist, the more money you can make from their images, but access to them is restricted, but I’ll keep plugging away at it."
James' Shot of Billy Bragg at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2023
Nowadays, James works in local government but still gets to do a bit of music photography on the side (see his latest shots of Shrewsbury Folk Festival for My Shrewsbury!). He's a huge support to community events, gallery openings and the like - offering his skills pro bono to help promote artists and musicians.
He has an eclectic musical taste and a long list of artists he'd still like to shoot - big names like 'The Cure', but also less well known bands 'Hayes Carll', 'Black Rebel Motorcycle Club' ('for their sheer powerful performance') and 'The Dead South' - 'because they look so cool'!
"What I’m really hoping for is that one day I photograph an artist or band just before they become really big, and then my photos become really sought-after. I jokingly refer to this as my pension plan!
Shooting the crowd can be fun too! Credit: James Warman Photography
"If I had to imagine an ideal gig (to photograph), it would be a small venue, perhaps a bar or a roadside diner in America. The band would be playing Americana music with a range of instruments - guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle (it makes it more interesting visually). The place would be alive with dancing and singing, everybody enjoying themselves as the sun sets outside.
"In a situation like this I would be able to capture not just the band but the whole vibe and that's what makes for great pictures - images that you not only see but you can hear and feel."
James Warman's live music photography exhibition 'Backstage Pass' is at Shrewsbury Coffeehouse from September 5th - 30th. See more of James' work at www.jameswarmanphotography.com