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Behind the Lens

Discover the depths of the Twin Cities music scene through the eyes of local photographer Daniel Corrigan

Behind the Lens
Photo by Daniel Corrigan
There’s a reason First Avenue is Minneapolis’ most famous musical landmark. Its stages have welcomed the likes of young bands such as U2 and R.E.M. Prince paid tribute in Purple Rain. Many other local artists, including groups such as The Replacements and Tapes N’ Tapes, can say the iconic venue contributed to their success. However, if it weren’t for Daniel Corrigan, we may not have as many memories of the rockers, crooners and songstresses who have graced its stages.

A local freelance photographer and First Ave staff member, Corrigan has been “making pictures” for more than 20 years. Though he had his sights set on the CIA when he was a University of Minnesota student, a photography class he took as a fluke changed his career direction dramatically. “My first time in the darkroom making a print was like the waters parting,” he says. “It was so cool and I just wanted to do it again and again and again.” He began shooting for the school paper’s A&E section and was freelancing successfully by 1984. Over the years the likes of Prince, Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland and thousands of other acts have posed for Corrigan. Not too long ago, his work was on display at the Mill City Museum, where 18 framed, black-and-white photos were hung and nearly 3,000 more rotated continuously on a high-definition widescreen television. He talked to us about the evolution of photography and First Avenue, the hearing loss that comes with the nightclub life, and how, in his eyes, photography is not so much about the famous faces but the art of it all.

What’s your favorite part of your job? Everyday is a field trip and I get to meet interesting people all the time. Music photography makes up maybe half of my work. I do a lot of family and kid pictures, editorial assignments and miscellaneous projects, so I am never quite sure what my next shoot is. It is rare for me to be unhappy while I am making pictures.

How has photography changed since you began in the early ’80s? Probably the biggest change is that everyone is a photographer now. Where there used to be two or three photographers at a show now there are 50. As a working photographer I have no choice but to embrace digital photography. Not that the choice is that hard. Being able to look at your shot immediately after taking it is invaluable (though sometimes a distraction) and not being hobbled by the cost and time of traditional film let’s one shoot more and deliver work faster.

What about First Avenue makes it great for taking photos? What about it makes it hard to shoot? The first and foremost would be the quality of the bands that are booked. The sightlines are outstanding and the lighting is usually good. Just about all the production people are old friends of mine and when I shoot there I have the home field advantage. For sold-out shows, particularly in the 7th Street Entry, it can be a little tough to maneuver. Some bands make it hard to get a good shot by putting restrictions on how to photograph their performance, but that is just part of the game.

If you could take photos of anyone, who would that be? In some ways it is more fun to shoot a band that has never been shot before than one that is famous and has been through dozens of shoots. The only person I ever really wanted to shoot was the musician Frank Black. He had complimented some of my pictures of Hüsker Dü to one of their members and I thought it would be nice to get a crack at him. I contacted his handlers when he was going to be in town for a show and told them I wanted to make pictures. They asked who for and I told them, ‘For me, for Frank. I don’t know, for Frank’s mom.’ I never heard back from them.

Do you ever work with difficult subjects? I’ve had plenty of difficult subjects. Some may be shy or nervous about it, but my style is so fast and painless that it is over before they know it. I’ve had a couple of shoots where the subject’s ego or attitude got in the way. The thing they don’t take into account is that it is just as easy to make someone look goofy in a photo as it is to make them look good. The moral there is: Be friendly with the person making your picture.

Do you ever take your experience with musicians and apply it when taking photos of children? I do a lot of kid pictures and I have always half joked that my experience shooting rock stars has prepared me well for the fickle nature of 3-year-olds. It’s funny that some of my family portraits end up looking like rock star promo pics.

Were you a big music fan when you began working regularly at First Avenue? A friend of mine once told me that my career and experiences have been wasted on me. He was making reference to my tin ear and general indifference to [the bands] I shoot. When I work a live show, I am so concentrated on what I see, that what I hear is often lost to me. I am personally more interested in the mechanics and production of a show than the content.

Working in music clubs involves a lot of loud music, sweaty crowds and smoky conditions. Is this hard to work around? Since Minneapolis instituted the smoking ban, my job has gotten a little easier. Shooting through the haze was always a concern and required some exposure adjustments that I don’t miss. The loud music on the other hand has had a huge affect on my life. My ears have been ringing constantly since 1984 and in the last couple years I’ve really noticed the degradation of my hearing. Despite shoving little foam plugs in my ears for years, a lot of loud noise has poured in and I am now paying for it. When a siren goes by me I have to plug my ears because it physically hurts. I’ve taken to wearing ear goggles when I work now. It looks dorky, but I really have no choice if I want to keep doing this. If I make it to 80, I am sure to be deaf as a post.

Was there ever a photo you weren’t thrilled with but other people just loved? My most famous picture is of the band The Replacements sitting on a rooftop that was used on the cover of Let it Be. I was hired by the band’s management to make pictures and got a good one of the band while we were stopped in an elevator between floors at Coffman Union [on the University of Minnesota campus]. It was a solid shot (and remains a favorite), but their guy wanted me to shoot again, which I happily did. When I turned the pictures into him I still felt the elevator picture was the best of the lot, but he went with the rooftop shot. I’ve always used it as an example of the importance of having a good editor, because if it had been left up to me it wouldn’t have been used.

What distinguishes our local music scene from other metropolitan areas? There are surprisingly a large number of scenes in the Twin Cities and amongst them you’ll generally find more cooperation than competition. I believe that First Avenue is a big reason Minneapolis has the reputation it has and is a pretty common thread through the bands that define the ‘scene’ we are best known for.

For examples of Daniel Corrigan’s work, visit www.danielcorrigan.com

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