Interview with Rock Photographer Alissa Anderson - Part 1

Posted by Miss Ess, March 4, 2010 05:40pm | Post a Comment

Devendra Banhart - Benicassim Festival - 2005

Alissa Anderson is one fabulous rock photographer! She has dedicated herself to chronicling the likes of Vetiver, Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Neil and Pegi Young, Michael Hurley, Vashti Bunyan, Papercuts, Conor Oberst, Espers, Lavender Diamond, CocoRosie, Tussle, Citay, and bunches of other musicians currently making the scene, taking candid live shots, as well as promotional stills and also shooting multiple album covers . She has born witness both here in San Francisco and across the world to one of the most vibrant and exciting music scenes ever, and has documented it all for our visual pleasure. I recently interviewed Alissa to learn more about her work, what inspires her, and her peak artistic moments. Because there are so many photos (some exclusive!) in this interview, there will be two parts. Part Two is right here!

In Part One, we discuss Alissa's beginnings as a photographer, her inspirations, and also the goings-on behind perhaps her most famous photo thus far: the cover for Devendra Banhart's Cripple Crow, plus much more! Read on!

Alissa Anderson - Northampton, MA - March 2001

Miss Ess: How did you get into photography?

Alissa Anderson: My mom and grandfather took lots of pictures while I was growing up, mostly of our family, vacations, birthdays, etc. My Dad got a job at Polaroid and he started bringing me home expired film. I took pictures of my family, my pets, my friends – lots of the same things I shoot now actually! Later, I started carrying a 35mm point-and-shoot camera everywhere I went and sent my film away to mail order companies for processing and printing because it was so cheap. I filled albums of photos from junior high through high school and into college.

Before college, my creative output centered mostly around music. The way my class schedule was, I was always taking orchestra or band so I couldn’t take art classes, and my high school didn’t have photo classes or a darkroom. When I finally took a black and white photography class in college, I became totally obsessed with shooting and printing as much as I could. I began to see photography, what I had been doing my whole life, in a completely new way. I started shooting medium format and fell in love with the beautiful large square negatives that showed so much more detail than 35mm. I mostly took photos of my friends at college, bands and shows, and the town of Northampton, MA. I took every photo class I could, then created independent studies for myself and had gallery shows. I spent hours and hours in the darkroom printing.

After graduating, I moved to San Francisco in the summer of 2000 and started working at a lab, where I had access to processing and printing. I felt extremely welcomed by the community of artists and musicians here at that time, which was filled with such open, generous, and inspiring people. I continued shooting what I had been shooting in college -- friends, artists, musicians, parties, live shows – within this new community. I began getting invited to put my work in group shows and eventually set up some solo shows.

Vetiver demo session - Andy Cabic and Devendra Banhart - 469 S. Van Ness, San Francisco, CA - September 2001

ME: How did you begin shooting musicians?

AA: My family and friends have always been my main photography subjects. I have been playing music and going to shows and taking pictures for so much of my life that it has all been intertwined since the beginning. But it was definitely in college when my love of music and my obsession with photography combined to start creating a body of work. Shooting bands had always made sense to me. Most of my friends were musicians, so if I wanted to hang out with them, I could at least take pictures while they were rehearsing and be productive!


When I first started shooting medium format, one of my first subjects was my friends’ band The Moves, who I would accompany to their rehearsals and shows. I shot lots of pictures of them just hanging out in their practice space. When they used some of my portraits from their rehearsals in their record (The Moves, Mr. Lady Records, 1999) it was the first time any of my photos had been used as album artwork before. Ironically, the producer of their record was Thom Monahan, Vetiver’s current engineer & producer, who worked out of a studio in Amherst.

Sara Shaw of The Moves - Northampton, MA -  February 1999

Sherry Wong - Northampton, MA - February 2000

In college I worked at the radio station and helped put on shows, so I shot a lot of bands that came through. My first published photo resulted from a shot I took of Bonfire Madigan. I felt so completely ecstatic the first time I picked up a copy of Girlfriends magazine on a Northampton newsstand and flipped it to the picture I took. It’s hard to believe that was 10 years ago! Even though it’s been over a decade since I had my first photos published in a record or in a magazine, every time I see something I’ve shot in print for the first time it feels so surreal I can hardly believe it. The idea of turning on thousands of people to an artist from one image from one shared moment is astounding. Photography is still so magical to me in that way.


ME: How does music inspire your process?

AA: I am inspired by everything around me that I love: my family, friends, nature, food, travel, fashion, art, and other photography, as well as music. Music has always been a major part of my life in some way or another, whether it’s playing it or shooting it or working behind the scenes. I feel so blessed that photography has enabled me to collaborate with people whose work inspires me so much.

At this point in my practice, I feel almost a sacred duty to document musicians’ lives, especially early in their careers. It’s those early photos that are often the most appreciated. I constantly think about now-iconic photos from the 60’s and 70’s of musicians who were relatively unknown at the time and feel so grateful to the photographers who shot them.

Devendra Banhart - Coachella - 2006

Lavender Diamond - Arthurfest, Los Angeles - September 2005

I feel the most achievement when an image of mine serves as visual accompaniment to an audio work to help create a complete experience, like the Vetiver covers record Thing of the Past. I was fortunate to be able to document the whole record-making process and work with Andy [Cabic] to create images that fit with the vibe of the record. Above all, I’m a fan of good music and I’m so happy my photos are what people can look at and think about while they listen to it.

Vetiver - Thing of the Past Shoot Outtake

ME: Do you have a particular philosophy when you get behind the lens of how you frame your shots and how you deal with the subject, or is it just a natural thing that happens?

AA: It really depends on each set of circumstances -- the subject, what camera I’m using, the location, everything. Even if I think I know exactly what I want the results often end up much different. More than technique, which comes through experience, I think having an open heart is a crucial way to approach any art process.

ME: Can you tell me about shooting the Cripple Crow album cover? It must have been a big task to get everyone there and in place!

AA: Devendra had asked me to shoot the cover in advance. He wanted a large group of people involved and for it to have a very Sgt. Pepper’s feel, so he sent out an email to many of our friends to meet up in Buena Vista Park in San Francisco. About a week before the shoot, Andy and I found an amazing estate sale in our neighborhood with decades worth of costumes from a dance school. I called Dev and told him I found props for the shoot, so we bought clothes, hats, handmade masks, Indian headdresses -- all kinds of colorful stuff for people to wear.

The day of the shoot it ended up raining so hard! We couldn’t reschedule and we had a deadline to meet. Andy and Dev and I drove to the park early to check it out and picked out a spot in front of a majestic tree. We walked back to the Magnolia Pub, had a drink, and wondered how many people would come out in the rain. We went back to the tree and people started arriving. I took some portraits while people picked out their costumes and props. Finally I got everyone to stand in front of the tree and managed to get the shot. Someone had to hold an umbrella over me so my camera wouldn’t get wet!

Cripple Crow outtake --Andy Cabic, Devendra Banhart and Noah Georgeson - May 2005

Cripple Crow outtakes

ME: What has been your most memorable shoot?

AA: Cripple Crow.

ME: Do you enjoy taking live performance photos or posed stills more? What are the particularly thrilling aspects of being behind the lens for each?

AA: I was doing a lot more live photography a few years ago at basement shows, warehouse parties, and eviction parties with local bands like Coachwhips, Tussle, Numbers, Erase Errata, Deerhoof, etc. The energy was so exciting and inspiring. I would get as close as I could to the action and shoot from inches away from the performers with tiny film cameras, getting shoved around with beer and sweat flying everywhere. I took up-close pictures of pedals, cords, performers’ feet – intimate details of the performance that are often overlooked. Those shows were so much fun and I’m so glad I was able to capture them.

Hella - Providence, RI - Halloween 2002

Tussle - 1947 Mission St, San Francisco, CA - Valentine's Day 2002


- Doc's Clock, San Francisco - September 2001

When I started touring a lot with Vetiver and Devendra, I shot more tour documentary stuff and live photos became a smaller percentage of what I was shooting. The photos I was taking of moments in the van, hotels, gas stations, and restaurants were so much more evocative and climactic and interesting to me than the pictures of the actual performance. The touring process became more artistically inspiring to me than the performance, even though the performance was ultimately the purpose.

Michael Hurley - March 30, 2006

Vetiver soundcheck - Great American Music Hall, SF - March 11, 2007

Conor Oberst - San Francisco - March 11, 2007

Although I love the spontaneity of documentary photography, and the adrenaline rush of shooting live so close to the performers, I also love scheduling a shoot. It feels historic and formal in a way that hearkens back to the beginnings of photography, when photos were taken for only the most special occasions. “Posed” (planned) photos have become a very meditative experience for me, where I can make more deliberate decisions about composition and light and enjoy the energy of my subjects and the space around us.

Erase Errata - Berkeley, CA - September 2002

Espers - Big Sur - 2006

Papercuts - Chicago - May 31, 2009

To me, a portrait is a visual representation of a shared moment with another person in a specific place and time. The moment the shutter is pressed represents that shared experience, regardless of it is planned in advance or not. I feel blessed that photographs are not only my personal memories of the incredible people that I share moments of my life with but images that can be appreciated by others in a more historical context.

Neil Young - Big Sur - June 23, 2007

Please click here for Part Two of Alissa's interview, in which she discusses being the only photographer at Joanna Newsom's secret Big Sur show last year, and shares outtakes with us, as well as her own peak musical experiences, and of course, more photos! You can also check out Alissa's website to see more.

Relevant Tags

Hella (1), Devendra Banhart (13), Vetiver (19), Alissa Anderson (3), Interview (341), Cripple Crow (1), Michael Hurley (9), Conor Oberst (11), Espers (6), Lavender Diamond (3), Alissa Anderson Interview (2), Tussle (2), Coachwhips (3), Erase Errata (2), Papercuts (2)