Even the most humid weather won’t stop Shervin Lainez from getting business done. The man is a machine! Since he moved to NYC four years ago from our nation’s capitol, he has carved a name for himself in the industry as a musician’s photographer. Photographing some of the most profound bands and artists in our time, Shervin’s rapport has grown exponentially. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon when I met Shervin Lainez at Diamond Bar. Having walked quite a ways to meet me, he asked for a tall glass of water. I grabbed a Sly Fox Pilsner and we sat down to talk.
How did you find your niche?
Honestly, a ton of persistence and stubbornness really. It got to a point when I moved here four years ago, and I just didn’t want to shoot actors or corporate events. I came here from D.C. […] only [wanted] to shoot bands. That’s all I care about.
So you’re from D.C.?
I came here thinking New York is for bands, and like everybody, you move here broke, and everything is really expensive. I got lucky because a few bands really gave me a chance. I used to shoot for free––in my head, this is all I wanted do. I’m only taking pictures of what I want to take pictures of. It can definitely work against you, but if you just work at it long enough, people start to see you as that. It becomes your identity. Last year, I got offered some really good paying things that I turned down because they were not my thing… like wedding stuff or whatever.
Do you have your own studio?
I rent a space monthly in Manhattan that I do all my studio work at. Everything else I pick a location or a venue for. I’ve shot in all kinds of places.
Who is in charge during a photo shoot, the artist or you?
I’ve thought about this recently. You learn a ton about someone when you photograph them. A lot is shown through body language, how nervous or calm they are. Sometimes in shoots it feels like I’m in charge. I step in and say, “No, no your chin is that way.”
And sometimes, depending on the musician, I’m just there taking pictures. It’s important to have both, because I’m either there to learn something from them, or they’re learning something about themselves. If I have to surrender the power… I’m fine with it as long as I’m collaborating with the group. Sometimes they are really closed off–I’ve definitely shots bands where there is a wall. In those situations I can’t pretend like I’m running the show–but if someone comes in and is really into the idea of being the subject, then I totally step in. You have to find out which one it is though. You’re an asshole if you walk into a shoot thinking that you’re the main guy– and when you both thinking you’re in charge, it is impossible. You get terrible photos that way.
How do you keep artists coming back?
So many musicians know so many other musicians. If you’re nice and easy to work with–and fast–you will always stay busy. Being fast is so important. It’s almost more important than if you’re good. When it comes to the shoot, editing, getting the final pictures back to them…
In my social media, I always do a post a day, and the pace of it helps. People just want the photos now. More important than anything is being quick and not having an ego.
You’ve shot a ton of acts from all over the world. How do you get them when they come to NYC?
It’s almost always because someone’s publicist is also someone else’s publicist. There’s really only four major booking agencies in this country. You’ll shoot someone local here, and then their manager manages someone else who is huge in the UK. I can’t take credit for all of it––a lot of people just know each other from touring and the internet. Because I post daily, it is easy for people to see my work, and if they like it, they’ll trace it back to me.
On the topic of social media: I’ve heard a tons of concerns and opinions of publishing due to rights issues. Where do you stand in that debate?
Listen, I have such strong opinions about this shit. I’m gonna sound like a dick, but photographers who worry that posting something online will violate their privacy literally should close their laptops, disconnect from the internet, and just live in the woods. Music photography can’t live unless it is seen. If you’re in a band and I shoot promo photos for you where only you and I see them, that’s a total waste. My photos are born when they’re out on the internet.
I met people who are like, “I’m not going to have these companies owning my photograph.” I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that if I decide to post a picture on Tumblr rather than Facebook that it is deemed worthy––it’s all just the fucking internet. Social media is supposed to make people aware of what you do. The second people started pushing back against Facebook, I posted more. I have no watermarks on my photos, and my name will never be on one. Just use my photo––my job is not to police where they end up. I’m fine with my photo showing up on some random website. If I took it and like it enough to post it online, my job is over. The anxiety people have about social networking while they’re currently on social networks is silly to me––just get offline. Maybe if I was doing fine art it would be different. I understand that people doing fine art don’t want their images or ideas out there, but my photos only live when they’re seen. To be entitled is just stupid. Who cares, dude? Just make good work and people will find you.
What trials and tribulations brought you to your niche?
When I was a kid, I realized that I couldn’t play music. And ever since then, my main focus has been “How can I work with musicians?”
But musicians are total assholes, why would you want to work with them?
They totally are, but what they do is really magic. When you go to a show and see it live, there’s nothing like it in the world. It was never about taking pictures––it was first about being around them. There [are] a lot of ways people can work with musicians: PR or management. I wanted to contribute to the face of what they were doing.
I went to college for Communications, I never studied art. When I graduated, I held a couple shitty office jobs and then started shooting bands for free in D.C. Someone told me, “You’re good. You should move to New York.” I had no other option. It took me six or seven months, but I just got into it quickly. I wanted to work with bands that I loved––and not only tell them I love them but collaborate. When it ends up being their album cover, there’s no greater moment. How can I be around people I admire and have them admire me as well?
The whole photography industry has changed completely in the past four or five years. How did you stand out in all the chaos?
A while ago, I was at a shoot and I asked someone, “When was the last time you did photos?” They said their last album cover was an Instagram photo with one of their filters! That was this time last year. It was the first time I realized people were starting to take iPhones seriously. But what I realized is that people just want aesthetically pleasing photos––it doesn’t matter how they get there, they just want it. iPhones have just made it easier to get to, that’s all. A lot of photographers perceive it as a career-ruining dilemma. For me, or anyone else that does what I do, it forced us to get better.
Two years ago, my Instagram photos probably could’ve been sold for good money, but now that it is the norm, I have to get better. I love the idea that I can’t be lazy. They have apps that can do everything I can do in Photoshop with a button. The only people who are afraid of it are people who have something to lose. I just have to get better and keep getting better as technology advances. Bring it on! I’m totally into it.
What do you usually shoot with?
I have one camera, one lens, and one light––it’s pathetic. I’ve had them forever. I have a Nikon D800. It’s consumer pro. It’s not like some insane expensive camera. What matters to me are the megapixels. I’m never going to shoot a billboard, so as long as I can do what I do, I don’t need a better camera. I use a standard zoom lens (what came with the camera).
It’s a joke. I don’t want nice gear. I don’t think it makes you better. I do a lot of editing to my photos––that’s really where it is. To me, editing is more important than what kind of glass is in my lens. I didn’t go to art school. I didn’t study photography. I was 24 when I moved here and just had one camera. I mean, I’ve done some video stuff with the Canon 5D, but I’m no tech guy. I never worked in a dark room, it’s all been digital. If you look at a picture I took from five years ago, it looks the same… The concepts get better––and the musicians get better––but I can’t take apart a camera and tell you what does what. That’s not my language.
But it’s working.
Yeah! Whatever it is, I don’t think about it that much.
Did you ever have a moment where you said, “How the fuck did I get here?”
Yeah I totally have moments when I’m thinking, “You sure you want to be taking photos with me right now?” A month and a half ago, the Postal Service came into town. I did solo shots of the whole band. If you told 22-year-old Shervin, “Yeah, you’ll be shooting them, or Bright Eyes, or Regina Spektor…Jim James.” No fucking way. I never get over that feeling. I’m never going to get over it. I will always be texting everyone I know when my dreams come true. Do you know Broken Social Scene? I’m a huge fan of all the offshoots, like Feist, Metric, and Stars. My first large gig was shooting portraits of Metric backstage. One month later, I shot Stars. And a month, I shot Broken Social Scene! If they knew how the walls of my room were covered by other people’s photos of them, they would never let me shoot them. I’m a huge music fan. Hopefully I’ll never be jaded, it’s why I do it.
I recently had a moment. Have you heard of Kathleen Hanna? I would legitimately get in trouble from my parents going to her shows––she’s just been in crazy shit. She has a new band, and I got the e-mail to shoot her new project. I mean, I have literally had her poster on my wall since I was 16! So I walked in, and she looked exactly the same. I spent the first five minutes just staring at her face–it was the most unprofessional shit. Sometimes, I have to get better at acting professional. If I get excited you can just tell. My goal for 2013 is to temper that.
So what’s next?
A “Best Of” compilation? Ha, with just my face on the front. I really want to make a book of all the New York bands I’ve shot. There are some amazing people that I’ve photographed here, like The Antlers who live and play shows mostly in New York. I want to make a book like that. Books are expensive though, and I want to do it right. Not too long ago I directed a couple music videos––one with Ingrid Michaelson. I shot some behind the scenes stuff with Regina Spektor on tour with her last year. My dream job is to be doing what I do now until I die.
What has shooting musicians taught you about the music industry?
The time that I came up here is the most turbulent year for the music industry, but what I learned is that the fears aren’t true. I think it’s a huge myth that the music industry is going to tank. People will always want music and still buy records. The industry looks different now, but the tension around it is not real. There are currently amazing bands that totally make fair money playing shows. Musicians just have to work harder, like what I said about how Instagram shaped my industry. Music isn’t dead because of the internet––they simply have to work harder. It’s a healthy kick in the butt. I’ve talked to managers who say, “Ten years ago, they would have sold so many records!” And perhaps it’s true, but their acts now have to work harder to make better records. There are still amazing people out there making solid albums. Everything is fine, and we’re just now getting used to it.
Does your price range change?
Oh yeah, it has to. Bands spend so much to mix and produce a record. If there’s a budget or a label, that’s cool, and I’ll work with it. But if a band comes up to me saying, “I love what you do, but I can only give half of what you’re asking,” I’m in no position to say no. I do shoots all the time for sandwich money, because I like what they do. I don’t want to have a million e-mails about budgets or make-up. There’s no room for ego in our industry. Bands that are used to getting a $10,000 for a show now can only get half can’t just say no because there are a million groups out there that would take the gig for $5,000. I love that––there’s no more negotiating. If I turn down a shoot, some hungry photographer would do it. I’m lucky enough that I make enough money taking pictures alone. It’s all about making yourself available and being on top of your shit, and that’s what I love about being a photographer.
Interview by Timothy Robbins. Check out more of his writing here.
All photos courtesy of Shervin Lainez