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Documenting the Documentarians: Turning the camera on those who take the pictures

Babe Haven
Photo by G Calvert
Babe Haven

Music scenes are made up of much more than just musicians. From the people who promote the shows to those running the soundboard and lights, to the fans who show up and those recording the music itself, a whole ecosystem exists that makes live music possible. Another crucial aspect of this ecosystem is the people who put the scene to record as it’s happening: writers, videographers, and photographers. These are the frontline documentarians, capturing a scene as it exists, and their work serves as a reference point of where the local music community has been and what it has looked like.

Documentarians are artists in their own right. They capture fleeting DIY venues and short-lived bands, sometimes serving as the only record of the existence of either once a house gets shut down after presenting shows, or a band breaks up before recording any music. Some trace the arc of a band from a small new project to nationally recognized artists. In the digital age, their work also serves as a beacon to show people outside of Pittsburgh what’s happening here in our city. Serving the role of both archivists and advertisers, documentarians often have a great finger on the pulse of what shows are must-sees and where the scene is headed.

Being behind the camera is often less flashy than being in front of it, but the work is just as important. We caught up with six documentarians that range from zine makers to videographers to bloggers to photographers, each with different visions and styles.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of people documenting the scene. Consider this a sample platter of some active documentarians right now, and be sure to keep an eye out at shows for the people with cameras and notepads in tow.

Johnny Hopkinson | Videographer/Documentarian, Modest Director 

How did you get into filming, shooting or writing about music?

I got into filming live music specifically somewhat recently. Going back to the beginning, I’ve always been interested in music and shooting videos alike throughout the years. I was in a band in high school with friends and that was the big thing that got me into music and going to shows. Shooting video was also something that I just liked to do over the years. I started taking video seriously in, like, 2017. At that time I was still very much an amateur, still teaching myself basic shooting and editing skills.

Jumping forward to the present, I decided in 2022 I wanted to start shooting a ton of stuff. I was back going to shows more than I’ve been in years. Being stoked off of that, I was like, “Hell yeah, I’m going to start filming these shows.” Having documentation of these bands is important; on top of that I’m able to showcase my video skills, while pushing myself to practice shooting more and getting the camera in my hands for more hours. To me, this was a no-brainer. As I built up a library of videos, I just wanted to keep shooting more. It’s fun to me to capture these moments, and it’s satisfying to be able to see these shows again after that special night.

A screenshot from Modest Director’s footage of Not Your Friends set at the Mr. Roboto Project in January 2023.
A screenshot from Modest Director’s footage of Not Your Friends set at the Mr. Roboto Project in January 2023.

When did you first start going to shows in Pittsburgh? At what point did you start bringing along a camera?

I started going to shows a while ago (around 2007). Nothing crazy – I just went to shows here and there with friends. I honestly wasn’t very involved with music after I graduated high school (2012). When our high school band split up, I wasn’t as interested in going to shows, which is a shame looking back. I feel like I missed out on a really good era of music in Pittsburgh. At that time I was in college and I guess I was just focused on getting through that. For some reason, I didn’t really start exploring my interests again until I graduated college. So crazy. After that, I started playing music a little more again, skateboarding again, doing videos – all this stuff that was not present in my life during college.

With that said, I started going to more local events/shows again around 2017/2018. At this time I was mainly just having fun going to stuff. I would shoot little recap videos here and there, but nothing too crazy. Obviously, COVID happened, and that put a damper on events / live music. When that was clearing up, I started poking my head out at shows but still being cautious. I think my first show back out in public was the Code Orange show at the Roxian that happened in like 2021. Went to a few more shows in the meantime, and as I said above, I was just getting stoked on things again. First set I decided to film was Same at Rothko House in December 2021. Being friends with those guys, I just thought it would be cool to film. The next show I filmed was the Eternal Sleep / Settle For Nothing show in January of 2022. After that, I knew I wanted to keep doing this. I love the music. I love doing video. It was just like, why not do this all the time?

Who are some of your influences or inspirations?

I have to say seeing people like Hate5six and Feet First Productions do their thing, I’ve taken much inspiration from that with my work. Them and videographers like them have really paved the way for showing people how to do this music documentation thing. I know there are tons of others that I don’t even know about, and that in itself inspires me to just do more.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a documenter of the scene? What’s the most rewarding?

The most rewarding thing is being able to watch these bands’ performances over and over again. To me, I love the little quirks that each show has that make it unique. These days if I go to a show and there’s no one filming, I’m like damn, I won’t be able to see this exact moment again. Which isn’t the worst thing in the world because it reminds you to live in the moment. But I must say, it is a blessing to be able to see some of these shows again, and that’s why documentation is important.

I would say the most challenging aspect is 1. Keeping up with all the awesome shows happening around Pittsburgh, truly. And 2. Being able to fund and sustain my work. I do 95% of this live music stuff for free, so I need to find a way to be able to fund what I’m doing to keep it going.

Which show has been your favorite to document?

Oh man, there have been a lot of dope shows, especially as of recently. I think one of my favorites recently was Hazing Over at [the Mr. Roboto Project] from the Fleshwater show. Filming that, I definitely was thinking in my head, “Damn this is a piece of history.” Also, the Feeble Little Horse show at the Deli. Packed house, I’m stooped down, up in the rafters of the Deli basement filming as people are losing their shit. That’s another one where I felt like, “Wow, this is literally a piece of history right now,” and I felt thankful to capture it.

Modest Director now has a storefront element – give us the scoop!

Myself and my good friend John Faust, Jr. have just moved into our first commercial storefront, which is located in Allentown at 848 E Warrington Ave. This space is going to be used as half retail (art, trading cards, clothing, and more) and half studio space. I’m very excited to have a dedicated space to work on my videos and get more involved in the community of Allentown and the city of Pittsburgh as a whole.

Follow Modest Director on Instagram.

Richard Kress | Writer/Photographer, The Cazart Chronicles

Peace Talks performing on May 10th, 2022.
Cazart Chronicles
Peace Talks performing on May 10th, 2022.

How did you get into filming, shooting and writing about music?

I was always into music but had no talent for it so I did the next best thing. I started lugging gear for my friends’ bands and taking pictures when they played. I quit going to shows regularly for a while due to having an office job and being a single parent. Then I saw myself going the path of a boring ass life and needed a creative outlet to head off an existential crisis.

I started writing again which was something I hadn’t done with regularity in years. To give myself something to write about, I started going to shows again. That’s when I noticed that there was no one at smaller shows taking pictures. I picked up a cheap DSLR bundle and got to work.

I felt that someone needed to document the simple fact that the bands in this town existed and were trying to do a thing regardless of whether anyone else in the city cared or not.

When did you first start going to shows in Pittsburgh? At what point did you start bringing along a camera?

The first real show I attended was Helmet and the Rollins Band on August 17, 1994, at Metropol and I still haven’t recovered.

It was around the spring of 1998 that I started to take my camera to Crayon Death shows. I worked at Kane’s Courtyard Deli, on Craig St, with the singer of the band. I told him I had a camera that I didn’t know how to use and asked if I could take pictures of the band. Since film wasn’t cheap and I was broke, they were pretty much the only band I took pictures of in the ’90s. Working with Crayon Death is also where I picked up my rudimentary road crew skills.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a documenter of the scene? What’s the most rewarding?

The most challenging part for me is actually getting out of the house and doing it. Every time I went to a show, I stood in the darkest corner that was closest to the exit because I just can’t deal with people and crowds. That, and having a day job with other “normal life” responsibilities, added to my pile of antisocial tendencies always makes it difficult for me to drag myself off of the couch at the end of a long day to get to a show.

I will say that having the camera in my hands gives me an excuse to push my social anxiety to the side for an evening and forces me to get to the front of the room. I have gotten so accustomed to working and shooting shows that I don’t know what to do with myself when I’m attending only as a spectator.

One of the most rewarding things has been when people that play in the bands I’ve taken pictures of reach out with kind words and thank me. There’s no money or accolades to be had in doing this work, and music in Pittsburgh has always felt like an uphill battle to me. So when people take a minute to acknowledge each other’s art and efforts to create something, that means a lot to me.

Another has been the friendships I’ve gained from working with Submachine. I kind of accidentally walked into stage managing and road crew duties for the band because I was always at the shows and had the skills to do it. Hanging out and working with that band has saved my life on more than one occasion, and I will always be grateful to them for letting me tag along on their misadventures.

Which show has been your favorite to document? 

It’s a tie between Rage Against The Machine at PPG Paints Arena on July 29, 2022, and the two-song Aus-Rotten reunion set at Skull Fest of 2019. Rage Against The Machine is a band that has been part of my DNA since Evil Empire came out in 1996. I would not like to shoot shows on that scale on a regular basis because there were so many rules involved with it. But it was worth every bit of hassle because for four songs, the only thing that separated me from one of the biggest bands in my life was the wedge monitors. As for Aus-Rotten, it was the last night of Skull Fest and they only played two songs but it was a powerful moment because the city was still in the grips of the Tree Of Life terrorist attack. I was standing stage right, next to Corey Lyons, the bass player, and it was like the band released a pressure valve. I had seen crowds go off, but never like that. When they were done, the club started clearing out and people were coming out of the pit with tears in their eyes.

Who are some of your influences?

Influence for photography is Glen E. Friedman because of his ability to be in the right place at the right time to capture a moment. Influences for writing are Hunter S. Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut.

Follow The Cazart Chronicles on Instagram.

G Calvert | Photographer, MoshhMann Productions

How did you get into music photography?

I have been doing photography since my freshman year of high school but I first started shooting shows during my (short-lived) college experience. I went to college about an hour outside of Philadelphia and once I started going to shows in Philly I absolutely fell in love with the show scene.

When did you first start going to shows in Pittsburgh? At what point did you start bringing along a camera?

I started attending shows in Pittsburgh in 2022, even though this is my hometown. I actually just started shooting shows regularly in Pittsburgh at the beginning of this year. I didn’t know much about the scene until after moving away for college, but, because of that I knew I wanted to start shooting shows in Pittsburgh immediately, once I came back.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a documenter of the scene? What’s the most rewarding?

I feel like this could go for anywhere in the art world but I’d say the most challenging aspect of being a documenter in the scene, for me, would be getting to the point where I am able to make a living from my art. There are so many people looking to do the same thing and just as many who are in it for the hobby. Therefore, uniqueness is key. On the other hand, this is usually one of the most rewarding aspects of it. Not really the money, which as a young artist is always helpful, but those moments when I realize that I do bring something unique to the table and that it is valued somewhere by someone in this world other than myself. It’s moments like that remind me that I am on the right path.

Which show has been your favorite to document? Why that show in particular?

My favorite show that I have ever documented was actually at a DIY venue that I ran in Philly before relocating back to Pittsburgh. This show had a completely queer and femme lineup with Babe Haven, a riot girl punk band from North Carolina, as the headliner. There was truly magic in the air this night and it was felt from beginning to end. That night I saw one of the best and most interactive house show sets I had ever seen. I also just so happened to take some of my favorite photos of my career at this point that night. That was a year ago now and I still experience the euphoria of that night anytime I look back on it.

What led you to start MoshhMann Productions? Where did the name come from?

This year, I started MoshhMann Productions in hopes to broaden my career as a documenter in the scene. While living at/ running the venue in Philly one of my main responsibilities, aside from photography, was to book bands and form each lineup. So since being back in Pittsburgh, I have been able to put those skills to use once again. My overall goal with MoshhMann Productions is to be able to collab with bands, venues, and other collectives and act as a promoter of some sort while using my photography to do so.

Fun fact: I call myself The Mosh Man because of the numerous times I’ve had people ask me how I dance with my camera and still manage to get all the good shots. My answer to that usually is “I don’t know, I just have to.”

Follow MoshMann Productions on Instagram.

Hazel Andrews Holmes | Zinemaker/Photographer, Shining Navigation (bi-monthly zine)

Every issue of Shining Navigation.
Every issue of Shining Navigation.

How did you get into filming, shooting, or writing about music?

I think the first time I took photos at a show was in 2003, with a disposable camera, because I wanted to send photos to a then-friend who got locked up at a juvenile rehab for the summer. I used to take disposable camera photos of shows in Philly sometimes later on, like 2005-6, but mostly only shows I booked or otherwise had some connection to. I first got access to a digital camera in 2007 (borrowed from my father) and started using it more regularly afterward. I’d post photos on myspace or something, but never anything beyond that.

Doing a zine came about as an outgrowth of making cut-and-paste flyers, which I love to do. I’ve joked that I actually only book shows to have an excuse to make them. I think of myself as a zine maker much more than a person who takes photos at shows.

The first zine I did was called "Enforced Dormancy," which started in 2016 when I was living in Athens, Ohio. My band had broken up earlier that year and I was looking for other creative outlets as well as ways to participate. I’ve never been comfortable in a passive observer role and doing things helps me feel like I do actually have a place in scenes that I often feel I don’t really fit into. "Enforced Dormancy" was a six-page photo zine that collected images from shows I was going to.

I moved to Pittsburgh in the Summer of 2018 and decided to change the name and format to a single page so it would be cheaper to produce and I could just give them away. The name came from one of many late-night conversations about Pro Wrestling NOAH event names. "Shiny Navigation" got tweaked into "Shining Navigation" as a hypothetical album title and I adopted it from there. I’m not sure if anybody’s figured out where it comes from yet!

When did you first start going to shows in Pittsburgh? At what point did you start bringing along a camera?

My first Pittsburgh show was Crucial Unit’s last show in October 2004. I came out to Pittsburgh shows on occasion for a while afterward. It was a nice place to visit with family members or friends. Aside from a few disposable camera photos, the first time I attempted to actually document anything was ADD Fest 2007 at Roboto.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a documenter of the scene? What’s the most rewarding?

This is a hard question to answer. It’s really rewarding when people get excited about what I’m making and I feel like I’m part of something. I love doing these zines for their own sake too, but the outside recognition is really important. Most of the ways I’ve been involved in punk have been in supportive roles, like booking shows, that are critical but not glamorous. This is typical for a lot of women in punk, and sometimes it has an “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” feeling, like I’m primarily supporting and celebrating others’ work more than producing my own. This zine definitely has an element of supportive work because it [has] band photos, but still feels like something I’m producing with my own contributions beyond that.

What’s challenging, beyond general punk impostor syndrome, is sometimes feeling like the whole thing is superfluous and unnecessary. Everybody posts show photos on Instagram, there are real serious band photographers, and people make larger zines with more in them than just band photos. What is my niche here? Generally, I’m able to answer that question, but sometimes still have doubts.

Which show has been your favorite to document?

A couple of recent ones that stand out:

-The first Kinetic Orbital Strike show in Philly last December. There was a special feeling at Foto Club that night that’s hard to describe with words. The show started at 11 PM and was packed. I was crushed against the wall the whole time and took more photos than I usually do because I was feeling powerful in the moment.

-Hell is Here with Coelacanth, Butcher’s Dog, Rotting Hammer in Cincinnati. It’s extra fun when you like all the bands, and extra fun when it’s your friends, in a cool venue, having a family reunion of sorts. The whole affair had a presence that made me think “I want to catch this.”

Some other bands I’ve especially enjoyed catching recently include The Ire, Decomp, Genogeist, Phasm (Adam Nohe the bass player is the single most photogenic band member I’ve encountered). I should also mention Hellshock here because they were one of the first bands I really got into taking disposable camera photos of. Looking over some of the photos of them I took at Skull Fest I couldn’t help but think wow, I’m pretty sure I have this exact photo on film from Philly in 2005!

Coming up, I’m extremely excited to get photos of Rigorous Institution at Cousin Danny’s in Philly next month. Shining Navigation 16 might be the All Rigorous Institution Issue. Beware…

What is the motivation behind the zine? What’s your vision?

The purpose/inspiration behind this zine is really about catching the feeling of being at a particular show in that particular moment. I’m not a serious photographer and don’t take nice portraits of band members. There are a lot of people who do that very well! My favorite photos tend to be messy and chaotic, with elements of the venue and crowd visible as well as the band. That’s also how I choose what bands to photograph. Some sets/venues/shows don’t really gel for me in an “I want to make a zine about this” way. Other times I just want to focus on the set. I don’t want to get stressed worrying “How am I gonna photograph this,” when the whole point is about capturing being in a moment that inspires me.

Where can people find Shining Navigation?

I leave copies around at whatever shows I’m at and usually drop some off at Pleasant Dreams [Records, in Polish Hill]. They’re meant to be somewhat ephemeral, catch them when you can if you’re in the right place. I generally don’t even put a name or contact info on them, although lately, I have added my email address because occasionally people want to get in touch with me.

I recently started a mailing list so out-of-town friends could get copies more easily.

Lukas (Gato) | Zinemaker/Photographer, The Rat Race 

Lukas tabling their zine at a show at the West Penn Rec Center.
Lukas tabling their zine at a show at the West Penn Rec Center.

How did you get into filming, shooting, and writing about music?

I got into making zines last year during my sophomore year while I was getting into good punk music. I started learning more about the history of the genre and thought it’d just be fun to mess around and make a zine. I never expected more than my friends to be interested.

When did you first start going to shows in Pittsburgh? At what point did you start bringing along a camera?

The first DIY show I was able to get to was in the winter of ’22 and I brought my video camera with me. After that, I bought a digital camera in a thrift store and I’ve been using that since then.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a documenter of the scene? What’s the most rewarding?

The most difficult aspect of documenting shows for me is just simply getting to them. I’m a suburbanite, so getting into the city can be a trek but it’s very worth it. There are also shows I just can’t get to because of my age. Being 17 isn’t great when you realize you miss out on a ton of Rock Room shows. The most rewarding aspect is seeing bands and crowd members get super excited to see themselves in my pictures.

Which show has been your favorite to document?

The shows at Venia on 1-21-23 and The Deli on 1-27-23 have to be some of my favorite shows I’ve documented. Both shows had great crowds and the music was amazing. I got to spend those nights with one of my best friends in the world, and going to shows was still fresh for both of us which made everything very exciting.

Where can people find your zine?

My zine can be found on Instagram under the name ‘the_rat_race_zine’. You can dm through there to buy a copy of the zine or a shirt, and I’m sure I’ll be tabling shows in the city where you can catch me!

Tom Randall | Photographer, Live from The Pitt

Thomas Randall taking pictures at a show.
Thomas Randall taking pictures at a show.

How did you get into photographing live music? When did you start bringing your camera to shows?

I got into photography as a high schooler when I took a photography course at Point Park [University]. My best friends in the world (overtheweather) have been playing music together since we went to high school, so I just found myself naturally shooting photos at their shows. The rest is history.

I’ve been going to shows since maybe freshman year of high school. I started doing a little bit of photography work at shows when I was maybe 16-17 but didn’t get really into it until college.

What is the most challenging aspect of being a documenter of the scene? What’s the most rewarding?

I think the most challenging part of this field of work is the unpredictability of it. Whether it’s going to a new venue I’ve never done photos at, or just a different lighting set than I’m used to. The most rewarding part is just having people enjoy my work. Nothing is a better feeling than getting a notification from a favorite band posting one of my photos.

Which show has been your favorite to document?

I’ve done a lot of really really cool shows, especially within this last year and a half or so. The coolest experience was traveling with Mint Green from Boston to “Is For Lovers” Festival in Cincinnati, Ohio. This was my first “big gig” and I had the opportunity to connect and meet so many great musicians and artists.

I’ve kind of started doing some in-house photography work for my favorite local venue, Mr Roboto Project in Pittsburgh. It’s been so fun, I’ve met so many great local musicians and seen so many incredible bands there.

Where can people find your photographs?

I’m mostly active on IG, so head there to see my work!

Support for WYEP’s music journalism is provided by the Hillman Foundation. Read more stories written by WYEP Music Journalists here.

Meg “Gem” Fair (he/they) is a Pittsburgh-based writer and music enthusiast who can often be found with an Instax camera in hand. In addition to curating and hosting a bootleg radio show called Dog With A Mullet, Meg can be found attending local shows, skateboarding (badly) and taking naps with Pumpkin, his big orange cat. Prior bylines include Pittsburgh City Paper, the Pittsburgh Current and WESA.

Read more stories by Meg Fair here.