At the height of Death Grips’ breakup last month, I came across a photographer who caught my eye: New York City’s Daniel Topete. I’d just started my own serious venture into photojournalism, capturing bands with my DSLR while keeping a keener eye for detail, and Topete’s photos intrigued me. He seemed to have an eye for action, capturing the frontwomen and -men of rowdy outfits at the apex of an energetic call to action. See, for instance, his capture of Rhiannon Bryan, lead vocalist of North Wales’ The Joy Formidable as she readies her guitar for an exhilarating landing; or White Lung’s Mish Way and all her white-blond mop mid-yell, hand pulling back as an unruly fan is about to do something with a tongue (who knows what).
His photos of up-and-coming bands and established acts like Palma Violets, Black Lips, The Orwells, DIIV, and METZ can be found in music-themed magazines such as Spin, Rolling Stone, NME Magazine, and, now for this feature, The B-Side. Topete was cool enough to let me fangirl (‘Hi, I’m enamored with your work…’), and kindly answered a few of questions via email.
We are music obsessives here at The B-Side, and we think your band photos are awesome. Tell us a little bit about about yourself. Who is Daniel Topete? What did you have for breakfast this morning? How did you get into music?
Hey! I’m a 25-year-old photographer born and raised outside of Fresno, CA now residing in Brooklyn, NY. I have too many cameras and would rather spend my money on film or music than clothes. I had coffee for breakfast and usually forget to eat until dinner. My brother and sister were huge influences on me musically. I remember driving up to the mountains with my brother and him blasting Modest Mouse, The Smiths, and Violet Femmes. He took me to my first show (White Stripes) when I was 12 or 13 and it blew my mind. I started saving all of my money to go to any show I could. My sister would drive me to San Francisco which was three hours away for shows and we would have to drive back the night of.
When did you get your first camera and what was it?
Not sure when it was but it was a Canon FTB and I still use it to this day. I got it for free on Craigslist along with a ton of darkroom equipment.
How did you decide to start shooting bands? Was there a moment of yes-I’m-doing-this, or did you just sort of fall into it?
I started because it just made sense to shoot the shows I was going to. I was living in Fresno, CA and considering moving to Oakland when my mentor Wilson Lee told me I should go to New York instead. So I did. I sold all my stuff and moved across the country with a suitcase of clothes and a suitcase of camera equipment.
You say on your website you like to use point and shoots. Is that still the case?
I always have some sort of point and shoot camera on me. I love the simplicity of it, it’s easy to carry and you don’t have to think about it — you just shoot.
What equipment do you use now to photograph bands at a concert? For photo shoots?
My bag for concerts is always a Canon 5D Mark II, 16-35mm 2.8, 50mm 1.4, 135mm F2 and a flash. For shoots I like to keep moving so it’s difficult to bring more cameras but I try to bring my Bronica SQ-A and Fuji Instax and some sort of point and shoot.
What’s your favorite lens to shoot shows with?
I would have to say my 16-35mm. It forces me to throw myself into the action.
You have a lot of interesting ideas. I like your use of mirrors and shadows. Do you have any ‘go to’ ideas? And how do you come up with ideas, at least for band shoots? Do you just play around until you find a cool shot, or do you like to go into a shoot with an action plan?
Living in Brooklyn, NY, the backdrop possibilities are endless. I generally just wander the neighborhoods with the bands or hang around my apartment.
Photographing a show is a little more of a spontaneous thing. Before you are in the photography pit, do you make a plan? Or do you tune-in to the energy of the band and follow your instincts?
It depends who I’m shooting for, for NME I always have to shoot landscape and think about it being a 2 page spread. So I have to frame for that, but other than that there isn’t too much you can plan for. I definitely feed off the bands energy. I like shows with photo pits but I love a show without because I can get into the chaos of the show. The interaction with fans makes for much better live photos for me.
I like your shot of The Joy Formidable, where she’s about to slam the guitar down. It’s like that moment of tension, forever immortalized, and so it’s also a little mesmerizing. What do you think makes a strong photograph of an artist?
As with any photograph, it’s just capturing a unique moment. With live music photos, my main goal is to make the viewer to feel like they were there.
Who has been your favorite act to shoot, and why?
The Orwells. You never know what’s going to happen at their shows. The singer could make out with someone or take his pants off. They definitely keep me on my toes.
What was your craziest experience at a concert?
I was in the pit shooting Palma Violets at Webster Hall and got kicked in the face by the bass player, Chilli Jesson. There were three photographers in the pit that day and he kicked two of us. I was shooting with my wide lens and just didn’t see him coming at me and he stomped the front of my lens which pushed my camera into my face. After being kicked, I decided to leave the pit, I stood on a PA and got one of my personal favorite live shots. Black-eyed from the kick, Jesson apologized to me after the show. It was worth it.
What’s your favorite part of being a band photographer?
Getting to shoot and hang out with bands that I respect. Capturing something that will never happen again, that could be part of history. It still blows my mind that people pay me to go to shows.
Any plans for upcoming shows?
Twin Peaks, Together Pangea, Ramones, The Black Lips, Cherry Glazerr, Juan Wauters, and The Growlers; I’m shooting Reading festival in the U.K in August! I’ve wanted to go to Reading or Glastonbury since I was 13 and now it’s finally happening.
What do you think about Death Grips breaking up?
Bummed, but I respect the idea of stopping while you’re on top. I got to see them three times, and they were some of the craziest shows I’ve been to. Easily the most difficult show I’ve shot.
What advice would you give to aspiring band photographers?
Take lots of pictures, shoot music you love, and don’t take yourself too seriously.