"Music Is What I Want to Be a Part Of. Not Photography."

by Talia Billig
Originally Published: 
A collage of 28 different photos of artists from the Indie music scene

Fact, non-fiction: If there’s a singer-songwriter you like, Shervin Lainez has shot his/her photo.

With a style that is blisteringly unique and often badly imitated, Shervin Lainez has carved out a name for himself as the go-to photographer for the indie music scene. As a songwriter myself I’ve been shooting with Shervin for five years almost exclusively. His sense of humor and humility betray his unbelievable success and I’ve always wondered how he got there. Last week I met up with him at his gloriously predictable suggestion, Manhattan’s own Doughnut Plant, ordered five doughnuts to split between the two of us and got to the bottom of it

What’s your favorite thing right now?

In the world? I’ve never been asked that before. Honestly, and not just because we’re talking about photography, my favorite thing is a feeling, actually. And that feeling would be knowing that I did a good job for the person’s project. The feeling you get when the artist lets you know your photo is exactly what he/she needs.

I haven’t found a feeling or thing yet that matches that level of satisfaction except for this fried mac ‘n’ cheese at Cheesecake Factory…that feels the same. They are comparable feelings. And that says a lot about how narrow my life is, but, that’s my favorite thing, I think.

© Shervin Lainez

So if you could take a photo that fulfilled fried mac ‘n’ cheese’s desires would you just stop working?

See though, fried mac ‘n’ cheese has so many desires that it might be impossible. Fried mac ‘n’ cheese is un-pleaseable. It’s like a dad that doesn’t care about you. You’ll just keep eating it and hoping, and then you’ll feel sick.

That’s a common theme in my life, actually.

Yes. It’s a struggle.

I’m really interested in this idea of fulfilling what the artist wants. You are so good at capturing the essence of people. Do you have a strategy?

I was just thinking about this the other day. You know, sometimes I don’t. If for any reason the person that you’re shooting is closed off or nervous or untrusting, it won’t work. I could have the most beautiful background or great idea for lighting, it doesn’t matter. The reason why it does work with artists is because they let me capture them. It’s the musician’s decision. I don’t for one second believe that my talent or power artistically can offset that. It can’t. What’s the best doughnut, by the way?

© Shervin Lainez

Oh, the creme brûlée, for sure.

Really? I feel like that’s going to be the most pretentious of the doughnuts.

Can a doughnut be pretentious?!

Yeah, definitely. Just look at it! It’s like, “I’m smaller than the rest of you.” It may be delicious, but it has an attitude. It has a chip on its shoulder. I like the down-to-earth guys. I like the ones that are just like, “Listen, I’m a doughnut.” No bells and whistles. Have you been keeping up with my stuff while you’ve been on tour?

Yes. The more I see you shooting literally every artist I love the happier I get. And it’s funny, I saw My Brightest Diamond on tour in Stockholm and it was a life-changing experience. So I was so excited when I saw that you had taken her picture. And then I thought, “Wait of COURSE Shervin took her picture.”

Her single from this record Pressure is one of my favorite songs. She’s so interesting and unique and she has her own identity and IS it.

Absolutely. I just wrote about that, in fact. You shoot a lot of “big deal artists,” MBD included. When you come into a shoot like that, if you haven’t met the person, do you come in with a preconceived idea of them or how the picture will be? With any artist, really. Do you approach any shoots differently?

My main goal is to capture each subject honestly. The way I do that is I try not to talk about it beforehand with the person too much. And I really prefer to have just the artist at the shoot.

This happened to me when I was shooting Cat Power for Pitchfork. I had five minutes. It was in a tiny dressing room at Webster Hall. She cleared everyone out of the only dressing room in the place.

© Shervin Lainez

In those five minutes I think I took twenty pictures of her. That was all I needed because she had made a space where it was possible. A similar thing happened when I got to shoot Tori Amos. A lot of it is not overthinking and creating a space wherever we’re shooting, even if it’s for a minute, where there’s no distraction. That way there’s no reason for the artist to have to present anything but themselves.

© Shervin Lainez

I can already see how beautiful this article is going to look.

Maybe you should include a tasteful nude of me. In black and white.

Not full-frontal, right? Just backsies?

Yeah. Just a nice curve.

Perfect. Okay I know this is the most boring question in the world, but I feel like when I first met you and you were shooting me—

You were so young.

We were babies!

When did we do our first one? You have to put a photo from our very first shoot up to show how young you were. It was like 2009, right?

© Shervin Lainez

Yes. And when you emailed me I thought it might be a scam because your pictures were so good and of so many people. So I was surprised when I met you that you were this down-to-earth and willing to eat doughnuts with me, even then. And so the question is, and it’s the worst question I know, I tried to start it nicely, but…How did you get started?

It’s okay. We need context, right? I’ve always wanted to be a part of music, but I have no inclination to play or write. So I just started selling merchandise for a singer I met in college and following her around, being that annoying kid. And then one day, I think I was 21, she said, “I have a camera, can you take some photos of me? I’ll put them in Microsoft Word or Paint or whatever.” So I took some. And they were good! They were decent.

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I would put the photos into Paint and up the contrast all the way or something like that. These days they look shitty, but at the time the photos looked good. For the next couple of years I just shot any musician I could for free. I taught myself editing, composition, things like that. I basically thought, If I just keep shooting people at some point it won’t be shitty. By the second year the photos were actually starting to be better. DC is pretty small, so after three or four years I had shot everyone there. That same girl Laura suggested I move to another city because I had literally shot every single band in DC. So I moved to New York City when I was about to be 25 and did the same thing. I just said, “Hey everybody! I’m here!”

© Shervin Lainez

I got one of those emails!

Yeah! It was like, “Hi, I’m Shervin! Can I take photos of you? Please?” Literally I did that with everyone until I didn’t have to do that anymore. And I have been so lucky that musicians I really respect and are often well known have helped me by telling people about me.

© Shervin Lainez

It’s interesting that in the first photo you shot you upped the contrast already. That seems to be a consistent theme in your work. There’s such a clear vision you have with color, saturation and editing. Do you have a method for that?

I think it comes from my lack of education in photography. Even these days I still only use four or five of the functions in Photoshop. I maybe use them more intensely now or I manipulate them better, but it’s mostly about color balance, saturation, contrast, and curves.

© Shervin Lainez

That’s fantastic. It’s an extension of Microsoft Paint!

Oh, it definitely is. I think I’m better off keeping myself blissfully ignorant. Because with Photoshop you can, you know, put someone’s head on the Eiffel Tower and make it look real. I don’t know how to do any of that and it has kept me pretty focused on the fact that the photo has to be strong. I’m very limited and I like that.

Here’s the thing: I don’t love photography. I really don’t. Some people can tell you how the camera operates and works, they have ten cameras, lenses all these lights. That stuff isn’t interesting to me. It’s just a vehicle. It’s a means to get the thing I need, the vision that I have. I have one lens now. It’s the lens that comes with my camera, the kit lens. I have two lights. I’m much more interested in the emotional part of photography than the technical.

© Shervin Lainez

That is the best answer. I’m happy we did this interview just for that answer.

Just for me to admit I hate photography? Ha. It’s not my medium, you know? I’m inspired by art. Music is what I want to be a part of, not photography. I put a lot of people off, a lot of visual artists. It’s not that I’m trying to be too cool for it, I’m just smart enough to have figured out that that’s not where my strength lies. My strength isn’t telling you the aperture of a shot. My strength is trying to capture a photo that you can respond to.

I’ve been thinking similarly actually, since I’ve been directing videos. I don’t know anything about cameras either. And I sit there with the DP and look like an idiot unless they understand that. It’s more about stories, which has worked really well with all the artists I’m working with.

Absolutely. Composition is a language. And sometimes when you understand composition like you or I do, we don’t understand the other side of it, and that’s okay. If you understand how to frame a shot and want to manifest it in real life, that’s all you need. What makes it go from a hobby to calling yourself an artist is the discipline of seeing it through. Not just having an idea and saying, “Maybe I’ll do that on Saturday.” Having the idea that you have to do it, and you have to do it just so. It’s a process.

© Shervin Lainez

Exactly. Next question: Aside from Mitt Romney, are there are any dream people you haven’t shot?

How did you know? You’re so smart. Mitt Romney and Oprah are my bucket list.

Aside from them, who’s your emotional-connection-manifested-visually bucket list? I don’t want to say photography, since you hate that apparently.

There are a bunch. I’d love to shoot Lykke Li, Bjork, Cyndi Lauper…

You would do such a good photo of Cyndi!

I know, right? She’s so colorful and dreamy. I was a giant fan of ’80s music, so I’d love to shoot someone from that era. Cyndi Lauper, Prince, those untouchable people.

I don’t know, though. I never think to myself, “Next year I’m gonna shoot ____.” The goal is that I want every year to get better, even if I don’t shoot as much. I think I did 300 shoots this year. It was exhausting. I imagine it’s the same thing with shows, right? To me the ultimate success is being able to be in a position to say, “I’m going to do only two shows or shoots this week but they’re going to be important and big.” Whatever number is good for you. Just not feeling like you HAVE to keep going at it. I’m sure you and José and the rest of your band are out of their minds after this tour.

© Shervin Lainez

Yeah…I need to sleep.

It’s crazy, right? It’s important, it gets you to a place. But I’m sure at some point when you’re in Poland or something you say to yourself, “What the fuck. I am SO tired.” You know?

Germany for me, this run.

Exactly. So my bucket list is more about trying to shoot quality artists I respect from all genres in a way that feels more rewarding. This year I calmed down a bit. I got to go to the Grammys with Sara [Bareilles] and I realized that this world of competition is not for me. I’m going to try and keep it indie and shoot bands I like. So long story long is: I don’t keep a mental list. There are people I love that are hard to shoot, but I can’t email something like and say, “Hi I’m Shervin.” It won’t work, you know? I have to be in the right situation.

© Shervin Lainez

Perfect. Closing it out: What’s a normal day like for you?

Four doughnuts, almond milk—y’know. I wake up at exactly 10 o’clock every day. This whole year. Because I can stay up until about 2, wake up at 10. Oh man, I want to make jokes…I was going to say, “I do intense self loathing in the mirror for a good 20 minutes.”

Like Liz in 30 Rock!

Exactly. I love that show. But yeah, I wake up, I do shoots. I usually shoot in the afternoon. I go home, edit the shoot right after I shoot it, eat as much as I can. Then I look at Twitter and fall asleep in my own filth. I have a really boring life. I go to shows. I’ll go on short tours with people sometimes for a week out, I did that with Regina last year, but usually I’m just home. I go to LA a couple of times, but other than that it’s pretty normal.

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