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Accidental Photographer: Coston's Musical Journey
Picture by Jim Schmid
October 17, 2013
For nearly two decades, Charlotte photographer Daniel Coston has been as much a fixture at regional music shows as microphones and amplifiers. Gig-hopping between venues (and sometimes cities) as though they were adjacent stages at a festival, Coston has crammed as many as seven different shoots into a day and still averages half-a-dozen shows each week.
During his time, he’s chronicled the rise of some of the region’s biggest bands – the early years of the Avett Brothers, for instance – and some of the state’s legends who’ve passed on in the interim. Witness the soft-focus Doc Watson shot that serves as the cover for Coston’s third and latest book, North Carolina Musicians: Photographs and Conversations (McFarland Press).
Coston’s strengths as a photographer spring from the long relationships he’s established with certain musicians. The fly-on-the-wall level of intimacy that only comes with trust – the kind built by legendary music photographers like Jim Marshall and Ernest Withers, two icons of Coston’s – pays off in some of the book’s best shots, presented here in a 7x10 black-and-white, acid-free paperback. Comprised of five sections – “In the Studio,” “On the Road,” “On Stage,” “Festivals” and “At Home” – Coston wanted the structure to mirror his own experiences as a well-traveled music photographer.
“In doing it that way, it allowed me to talk about the journey I took, working with these musicians, taking these photographs, and my own life on the road – and I’ve done a fair bit of that,” says the 41-year-old, who once travelled to Iceland on his own dime to shoot the Charlotte band Mar, who’d been invited to record in Sigur Ros’ studio. (Mar immediately broke up and the record was never released.)
For somebody who was initially, as he wrote on an old blog, ‘’too shy to say hello’’ to artists like Whiskeytown the first time he saw them, Coston has been able to turn the relationships that developed over those parallel journeys into some wonderfully intimate photos in the book. There’s a shot of Charlotte crooner Benji Hughes, in tux and bare feet, staring poignantly off-camera at another musician’s wedding he and Coston were guests at. Backstage, there’s a shot of an exhausted Chris Phillips of the Squirrel Nut Zippers napping in the Double Door Inn’s green room and another of a deep-in-concentration Jimbo Mathus scribbling down the guitar chords as he pens a song at the Visulite Theatre.
In the “At Home” section, Coston captures the Carolina Chocolate Drops practicing in the living room of their mentor, fiddler Joe Thompson, and underrated troubadour David Childers playing in his kitchen. Coston says it’s his long association with some of these musicians that enables him to peer beneath the public persona. “They’re much more comfortable with me — I’m not an unknown entity, I’m there because I want to be and because I know I can get something good out of them and they know I can get something good out of them,” he says. “Ultimately I want something, posed or live, that’s a reflection of the people, of what’s going on in front of me.”
Coston began what he’s called his ‘’accidental career’’ in the mid-90s with the Charlotte arts publication Tangents. He was hired as a cartoonist, but never did any cartoons. He then switched over to writing, but just as quickly picked up photography when the previous shutterbug kept neglecting to show up at assignments. Armed with a Cannon AE-1 that his father wasn’t using, Coston shot some local music shows and wound up getting hired by the bands – including country rock outfits Lou Ford and Mercury Dime, both featured in the book – for promotional shots.
His good luck continued when his first out-of-town gig turned out to be the 1996 Farm Aid in Columbia, S.C. There, he met and shot the Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Doug Sahm, and Son Volt, among others. Coston has since sold exclusive photos (including cover shots) to national publications ranging from Mojo, Magnet and Rolling Stone to GQ and Entertainment Weekly, but decided early on that he preferred working with the musicians themselves. His photography has been featured in album artwork by a potpourri of artists (80 albums and counting) including the Drive-by Truckers, Guided by Voices, Chad & Jeremy, Superchunk, Chris Stamey, Andrew Bird, and even Ted Nugent (the only show Coston has ever been booted from).
Coston also photographed Johnny Cash’s final public appearances at the invitation of the Carter family just before the Man In Black’s 2003 passing, and travelled to London for the Zombies’ first-ever performance of Odessey & Oracle. But it’s the regional scene where his documentation has reverberated most. In recent years, he’s co-written There Was A Time: Rock In The 1960s In Charlotte and North Carolina with Jacob Berger, and provided the photos for and edited Debby Wallace’s Home of the Blues: 35 Years of the Double Door Inn.
But it was in 2007 that Coston began kicking around the idea of his own book chronicling North Carolina musicians. It was actually a local arts writer, Meg Whalen Freeman, who suggested the book and was originally intended to provide the words to go along with Coston’s photos. (She provides the forward to North Carolina Musicians.) But a new full-time job and children curtailed her availability, and Coston eventually decided he’d tackle the subject from his own point of view.
‘’I didn’t want it to be staid, I wanted it to have life, I wanted it to reflect something of the music and the subject matter,’’ Coston says. ‘’I see too many books that are, ‘Here’s the box of writing, here’s the box of photos.’ I really felt that for the book as a whole they really needed to mesh together. So it made absolute sense for me to say, ‘here’s my photos over the years, here’s me talking about the photos, the process of taking them, and the musicians themselves.’’’
As for the 60,000-70,000 words Coston says he punched out in a couple of months, the first-person approach reads smoothly enough and results in some poignant moments. For instance, only the stone-hearted reader wouldn’t empathize with Coston’s chagrin about not working much anymore with artists like the Avett Brothers, who’ve moved up the food chain and now work with other, higher-profile photogs.
But the prose’s “gee whiz” nature – Coston’s been called ‘’Tom Sawyer with a camera’’ – cuts both ways. The photographer’s enthusiasm for his subjects is genuine and catching, but declaring almost every act “amazing” or “great” or ‘’fantastic’’ devolves into perfunctory praise and, more importantly, violates the Writing 101 rule of “show me, don’t tell me.” Part of that was Coston’s intention, though, a reaction to the cynicism of much 90s music criticism.
“When I started in the mid-90s, there was a trend at the time for snarky music journalism – ‘journalism’ in quotation marks,” Coston says. “I didn’t want to do that. I felt that having to write that way to get more interest nationally or regionally – I didn’t want to be someone else. I wanted to communicate about the music I was experiencing, listening to and enjoying, and have more of a conversation with it – and it just happened to be with photography.’’
But the line between booster and documentarian gets rubbed out occasionally – teasing the reader about the “stories I could tell” about Whiskeytown and its would-be enfant terrible Ryan Adams, and then studiously avoiding even a whiff of the controversy that was inimical to their music, reads disingenuous. From that standpoint, the many artist Q&As that fill out the text are quite welcome for the light they shine on the lives of the musicians that Coston might not feel comfortable revealing himself. To his credit, Coston asks the right questions, a result of interviewing plenty of his subjects over the years (many of them published in the music periodical The Big Takeover).
And in the end this is really Coston’s story as much as it is any of the musicians’. There is insight aplenty here that should be of great interest to any inspiring music photographers. To have made a living for this long in a field that’s threatened today by amateurs on Flickr and the ubiquitous iPhone camera is no easy feat. And the window into music photo-journalism that Coston’s photos and words chronicle show that with perseverance and genuine enthusiasm for your work, anyone can follow suit.