Don't be Afraid to Ask: Jonatha Brooke

Jonatha Brooke

I can't even explain to you how amazing it is that I made this photograph.  This is Jonatha Brooke.  She is one of my all time favorite musicians.  She, along with musician Jennifer Kimball, formed the band THE STORY in the 1990's.  I've been a fan of Jonatha's since then.  A little while back, I got to make a portrait of her.

How?  Simply because I asked.

I love music.  I love it.  It's playing all the time, everywhere for me.  At home.  In the car.  At the studio.  In my head.  Always.  Forever.  When I was in middle/high school I had a vast collection of cassette tapes.  Before transitioning to compact disc I had somewhere around 800 cassette tapes.  All kinds of genre's of music (though I have to confess I have a very soft spot for 80's pop.  Men At Work, Mr. Mister, Olivia Newton-John, Phil Collins, etc) and you could find me, driving around town in my metallic blue Chevy Chevette with the ridiculous giant speaker box system in the hatch blasting Eddie Money or Def Leppard or Asia or Genesis at stupid volumes.  After graduating high school and throughout my 20's I worked for various record shops in the area.  I love music.  I love talking about music with other people that love music.  Record store jobs are a very special type of retail; serving music lovers with music with witch they will form new and powerful memories - some joyous, some sad, some devastating.  Suddenly my cassette tape collection turned into a compact disc collection that still grows to this day.  I think I'm somewhere around 1,200, give or take.  And then other stuff on MP3 that isn't on cd, though I'm not a big MP3 fan.  I love my physical media.

cd collection

cd collection

Around 1993 I lived/worked for a while in North Carolina and worked at a record shop in Virginia Beach, VA.  It was called TRACKS MUSIC but later became bought out by video rental chain Blockbuster when they were trying their hand at running music stores, and for a while I worked for BLOCKBUSTER MUSIC.  One day I stumbled across a promo cd behind the counter by a band called THE STORY.  The album was titled THE ANGEL IN THE HOUSE. I've always been a big fan of the female singer-songwriter, and in the early 1990's there was an almost overpopulation of female songwriters on the scene.  Remember Lilith Fair?  I popped the cd in the store's sound system, and while organizing cd racks, I heard the most incredible harmonies coming from these two singers.  I had never heard anything like it before.  It was like one voice, but slightly different.  They sang in harmony.  They sang dissonant. I couldn't get it out of my head.  I bought the cd that evening, and listened to it on the way home.  And for the most part, it's never left rotation playing in my car for the last 20-something years.

The Story split up after that album, and Jonatha and Jennifer went their separate ways, and I've been a fan of both of them through it all. I still am.

After I graduated college it took a little while to figure out what I should photograph.  After following the advice of some other people of photographing things that I really wasn't happy to photograph,  I realized that what I really wanted to do was to photograph musicians.  To make awesome portraits that they could use on their promo kits and press kits and publicity.  And, if I'm lucky, on their albums.  (read about me working on an album design HERE) I've shared the story before of how I walked in to the studio one day and it was like someone slapped me across the face saying "WHY ARE YOU NOT PHOTOGRAPHING MUSICIANS, YOU FOOL?  MUSIC IS IN YOUR LIFE EVERY DAY!" and suddenly things started to make sense to me.

I've worked with some really excellent musicians over the years since, but one challenge to me is how can I really get my foot in the wider professional music photography market?  Another thing I've been dealing with lately is this ever-encompassing dread that I'll never get a chance to photograph some of the people who I would really love to make a portrait of.  And part of that is the dealing with the fear of asking them.

Admitting the fear of asking something from someone sounds kind of silly, doesn't it?  I'm afraid to ask someone if I can take their portrait.  Why would I be afraid?  Well, because the could say "no".  They'd see my work, and think I wasn't good, and they'd be like "Uh, yeah, no thanks, dude.  Your work is shit"

I don't think anyone would actually ever say that if I asked.  But your mind can be your worst enemy, and those are the kinds of things that go through my head.

Then, one day, I said "Fuck it", and I started mentally making a list of people I'd love to photography.  Musicians and actors and artists and people who have had some kind of effect in my life.

So I did.  I made a list and I started with some musicians.  At the top of that list was Jonatha and Jennifer.

Kismet: it just so happened that she was going to be playing a concert at a music venue fairly close to me very soon.  I figured I'd just email her via her booking agency.  So I did.  It was a simple email saying I was a photographer and I was located near her upcoming gig and if she had any free time before the concert, could I make a portrait of her?  Because I've been a fan of her music since I was 18.  Because her songs are strongly tied to experiences in my life.  Because her music and songs mean something to me. I asked her to take a look at my website (so she could see I wasn't some crazy person) and if she liked the quality of the work, and had any free time, to possibly get back to me.

And holy shit, she did.

She emailed back.  She was free.  She really liked the work on my website.  She said yes and we would connect before the concert and take care of specifics.

Then suddenly, the day of the concert was here and after they arrived at the venue, before dinner and before her gig, I was standing next to her; nervous and giddy and blurty and hoping I didn't come across like a total crazed lunatic fan.  I probably stuttered.  I probably mumbled a bit.  I was trying not to wet my pants in excitement.

I didn't want to take up too much of her time.  So I packed very light.  I had my X100S camera and I had a SaberStrip light source (more about that at a later date).  I had Sara there to help me.  I had Jonatha, I had her amazing boots, and I had a staircase.

Jonatha Brooke

I took a few test shots to get my exposure, and then I got my composition framed up, and then I just had her look at me.  Sometimes smiling.  Sometimes not.  I liked the color of the wall and her jeans.  I liked the warmth that the stairs conveyed.

Jonatha Brooke

Those boots!

Then I got the shot that I was looking for, which I'll post here again:

Jonatha Brooke

(see it a little larger HERE)

When I got the images up on the computer I noticed there were lots of water streaks and stains on the walls going up the stairwell.  I tried mucking with them in photoshop but nothing I was doing was looking good, so I outsourced the image to a friend of mine and paid him to fix it up and make it cleaner.  Because this image is really important to me.  Because it's worth the money.  I love that image.  She's looking right at me.  It's warm and the colors are lovely and this singer who has been part of my life coming through my stereo and been with me through breakups and tears and joy is sitting in front of me and I'm going to make a portrait of her and I'm nervous and scared but when the time came I was totally in control and knew exactly what to do to get the portrait I wanted (and with such little time!) and I love this.  I love this portrait.  I love it.  I can't tell you enough.  I. Love. This. Photograph.

I quickly tweeted a photo of the back of the camera minutes after leaving Jonatha because I was still in disbelief that I just took a portrait of Jonatha Brooke

I quickly tweeted a photo of the back of the camera minutes after leaving Jonatha because I was still in disbelief that I just took a portrait of Jonatha Brooke

Once I knew I had the shot, we were good and I told her we were all set.  I'd say I photographed her for maybe 6 or 10 minutes; from test exposures to stopping a few times to check the back of the camera while chatting with her, to getting my "shot".

When we were done, I asked her if she would autograph a few things for me.  One was my cd copy of the album that introduced me to her.  The second was really special to me: a promotional poster I had for THE ANGEL IN THE HOUSE that I owned since 1993 when I fell in love with their album and music.  I always dreamed that someday I'd get it autographed and hang it up somewhere in my future home.  It's been rolled up for decades and the paper has become fairly thin and frail and parts of it have become crumpled up because of accidents or careless moving.  But I still had it.  And suddenly I had it in front of her and she was autographing it.

All because I asked.  I took a chance, I shared my story and I asked for some of her time.

Some portraits are not about getting a job.  Or being paid.  This was personal.  It meant something to me and I made the opportunity and I think, to me, I killed it.  I can't tell you how fucking happy that makes me.

signed poster!

signed poster!

Thank you Jonatha.  Thank you for your time.  Thank you for answering my email and giving me a chance.  I want to photograph you again, if you are ever in the area and are willing.

Oh, see that other autograph on that poster?  That's Jennifer Kimball, the other half of The Story, who I freaking spent the day with at my studio the same freaking week I photographed these portraits.

THAT will be my next blog entry about not being afraid to ask.