Interview: David Corio

Iconic rock ‘n’ roll photographer David Corio has seen-it-all, lived, and came back with proof. Famed for his stunning photos that captured the spirit of rock, reggae and pop culture, not to mention his recent adventures into the world of ancient monoliths; he’ll be down in KL (at Zinc Gallery, Bangsar) for an exhibition and talk on 24 April. JUICE fires some questions to the man ahead of time for the expert’s scoop on photo-journalism and rockstar super-egos. Work with us, baby!

What was the first photo you took?
Now you’ve got me on the first question! The first proper photo I can remember taking was of Wreckless Eric in a car scrapyard when I was 15 in 1975 and he was just starting his musical career. They never got used anywhere though.

Were you already into photography prior to shooting Ian Dury and Elvis Costello? Or was it just a hobby?
I had started going to a weekly night school class in photography when I was 15 and had managed to get into Gloucester School of Art & Design when I was 16. I had been in college for about a year and had been to about a dozen concerts before I shot Ian Dury and Elvis Costello so had had a little bit of experience but not much.

What’s your approach to telling stories through photography?
That is more of a photo-journalistic take when you know you are working on an essay involving a selection of photographs rather than just one image usually. It depends very much on the story but you ideally want a wide general photo to show some overview and then closer more intimate pictures to give the story some context. This gives a more personal touch to the story, but every assignment is different so it is hard to generalise. It is always good to stay as long as possible and try different unconventional angles and to look away from the main focus of a story as sometimes there are more interesting things happening on the periphery.

How do you handle impromptu photo shoots?
I will normally have a few pre-conceived ideas of what I may like to do with the subject or find a few locations beforehand that I like, but often circumstances will change that. It’s a question of quickly looking around and sounding out the people you have to shoot, seeing somewhere that has good light and isn’t too distracting ideally and persuading them to do what you want them to do.

To date, what’s your most memorable shoot and why?
There are many. The shot of Bob Marley was taken when I was 20 and as he was performing in a natural amphitheatre with a lake in front of the stage the only way to get close to him was to wade in. I ended up in mud and water up to my chest and had my camera and a couple of rolls of film in a plastic shopping bag but I got some of my favourite photos out of it. The U2 shoot was memorable as it was the first assignment where I went abroad even though it was only to Ireland. They didn’t have a record deal then and I ended up sleeping on the floor of bass-player Adam Clayton’s parents’ living room as we couldn’t afford a hotel. I have done many memorable non-music shoots as well – one of my favourites was going to Shenyang in northern China to shoot a circus school and photographed all the young children doing incredible contortions and acrobatics. It was incredible to see parts of China, particularly parts that didn’t often get foreigners visiting. I used to be followed around by some of the inquisitive locals!

Rockstars are known for having huge egos. What sort of egos have you had to deal with and how did you manage?
On the whole most rockstars are fine. The problem tends to be more often with the public relations people and the hangers on that cause the most problems as they want to be treating their clients as if they are royalty, whereas if you just treat them as normal human beings that is usually the best bet. I shot Barry Manilow and the PR woman told me I had to shoot him from the right and looking up as he has a large nose and had a bit of a double chin but when I met him he made fun of his nose and purposely posed in profile. With John Lydon I photographed him with about 30 paprazzi photographers and they were all shouting at him calling out “John, this way” or “Johnny Rotten” etc. I thought to myself ‘I wonder what his mother would have called him’ so I went up behind him and said quite loudly “Oh Jonathan” and he looked round straight away and I got a good photo out of it.

James Brown was another one with a very big ego. Everyone has to call him Mister Brown and he had his hair in curlers when I first met him. He kept me waiting for 12 hours before giving me 60 seconds to photograph him and thought that was very amusing!

Prince is another one who seems to go out of his way to make photographers’ lives difficult. I photographed him at a soundcheck of a show as he didn’t allow photographers at the gig. We had the first verse and first chorus of the first song only and couldn’t use flashguns at all. When he came on, it was all red light which is a nightmare to shoot in so I put on my flash and was immediately thrown out by a heavy security guard. Some of them seem to think it’s a game but they end up getting bad photographs in the long run.

On the flipside, some photographers are known to be manipulative. Is there a moral code which photographers should abide by?
Not a moral code but I always try to be respectful of whoever I am photographing. If you come across someone who doesn’t want to be photographed then that should be their prerogative. I know a paparazzi photographer who may be up a tree for a few days stalking film stars but I couldn’t do that. It is a case of being sensitive enough so that you don’t annoy people and understanding that different cultures can react to a camera very differently. Obviously there are times when it is disrespectful to shoot, such as if someone is praying or upset. It can depend on the circumstances a lot.

What’s the worst shoot you’ve done?
The most irritating was shooting Ray Davies [of The Kinks]. I had always liked his music but he is a complete control freak! He refused to do anything or go anywhere I asked him. I was shooting digital and after every picture he wanted to see it and then delete it. He also had terrible dandruff which didn’t help. I ended up shooting for an hour and got about 14 photos. I was doing the job for The Times and he called them the next day to ask to see the photos before they put one in the paper. Thankfully they told him where to go!

Have you ever gotten into a hazardous situation because of your job?
Yes a few times! I was trying to shoot the Poll Tax riots in the centre of London in 1990, which the police didn’t like too much and got pushed around by them a bit. In the punk days there used to be a lot of pretty violent skinheads pogo dancing and lashing out so I did once ‘accidently’ hit one over the head with my camera and I got robbed and knifed once at a reggae show but I managed to hide my cameras from them. It’s part of the job though – not as bad as being a war photographer!

You’ve shot some of the most significant punk rock and hip hop artists before they became known. Who did you figure at the time would eventually go on to be cultural icons?
I would say U2 really stood out. They were all about 19 or 20-years-old when I met them but were quite serious and determined and Bono was extremely ambitious. Their live shows were really powerful and some of their songs were very anthemic even back then. On the hip hop side I did one of the first shoots with The Fugees and I didn’t know then that Lauren Hill and Wyclef Jean would become such big stars, but they did have a special vibe about them. It can be hard to describe it but it is something you feel sometimes when you are amongst powerful people, Their presence was very strong even though they were all teenagers at the time that I first photographed them.

Who has been your most interesting subject to photograph?
Each shoot is a different challenge in a different way. I really enjoyed shooting Anthony Burgess as he was an author whose work I really enjoy. He was such an intelligent person and had an incredible vocabulary; I couldn’t understand half of what he was talking about, but was enjoyable to meet. Likewise Robert Altman was a film director I had always admired and found him very interesting although he was very uncomfortable being photographed as he was used to being the one in charge and was surprisingly shy in front of a camera.

One the musical side Ian Dury was someone who I met quite a few times when I was just starting and he was always very encouraging and real fun to be around. He had a great sense of humour and was always so photogenic. Curtis Mayfield was a musical hero of mine and he was very humble and generous on first meeting him. He always remembered me when I met him again over the years which always surprised me as he must have had to deal with so many people in his career.

How did you get into photographing monoliths?
It seemed a good way of getting far away from a lot of the musicians’ egos for one thing! I have done quite a few different personal projects and once I started to photograph a few of these prehistoric stones I got really hooked. They tend to be in beautiful tranquil landscapes in the British countryside – there are many in Europe too - and largely forgotten about. Considering these are some of the oldest pieces of art or architecture in the world, often over 5000-years-old, it is amazing how they are ignored and how little is known about them. Stonehenge is the most famous but there are literally thousands of other sites that have virtually been ignored. I did a book with my wife Lai Ngan, who is originally from Malaysia, called ‘Megaliths’ (Jonathan Cape) which covers about 75 places in England and Wales, with my photos and her words, on the legends and folklore of all these places.

Your work is mostly in black and white. Is there a particular reason for this?
I much prefer black and white particularly for portraits. I do my own darkroom printing as it is a way of controlling the image and you can put your own style into the print much more than with colour. I think it can bring out the character in someone’s face more and has more atmosphere than colour. My photographs tend to be quite contrasty and grainy as I like them to have a gritty feel to them and shoot with available light whenever I can. With colour you can’t control it so much I don’t think.

In the past, artists were supposed to project the “greatness” of a sovereign. So warts were covered and short people became taller in paintings. Is photography a more honest medium for the artist?
No way! With digital photography what it is now almost compulsory to retouch an image. I prefer to be a bit more truthful and don’t manipulate my photos much other than when I am printing – I may make the sky stronger or darken a background. A friend of mine is a photo-retoucher and hates a famous older female model intensely as he has to spend days retouching her images to get rid of all her lines and wrinkles. What happens when people meet her in the flesh?!

What do you think of digital photography and photoshop?
I much prefer film than digital but unfortunately I am in a minority now. The best way of learning about photography is to learn by your mistakes. If you shoot film, learn how to develop it and print it, there is much more of a sense of accomplishment and you can also stamp your own character on the photo. A photo that may be a bit blurred or out of focus can still be a great photo. With digital it is all done for you. You don’t need to focus or check exposure. With film as well you have a hard original copy. If you delete a digital file it’s goodbye to your picture. I still don’t think digital can capture really difficult lighting conditions as well as film even with the better cameras around now. These days I shoot digital for work a lot though and photoshop is very useful at bringing out more from a picture. That is the tool I use more than any.

What makes a better picture: a pricey high tech camera or a good subject?
A good subject every time. I much prefer using simple cameras with manual exposure and focus. Most of my early photos in this show were taken with a Pentax K1000 or a Nikon FM2 which are really cheap basic cameras. As long as you have a good lens that is the main criteria on the technical side to get a good photo.

You do a lot of portrait photography. How do you connect with a subject whom you’ve only just met?

I try to make them feel relaxed and as comfortable as possible. I usually do some research on the subject before to find out what they are doing and what their interests are. People tend to relax more when they are talking about themselves and once I have broken the ice a bit I will shoot and normally converse while I shoot, although sometimes if people aren’t into talking I may do an entire shoot without hardly saying a word. Sometimes they can be some of the best although it depends on the personality of the person you are shooting.

What’s your best advice on portrait photography?
Make the subject feel comfortable in front of the camera as you can usually capture more of a person’s character if they are relaxed.  Light is always important so find locations that are well-lit or atmospheric to make someone look more dramatic. I concentrate on people’s eyes a lot as that is what tends to engage people more than anything else. I tend to work quickly too. If your subject starts losing concentration it is usually reflected in the photos so know when to engage with your subject and when to stop or take a break.

Juergen Teller once said in an interview that he can never “just shoot a family picture” and as a result it often frustrates his wife who takes over when it comes to shooting family pictures. Do you have that same problem?
I hardly ever take family pictures other than of our recently born grandson so I suppose I’d have to agree with Juergen. My wife doesn’t take many either though which is fine with me. I much prefer being behind the camera than being in front of it.

For more on David Corio, visit Thanks to Converse and Jam Division, David will be at Zinc Gallery on Saturday 24 April. The exhibition of his works entitled Youth & Decay will go on until Wednesday 5 May 2010.