From walking into a room with Lady Gaga for the first time to shooting in an underground crypt below an 18th century cemetery, our interview with music photographer Mark Jaworski took us to a lot of places we never would have expected.
Mark works in the world of music capturing stunning portraits and crafting wild posters with his skill and imagination. His work is as diverse as his escapades, and his images just have a way of throwing us directly into the world and artistic soul of the musicians he works with. Whether it’s funny, haunting, or surreal, his stuff never fails to hit a sweet note.
Beyond his work, we discovered that Mark himself is a fascinating and thoughtful character, with a knack for spinning a yarn. Better yet, his stories always have the depth of insight, and we learned a lot from speaking with him. Perhaps you will too! Check it all out below.
How did you get started in photography?
When I was in high school, my friend dragged me to the Diane Arbus exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the time, I had a negative view of photography as an artistic medium. I quite enjoyed Arbus’s work, but was unable to fully appreciate her images since she, as I put it at the time, did little more than simply press a button… Truthfully, it was silly mindset that I had at the time, but I was sixteen years old, so I’ll give myself a pass.
Well, something about that exhibit must have stuck with me because I bought my first camera within the next couple months… The following year I found myself in university, pursuing an education in business. I brought my little camera with me but used it very infrequently and when I did use it, it was for the casual capturing of simple memories. Nothing more.
At this time I was hell-bent on finding antiques by any means necessary. Every week I would search through newspapers for garage sales that looked promising. I would even drive around looking for unlisted garage sales. One day, while driving around looking for sales, I drove past a scene that will stick with me forever. I saw a white house with red shutters, surrounded by well manicured, bright green grass, enclosed by a white picket fence. A man wearing clothing of red and white pushed a red lawn mower. The scene was majestic, but I did not have a camera. This was the first moment in my life that I felt the need to have a camera for artistic purposes. I never captured that wonderful scene, but I plan to one day recreate it.
Shortly after, while in university, I met a young man named Jason. I will never forget Jason. He had a big black beast of a camera, unlike anything I had ever held. It’s name was Canon 20D, and it felt unusual in my hands. It was large and heavy and when I pressed the shutter, it would fire off like a machine gun.
Something about that camera scared me at first, but something about it intrigued me. It handled like a piece of heavy machinery. That night I went online and spent every last penny I had on a similar camera. I anxiously awaited its arrival and immediately got to work on figuring out how to operate such a thing.
What attracted you to music photography?
I bore easily and I love music. Working with musicians allows me to constantly change up what I’m doing.
Shortly after I got my first “real” camera, I put an ad online offering to shoot bands for free… a local record label booked me to shoot one of their bands the following day. I did not sleep the night before. Not a wink. I was so nervous, and even more nervous when the sun rose and I realized that I would be in an exhausted, zombie-like state while shooting.
Fortunately, it turns out that I’m actually pretty creative when I’m sleep deprived. The shoot went well. Very well. I still have that shot in my portfolio today…
The label was impressed and sent other bands my way. One day I would be in Brooklyn and the next I would be deep in the New Jersey suburbs. One day I would be shooting a punk band and the next a folk singer. This sort of creative variety is exactly what I needed, and exactly what I need today.
How much of the location, props, and general scene is your idea, and how much of it is spontaneous?
99% of what you see in my photographs is there because it was my idea for it to be there. Some of it is planned and some of it is spontaneous, but hardly anything is accidental. A good music photographer is also a creative director, set designer, makeup artist, prop specialist, and even a babysitter at times. I am a lone soldier and prefer to work solo…
Aside from the photography stuff, I’d say the most important talent a music photographer can have is being a great location scout. After that, having the ability and willingness to alter and/or build a location into what it needs to be for a shoot is a key skill to have.
I can’t divulge too many details at the time, but I just wrapped up filming a music video this past Monday and it was the biggest (and best) production I have ever done. A lovely girl was kind enough to let us take over her house, and I really did take it over. I turned an ordinary house into an extraordinary set, and we did it all with no crew. I had friends, and even the band, all lending helping hands to set things up, but the whole thing was accomplished with far fewer hands than anybody would ever guess.
What’s the most fun you have ever had on a shoot?
Oh man. This is a tough one. I went to Alaska a few months back with The Front Bottoms and we had a ton of fun on that one. We were only there for a few days but packed each day full of adventure. Still, something tells me that may not be the most fun shoot I have been on.
The video I filmed on Monday was by far the highest moment of my life up to this point. It was an overly ambitious idea and we had a ton of people involved that I had to direct. While it was far more stressful than it was “fun” in the traditional sense, I would say that it was my best shooting experience to date.
I did one music video that involved hanging out in a basement, drinking beer and playing with a real live alligator. It was scary, but fun.
I love my job because it comes with so many adventures. I have done a shoot in a small airplane flying over my hometown. I have done a shoot in Yankee Stadium while it was empty. I have shot in an underground crypt in a cemetery from the 18th century. I have shot on the beautiful beaches of Florida, in the deserts of Egypt, in many interesting parts of the US, and so forth
What was your most memorable experience shooting an artist you admire?
When I photographed Lady Gaga a few years back I was in the back room anxiously awaiting her arrival. I got a gentle tap on the shoulder and turned around to see her. She put out her limp hand for me to shake and said, in a voice like a small gust of wind, “Hi, I’m Gaga.”
Have you ever felt star-struck?
Sure. It’s hard to believe anybody has enough of a forcefield around them to avoid this sort of thing. I would not call myself a fan of Lady Gaga and had not even heard many of her songs at the time I worked with her, but she’s a star and you can feel that when she walks into a room. I don’t let it alter my behavior, but inside I am struck.
You seem to tap into a lot of different music communities, from the metal to the indie scene. Is there a music scene where you feel the deepest sense of belonging?
I feel the deepest sense of belonging when I’m working with The Front Bottoms. I genuinely believe them to be among the best bands of my generation and they are among the kindest, most talented and genuine guys I have ever had the pleasure of working with. At this point they seem more like family than they do friends. I have more love in my hearts for those guys than I ever will for another band.
A lot of your shoots are very imaginative, with lots of humor, or even surreal elements. Where do your visual concepts come from, and what inspires them?
I spend a lot of time thinking. It’s a curse really. My mind won’t turn off. I tried watching the Mad Men finale three times the past couple nights and couldn’t do it because my mind kept going back to a video I’m working on.
I find that the shower and the car are my two favorite places to have some focused and creative thought. I very often kneel down in the shower with my head in my hands as if I were crying. Something about this allows me to hone in on concepts. Driving by myself is also a great way to get some good thought in, but I prefer the shower.
What are your most formative memories as an artist?
I have been collecting historical memorabilia since I was a kid. When I was around fifteen years old I bought a huge box of artifacts that belonged to an American medic in WWII. He went overseas to the South Pacific and spent his free time drawing. He developed into a very talented artist and opened up a cartoon shop after the war. I have thousands of letters written by him to his parents. I have his sketchbooks. I used to spend hours recreating his drawings. His name was Clyde Rutenber, and if he were here today, I would tell him that he is very much responsible for my interest in art.
Is there a band that you would most like to shoot and why?
Tom Waits, hands down. I could work so many photographic wonders with that magnificent man, I just don’t know what else to say. I also like to think he’d dig my music.