Tom Martin: My 10 years in music photography
Tom Martin is a name that you might not know but it’s extremely likely that you will have ogled over some of his photos at some point, as his music photography has regularly graced the pages of magazines such as NME, Clash and Uncut.
However, he didn’t always dream of shooting big name bands, stumbling into the world of music photography seemingly by accident whilst working at The Brudenell Social Club 10 years ago. Although the start of his career isn’t all owed to the iconic venue, he also has his parents to thank for that too.
“I’d been doing a HND at the art college and was half way through the second year, I hadn’t quit and it was going really well, so my mum and dad bought me a little entry level SLR,” Tom explains. “I was desperate to use it but we lived in Hyde Park and I didn’t want to go wondering round at night with my camera, so we went to the free gig which was on at The Brudenell. It was a crazy punk gig, and those were the first shots I ever took with the camera. It was as simple as that, it was just an accident.”
Back then Tom would often be the only person behind a lens in his breaks between bar work. Music photography wasn’t as “in vogue”, unlike an industry which today Tom believes is extremely over saturated. Being stationed at Brudenell opened up massive opportunities for him especially when the bar’s regulars included many rising bands.
“You could go into that bar room and it would always be full of people but it would all be bands. I Like Trains, Sunshine Underground, The Cribs would be there, or a couple of The Kaiser Chiefs on the fruit machine. It was such a strong scene at the time. It didn’t necessarily take me along with it but I got a career out of it.”
It was shooting what was on his doorstep which gained him a wealth of experience and is an important lesson he imparts back to the influx of emails he gets from students wanting his advice.
“When people start out they always want big passes to shoot big bands but that isn’t the way to do it. Shoot things that are accessible and what you want to do. The first things I got published were in free little music magazines and that was a really big deal to me at the time. If you concentrate on what you’re shooting and you get good enough then everything else will fall into place. You can’t be not ready for it and pester for work, it just doesn’t work like that.”
It was this ethos which saw Universal end up using Tom’s photos from the Cribsmas gigs at Brudenell for the release their follow up DVD. “There weren’t really any other photographers there at the time. The bands label decided to make a DVD out of the Cribmas gigs and asked if they could use my photos for the case. It was distributed by Universal so for a week it was on the shelves of HMV which I was really proud of. At the time it was such a huge big deal to me. The way the designer did it was that they took a lot of pictures and did a collage of it, so it still felt DIY. It reflected them and the way that I had shot it, being rough and ready and turning up.”
Through constant snapping, a heap of hard work and a back breaking passion which let him overcome the fear of being eternally skint, Tom’s music photography career steadily progressed, teaming up with the extremely talented photographer, Danny North. Working as Danny’s assistant on shoots for NME had a big influence on Tom’s photography style, as well as teaching him the invaluable lesson of how to turn your hobby into a career.
“He taught me how to be a photographer. He taught me how to do the job. A combination of him and people at Brudenell. Especially in the early years when I had just finished being a student and I didn’t know what to do. They showed me how to be a sensible person and make a sensible living out of something.”
And although Tom was now travelling and endlessly shooting, it was again Leeds which seemed to give him another break when he received a phone call from NME asking him to shoot a gig at the Cockpit because Danny couldn’t make it.
“I was terrified. But I knew the venue and luckily I knew the band and it all worked out. I was terrified for about the first six shoots I did. I was always sure that I wouldn’t get a paid job again.”
But he did and from here Tom’s success within music photography grew, shooting some of the biggest names in locations around the world. Unphased by celebrity status, “pinch me” moments are few and far between in his star studded portfolio but a moment at Leeds Festival this year did make Tom take a second to sit back and take stock of his achievements.
“I was the only photographer allowed in the pit throughout Metallica and when I stood there on my own I did have to take a second to think about how big that was. I went up the towers to shoot the fireworks too and it was just amazing.”
However, after ten years, the time seems right for Tom to unplug from the live music scene in search of new challenges and has decided celebrate this part of his career with LIVE, an exhibition in both Leeds and Manchester.
Shunning the idea of having his images in a usual exhibition space, Tom’s opted to unleash a mixture of his work in the Black Swan , Leeds and Sandinista, Manchester, both spaces with a living, breathing, boozing atmosphere which better reflects the subject matter. Leeds was an obvious choice for his exhibition and working with bands such as Courteeners and James has created strong ties across the Pennines too.
“I mean I could have done it in London,” Tom reflects. “But it seemed a bit daft to do it in London as I would have been doing it for no other reason than trying to get some attention in London and I’m not really bothered about that. It’s quite daunting having to fill two spaces with prints though, I started looking through some this afternoon and it’s shaping up slowly but surely.”
But after ten years of shooting, how do you even go about picking out a handful of images to show to the world?
“Half of it I instinctively know what my favourite shots are and then the other half is sort of just putting things out that people would want to see. I’ve never really paraded the shots of the big name bands before. I’m just going to stick daft things in…selling out basically,” he laughs. “Putting in things I think people want to see.”
The “book ending” of this part of his career comes, as like most people, after a while he just fancied a new challenge and for Tom this comes in the for of commercial work. “Whenever I go shoot a gig, well definitely in the later years, I feel that you’re only ever there to record and document other peoples creativity. If its personal work or a commercial job, it’s me that is in control of it creatively and I find that more interesting and stimulating than if I just did gigs endlessly. If I did I think I would go insane and I don’t think I would progress either.”
However we don’t quite believe him when he says he is giving up snapping live music all together. He let slip that he’d already shot three gigs the week we met and that he has a sleep-depriving habit of saying yes to any shoot that he finds interesting, no matter what the topic or the fee. And the thought of going to a gig without a camera in hand… well that’s just not even worth thinking about.
“It’s Horrible. I can’t do it. Sometimes I will be at a festival and I will think ‘what would I do all day if I didn’t have a camera on and a schedule?’ What do people do all day? There’s a couple of bands I really love who aren’t very visually exciting and I can just go and enjoy it but yeah I find it really uncomfortable not shooting, especially if something exciting is happening. It’s always frustrating.”
But even if Tom manages to shake off his music photography habit, you’ll be pleased to know that the place where it all started, Brudenell Social Club, still holds a dear place in Tom’s heart, even having his wedding reception there last year.
You can see Tom’s 10 year anniversary exhibition, LIVE, at the Black Swan on Call Lane and Sandinista in Manchester from the 3rd Decemeber.
Words: Louise Fletcher
Photography:Kindly supplied by Tom Martin