He shot rock and roll

Prolific British photographer David Corio talks to Adrian Hatwell about shooting some of pop music’s biggest stars

The Specials performing at the Hope & Anchor, London 1980

The Specials at the Hope & Anchor, London, 1980, © David Corio

Few would argue that rock and roll reverberates beyond mere sound; its impact has always been just as inextricably linked with image. That’s what makes music photographers the unsung heroes of the rock revolution — they brave ravenous fans, risk life and lens in mosh pits, and put up with stroppy celebrities to bring us the images that make icons.

Veteran music and portrait photographer David Corio has been at it for over three decades, shooting a huge range of live shows and portraits of some of the most important names in the business. His love of music began at an early age, with a particular fondness for the blues and early British R&B, and once he came to the conclusion that his guitar skills were never going to make him the next Clapton he dove into photography.

“I went to art college doing photography in 1976 when I was 16, and left after two years and thought I would try and make a go of it straight away. I worked in various jobs — restaurants, liquor stores — in London while I shot concerts at night.”

Tom Waits 01

Tom Waits at the Victoria Apollo Theatre, London, 1981, © David Corio

Proficient at printing his own black-and-white images thanks to an 18-month stint in an industrial darkroom, Corio took a very self-motivated approach to breaking into the publishing industry, despite having few contacts to begin with.

“I would drop off prints at New Musical Express from the previous night’s gig that I had been to but would be going to my day job so it would be too early to meet anyone. I would develop and print the film in my bedsit through the night so must have managed on only a few hours’ sleep for quite a while I guess.

“The money was never very good either so you really had to have a love for it and not think you would be making your fortune.”

He might not have made his fortune, but Corio certainly made a name for himself. From his early success with New Musical Express he went on to shoot an array of the period’s most exciting acts for the likes of The Face, Time Out, and Black Echoes. His distinctive, candid black-and-white style has earned him a place amongst the greats of music photography — three of his images are featured in the exhaustive visual history, Who Shot Rock and Roll, currently exhibiting at Auckland Art Gallery.

Throughout the years he’s shot in every conceivable type of venue, from mammoth orchestral stadiums to tiny sweaty dives, and as a music fan he’s enjoyed them all — but each has its own set of challenges as photography goes.

“The big festivals tend to have very high stages so you end up shooting up people’s noses and having to use long lenses, which I don’t like. And you tend to get a lot of photographers that get in the way,” recalls Corio.

Grace Jones

Grace Jones at Drury Lane Theatre, London, 1981, © David Corio

“Cramped punk gigs would often mean you were getting banged around by crowds pogo dancing and that is not good for camera shake either. I used to wear a hooded jacket sometimes as when punks were spitting from further back towards the stage I would be in direct line.”

For him the ideal venue for shooting is something mid-sized with an orchestra pit and good lighting, citing the Hammersmith Odeon and Lyceum Theatre as personal favourites. But he says you can make do wherever you are as long as you pack wisely.

“In small clubs I will travel very light with a canvas bag with one camera and a couple of lenses. At festivals and bigger shows I’ll probably take more equipment but I have never been one of those photographers that have four cameras hanging round my neck.”

An ardent film devotee, Corio shot most of his well known images with a Nikon 801S or Nikon FM2 on Tri X black-and-white film rated at 800 or 1600 ASA. He shot exclusively with fixed focal length lenses: 24mm, 28mm, 35mm, 85mm, 135mm and 180mm. With aperture wide open he could get good handheld results at shutter speeds around 1/15s.

One of the most difficult elements to manage when shooting live music is problematic lighting, though Corio says with good technique and a sharp eye you can make most situations work.

“I always use manual shutter and aperture settings, as even though cameras are far better now than when I started, try shooting a black performer in a white suit and hat and you can guarantee the exposure will be wrong if it’s set on automatic.”

Peter Tosh performing at The Rainbow, London 29 June 1981

Peter Tosh performing at the Rainbow, London, 1981, © David Corio

He advises keeping away from over-saturated red light, as it makes images totally flat — try and use any backlighting to add some ring lighting to the head and body of a performer.

“I like to try and use the beams of light if there are any, although now that you can’t smoke in venues anymore those strong beams of light you once got at jazz and reggae clubs have become a thing of the past.”

That’s not the only change to the industry Corio has seen in his time, the very nature of shooting live music has undergone substantial shifts. “In the mid ’80s all the major venues changed their policy to only allow the first three songs to be shot and then invariably you get thrown out of the venue. It’s really irritating as it doesn’t give you long to get a good shot and the performers normally start warming up by the fourth song too.

“Small venues often won’t allow photography at all now.”

As a result Corio no longer shoots many gigs, but live music was only one chord in the accomplished photographer’s repertoire, he is also renowned for his rich, candid approach to portraiture. Corio has built a career around getting up close and personal with some of his idols, though starting as young as he did meant meeting living legends was a touch intimidating.

James Brown at Hammersmith Odeon, London 26 May 1985

James Brown at Hammersmith Odeon, London, 1985, © David Corio

“Initially I would get nervous but as you become more confident with your own ability it becomes easier most of the time. A lot of them were my musical heroes so I would be in awe of them but most would be friendly as long as you worked quickly and didn’t try to get them to do stupid poses.”

The photographer says bringing out something natural in a rock star is not so very different from any other subject, the best way to get them to relax is to show a personal interest and get them talking comfortably about themselves.

“Other times if I feel they aren’t interested in chatting I may do an entire shoot hardly speaking — maybe just asking them to turn a bit this way or that. Sometimes these can be the best shoots even if they only last for a few minutes.”

Regarding any memorably troublesome subjects, Corio recounts a shoot with legendary soul singer James Brown that was scheduled to take place at noon but didn’t end up happening until midnight.

“He had his hair done at least four times that day and when I finally met him he had his hair in red hair-rollers and said he would throw me and my cameras out of the window if I tried to take a photo — we were on the third floor backstage at Hammersmith Odeon.

“Just before he was due onstage I said the photos would only take a minute to do and so after the show he took me literally and timed me — 60 seconds and then I was thrown out!”

The Pretenders performing at the Nashville Rooms, London on March 9 1979

The Pretenders at the Nashville Rooms, London, 1979, © David Corio

Asked what he thinks his career prospects might be if he were just starting out today Corio echoes the same, slightly despondent sentiments of Gail Buckland, curator of the Who Shot Rock and Roll exhibition — a feeling that the golden age of rock and roll might have passed us by.

“Record companies have complete control and there is very little access to artists who are entirely controlled by management and agents, etc. There is more competition as everyone thinks they can take a photo with their phone and fewer music magazines. They never paid well, but pay less now than when I started.

“Also I don’t see that there are the artists with the character, pedigree or longevity that there used to be. Maybe I’m just old and out of touch though.”

But just as rock and roll will never die, music photography has virtues at its core that can’t be eroded, regardless of the industry — the opportunity to hear good music, meet interesting people and make images you’re proud of.

“Every shoot is going to be a different challenge and sometimes problems arise that are out of your control so seeing a good image appear in the darkroom tray is always a good feeling at the end of the day.”