New York City is home to one of the most vibrant and colorful creative industries in the world. The music scene is no different, birthing some of the most big name artists out there today. Within the photo pits of almost every New York City venue, Ken Grand-Pierre is there with his camera in hand. Ken has photographed artists across all genres including Bleachers, Foals, and Grace Mitchell and many more. But most recently, Ken has been working with The 405 to create his very own podcast series! We sat down for a chat with Ken to get to know his effervescent soul a little more.
SS: When did you start to show an interest in photography? What was it about photography that drew you in?
Ken: It was that summer of moving here, actually! I went to see a band from England called The Subways, magnificent band, and I had a mega shitty point and shoot on me. I took maybe about 600 or so pictures, and only two of them were decent. But I remembered that thrill, and I also noticed the photographers in the pit area. So the interest was very much birthed from the combo of having that shit camera and also seeing the photographers who were ahead of me, because my reasoning was “if I became one of them, I’d have to be at shows” and at the time that’s all I wanted: a reason to be at shows. I wanted to be part of this world that I had only just discovered.
When, where and what was the first show that you photographed and what was that like? Looking back, what advice would you give to your young concert photographer self?
Oooo wow…bugger, what was that show…to be honest I’m rather stumped. It was a local band for sure, there’s this area called Nyack, where my parents are close to, and after that summer I’d go back frequently to visit them + go to local shows. The bands were usually shit, but I had such a thrill from just taking photos of them and being in that atmosphere. I think the first photo pass show I got was The Bravery, they were this indie band that existed way back and I really dug them.
I think the advice I’d give my younger self would be to be more accepting of time. I’m self-taught, and as romantic as that sounds it did come with a lot of frustrations. When I was younger I’d look at others and feel “they have it figured out, why not me?” So it’s cliché, but I think I’d tell my younger self to just cool down and go with it, rather than overthink so often like a total knob.
To get into gear a little bit, what is your typical shooting setup? What camera, lens, etc.?
I primarily use a Sony A77, which is a similar make of a Canon Mark 2. I shoot Sony primarily out of preference, the way it feels in my hands especially. In the past I’ve owned/rented other brands (Canon 70D, Nikon D700 aka the best camera ever made in my opinion, even the Sony A7 series), but somehow I always came back to Sony cameras. I have an assortment of lenses but mostly shoot with a Sigma 24-70 (2.8). It’s a hefty lens, but a trusty one. When I got into photography, one of the best things was getting to know other photographers. My first years in music involved me with the Northern Irish music scene and from there I got to know some brilliant photographers like Ciara McMullen, Matthew Alexander Patton, Ramsey Cardy, and Graham Smith.
Graham played a big role for me, because he was the perfect example of a photographer who disregarded all the rules and showed me you could still produce amazing work. One of his ethos was that if you could have less gear and produce the work you want, then that’s what you should aim for. I remember hearing him say that when I was 19, and to this day it’s still always on my mind.
You do a mixture of live photos and portraits, so how would you describe your shooting style? Who do you look up to for photo inspiration?
Oooo that’s a really good question. I used to be obsessed with style, other people’s styles, but as time has gone on it’s hit me just how innate those things are. The way I like to shoot is to capture the closest thing that my eye sees and giving that to you, a true moment. Especially in the context of musicians (on stage and off), because it’s always in my mind how these are moments. Sure I can toss on a filter, or manipulate the colours but it wouldn’t work for me to do that, it wouldn’t be what my eye saw and to me that’s paramount in conveying a story.
I have a lot of people I admire deeply. My biggest heroes are Danny North and Pooneh Ghana, they both to this day always teach me new things in what cameras can do. I consider Daniel Topete a friend, and also a constant inspiration. Rachael Wright is massive in always doing her own thing and whenever you see a photo of hers you can see so much humanity in it. I have deep love for Chad Kamenshine, Ebru Yildiz, Nicole Mago, DeShaun Craddock, Guy Eppel, and Kyle Dean Reinford; who’re all people I consider friends which blows my mind to be honest with you, because I also look at them as superheroes. Amassive inspiration of mine as of late has been Giles Duley. He was a leading entertainment photographer and gave it up to photograph the refugee crisis in Syria, and the work he’s produced…it’s beyond next level stuff. He’s done some TED Talks, and I honestly couldn’t recommend them enough, truly amazing human being.
Coeur de Pirate
Out of all of the photos in your portfolio, which photo are you most proud of and why?
It’d most likely be this photo of Yannis from Foals. It was taken two years ago in Philadelphia, during an immensely cold day. I’ve talked to other members of the band before, but never him, and I’ve also shot so many of their shows in the past. Some times with that, you can’t help but wonder “does that dude recognize me from a year ago?” What I love the most about the photo are two things: 1. The moment that’s captured. What happened is that he doused his hair with water, paused, and then began shaking his head. Rather than shift away from him, I instinctively shoved my camera in his direction, actually only a couple of inches away from his face. 2. The connection. The act of that, there was eye contact before he did it and he’s such a subtly apprehensive guy, Yannis. That head shake was almost a taunt, and it filled me with pride knowing I reacted that way when most of the other photogs moved away. In hindsight, I wouldn’t recommend what I did but I do love this shot, especially because it’s quite an abstract shot and I’m usually not keen on abstract.
You’ve worked with bands before, going on tours with them as a photographer if I’m not mistaken. What were those experiences like?
Those were some of the best times of my life, to be honest. Most of my tour experience has been very segmented. I’ve never gone on a full tour, just pieces of them (a week here or two weeks there), but it’s been truly massive. I grew up a very shy kid, the type of kid that you’d say hello to and I’d make a face in response. When I got into photography, it was both a conscious + subconscious effort to challenge that shyness, and I would’ve never have guessed it, but delving deeper into photography has caused me to become more…I dunno how I’d describe it, I guess more of a person really. One of the best compliments I ever get is when I tell someone I was shy as a kid and they say they can’t picture it that means the world to me.
But yeah, with touring, it was also at times to assist tour managers actually! I always had in mind that I’d be a tour manager someday, and it just never panned out but I’ve had some really fantastic experiences. To name a few there’s Two Door Cinema Club, The 1975, Rudimental, Christine and the Queens, Editors, Bombay Bicycle Club, Glasvegas, Glass Animals, and some others…man, it’s been nuts.
You also recently started your own podcast at The 405. What is the podcast process like and what is your vision for the podcast?
I’ve been loving that actually! Doing the podcast. It’s going to sound weird to say, but a big thing I love towards it is how much of a novice I am at it. What birthed it was that I’ve always interviewed bands but I spent a couple of days with Lisa Hannigan earlier this year. I recorded some talks, for a written piece, and when I listened back to the audio it actually pained me to be transcribing it haha She’s such a funny person, a massively funny person, and I found myself wishing the world could hear how funny she was.
So the podcast was born from that really, and also a desire to see it grow. Into what? I have no clue, but I know it’s something I have to get better at/learn more about, and that actually excites me more than it scares me. Also, it allows me to talk to people who’re so different than me and I love that. It’s really a chance for me to be selfish and talk to people I find to be interesting haha. The process as of now is very simple. I record it like a normal interview with a dictaphone, largely because I’ve noticed after a while the interviewee will forget that the recorder is there, and I love that. It’s been teaching me how to be mindful of other listeners, especially those who have no context for what they’re listening to. Writing a feature you get to fill in blanks with broad strokes but with a podcast it’s a massive challenge to make it engaging while also reiterating to the listener why they should care. I find that fascinating and hope to get really good at it.
You got to photograph this years Gov Ball and last years inaugural Meadows Music Festival. How do festivals compare to a regular concert in your opinion? Better, worse or just different?
That’s a very good question, I’d say different with a lean towards better. It’s funny you ask this actually because I remember at Governors Ball this year I overheard a photographer saying how there wasn’t a point in shooting live, because there was no challenge to it. I don’t think I can think of something more idiotic being said, then that. There’s so much challenging elements to deal with, the biggest being how do you add your personal touch to something so composed. What I love about festivals is that their stressful but never malaise, my brain is always on in trying to figure out “how do I approach this differently & interestingly?” I will say that festivals can feel like a very thankless job. You shoot for over 9 hours, and the shelf life of your photos are of a lesser timespan than usual.
That said, I still think there’s a lot to get from the festival experience as a photographer, especially at what’s at your disposable. You’re surrounded by people who’ve spent weeks; months even, waiting for this weekend to come. People who’re exhuming euphoria all around you…to me it’s impossible for that to not be infectious.
Christine and the Queens
You came from England to New York, so how do those two cities compare and in terms of photography? What do you to stay on top and make sure that you’re standing out from the competition?
I moved here with my family when I was 11. Prior to that we were in England, in Leeds, Southampton, and London. We would come back and forth between England and the US because of my Dad’s job, so my childhood was quite sporadic but I loved it; it felt adventurous even though it really wasn’t haha. I never thought it was a weird way to grow up, until I got older, and I realized I didn’t know anyone I grew up with, prior to age 11. That said, I have been back to England quite a bit as an adult, and it is a place I consider to be my true home, one I love very dearly.
In terms of professionalism, it’s interesting; the contrast. I’ve found over the years that people treat New York like such an albatross that it stresses them out. I’ve seen it with bands, actors, authors, etc. when they come through to tour/promote something; the whole vibe of the city puts them on edge. With London, it’s still an epic-centre but the pace is a lot more manageable, people don’t seem to be as on edge when they arrive there for promo. In terms of photography, I think New York is a beautiful anomaly in that the word “competition” rarely gets utilized, which I love. I hate that word, competition. How does you doing what you want to do get in the way of what I want to do? If you got a job over me, does it mean I was ever in consideration for that job in the first place? It’s lunacy, the thought of competition, though in cities like Nashville, Chicago, and even London; I’ve seen that element of competition being near tangible. I’m sure there’s photographers/creatives in New York who feel like they’re in competition with their peers, but to me; the ones who standout are the ones who’re so focused on their own work that they couldn’t dream of using the energy to entertain such thoughts. There’s also this sense of community here in New York, that I’ve seen glimmers of in other places but feels so engrained here.
Lastly, what is the best advice you could give to any aspiring music photographers out there that are reading this article?
Make mistakes. Dead serious, that’s so important. Say and do stupid things, and learn why they’re stupid. Fall into your mistakes so that way they can never happen again. The worst enemy you’ll ever face is your own self, and it’s tricky because you give yourself more power than you give credit for. Also, and I wish I could shout this at rooftops: don’t listen to anyone else. Let me explain haha They’re some brilliant creatives out there, who have amazing ideas, wide hearts, and souls that make you think of life in a different way. But there’s also (a lot) of bitter/sad/non-achieving creatives who’ll have the gall to stand on a platform and view themselves as an authority. One of the worst things about (some) photographers is that they’ll mistake their own personal preferences for rules, and the last thing you should ever care about are rules. There’s a couple of words I hate, and rules are one of them; no one does anything creative because they care about the “rules.” If you’re young and you’re reading this, you will come across a photographer who’ll make you wonder, “why does that person even do this, if they seem unhappy?” The only response you should have is to pity that person, and never think twice about them.
And you’ll see it; you’ll see the examples. Earlier I brought up people I admire, other photographers, and something they all have in common is I know 1000% that they focus on themselves/their work more than anything else, everything else is just white noise. That’s what you should aspire towards. High profile clients, exotic locales, and notoriety are nice things but they’re not important, not in contrast to your work. Your work has to be more important than you, and to me that’s what sets apart the photographers who are brilliant and the ones I’d rather not listen to.
Interview by Jess Williams
Portrait of Ken by Luis Ruiz