Finding the Heart of the City

Legendary blues singer Miss Lavelle White at Skylark Lounge

Austin is, by and large, a music city. Dig past the superficial title of Live Music Capital of the World, past the spectacle of SXSW and ACL Festival, and you will find a vibrant, dynamic, and almost preternaturally active collection of scenes catering to nearly every genre you could think of. The traditional skew towards blues, rock n’ roll, and country remains present but fading, as genres from hip hop to latin pop continue to grow their audiences and carve a space within the city’s music ecosystem. It’s not uncommon to see a a 5-piece hip hop group sharing a bill with an indie rock band and an afropunk duo; the kind of musical cross pollination that would normally fall flat elsewhere somehow works and thrives in this city. It is one of the main reasons I decided to relocate here.

That unspoken flow of creative energy that filters through and permeates all aspects of city life in Austin, from local politics to food, has unfortunately come under increasing strain over the past decade as the converging forces of gentrification, unfettered economic growth, and stagnant industry wages push musicians and artists further outside city limits with each passing year. With the release of the Austin Music Census in 2015 and the knowledge that working musicians in Austin were quickly becoming an endangered species, I began reaching out to contacts and laying the groundwork for a project to help bring this issue to the forefront in some capacity.

Latin pop singer/songwriter Gina Chavez at Antone’s

Heart of the City, as the project came to be known, was a collaborative effort from the get go. With the media landscape increasingly trending towards holistic storytelling, it would be essential to incorporate a variety of mediums into a cohesive, ongoing narrative if we were to gain any traction. Still photography would become part of a larger whole that included motion and written interviews, as well as physical and digital exhibits of the collected works.

Partnering with the SIMS Foundation and the City of Austin Cultural Arts Division, we planned to profile a cross section of Austin’s music ecosystem by interviewing, filming, and photographing twelve individuals including performers, stage managers, record producers, promoters, and everything in between. The idea behind the project wasn’t so much to start the conversation about affordability and the livelihoods of music industry workers, but expand on the conversation by adding a visual and personal storytelling dimension that could bring some much needed visibility to the story.

Hip hop duo Riders Against the Storm at Empire Control Room

The project began to take shape in early 2016 starting with a series of creative calls and meetings between myself, writer and producer Morgan Davis, and SIMS Foundation Managing Director Heather Alden where we concepted the idea, sought grant funding from the City of Austin, and discussed plans to begin production around mid summer. Given our relatively small budget and the fact that we had twelve people to profile, all full-time music workers with hectic schedules, we settled on a two week production timeline and a small, maneuverable team consisting of myself, one photo assistant, a videographer, a hair and makeup artist, and Morgan as writer. We staggered each session so that Morgan could conduct his interview with the subject while my assistant and I finished setting up, pre lighting, and running test shots leaving ample time for the MUA to do her work before we started shooting.

Radio host Laurie Gallardo at KUTX

While scrappiness may lack a certain veneer, I’ve found the limitations imposed by budget and time constraints often set the conditions for unexpected or otherwise impossible creative exchanges to take place. For my portion of the project I set out to create a series of portraits with a lived-in feel that tied each subject to their surrounding space, allowing the twelve locations we shot—each an iconic part of Austin on their own—to also shine through as a sort of supporting character. Complicating this goal was the fact that available light in each of the twelve locations ranged from lousy to abysmal, either too dim, too flat, too contrasty, or generally unappealing for purposes of crafting a quality image. Each portrait would have to be lit, but lighting would need to be minimal to allow for fast set up and break down, and capable of easily blending with each scene so as not to break the sense of immersion.

This practical and creative constraint led to some of my favorite images from the past few years, such as this portrait of performer Khattie Q where my assistant and I decided to take advantage of the odd, purple hued light inside the Sahara Lounge by using a magenta gelled key light and setting the camera’s white balance to tungsten, with a second tungsten gelled light hidden camera right masquerading as the existing stage lamp to further outline and contour the subject…

Performer Khattie Q at Sahara Lounge

…or this portrait of Spiderhouse Ballroom Marketing Coordinator Danielle Houtkooper, shot in the namesake venue using a similar technique only this time with a tungsten gelled key light camera left and a ungelled accent light hidden behind the curtain to outline Danielle’s hair and blend with the blue hued fluorescent lights backstage.

Marketing Coordinator Danielle Houtkooper at Spiderhouse Ballroom

In the end, we shot each portrait using at most two lights, a handful of colored gels, and some creative placement, a feat I feel comfortable taking some pride in given what we managed to accomplish and the overwhelmingly positive response the work has received so far.

Measuring the success of any creative endeavor, particularly one with a social dimension, is a fool’s errand more often than not as it depends entirely on whatever definition of success you choose to assign it. I’ve never had delusions of effecting or otherwise being a catalyst for change through my work, as I find that would be an insult to the people working to create lasting, substantive change. Change that can better people’s lives. At best I can hope that my work adds a new layer to an existing conversation and helps elevate its visibility, or perhaps inspires an individual to create change themselves. By that metric we have so far succeeded in garnering a good deal of attention through two live exhibits, local press, and several thousand visitors having experienced the work in digital form at heartofthecityaustin.com. It was heartening to overhear some of the conversations sparked by the work while mingling with attendees on opening night, and listening to words of support from people I deeply respect like Jennifer Houlihan, former Executive Director of Austin Music People, who has worked tirelessly to better the lives of music workers in Austin.

This year we hope to expand on the project with a city wide advertising campaign, with plans for a second round of people to profile in 2018. Regardless of what the future holds, I’m excited to watch it unfold.

View the entire collected works, including full form interviews and short film, here.