Part of being a good photographer is capturing more than just the mere image. It also transcends the visual to include its sound and motion and its soul. William Snyder is an extraordinarily gifted photographer: he's chair of the photojournalism program at RIT's College of Imaging Arts and Sciences; he has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize an unprecedented four times; and he's had unique access to The Who as the band's "official photographer."
Snyder's work with The Who is currently on exhibit at RIT's Gallery r (100 College Avenue, Downtown) through Saturday, February 25, with photos, multimedia, and unique ephemera from The Who's Los Angeles Show on May 26, 2016. Snyder will give an artist talk at 5 p.m. on Saturday.
CITY sat down with this fascinating cat to discuss concert photography versus photojournalism, keeping artistically uncomfortable, and capturing rock gods in mid-air. An edited transcript follows.
CITY: So give us the how, what, why, and when of shooting The Who.
William Snyder: I had done a lot of [concert photography] when I was in high school. I did an interview and photo session with Pete Townshend in 1993; they were coming to Dallas opening the road show of "Tommy." We hit it off really well and we kept in touch throughout the mid-90's; it was only the dawning of the Internet era, people didn't e-mail too much.
When he reconstituted The Who and put on a show in London, I went to that show. There was a party and we reconnected. When they started The Who tour in the States, Pete had promised all this content for his website, and after the opening show there was nothing on there, so rather impetuously I went to his hotel. He said "Can you come to Detroit? I'll see if there's room on the plane."
And from there you moved up to official tour photographer?
They've been nice enough to say it. I think the only reason some of the people in The Who's organization would deem me their official photographer is because I've done so much over the last 16 years. There is no title. I don't do every tour. Some of it's on my own because it's just an ongoing project I've been working on.
How do you differentiate between concert photography and photo journalism? How are they similar?
The way I approach it, they're one and the same. I'm not there to make those stock photos or ones most people can shoot, if they're in the first three rows, with their cell phones. My job is to find those little things, those different angles that nobody else gets or sees. And I'd like to think that my work shows that.
Does knowing The Who's live show so well help in predicting a great shot?
I know the shows pretty well. I know what's going to happen even though they're very unpredictable. They more or less have the same set list. So there're certain things I know to look for. I know that Pete's going to jump at the climax of "Baba O'Riley" or when Roger is going to spin the mic and spit water at the climax of "Reign O'er Me."
But there's still an element of unpredictability?
Every venue is different. The sight lines are different. Access to the stage is different.
How do you convey your own emotion or feeling and bring it to the photograph?
I think what I've always been good at is capturing really good emotion and really nice moments, whether they're big moments or smaller, subtle moments.
So you don't pose, set up, or manufacture a shot?
Oh God, no; I'm not interested in that.
How has it been watching this band mature into legendary status?
Before, Roger sang the line "I hope I die before I get old" with a great deal of irony. And now I think it's an anthem for the boomers; they're still going, they're still doing things, they're still getting into trouble. And I want to share a little bit of that experience -- the grandeur, the moment, the humor, the aggression -- with people who see my pictures or give a sense of what it's like.
Has the advent of the cell phone camera cheapened the idea of the snapshot?
I'm not going to define it as good or bad. I look at it this way: if I'm a professional and I do it really well, I don't have a problem with them doing it. If anything, it spurns me on to dig deeper and not be comfortable. There was a time when it took a modicum of technical know-how to take a good, well-exposed, in-focus, properly color balanced, sharp image. That sort of magic has been removed.
How do you keep uncomfortable?
I've shot so many shows I have to justify my being there, so I have to look for different things every single show.
Just how the hell do you capture Pete Townshend in the air?
He used to jump a lot. Now he does it about once a show. But now he's started doing knee slides at 71 years old on non-slip stages. He's nuts for doing it.