The name Chris McKay may not sound all that familiar to many folks in South Carolina outside of the music community. However, rest assured that Chris has certainly made his mark in both the realm of music with his band, the “Critical Darlings”, as well as his main profession, photography. Hailing originally from Camden, SC, Chris now makes his home in Athens, GA. This month we have the opportunity to get to know Chris a bit better and find out more about his music background and aspirations, as well his full-time gig which just happens to be professional concert photography.
Tell us a little about yourself and your background.
How little can I get away with telling? I’m an ex-pat South Carolinian living in Athens, Georgia who plays and records music whenever I can. I also take pictures of other folks that play and record music whenever they can.
I remember attempting to play along with my family on a gigantic guitar (which is much smaller now) as far back as I can remember. So I remember playing first, but I’ve really been doing both as long as I could. Before they paid me to take pictures at concerts, I was sneaking in my camera.
How did you first get into playing music?
It’s the same old thing, I guess. I didn’t get into it as much as I always did it. In fact, I’ve tried to stop [playing] on several occasions so that I could live in a more normal way. As it is, I don’t have a choice. The songs keep playing in my head and if I don’t write them down and record them, they drive me crazy until I do. Before The Critical Darlings, I had stopped and felt okay about it. Then one day, I was in another band. At this point, I’ve given up on giving it up.
How would you describe your music
If there were a bridge between “power pop” and “classic rock”, that’s where I’d like to think I reside. That’s certainly where my biggest influences reside.
What’s the current state of your group, the Critical Darlings?
Right now, there is no state. I’ve put The Critical Darlings on indefinite hiatus. Honestly I can’t imagine that there will ever be another live show. If the co-founding bass player (Frank DeFreese) and his family ever move back from Europe to the U.S.A., I’d love to do it. Frank and I were the only members that were in the band from 2004 – 2009. After he moved overseas, I felt like I should’ve called it quits on The Darlings. With Frank’s blessing, the encouragement of a lot of people, and with the excitement of a new group of musicians, we kept the name alive until January of 2012. Those shows were a lot of fun, but that band had its own identity. When a couple of members from that lineup moved on to their own projects, I decided that there was no valid reason to keep using the name. I began work on a solo album I hope to have released in 2013. I’m playing almost every instrument on the album so far, including drums. I’ve never done drums on a professional recording. Luckily, Kyle Spence (Harvey Milk, The Tom Collins) is one of the best drummers I’ve ever met and he’s coaching me. I know if he gives me the thumbs up, I’m okay. A friend named Mark Plemmons has been adding some very tasty piano, too.
Where would you like to see yourself musically in the next five years?
The only thing that I’ll ever need is to be able to [play] and have people care enough to enjoy it. Obviously, anything more would be wonderful, too, but I’m not unrealistic about it. I just want to be able to continue to do it. I could never stop, but if I can keep making the occasional full-production album and getting out to perform, I’ll be happy.
We know you no longer live in South Carolina, but why did you make the move to Athens?
Honestly, there was no way forward for me in South Carolina. As much as I hate to admit it, and it will always be home, that’s the truth. I had visited Athens, Georgia when my wife was in school at the University Of Georgia. I fell in love with Athens from day one and have never fallen out of it. At this point, it would be smart for me to move to a bigger market for my photography (if not my music), but I don’t know if I can leave Athens. It’s become to much a part of me and I hope I’ve become part of this town. Athens is a magical place. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve spent some time here. There are musicians and art everywhere and it is stunning to see how amazing much of it is. It’s hard for me to imagine anywhere else in the world being as supportive of art. Patton Oswalt does a great bit about it in his comedy act and it sounds ridiculous, but it’s pretty spot on. So between that and the fact that Atlanta’s just up the road for the big city photography stuff, I’m good.
How did you first get into concert photography, and how did your career develop?
As I said before, I always took pictures at concerts anyway when I could. I once had my film taken by Robert Plant’s tour manager, in fact. Those would’ve been killer shots! But basically, I loved going to concerts and ticket prices got to the point where it was impossible to see all that I wanted to see. I approached Flagpole Magazine in Athens. I asked the music editor, Ballard Lesemann, if I could write some reviews since they rarely covered shows that interested me. He laughed and asked if I had experience as a writer. I said “nope”. He laughed and encouraged me to give it a shot. He said to write a review and if it was good enough, he’d run it. I went to the first show that came around, which was, of all things, Rick Springfield. That couldn’t have possibly been more out of fashion around the turn of the century. It was a great concert. I wrote my first review and it ran. Ballard told me that it was partially because I would go to a concert like that and review it fairly. For a while at Flagpole, I reviewed most of the pop records and concerts that all the cool kids wouldn’t touch. I enjoyed it. I got to see bands that I never would’ve otherwise and I got to see tons of idols as well. He gave me my own live review column called “The Big Show” which ran for a few years. During that time, Pollstar Magazine (the national concert industry publication) started running my work as well. Within a year, I had photos showing up in Rolling Stone and within a couple of years my work was syndicated through a couple of agencies. I’m still shooting for Getty Images and I contribute to Pollstar and Flagpole whenever they need me. I’m happy to do it since I couldn’t have done it without them giving the chance to someone with no experience.
List 3 photographers you admire – past and/or present.
That’s darn near impossible. First off, I’d have to specifically not name any photographers that I know because I don’t want to leave anyone out. But to be truthful, they are really my biggest influences. When I go to exhibits by my photographer friends, I always feel like I’m not as good as they are and I’m always blown away by their talent. To my satisfaction, they’ve said the same thing about my work so it’s really a mutual admiration society (you know who you are)
All that I rely on is my camera and lens. That’s it. It’s extremely rare for me to even use flash unless I’m working a red carpet.
What gear do you shoot with these days?
My main camera is a Nikon D700 and I prefer to use my Nikkor 70-200, f / 2.8 lens whenever I can get away with it. If the shoot’s too tight, I’ll rely on my Nikkor 17-55, f / 2.8, but I’ll always go with the 70 – 200 if possible.
What does a typical day look like when you are going to a shoot?
Most days, I don’t even know if I’m cleared to shoot. I often find out with only a few hours notice and I have to allot 2 hours to get to Atlanta. That’s pretty usual. If I’ve shot the night before, I’m usually editing and uploading until around lunchtime. Then it’s just a matter or meeting up with the local contact and getting it done. I don’t often even stay for the full concerts these days. I’m usually in for the first 3 songs and then I’m on the road home to start editing.
How much are you traveling outside of Georgia to shoot shows?
I used to do more of it. I used to regularly hit the Carolinas along with Georgia, but nowadays, I’m pretty much in Georgia.
What is the oddest photography assignment you have had?
The first thing that comes to mind is when I was assigned to photograph Pylon who were reuniting for a show at the 40 Watt Club. Their drummer was living in Hawaii so I had to wait for him to get into Athens to shoot the pics of them. Michael Lachowski (bass) then came up with an idea for me to photograph 4 chairs to represent each band member. He arranged them just so and got the approval of the other 3 members on which chair best represented their individual personalities. Personally, I loved the idea. I especially liked the absurdity of having to wait for one of ‘em to travel 6,000 miles or so to be present while I took a pic of a chair to represent him. I actually liked the photos, too. The other members talked Michael into doing some casual portraits as well. Of course, Flagpole Magazine never ran any of the pics of the chairs. When the band disbanded, following the death of guitarist Randy Bewley, Creative Loafing (I think) ran the photo of the chairs. It’s also in Pylon vocalist Vanessa Briscoe Hay’s online history of the band.
What is the coolest photography assignment you have had?
I’ve enjoyed covering some of the big music festivals as the house photographer (or as part of the “official team”). I’ve had some really amazing moments doing that, especially at Atlanta’s Music Midtown. I remember hanging out with Graham Nash and Tony Bennett and discussing art. Before that festival was over I found myself onstage with Def Leppard sitting with drummer Rick Allen to get an amazing angle of the band and crowd. It’s also been really cool working at big TV events like the Soul Train Awards, The BET Hip Hop Awards, and the Georgia Music Hall Of Fame. You run into so many cool people that life feels very bizarre during those times. I remember once, at the Georgia Heroes Awards running into Tommy Shaw from Styx and one of the Nelson twins while heading for the men’s room. I was about to tell my wife about it when she let me know that it took her so long because she had to wait for Coretta Scott King and Kate Pierson from The B-52’s. She won that round!
Would you rather be a professional musician or photographer, and why?
I’d rather be a professional musician that didn’t rely on another job to get by. I could still be a photographer as I had time. I write and play music. That’s who I am. The photography just fell into place as a means to an end. I enjoy it, but I don’t have to do it.
What profession other than music or photography would you like to attempt?
I don’t really have any interest in anything except for music. Even my photography is music related because of my choice of subjects. The world should be happy. If I wasn’t doing this, I’d likely be in politics or something.
Could you share 3 of your favorite images, and why they are your favorites?
Well, that’s pretty much impossible to answer. There are literally tens of thousands of images to choose from each year and I’ve been doing it for 12 years now. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. My personal favorites wouldn’t be my best work anyway. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to photograph The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Robert Plant, James Brown, David Bowie, and so many other personal heroes that my bias would tend to lead to those shots even if they’re not the best examples of my work as a photographer. When I think of pictures that others seem to respond to, I think of one of my shots of the original R.E.M. reuniting for only one of a few times. They made a surprise 2-song appearance at the 40 Watt Club in Athens as they were rehearsing for their induction into the Georgia Music Hall Of Fame. The pic was taken at a benefit that featured other bands covering R.E.M.’s music. The band happened to be rehearsing a few doors down, heard about the event, and showed up before the real show got under way. They did 2-short songs before the crowd showed up, then they hung out and jammed with the local musicians playing their songs for the rest of the night. One of my pics from that night has been published all over the world and was even featured in Rolling Stone Magazine’s history of the band. The other photographers that happened to be there all tried to get close to the stage to get tighter shots. I stayed way back against the wall and chose to get shots of all 4 of them. R.E.M.’s office actually called one particular pic “the money shot”. Quite a few of my pics from that night wound up in their fan club calendar for the next year. One of my photos of Paul Stanley from KISS performing in Tennessee about a decade ago usually gets a strong response, too. It’s a shot of him leaning forward and pointing the headstock of his guitar into the camera lens. I’ll just choose one of my James Brown pics as the third one because I have no idea what to choose for myself, it’s on my wall, and it’s James Friggin‘ Brown.
I don’t really know how to answer that since I pretty much exclusively photograph musicians. I don’t know what it’s like with “normal people”. Since most of what I do is performance related, it’s all “in the moment” and the biggest challenges are working with tricky lighting and odd distances as opposed to problems with the performers. If we have light, we’ve got ‘em!
As a concert photographer, how much of the personal life of the musicians are you given access to?
Unless I know them, almost none. I’ve been on tour buses and have followed them around on occasion as part of the job, but that’s about it. That’s part of the gig. When they get to know a photographer and know that they can trust them, they will open up a lot more, but they always remember that you are media, and that’s smart
After shooting concert after concert, how do you manage to still find “fresh ideas” and new angles to capture?
With the variety of musicians, stage shows, lighting, and variables from show to show, that’s never a problem. There’s almost always a new challenge, and when there are no challenges, I’m just happy that I can do my job easily.
What kind of copyright agreement do you have? Do you completely own the rights to all the photos you’ve captured?
It depends on how I’ve been hired, but yes, I own most of my work. There have been some exceptions where I’ve been bought out, but it’s still relatively few and far between for me. Since most of my work is syndicated, I’m prevented from signing many of the agreements that other photographers have to sign to get access. Of course, those with the tightest agreements and contracts often won’t allow me to shoot, but it’s a worthwhile trade off for me.
What’s the craziest, most off the wall concert you have ever shot?
On the first anniversary of 9/11, I covered Andrew WK’s show at the 40 Watt Club in Athens. It was complete chaos. It was like a primal release of tension and a celebration of survival. The stage was covered with the crowd while Andrew was often in the audience. At one point, he trashed the tiki bar set up and threw drinks all over everyone. The security had absolutely no control. I asked one of the security folks what they could do to protect the band or the audience if it got any crazier. He just looked at me and said, “we can’t do anything else”. Luckily, they were all peaceful in their madness.
Surprisingly, it was Gene Simmons from KISS. I was the house photographer at the grand opening of the KISS Coffeehouse in Myrtle Beach. I was actually a bit intimidated at the prospect of working with Gene. I figured he would be difficult and, at least, rude. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, before I had the chance, he came up and introduced himself to me. I told him that I would be his photographer and that I worked for him today. He smiled and said, “No, I work for you. Just tell me what you need and I’ll make it happen”. And he proceeded to do just that for the next 5 or 6 hours. When I was covering him a while later doing a personal appearance promotion at the Mall Of Georgia, all of the other photogs were crowding around as he got out of his limo. Security started shooing us away when Gene saw me and my wife. He told them, “They’re fine. I know them. They’re with me”. We were then escorted in with him where I got all the casual shots that no one else was allowed. On top of that, he actually personally bought some of the pics from that shoot. He could’ve asked for them for free and I would’ve probably given them to him since he allowed me so much access, but instead, he did the right thing without even asking. I will always appreciate that.
What musician or group, living or dead, would be your dream assignment?
Led Zeppelin and Prince would be at the top of the list from the living category. If we’re moving into “dead or alive”, I’d have to add Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and The Beatles (though I’ve already photographed the living Beatles). Honestly, I’ve pretty much photo’d everyone else that influenced me. Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan are two that I’d love to get as well.
What advice and tips do you have for photographers looking to follow in your footsteps?
It’s the same advice for musicians or photographers. Only do it if you have to do it. If you can do anything else, you probably should. Making a living at either of these is darn near impossible, and it’s really not worth the fight unless you have to do it under any circumstance. And I have to do it.
Anything else you’d like to say to South Carolina Music Guide readers?
Thanks for sitting through this interview. I hope it was a worthwhile read. If you want to check out my work, feel free to “Like” http://www.facebook.com/concertshots.
My music and videos can be experienced at http://www.chrismckay.com.
Footnote – To see Patton Oswalt’s take on the town Athens, click here