Rene Huemer: "It's a responsibility to the artist's legacy to make those moments last forever"
Updated: May 9, 2021
Rene Huemer's concert photography almost bursts with energy. It draws you into the very epicenter of the night, the venue, the heat, the triumph, the action. Other times it can be very sublime, quiet and intimate – like the almost prayer-like shot of the late Leonard Cohen. Or, as it is the case with a capture of David Gilmour that Huemer took (you will see a selection a little further down this article), you can almost feel the heat of the stage light, the smoke that takes about three quarters of the image … and you can almost hear Gilmour's black Stratocaster. His close-up portraits (for instance of the late Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister or Dave Matthews) are also remarkable.
Speaking of Dave Matthews: Rene Huemer has been one of the go-to photographers for the Dave Matthews Band (abbreviated: DMB) and Phish for many years. He is regularly going on US tours with them, accompanies them from venue to venue. He does not only capture the action on stage, but also the intimate moments before and after. The rehearsals backstage, the artist in an introspective moment workin on the setlist, the band practising their pre-show rituals, talking to one another, getting into the mood for the show.
There are also many other sides to the Viennese photographers work. His passion for analogue photography. His work with the collodion wet plate technique. His various non-music projects such as the exhibition "Rau".
Hyperlocrian.com spoke to Rene Huemer about his work, his time on tour with Dave Matthews Band and Phish, his love for analogue photography and other projects. Read the full interview with Rene below.
How did you get into music photography?
I shot some bands in my hometown circle of friends but lost the path for many years until in my late twenties, when I rediscovered photography and decided to get a degree. My mom took me to see Michael Jackson back in 1988, which sparked my fascination for the music industry. I later was fortunate to combine both passions when I started shooting at concerts.
Two bands that you work with on a regular basis are the Dave Matthews Band and Phish. For both bands you are one of their go-to photographers. How did that relationship with those bands start?
I first heard of DMB while living in the States back in 2000, and immediately fell in love with their music. I moved back to Austria shortly thereafter and eventually started shooting concerts and portraits. I always wanted to shoot at one of DMB's shows, and in 2007 I got the opportunity at a festival in the Netherlands. In 2009 those pictures helped me to get to photograph a few more shows in Europe, and in 2010 the band agreed to sit for a portrait. We meant to do this in Vienna, but the schedule made it impossible so we decided to do it right before the show in Munich. Of course, I got stuck in traffic and barely made it in time. But it worked out. And the best: Carter [Beauford, DMB drummer] actually set up an AAA-Pass so I could shoot the entire show without limits. So that night also marked my first full show with the band.
Two more years passed until I got an email from their management, asking me if I would like to join them on their US summer tour in 2012. Rumor has it that Stefan [Lessard, DMB bassist] suggested this idea to management. I still get emotional when I think of this moment. A dream for so many years all of the sudden came true.
You regularly go on extensive US tours with those bands. What does a tour look like for you?
For some it might come as a surprise, but it's not a permanent party. My work day usually starts around noon, documenting the stage build. Phish usually soundchecks every day, which can range from half an hour to multiple hours where I try to capture their creative process. After soundcheck the individual band members start their warm-ups. Those are the most fun as you never know what's going to happen especially with Mike Gordon. We take a few minutes, see what comes to our mind and then create together. Meanwhile it has become sort of a ritual. I bounce from room to room between bandmates, and try to find storytelling moments. It's the same with the actual show: almost every night will have these unique moments that won't happen again. It’s a responsibility to the artist's legacy, as well as the audience experience, to make these moments last forever.
So I will be running around for three hours and my approach is a mixture of creating artsy imagery along with documentary footage. Throughout the show I also provide a few images to the social media department as the band uploads live updates. It's tricky to find time to send photos, but it's cool if it's out there on their social media channels a few minutes after something special happened. When the show ends, I start my edit either on the bus or in the hotel room, and between 2 and 3am I pass out and wake up in a new city.
How does it work regarding organization – do you get a phone call that says "Come over to this or that city" ?
Correct, I get an email, we discuss possible dates and take it from there. Once a brief schedule is set, flights are booked. Both camps have extraordinary people taking care of all the travel arrangements so that you only must worry about the profession you are hired for.
Which venues are more fun as a photographer, big arenas/stadiums or small clubs?
I prefer arenas and clubs over the standard amphitheater. They all just look the same to me. But I think that the most exciting venues can be found in Europe. Take the Coliseo in Porto, Portugal, for example. Or the Konzerthaus in Vienna - they are both stunning in their own ways and make way for fantastic pictures.
For the equipment nerds among us: How much equipment do you take with you on tour - and what's in the equipment case?
Well, I am not much of a gear freak myself. It's usually two DSLR bodies with a variety of lenses. Fisheye, 17-35mm, 24-70mm and a 70-200mm. It feels like a disgrace to all the fine lensmakers, but often the most exciting things are objects that I find laying around that I use to distort the image. Anything from plastic cups to shiny funky gadgets are welcome.
You not only shoot live shows and take portraits of the musicians, but also take great photos behind the scenes. How close is the collaboration, how much time do you actually spend together? As a photographer, do you have virtually unlimited access?
With DMB and PHISH I have unlimited access which I try not to exhaust. Typically I sneak in their dressing rooms and take a few candids before I leave them to their warm ups. I try my hardest to be the fly on the wall, rather than getting in their way. The only exception is Mike Gordon, who I spend quite some time with trying to create and stage various kinds of images. I love those collaborations with him. This could perhaps be a fun book one day, who knows.
Is there a portrait shoot or an artist that you have particularly fond memories of?
Well, obviously the previously mentioned portrait session with DMB in Munich.
Also, the time Billy Gibbons of ZZ TOP spent with me. He's such an easy-going personality, and it made me very proud that he later used the photo that I took of him for one of his record covers.
Oh, and Yello ... I have a life-long fascination with that duo, and according to Dieter Meyer, I took the most charming portrait of Boris Blank ever. Maybe he was joking. But I love to believe it.
Lemmy was another highlight for sure.
Are you also involved in studio sessions?
Yes, the last one was in Vermont at Phish's legendary "Barn", which is a barn transformed into a recording studio. The band recorded "Sigma Oasis", their most recent studio album as a band, and invited me to document the process.
How does the work with the various artists differ? Let’s put it that way: How different is it to photograph the Eagles Of Death Metal and Phish?
Every person you work with is different. Some are more introverted, while others love being in front of a camera. Everyone is unique in the way they contribute and create. That's part of the fun, you never know what direction the shoot will go. In terms of live shows, there is also a huge difference. While some bands are more physically active, others might be more stationary. Also, the show itself varies of course. When you look at the Phish show, for instance, you have all these moving lights that continuously change their positions and provide certain formations. Then at DMB, there will be implemented video walls with content that can also be used to design a photo. Eagles of Death Metal I always found to be a very physical band, lots of moving around … lots of fun to photograph too.
You often capture images of intimate, introspective moments - musicians writing setlists, engrossed in rehearsals, etc. As a photographer, how important is it to have the talent to make yourself invisible?
In my opinion, something that's truly essential and the biggest compliment, besides people liking the actual photographs, is when an artist tells me that they didn't even realize that I had been in the same room. The more invisible you are, the more intimate the photo can be.
One of your photographs that was recently chosen as the cover of an album by Trey Anastasio and Page McConnell is called "The Barn". Can you tell us something about it?
As mentioned before, the "Barn" is Phish's recording studio, which I had the pleasure to visit a few times. This particular shot was taken with a HOLGA camera on film. It’s a double exposure of the side of the barn. It’s a pretty moody photograph which I think perfectly reflects our time right now.
On your website you not only have impressive portraits but also landscape and travel photos. Do you also use day offs on tour to photograph the area?
I can't sit still so every day off or tour layover will be used for some exploring, and I often bring a large format pinhole camera and some sheet film with me. Like the Iceland landscapes: we did that trip between the first and the second leg of a summer tour. However, when you are gone for months at a time and switch cities every other day, it becomes a challenge to travel with film. I had quite a few rolls ruined by the airport scans that’s why I decided to start developing my own film on the road. In one of the road cases, I carry a developing kit and I transform hotel bathrooms into darkrooms. The tour and the work I do with the bands move so fast, so I like to work with analogue techniques to find some balance on the move.
What does your day-to-day life as a photographer look like when you're not on tour or at shows?
Well, for the past nine years there hasn't been much time for that, but Covid changed that for sure. I did commercial work before the touring, and I did some of that during the past year when there were no shows. But the majority of the time off I spend in the studio working on personal projects, analogue photography and printing processes.
How was the time of lockdown for you - were you able to realize projects and do something new?
Together with my love and creative partner Chérie Hansson, I continued working on a series that we started a few years ago. The series is called "When No One Is Watching", and it's photographed with the so-called collodion wet-plate process on 8x10” tin plates. One of the images was recently featured by Trey Anastasio as the cover for his record "Lonely Trip".
Music photography is not your only field of work. Your last exhibition was in 2020 and was called "Rau" - its focus was photography of country life in black and white. Do you already have next projects in the works?
That was such a beautiful project. We spent quite some time with traditional cheese-makers in the Austrian Alps. It’s stunning to see the way they treasure their heritage and what it takes to live that kind of life. Currently I focus on a few wet plate projects, but I also would like to continue shooting the world through a pinhole. I simply love those moody and atmospheric landscape captures.
What role does analogue photography play for you?
A very big part. I love it, and I always carry an analogue camera with me. In the digital world, you can take several images per second to pick your favorite, or preview and throw away most of them before even looking at the image thoroughly. You can take 100 images, and surely one turns out it lacks a sense of dedication, and with that, some of the appreciation gets lost. Working analogue requires a different kind of commitment. It starts when taking a picture on film: you put more thought into it, it’s a valuable material you are using, and you will spend quite some time with the image while developing and printing it.
Your collodion wet plate portraits are also very impressive. Can you explain something about that technique?
It's an old technique dating back to 1860. To me, it's as raw as it gets. I mix all the necessary chemicals from scratch: the collodion coating, developer, fixer, varnish. I work with a large format camera and expose on 8x10” glass or tin plates… Everything is handmade, and every plate is unique.
Are there any plans to publish your work as a coffee table book?
There is always the desire to publish a book, but I don’t feel that the time has come yet.
If a young photographer asked you what matters the most in live and music photography - what advice would you give them? What is important?
Rather than focusing on the obvious, try to find your own unique perspectives. Create something new. Don’t focus too much on the gear, especially when you’re just starting out. What makes you visible is how you capture a moment.
What projects do you have coming up next?
I will continue working on collodion photographs and palladium printing and then, who knows, maybe there will be shows this year. Fingers crossed.
Learn about more about Rene Huemer on his official website.
All photographs by Rene Huemer and used with his permission.