Rene Huemer: Reflections with Phish’s Road Photographer
The following interview with Phish road photographer Rene Huemer was set to appear in Friday’s edition of Ahead of the Curve, the daily newspaper at Phish’s Curveball. While the event didn’t take place, we’d like to share this conversation along with Huemer’s insight into two of the images that he had intended to sign and sell at Phish’s JEMP Records Store.
Rene Huemer (Photo by Cherie Hansson)
You were born in Austria. How did you come to be a music photographer and what led you to the United States?
Music always played a big role in my life and in my teens I worked as a local stagehand. It wasn´t until my late twenties when I started to photograph at shows. Back in 2012 a dream came true when I got hired by the Dave Matthews Band to go on tour with them.
Which came first for you, portrait work or live performance shots?
Both really happened at the same time. I shot portraits during the day and night time I went to as many shows as possible. Eventually I was able to combine it and started taking portraits backstage at festivals in Austria.
Do you prefer one to the other? If so, why?
It depends on my mood. Some days I prefer directing and working on portraits other days I´d rather hide and try to find the right moments without interacting with my subjects.
How did you come to shoot for Phish?
Right after I finished my first tour with DMB in 2012 I did a portrait shoot with Trey Anastasio in New York and then later that year Phish hired me to document their New Year’s Run.
Were you aware of them in advance?
Unfortunately back in Austria Phish are not very present in people’s musical library and I think they only played there once at a smaller venue in 1997. So, no I had no idea of the band’s existence.
What if anything has most surprised you about the group?
A lot of times you go to a show and you kind of know what to expect and what you get…not so with Phish. Every show is unpredictable and I had never experienced anything like that before. When I photographed them first time it was at NYE and they had the “Garden Party” Gag, which blew my mind. In all these years I still get surprised every day, whether by the show, the soundcheck or just stuff that happens when I take candids before the show.
From a visual standpoint, how would you compare working with Phish to working with Dave Matthews Band or Eagles of Death Metal?
EoDM is a very physical band. There are a lot of fast movements and pure rock-and-roll moments on stage. You get that with DMB too but they include more visual elements in their shows such as screens and massive lights. Phish shows are a bit different—it’s a bit more stationary and sometimes there are a few shows in a row without any trampoline jumps or chases around the stage but when these moments are not happening, Phish’s music allows me to improvise with certain photography effects just like they do with their music and I’d like to think that the way they play translates to my images. It’s more a combo of creating and capturing an image, if that makes any sense.
Some of your Phish candid shots capture a playful side of the band. To what extent will you make suggestions and to what extent are you purely a fly on the wall?
I make suggestions when I feel it’s appropriate but mainly things happen because there is enough trust after all these years that either the band feels that I would love to take a certain picture and they present it themselves or I feel comfortable enough to not get in the way of routines and ask for it. Every day is different and I learned to adapt to it.
Do you have a favorite Phish image?
Every night there is a new one, lately, I really like the “YEM” shot through Mike´s leg at Lake Tahoe. [This image appears below and is one of the prints that Rene had been set to will sign at the JEMP Records Store Pop-Up event on Saturday].
Rene: I have had the “YEM” shot in mind before, but it was only possible to execute it now since the stage setup has changed slightly on this tour. Mike is now using a platform, and the trampoline moved to a different spot which makes it all finally lined up.
When you are on an entire tour shooting the band live do you have specific goals that you set for yourself each night? Do these vary?
I do have goals every night, you kind of need them especially on multi-night runs at one place. I don’t want to repeat myself. I want to give the audience the best possible visual memory of a very unique night, from soundcheck to the moment they walk off the stage.
Can you talk about the challenges of shooting the band live given their elaborate light show? What have you learned? What trade secrets can you share?
The challenge is to get it right for everybody, for the band, the audience and for myself. I adjust the camera manually without auto settings so the light show is obviously very challenging but that pushes myself to create new photographs without repeats so no one gets bored. It’s just like their nightly performance, they push themselves too and everybody goes home satisfied.
You’ve shot many other bands beyond Phish and also work on non-musical projects. What else do you have upcoming?
I love analog photography, especially working with the Collodion Wet Plate process (which dates back to 1850). From a technical point of view it’s pretty much the opposite of what I do on tour. I mix my own chemicals and work with 8×10 in large format cameras photographing different non-musical projects on glass or tin plates. I spend my time in a darkroom, it is a very raw and organic process, a real craft where my hands get dirty. And it’s mainly just me and a dead subject, so very quiet. There is a variety of different long-term projects that I squeeze in between touring with Phish and the Dave Matthews Band and hopefully one day they will be ready to be shown.
Rene: The onstage walk was photographed in New York at Randall’s Island in 2014. It was an unpredictable moment, and I think Mike was a bit further behind and came running and then jumping into the frame. For sure one of my all-time favorites as well.