Always I’ve considered photographing musicians to be a big deal. Not so much because music has kind of been a huge part of my life (like I mentioned in a previous post, I was raised in a household where musicality was, for the most part, the glue when all else failed, and I also happened to play an active role—as band publicist and rock writer—when the Cebu music scene reached its peak during the late ‘90s/early 2000s), and not so much because I am a frustrated musician (yes, I did try to pick up the piano and the guitar, but they didn’t like me very much), but because most of the great photographers that I’ve admired from the start—Herb Ritts, Annie Leibovitz, et al.—have produced some of their most memorable images by collaborating with musical artists. So imagine my excitement when I was commissioned to do this band’s photos! And for their debut album cover, no less! Of course, I foamed at the mouth a little—OK, a lot—when the folks at 22 Tango Records, with whom this band is signed to, announced that they were signing me up for this project. It was all sorts of emotions rushing through my veins, like I was about to be reunited with a long-lost friend, or like I was about to get a new tattoo! I mean, things like this don’t happen to me everyday—or at all to some people! Finally, here was my chance to tick one off my list of dream projects!
Although this was my first time to photograph a band, this wasn’t my first time to work in a photo shoot that involved musicians. Back in the day I’d used to do tag along with the now-defunct Glitch to the shoots for most of their magazine appearances following their signing to OctoArts EMI. Some five years ago I’d helped style Urbandub bassist Lalay Lim for the album cover shoot for the band’s fourth album Under Southern Lights (EMI Philippines). And then just a little over a year ago I’d styled—and shot, as “second shooter” to my mentor Malou Pages—singer-songwriter Cattski for the album cover of her latest release 0:00:00. It was being exposed to these kinds of assignments that had left an impression in my creative psyche, and that had showed me that there was a certain quality to doing portraits for musicians that you just didn’t get when you were photographing regular, non-musical folk, or even models (to me one exception would be Ford Models Supermodel of the World-Philippines 2001 titleholder Marjay Ramirez, of course, because that girl is just a rock star in her own right). “It’s all about charisma,” an ex-DJ friend had told me at one point, “that one thing that, even when they’re just standing there, makes everything else around them freeze in time.” And for the longest time that became one of my favorite stories to tell: how, during the aforementioned Urbandub shoot, we’d picked an unexceptional location—just a prosaic patch of arid land in the North Reclamation area, a few steps from where they’d begun erecting the new Cebu Doctors’ University—and how the props had looked unimpressive—just a dusty old leather couch that had presumably been snatched from Lalay’s father’s office—but once the band had stepped into photographer Charles Buenconsejo’s frame the whole scenery just…transformed. “That’s the thing about musicians,” I would tell my friends over and over again, “they have this certain air about them that just takes over, and then commands the picture.”
Funny thing then that when I began work on this project I seemed to forget about that whole “charisma” thing and ended up burying myself neck-deep in preparations for the concept, locations and the props. Perhaps it was anxiety in my part, knowing I had to do a damn good job because (1) this was my first solo photography project that involved musicians, and (2) I needed to redeem myself in the eyes of these people because when I’d been commissioned to do the photos of another 22 Tango Records artist (Undercover Grasshoppers) a couple of months back that had turned out to be, in Facebook parlance, an “epic fail” (i.e., it never materialized). I think that, in the four weeks that I was given to prepare for this whole thing, only 20 or 30 percent of that time was spent talking to the band, and the other 70 or 80 percent was spent overthinking the concept!
The band is called Womb, and the music that they make is predominantly trip hop/folktronica/experimental rock—this in itself contributed to my urge to devise a crack concept, because I figured, hey, not a lot of artists in this part of the world were doing this kind of sound, so I better come up with images that would further set them apart from their peers. The overthinking officially set in after they told me they were baptizing their album Anesthesiac, and my first reaction was, “How very clinical!” I proceeded to ruminate, What is it with trip hop/electronica and its affinity to the clinical/medical? My immediate case in point: Massive Attack’s 1998 hit “Teardrop” as backdrop to the anatomy-themed opening sequence of the Fox medical drama House, M.D. I thought to myself, I have to come up with something as clever as that!
I became so relentless in my quest for the textbook clinical/medical theme that I ended up spending two full weeks going around town and pulling some old strings, ringing my friends from college (yes, I went to med school) and every single doctor I knew to see if the hospitals they worked in would allow me to borrow a couple of old gurneys that were no longer being used, or even an ambulance truck. I even mooched a couple of straitjacket-looking garments off a friend who was into that kind of stuff (did you know there’s a local clothing brand called Mental who actually makes these kinds of clothes?). This was the sick scenery that I was beginning to paint in my head, you see: three dilapidated, rusty gurneys, one for each band member, smack in the middle of a grassy field that’s dry as bone, and the band in straitjackets, with spaced-out looks in their faces. Alas, it turned out I was in for not just a bumpy ride, but for a fruitless crusade as well: my liaisons told me that none of the hospitals were willing to grant me the use of their old gurneys, not even the ones that were begging to be thrown to the junk shop! They also were not willing to lend us an ambulance truck! I wondered if it had something to do with medical ethics in the general sense, kind of like how, as I was told my by friends who are nurses, you were not allowed to use a nurse’s uniform for a conceptual shoot, even if didn’t involve any sleaze (exactly the reason why, for the Pearl Harbor-inspired engagement shoot that we did back in June, we decided to shelve the 1950s nurse costume that we’d had made in Manila).
When it became painfully clear that I was never going to get the straitjacket-and-gurney diorama that I wanted, and we had less than two weeks left until the actual shoot date, I decided to just roll with the punches and reach into my back pocket for Plan B. And that’s how we came up with all that you see right here. No gurneys? Fine! Give me a hotel room and a hotel bed! Luckily, a close friend of the producer was set to throw a little hotel room party over at the old Montebello Villa Hotel down Banilad, and she said we could have the place to ourselves the morning after. We did three sets at the hotel. It was my way of playing safe—you know, just in case the first and the second didn’t work then we still had a third one to fall back on. Everything that we did in that cramped 250-square-foot space could be summarized as an alchemy of influences and interpretations. The set where I had them don white bathrobes and order room service breakfast, that was me thinking of the lines “And in the morning/ I render numb the tongue that asks for an encore” from their song “Aftertaste,” and taking a cue from that circa 1975 Annie Leibovitz photograph of an emaciated, bathrobe-clad Mick Jagger in a Buffalo, NY, hotel elevator. The set where I had them fool around with party hats, party blowouts, some confetti, and a bottle of Scotch, a projection of my fascination with the whole hotel room trashing thing (except we had to go easy on the trashing part, because we were only borrowing the room, remember?); and the part where I had the frontwoman Chai Fonacier wear a Mickey Mouse hat (and old one of mine from one of my trips to Anaheim Disneyland, and I just wrapped the ears in sequined fabric to make it look a bit outré) was inspired by that 1987 Herb Ritts photograph of Madonna wearing Mickey Mouse ears (shot in Tokyo). Finally, the set where I had Chai show a little skin was inspired by another song of theirs called, well, “Skin,” that goes: “Shadows playing on skin/ the closest to a touch/ A fleeting glance; a fading epitaph/ Your skin: the graveyard of desire.” (Perfect, too, that Chai had just gotten a brand spanking new tattoo on her upper back!) Oh, and if all the hotel room photos have kind of a ménages à trois vibe to them, that might have been because I wanted to allude to a line from another song of theirs, “30th and 1st,” that goes: “I understand the mechanisms of a triangle.”
It all turned out alright after all. You see, while I was taking the first few shots my mind wasn’t completely in the right there and then, as all I could think of was the straitjacket-and-gurney scene that I had originally envisioned. But, boy, were the band ever their element! Whether or not they felt good about the setup(s), they didn’t show it, or that didn’t matter to them—what mattered was that they felt good about themselves, and that was what they wanted to come through in the pictures. They were professional in a way that none of us—not even their producers—had ever seen before. And that’s how the pictures turned out pretty decent, even though the person behind the camera—A.K.A. me—was kind of apathetic about the whole thing. It was only upon seeing how the band behaved in front of the camera that I was reminded of the “charisma” factor—I realized that I’d only been wasting my time and energy stressing about the concept, the locations and the props, when all of it could’ve been trouble-free had I just remembered to consider that factor. That was when I made a mental note: Next time, when photographing musicians, try not to be distracted by the complicated that you end up losing sight of the comfortable. Look past the surface, like album titles, and talk to them about what they want. Finally, once they’re in front of your camera, learn to just let go—of preconceptions and premeditations—and just allow them and their personas to transcend the context and the picture.
Actually, it kind of worked to my advantage that the whole straitjacket-and-gurney thing didn’t materialize, because shelving the, um, psychiatric ward connotations only made room for me to beef up the styling aspect and pursue a few previously untapped resources. Classic case of how a lost cause can have a strange way of turning into a golden opportunity! For the guys (instrumentalists Anthony Uy and Fender Figuera) I looked to Urban Outfitters’ early fall 2010 catalog for inspiration, as well as various Barneys CO-OP catalogs (spring/summer 2009 and spring 2011; yes, I have a weird habit of collecting catalogs). For Chai, I allowed her one grungy outfit, and that’s it, because for majority of the pictures I wanted to portray her as an ingénue by having her slip into girly—albeit not necessarily dainty—cocktail threads from up-and-coming young designer Paco Serafica. People tried to sway me from taking this route, pointing out that Chai was a no-fuss, gamine kind of girl. Trust me, I wanted to respect that, but I felt it was my duty to highlight her being the only female in an otherwise all-male collective! Plus, although she technically wasn’t new to the scene, having been around doing vocals for another band called Mary Peril (formerly known as Balde ni Allan), this album with Womb was to represent her first major breakthrough, and so what better way to celebrate that than by giving her a debutante-like image, right? Also, they could’ve fooled me about the gamine part—anyone who samples/references the Madame de Pompadour in their songwriting (in “Aftertaste” she croons in her velveteen voice, “At sunrise as you asked to be excused:/ Après nous, le Déluge”) is more vixen than gamine in my book.
I feel like I should take the time out to talk about the night shots wherein I had them stand against a fiercely burning flame, because those are the ones that have been getting a lot of positive feedback ever since I put out the sneak peek some eight weeks ago. I can tell you now that that set was inspired by the music video of Hole’s “Malibu” from 1998 (directed by Paul Hunter), in which they set fire to a lot of stuff, including precious palm trees. I was also taking a cue from their own song “30th and 1st,” in which Chai sings, “Moments rain like ember/ What this love is made of.” Although the resulting photos look straightforward, that set was actually the trickiest of all. You see, the original plan was to have them stand in front of three strips of white cloth doused in lighter fluid, suspended from a 10-foot-high clothesline. As luck would have it, that plan turned out to be, again, in Facebook parlace, an “epic fail’—I tossed a lighter at the thing, and immediately a fire was ablaze, but only to fizzle out two or three seconds later, before I could make my way back to the tripod where my camera sat waiting! Didn’t see that coming! We were all taken aback. Thankfully, 22 Tango’s April Ordesta was quick to suggest, “Why don’t we just build a campfire?” It started to rain hard, too, in the middle of it all, but we were already on a roll, and there was no stopping us now. Everyone on set started singing the chorus of Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain”—although in my head I was signing a different tune: “Fire in the Pouring Rain” by the Blackouts (2004)—and that’s how we got the job done. Fun times, I know!
On the subject of fires that fizzle out and the resilience that makes us bounce back in the game, I was just reading my prized copy of Annie Leibovitz’s At Work (a present from a friend in D.C.—thanks, Irene!) last week, and I stumbled upon her account of the work they put into the photo on the cover of the July 27, 1978, issue of Rolling Stone—Patti Smith standing in front of barrels of flame. Annie told the story of how the initial plan had been to photograph the punk star “in front of a huge wall of flame,” and so they’d “strung up a net soaked in kerosene” behind her, and then set fire to it—alas, that flame had only “lasted for about five seconds.” Eventually they’d decided to set fire to the barrels of kerosene themselves, and that was how they’d gotten their picture. Wasn’t that the exact same thing that happened to us? I couldn’t help but get goosebumps at the parallelism of it all. A year ago when I’d done work for Cattski’s album, Patti Smith had been the central inspiration, and that had all been deliberate. This time around, for this shoot right here, I hadn’t even considered Ms. Smith, but still she found a way to sneak through the back door. God bless the godmother of punk, and may her fire never cease to burn!
Womb is dropping their debut single “Good” today (December 8 Manila time). If you’re in town, and you want to show some love, it’s at Harold’s Hotel down Gorordo and Rosal, and the show starts at 930 PM. I know some of you have kind of lost faith in Cebu music, but trust me when I say this band has got what it takes to make us all believers again! As for me, I’m not styling them tonight, but I will be during the official album launch early next year—and that’s another thing to look forward to!
Charisse “Chai” Fonacier, Anthony Uy and Fender Figuera, collectively known as Womb | Photographed and styled by Angelo Kangleon in Cebu City, Cebu, on September 30, 2012 | Makeup by Justine Gloria | Hair by Sherwin Amodia | Lighting director: Marlowe Guinto | Sittings assistant: April Ordesta | On Chai: Black semi-sheer stripe chiffon corset minidress, Paco Serafica; scarlet leatherette-and-lace minidress with recycled plastic cup skirt in overlapping scale-like pattern, Paco Serafica; black mesh skirt, stylist’s own | On Anthony: Flannel shirt, Heritage 1981, Forever 21; black biker jacket, Zara Man; eggshell silk skinny tie, Springfield UP by Springfield; 8-eyelet 1460 Dr. Martens boots in cherry red, his own | On Fender: Black-and-white gingham dress shirt, Divided by H&M; black sleeveless tuxedo jacket, Protacio; black-and-white striped cotton/silk blend skinny tie, Urban Outfitters; “Misfits” acid wash denim vest, stylist’s own; grey micro fleece hoodie, Uniqlo Undercover by Jun Takahashi; black workboots, Topman; black faux plug earrings, Santee Alley (downtown L.A.)