It’s a common refrain — follow your bliss. Pursue labors of love and everything will work out in the end. It’s hard to root against those who take such advice to heart, so it’s nice to report a tale where such a story has a happy ending.
“I’m not looking to just shoot bands, but bands I like,” Emily Butler tells me over lunch at Atlanta’s OK Café, thumbing through a modest but rapidly growing portfolio of her music photography. “When I was getting started it was about what photos I could get in focus. Now it’s about which pictures I can make interesting,” she adds self-effacingly.
Butler’s roots are in the jam band world — the New York native followed the Grateful Dead in a van for a time with her husband-to-be before settling in Atlanta in 1995. The couple continued to venture out several nights a week for live music, and Butler found herself becoming both more absorbed in and skilled at her hobby of snapping photos of the concerts. Gradually, she began pursuing press credentials to gain better access and sight lines.
“Music photography is really weird — you have no control over the lighting, the model, things like mic stands in your way,” Butler explains. “We’re typically only allowed to shoot from the photography pit for the first two or three songs of the set, which limits spontaneity,” and I suspect also guards artists’ images, limiting shots of sweaty musicians. “The nights where I can shoot the entire show are the best,” she offers, as they provide opportunity to capture those precious unguarded moments.
Butler also speaks fondly of the brother (and sister) –hood of the pit. “People are usually good about letting you get up front for your shot,” she says. “Then you get out of the way to make sure they have their chance too.”
The trick comes in scoring a press badge if you don’t have a confirmed assignment for a media outlet — and the bigger the show, the more daunting the challenge. This posed quite a hurdle for a “non-working photographer” like Butler. She succeeded through the slow build — picking her spots, gradually assembling her portfolio, then impressing concert hall staff with samples of her past work.
In her day job, Butler is a self-employed virtual assistant supporting small business owners. Her two worlds collided when she got a gig managing affairs for Atlanta music scene mainstay Mike “Kingsized” Geier, of whom she was already a self-described “super-fan.” This led to great shots of “Puddles Pity Party,” for whom Geier serves as handler, and more open dialogue with area promoters. Another breakthrough came when the Yonder Mountain String Band chose to use Butler’s photos for their press kit.
My personal favorite is the bronzed, otherworldly textures of her performance shot of Atlanta-connected roots rock favorites the Wood Brothers. Apparently Butler agrees, as she uses it for her business card. “I’m in with them now,” she smiles. “I really appreciated their tweet before their last show, ‘We’re going to be @BuckheadTheater tonight, hope Emily is too.’”
Another favorite is her larger-than-life shot of Grace Potter. “It just exudes the energy of her show. She’s a wild child — that’s rock & roll!” Butler exclaims. “I need to shoot things that have good lights and fun performers,” and Potter clearly punches both of those tickets.
Butler estimates that she shoots about 60 shows a year and attends another 30 or so. “I won’t shoot certain shows that I really want to see,” she explains, holding up Warren Haynes’ recent “Last Waltz at 40” tour as an example. “If I’m up in front shooting, I can get lost in the lights. But most nights I can shift my mindset after the first three songs” once she leaves the pit.
Since we met, Butler’s momentum has continued to build. She’s fielding more frequent calls from record labels and band managers looking for photos, and has signed on as a contributing photographer for Atlanta Music Guide and Live for Live Music. This added designation greased the wheels for press access to Sting’s recent Atlanta performance at the Tabernacle — which had been near the top of her 2017 wish list. She just shot Zac Brown Band and Panic! at the Disco and is currently working on cracking the code for upcoming concerts by Roger Waters, Paul McCartney and Tedeschi Trucks Band.
“It’s really never been about the money for me, but it does seem to be happening naturally,” she added in a subsequent email. There’s another well-worn cliché, but in this case it seems wholly sincere — and Emily Butler’s actions seem to back it up.
Check out more photographs at www.emilybutlerphotography.com.