"Last Night a Camera Saved My Life: The Photography of Doug Coombe" celebrates one of Washtenaw County's finest chroniclers of Michigan music
If you've been to a concert in Washtenaw County in the past 30 years, there's a good chance Doug Coombe was at one of them.
From Ypsilanti basement shows to Hill Auditorium and everywhere around Southeastern Michigan, the long-time Ann Arbor record-store clerk turned first-call photographer has documented local and touring artists of all genres with an exacting eye and an unrelenting passion for music.
The genial Coombe's dynamic concert photos are like energy traps, capturing the exact moment a performer has exploded with passion, while his promotional and journalistic musician photos present bands in creative environments that convey their sounds and attitudes through the images.
Coombe loves what he does and the musicians love him right back. You can actually tell the artists like to be photographed by Coombe just by looking at his pictures.
For real: Everybody likes Doug.
CultureVerse is a new-ish gallery space in downtown Ann Arbor and its latest exhibit, Last Night a Camera Saved My Life: The Photography of Doug Coombe, is a love letter not only to the Washtenaw County and Southeast Michigan music scenes but also to the man who captured these small, fleeting moments for all of eternity.
Because of the respect and admiration Coombe has among the creatives he's covered, a whole slew of music events is taking place between June 3-5 to celebrate the photographer and his work, beginning with a Friday reception at CultureVerse and an afterparty concert at The Blind Pig followed by events at LoFi and Ravens Club on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. (More info at the end of this post.)
Last Night a Camera Saved My Life: The Photography of Doug Coombe will be at the gallery through July 24, but eventually you'll also be able to access the exhibit online as well as view some of the photos within a virtual version of The Blind Pig—digitally re-creating creative spaces using 3D scans is one of the primary innovations of CultureVerse's Saganworks arm.
I spoke to Coombe about the exhibit, how his time working in record stores influenced his photography, and about some of the mishaps that have happened while he's shooting live music.
Q: Who are some of the artists featured in the exhibit and did you try to blend the obscure with the well-known, the basement shows and the festival stages?
A: Some of the artists featured in the exhibition are Iggy Pop, Wayne Kramer, Athletic Mic League, Mayer Hawthorne, Jamal Bufford, 14KT, Colin Stetson, Nomo, and Elliot Bergman, Wolf Eyes, Fred Thomas and his many great bands over the years, the Ghostly crew, Great Lakes Myths Society, and all the other fabulous indie rock bands from around the area.
I definitely tried to blend the obscure with the well-known. I think it's a mix of the well-known and people I feel should be well-known or who've made really great records. And I definitely do mix it up between more intimate venues and big stages. For me, my favorite place to photograph still is a really small intimate venue. The energy is a lot better and no one's gonna ask you for a photo pass or tell you to stop after three songs.
Q: This exhibition is mainly from your digital-camera years. Was that just because it was easier to sort through? Are your film negatives in any kind of order?
A: Yes. The exhibit is mostly my digital work. My digital archives are fairly well organized. My film negatives need to be organized and scanned. I still do have all my old film, but I just need a lot more room than we have in our modest little Sears Craftsman home to do that right now.
Q: Did you have a transitional period between digital and film and where you were carrying both kinds of cameras? What sorts of issues did you have shooting shows during the early digital years and When did you finally switch to digital for good?
A: I switched over to digital in February 2002. My first camera was a Nikon D100. I switched over to digital just because I couldn't afford to shoot film anymore. Back then, and still, to this day, every time you click the shutter, that was a dollar and things could get expensive really fast. I also had a hookup with my good friend Ryan Hockett to get some cheap processing. And when he stopped working at a local photo lab, I just couldn't swing shooting film anymore. Looking back. I definitely regret switching over to digital then. The cameras just weren't that great and had a lot of problems with them. So for me, it was weird for a couple of years. I felt like my photos were worse than what I'd been doing with film, just because of the limitations of early digital cameras.
I frequently complain about how my second digital camera, which was a Nikon D2X, which cost $5,000, is worse than the iPhone camera you're probably holding in your hand right now.
Q: I know you've exhibited photos before, but is this the first solo exhibit of your work?
A: This is technically my second solo photo exhibition. My first solo photo exhibition was in September 1997 at Zoots Coffee House. It was called Pleasures of the Flash and jokingly subtitled Is Led Zepplin in L or Z?, a reference to just goofy questions I got working at a record store. A lot of that show was just indie rock artists.
I see in the flyer [for Pleasures of the Flash] mentions Blues Explosion, The Makeup, Girls Against Boys, Flaming Lips, Spiritualized, and more. What was cool about that show for me was it was my first and so far only art show. I remember [Zoot's] Aaron Anderson called me up very apologetically that, I believe, a picture of mine of The Makeup was stolen from the walls, and I actually told him I thought it was awesome that my photography was good enough to inspire someone to do a bad thing.
So, if you're out there, whoever stole my Makeup photo, all is forgiven.
I am slowly working on a Detroit music photo book, but for this exhibition, I wanted to just focus on Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti, and also hopefully try to keep the exhibit a little more manageable. That said, I think it's still a little on the ridiculous size and I really appreciate Cultureverse for indulging me and wanting to recognize a lot of great local artists.
I think the hardest thing for me [in putting together a book] is just finding the time to do it as a freelance photographer and frequently juggling a lot of work. Taking time off is just a real challenge. Even [putting together the exhibit] I found it's hard to just try to take some time off. Frequently, if you have to turn down a client a number of times, just while you're trying to get something done, they move on to someone else, which is completely understandable. So, for me to kind of put everything on hold to work on a book is kind of terrifying because I just don't know how I would support myself while that's happening.
Q: I know the Adam Cohen photo on the front of Fugazi's debut EP was an influence, but who are some other photographers whose work you admire?
A: That is a very long list, but I would love to just mention two local photographers who really inspired me when I started out. One is Ewolf who did a lot of great photos for Touch and Go Records and famously took some great early White Stripes photos.
Also, Bruce Giffin who worked at the Metro Times really inspired me to start photographing some abandoned buildings around Detroit and in Northville. The process of doing that really helped me understand composition and exposure properly and was a really important step for me. The fact that I'm friends with both of these fantastic photographers still kind of blows my mind.
Q: You told me a funny story once about tripping over a guitar cable at a Laughing Hyenas gig and essentially having to put it back together with your teeth. Would you share that story here? Also, I'd love to hear any other funny tales from photographing shows.
A: So, number one, The Laughing Hyenas. Right after I got my first camera, I was taking pictures of the Laughing Hyenas at the Heidelberg. It would be one of their last shows with the original lineup. During the show, I decided to get up on the stage to photograph and inadvertently stepped on bass player Kevin Monroe's cord to his amp. In the process of doing that, his cord, which was held together with masking tape, came apart. I was expecting renowned sound guy Jim Gibbons to come up and fix it because that's what he usually did. After about a minute, Kevin was just shooting me this dirty look like, "If you don't fix that, I'm going to kill you." There on the spot, I stripped the wires with my teeth and just thought of positive and negative and twisted those wires together. I didn't know there was a third wire, which would be the ground, so the amp did work, but it shocked Kevin for the rest of the show.
The very important lesson I learned from that and carry with me to this day is be very careful where you're stepping whenever you're on stage.
I think another early funny story for me was I was photographing the Afghan Whigs on the Gentlemen tour at St. Andrew's. And I had a lot of experience photographing my brother-in-law's band The Jesus Lizard and was used to photographing in mosh pits. But by this point, alternative music had broken into the mainstream and you had a lot of frat boys mashing who just didn't know what they were doing. After a few songs, a frat boy kicked me in the head, my head bounced off the stage as well as my camera, and the flash was torn off my camera with the hot shoe and there were just wires coming out of my camera. It was then that I really realized I was a photographer because I was just heartbroken and didn't know what I was going to do.
It looked like my camera was completely destroyed and I couldn't afford another one. After the show, John Curley, the bass player from the Afghan Whigs consoled me. He had been a photographer with his father's paper in Cincinnati and shared some stories about his camera equipment getting destroyed.
The great lesson I learned from that was, that was my first time I went to Midwest Camera Repair in Wyandotte and they fixed my camera for a reasonable price. To this day, they've saved me so many times fixing broken equipment that I thought was destroyed and beyond repair. I highly recommend them.
Q: You listen to all sorts of music, so it's no surprise you photograph every genre of musician. But in what ways do you change your approach when you're photographing a basement punk show and a jazz gig in a fancy club?
A: I definitely changed my approach to photographing music depending on what genre of music it is. If it is kind of a wild show, like a Wolf Eyes show, I usually am not too shy about getting in the musician's face or just blasting off flash just trying to capture the inner. On the other hand, if it is a more reserved show, like a jazz show, the last thing I want to do is be distracting to either the audience or especially the musicians. So, during quiet acoustic music, I do photograph things very differently than a wild rock 'n' roll show.
Q: A lot of people know you from your record-store years in Ann Arbor Would you give us a quick rundown of your record-store jobs in the area and explain how working in those environments helped you creatively?
A: From 1986 to '88, I worked at Schoolkids Records. From '93 to '94 I worked at Borders and helped them set up the music department when they moved from their original location to their location on Liberty [Street]. From '88 to '93 I worked at wazoo, left in '93, '94 to work at Borders for a bit, and then '94 to '96 I worked at Wazoo Records, and I worked at Encore from '96 through 2007. Working at the record stores was a huge part of my photography. I met so many great local bands working at all those record stores, and also through those record stores was able to get into shows for free a lot. So yeah, working at record stores was a huge part of why I started taking photos, but just my ability to continue to do so.
Do I miss working at record stores? Yes and no. I love what I do, so I'm super happy doing photography. And I miss a lot of the great people I worked with, who I still visit pretty regularly. I think the main thing, oddly, I miss was just kind of having a somewhat nine to five job. That freed me up to just photograph music as much as I wanted after I worked at the record store. These days I can frequently be tied up working on non-music photography and don't get to catch as many shows as I used to and that part I really miss.
Q: I met you when you worked at Wazoo Records, which had to have been 30 years ago or so. And you always remembered me when I came in, and continued doing so for the 20-plus years I didn't even live in Michigan and would only come back once or twice a year. Am I that charming, or do you think part of your ability to connect with your subjects has something to do with your ability to genuinely connect with people, make them feel comfortable, and really project that you're interested in them as people and musicians, not just photography job?
A: Great question. Yes, you are that charming. And I think that kind of gets to the heart of something that I really loved about working at record stores. My first record store job was Schoolkids and Michael Lang was the amazing manager of the store. Then he went on to head Verve Records' jazz reissues and then ended up leading Deutsche Grammophon. He trained us with a really interesting idea at Schoolkids. Back then we had a pull sheet and we had to write down everything that was sold so it could be reordered—this was before computerized inventory—and he told us at the bottom of these pull sheets to write down anything that a customer asked us for that we didn't have. He told us that it was was important to listen to the floor, to what our customers wanted. What I loved about that was it really stressed to me the importance of learning from others and just keeping your ears open for what else might be really good. And that's an idea I carry with me to this day.
So, to take that lesson to working in record stores, part of what I loved about working in record stores as a passionate music fan was to turn on people to some really cool records. But the flip side of that was a lot of people were always turning me on the cool stuff that I didn't know, and you were definitely one of those people.
And it is funny, I like to think I'm able to connect with people, and part of what was great about working at record stores was I was just a very shy kid in high school and working in retail really helped me deal with my shyness. But the other part about connecting with people when I started photographing, I really just wanted a photo pass to be up front to take pictures of the bands. I thought that was the best part of photography. But now that I've been doing this for a while, my favorite part about photography is all the amazing and cool people that I end up meeting and a lot of them become my friends. I think I wouldn't have such a broad exposure to so many cool people if I wasn't a photographer.
Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.
"Last Night a Camera Saved My Life: The Photography of Doug Coombe" is at CultureVerse, 309 S Main St, Ann Arbor, through July 24 and online at cultureverse.org.
- "Veteran Ann Arbor music photographer Doug Coombe takes the spotlight in new exhibit" [Cocentrate, May 31, 2022]
- "Photographer Doug Coombe celebrates the music scenes of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti with multimedia exhibition" [Metro Times, June 2, 2022]
Schedule of events:
Friday, June 3rd
Photography Exhibit Opening Reception @ CultureVerse Gallery
Featuring WCBN DJ Shelley Salant
6pm - 9pm
309 S. Main St., Ann Arbor, MI
Free to the public
Same Eyes, Minihorse, Ectomorph (live DJ set), and more @ The Blind Pig
10pm - 2am
The Blind Pig
208 S. 1st St., Ann Arbor, MI
Cover at the door
Saturday, June 4th
Josef Deas DJ Set @ LoFi
10pm - 2am
220 S. Main St., Ann Arbor, MI
Cover at the door
Sunday, June 5th
Tim Haldeman Quartet @ Ravens
207 S. Main St., Ann Arbor, MI
Cover at the door