Sound & Vision #24: Ebru Yildiz

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Welcome back to Sound & Vision, the Rumpus profile series that spotlights the creative talents of those working behind the scenes in the music industry. In this installment, I’m delighted to be talking with the Brooklyn-based music photographer Ebru Yildiz, whose portraits and concert photos regularly appear in venues including Pitchfork, NPR, and the New York Times. Complex has lauded Yildiz as one of “The 50 Greatest Music Photographers Right Now.”

Yildiz was a long-time regular at the beloved underground venue Death By Audio, where she documented its growth from a fledgling guitar pedal effects company and recording space to a DIY community and proving ground for emerging artists like Ty Segall, Future Islands, and A Place to Bury Strangers. When its building was taken over by VICE Media in 2014, Death By Audio became yet another casualty of Brooklyn’s rapid-fire gentrification, but Yildiz’s new self-published book We’ve Come So Far: The Last Days of Death By Audio celebrates the energy and vitality she experienced there.

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The Rumpus: I understand that you were born and raised in Turkey. Did you come to the US specifically to pursue a career in photography?

Ebru Yildiz: No, I did not grow up with photography, and I had no intention of becoming a photographer. It was more of an accident. I studied business administration and management back in Turkey, and my whole idea of moving to New York was, “I’m going to work in an advertising agency, and what better place to do it than New York.”

Rumpus: How did you become involved in the music scene here?

Yildiz: At first I was trying to find my way in the city. The Internet was not developed the way it is now. I found my very first apartment in the Village Voice, but I had no idea where the music was happening or anything like that. The first music place I found was on Bleecker Street. This is so embarrassing because all they had was a cover band, but I was like, “Oh my god, someone is actually playing a guitar!” Eventually I figured out where the good shows were happening and I started to go a lot.

Rumpus: How did that lead you to music photography?

Yildiz: I knew I wanted to do something creative, but I didn’t know exactly what. I took a figure drawing class, a layout class, and also a class in darkroom printing. But the darkroom class wasn’t really about how to compose or anything—it was just how to print. Every week I was supposed to come to class with a full roll of pictures, which was thirty-six exposures. I had the hardest time finding subjects. I couldn’t even finish a roll. My darkroom teacher said, “Your photos are so boring!” He was right! There were like pigeons, and what not.

Rumpus: When did you start photographing musicians?

Yildiz: During this time I became more and more obsessed with live music, but at some point you have fewer friends willing to go out with you night after night. I thought why not take photos at the shows so even if I was there by myself, it would look like I had a purpose to being there. I started having full rolls of film to develop for my darkroom class! But I never thought it would become a profession or anything like that.

Rumpus: How did you choose your subjects at the shows?

Yildiz: [Laughs] It was like one roll for each band. Now film has become crazy expensive, but back then it was still expensive. So let’s say there were two openers and one headliner—each band got one roll. I had to choose what I shot very carefully, and I tried to save my film for important moments.

Rumpus: Speaking now as an absolute amateur, I’ve found that it’s very hard to shoot people moving around in the dark—I’m guessing a lot harder than relatively slow-moving pigeons in the daylight. How did you approach it?

Yildiz: Learning by making mistakes mostly. But if you’re listening to the music, after a while you get into the rhythm, and you can kind of guess what’s going to happen next. For example, I love drummers and I love taking photos of them even though they’re the most difficult to shoot because they’re all the way in the back with lots of stuff in front of them. But there are certain parts where something will happen, and if you listen and watch the drummer, for example, you will often know when they’re going to do the hair flip. It’s listening and watching for those moments. And once you have an understanding of shutter speed, and other technical aspects of photography, then you are free to make creative choices.

Rumpus: Can you give me an example?

Yildiz: On the cover of the book, there’s a photo of A Place to Bury Strangers, which is one of my favorite bands. They’re actually the first local band I started shooting, and as the years passed, they got bigger and their lighting changed, and now they do lots of strobes. The image on the cover could look like it was shot with multiple exposures, but it’s actually shot at a slower shutter speed, which records more than one instance when the strobe is firing.

Rumpus: Are there certain photographers who have influenced your style?

Yildiz: Yes, but even from the beginning they weren’t necessarily music photographers. One of my favorites is Diane Arbus. I love her photos! I can’t say she has had a direct effect on the way I make photos, but more as an inspiration. I’m particularly interested in the new exhibition of her work at the Met Breuer because it includes her early work, not just the iconic photos.

Rumpus: Yes, I think a lot has been held back about what we know about her work and life. I’m intrigued by the relationships she had with her subjects. I’ve always felt there’s a complicated tension in the images between her fetishizing her subjects and identifying with them.

Yildiz: It’s always difficult to say what brings one’s interest to a subject, like for me, why music but not fashion? I love music, but I don’t play any instruments and I think I have a really bad ear. But I think it’s so amazing that musicians can create something that wasn’t there before and can make people feel things. You know how journalists will ask a band what their music sounds like—

Rumpus: It’s the worst interview question.

Yildiz: Yes! I think a better question, at least for me, would be “What does your music feel like?” And the answer could be like anger, hate, love, whatever as long as there is something that makes you feel something, it’s brilliant.

Rumpus: I agree. Do you think that’s something you can pick up on more in a live public performance because you’re also tuning into what everyone else in the room is feeling?

Yildiz: When I’m shooting a live show I have to be really into it, or I feel it shows in my work. When the energy is there you and everyone else kind of sync up with it. The musicians reach this high point in the performance, and when you can reach it too, you can get a good photo.

 

Rumpus: How do you connect emotionally with your subjects in a non-performance context, like studio portraiture?

Yildiz: It’s kind of the same. It depends somewhat on how much time you have with a person. It doesn’t have to be long hours, but it can make a big difference if you have more, let’s say, than just five minutes. It can also make a difference if you work with them more than once. For example, I love Shilpa Ray and I have been photographing her for years. I feel like every time I do a portrait it is different, and when I look at the photographs I can observe what she’s feeling or going through in her life at that time.

Rumpus: And when you don’t know the subject very well?

Yildiz: It’s easier to capture those nuances when you know the subject, but when you have just a few minutes I think the best thing to do is to research them ahead of time. Whenever it’s possible, I do things like listen to music, read lyrics and interviews, stuff that can give you an idea of what to look for. Of course it’s not foolproof. The happiest person in the world can be having a sad day when you meet them, or vice versa, and your mood can also affect the photo. But it’s always good to come in with an idea of familiarity because the photo is like a two-way reflection.

Rumpus: That reminds me of a Virginia Woolf quote about letter writing—I don’t remember it exactly but I’ll try to paraphrase: “What one does in writing a letter is partly to reflect back the other person.”

Yildiz: Yes. While we were talking about Diane Arbus, I was thinking about that a lot. First you have to have the interest to seek the subject, then you have to find them, and then you have to make choices. For example, her famous photo of the kid with the grenade in his hand—on the contact sheet are all of these photos of the same kid with the same framing give or take but they’re all different. She could have chosen one that conveyed, “Oh, that happy kid on a Sunday morning,” but she picked the one that looked nothing like the others. It’s not only that she found something interesting about that kid, but also that from among the shots she took, she selected the one that spoke to her the most.

Rumpus: As an artist, are you always drawn to discordance?

Yildiz: Not always, but often you are looking for something that stands out. I once photographed Mac DeMarco, who’s known as this happy-go-lucky, goofy guy, full of life, etc. I did a portrait of him at a festival, early in the morning. I had lots of shots with him making faces, making silly hand gestures and what not, but there was this one photo where he was making a heart with his hands and he was lost in thought for a second. From all of the shots I took, I chose that one because it shows a different side of him.

Rumpus: But it’s not a sneak attack—he knew you were photographing him. In that way it’s more consensual than some kinds of street photography where the subject may not even know s/he’s being photographed.

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Yildiz: I love street photography but I can’t see doing it myself. I don’t want someone being pissed at me because I’ve made his or her photo. It makes me uncomfortable and takes the fun out of what I’m doing. Even in the early days, I came to shows with my camera in full view, not hidden away.

Rumpus: Did you show the photos you took to the musicians?

Yildiz: For the longest time, I didn’t show the photos to anyone except maybe my close friends. Then one day one of my friends suggested that I send the photos I took to the musicians. And I thought yes, many didn’t have the money to hire a professional photographer but sending them my photos could be my way of thanking them for sharing their music with me. But it wasn’t easy for me to do. When you put your work out there you make yourself so vulnerable. I thought: what if they don’t write back and say they like them, or if they do write back but say they don’t like them? The photograph is always an interaction. I always like it when everyone is happy.

Rumpus: That’s really interesting—realizing that musicians and visual artists can mutually support each other’s work—and it’s also a good segue to talking about Death By Audio. How did you find that creative community?

Yildiz: The way I got involved with Death By Audio was because I randomly saw A Place to Bury Strangers at this place called Coral Room, which was in Chelsea. I was blown away the minute I saw them! I started going to every single show. That’s how I met Oliver Ackermann, who’s the singer, and also his girlfriend at the time, Karen. We became friends, and he was one of the guys who started Death By Audio—first as a guitar pedal company and later as a music venue. Death By Audio was the first place in New York I felt truly comfortable.

Rumpus: How so?

Yildiz: They weren’t judgmental, and everyone was really welcoming. Their philosophy was that everyone could do something, make something. They may be musicians or artists, they may play in each other’s bands, or use Oliver’s effects pedals, or someone records another one’s set, or mixes it. People were working there, and living there. It was just an insane group of people, good people! Regardless of anyone’s individual capabilities, or how “successful” their business was, they could be a part of it. The people running it weren’t throwing shows to get rich either. The shows were like eight bucks, and all-ages too.

Rumpus: Why was the all-ages aspect significant?

Yildiz: Because young people can be exposed to good music and it can make a real difference in their lives. You know, growing up in Turkey we didn’t have that kind of access to original music. As I mentioned, I came to New York telling myself it was for professional reasons relating to business, but the other reason I was obsessed with New York is because of the Velvet Underground. I just had this idea of New York that came from that band, which I didn’t actually hear until college. My best friend has the coolest sister, and I remember being over at their place one day and she played “Sunday Morning.” And the sun was coming through the window, and that song just gave me the goosebumps. It still does!

Rumpus: I don’t want to overdraw the comparison between iconic New York clubs of the Velvets’s era like Max’s Kansas City and Death By Audio, but they’re both examples of places that gained a kind of mythic status as magnets for artists and musicians.

Yildiz: Yes, but when it started Death By Audio was really on the fringe. The first time I went to Williamsburg was 2001, and I remember, for example, there was a place called Capones—it was a pizza place that would give away free food with every drink. My friend’s friends were DJing there, so we would take a cab from Manhattan, and sometimes the cab driver wouldn’t want to let us out. Other times he’d wait until we got inside. I don’t want to over-romanticize it, but Williamsburg was really out there, and then suddenly it wasn’t.

Rumpus: Tell me more about what the transformation was like.

Yildiz: When I started hanging out in Williamsburg, the gentrification was probably already happening, but it seemed subtle compared to Manhattan. Whenever people would come to visit me from Turkey I would tell them that artists and musicians used to live in Soho because there were large lofts for them to work in, and the rent used to be cheap. But I never thought that Williamsburg would go the way of Soho, or that it would change so quickly.

Rumpus: Well that’s the sort of standard narrative of gentrification—pioneers move out to a “frontier” to live and work, and then that place becomes a hot spot, which drives up the rent, and makes it impossible for them to stay. But the fact that Death By Audio was directly displaced by VICE, who took over the building in 2014, is kind of complicated.

Yildiz: Yes, but when I was editing my book I knew I didn’t want to put anything related to VICE in it. The fact that it was VICE makes it tacky, but I feel like if it wasn’t VICE it was going to be someone else. What I wanted to show in my book was what the Death By Audio guys built over ten years of their lives, and the community that they created. I wanted it to be a celebration and I felt that it shouldn’t be tainted by anything negative.

Rumpus: So this goes back to the question of framing. How did you select the images for the book?

Yildiz: I had an unbelievably difficult time. After my first weeding, I still had 5,000 photos to choose from! For the last seventy-five days, there were nonstop shows and events. I was there most of the time, sometimes doing portraits of people, other times capturing people doing sound checks, performing at the shows, hanging out after the shows. I became attached to different photos for different reasons; some of them were my personal memories. So a photographer friend of mine came over and looked at the photos with me. I feel so lucky because that really helped me to choose.

Rumpus: The title of your book is “We’ve Come So Far.” Do you have any advice for photographers who are just starting out?

Yildiz: You have to be patient. Don’t ask for favors. When I first started out I didn’t know anyone. I paid for my own tickets to shows. By the time I started reaching out to people to see if I could take photos for them, I already had a portfolio of years of work. Care a lot. Try to put a little bit of yourself in every image you take.

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BONUS MATERIAL

Enjoy a playlist of some of the bands who’ve performed at Death By Audio, including many who appear in We’ve Come So Far: The Last Days of Death By Audio:

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Feature photograph © Mitchell King. Diane Arbus contact sheet © The Estate of Diane Arbus. All other images courtesy of Ebru Yildiz.

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This interview has been edited and condensed. If you’d like to recommend someone for “Sound & Vision,” drop Allyson a line here.


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, The Brooklyn Rail and others. More from this author →