I’ve just started walking with photographer Mark Murrmann down Polk Street in San Francisco, and already he’s busted out his camera and started snapping shots of a street construction project. For Murrmann, no scene is too mundane to make memorable. His unobtrusive style and casual demeanor allow him to easily camouflage with his surroundings, and he’s an expert at hiding his camera and letting the action take charge.
Murrmann has his work cut out for him as the photo editor of Mother Jones magazine, but he still makes time for his true passion: photographing punk bands. A long-time music fan, he broke into journalism by self-publishing a punk magazine in the early 90’s and co-editing the long-running San Francisco punk magazine, Maximum Rocknroll. In tune with the “in-your-face” punk mentality, he often uses off-kilter camera angles to let his viewers feel like participants in his intimate and electrical images.
He’s documented crowded rallies during the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine and followed soldiers around military training sites in the US, but some of his most poignant photos are spontaneous portraits of average people. His photos have been published in publications such as The New York Times, Newsweek, and The Guardian. Over a lunch of tasty Vietnamese sandwiches, we discussed grueling band tours, the role of performance in photography, and the techniques behind some of his most penetrating photographs.
The Rumpus: You have a background in journalism and you were headed in that direction for a while. Do you think that changes the way you are as a photographer and the way you interact with your subjects?
Mark Murrmann: It definitely changes my approach. I don’t set up photos, even to the point where I have a hard time posing photos when I need to, like for a portrait. If you come from an art background, you get a very different training as a photographer as you do coming from a photojournalism background. It’s useful for photographers to have a little bit of both, actually, but my background is entirely photojournalism.
Rumpus: So you are less worried about trying to set up something and more trying to witness something that’s already happening.
Murrmann: I definitely take the standard fly-on-the-wall approach, where I try to be as unobtrusive as possible, and just witness. Even taking pictures of music, I’m as interested in what’s going on behind the scenes. That’s why I like going on tour, I like photographing what happens in between when the band gets onstage one night to the next. Going behind the scenes of anything really, and documenting that.
Rumpus: When I look at your photos, I think there’s something that goes beyond the normal voyeurism of a photographer just watching something. I see an interest in you documenting other people watching something else. I don’t know if it’s something you’ve thought a lot about, but I noticed it in the prison tourism shots and also in your City Slang series. Did you intentionally set that up as an exploration in voyeurism?
Murrmann: Not at all, but it’s interesting that you say that. For the prison project, in a way, I was kind of photographing people looking at something and interacting with something else. It wasn’t conscious necessarily in terms of photographing people looking at something. But it happened to be what was happening when I was there shooting.
Rumpus: Can you tell me more about the prison project? It’s a very unique idea. I would think most people would seek to photograph actual prisoners in order to communicate something about our prison systems. You instead look at decrepit buildings that no longer house prisoners. What prompted you to start the project?
Murrmann: Well basically, I went to Alcatraz on a trip, just to go. The person I went with, my girlfriend at the time, had a very different reaction to it than I did. She thought it was very weird the way prisons are reconfigured as tourist attractions. I’d never even thought of that, and it was kind of an ‘aha’ moment, so I decided to do that as my master’s project at Berkeley. I photographed Alcatraz a lot because it’s right here, but I also went around the country photographing other prison sites looking at how the prisons are reconfigured to handle tourists and how the tourists interacted with the prison. It’s just really weird: a place that so many people spend their whole lives in not wanting to be, and now streams of people are going through. It’s interesting on a weird sociological level, I guess.
Rumpus: Did you get any negative reactions to the project?
Murrmann: Oh yeah, a lot of people were like, who cares? So what? It is what it is.
The people at the prisons were generally very helpful and nice. I wasn’t doing it to slam them at all. It wasn’t something I was saying was a bad thing, it was just kind of an observation. I think some of the smarter prisons, in terms of how they dealt with displays and the history of the prison, and how they talked about that as a museum or a tourist attraction, understood what I was doing with the project and were appreciative of it.
Rumpus: One of the main questions I wanted to ask you was how the off-kilter angles in your photos made me feel even more involved with the photo. How do you know from which angle to approach a person or a scene and how do you decide where to hold the camera? What’s your strategy?
Murrmann: Well it varies a little. A lot of shots are hip shots where I’m not looking through the viewfinder necessarily. I just kind of grab the photos, and you just kind of learn to guess what the camera will see and how far away you need to get. But there’s the element of surprise in the viewfinder framing something that I wouldn’t think to do, and I kind of like that. I miss shots sometimes. Sometimes a lot. But when I do compose a photo looking through the viewfinder, I just feel like I’m too stiff, composed.
Rumpus: With that fly-on-the-wall approach, you are actually more a part of the action than you would be composing the shot.
Murrmann: Even if people know you are taking pictures and welcome you there, they kind of change their reaction or act differently when you raise the camera to the eye. Whereas, if I am just shooting from the hip, they don’t know I’m taking the picture and it’s much more voyeuristic.
Rumpus: The tilting effect in a lot of your photos is disarming and unsettling. Even though you are saying you don’t plan the angle of the shot, you do plan to develop the film and present the works, so you are manipulating the role of the viewer that way. You have one photo with policemen in front of the Supreme Court. The police seem to be descending on something, but they also appear to have lost balance too, along with the background, so everything is upended. I saw that again in a desert scene with soldiers and tanks at Ft. Irwin. There’s a power struggle going on that’s unique to your style. What kind of commentary are you trying to make with the way you’ve captured these scenes?
Murrmann: Those happen to be shots that were composed in the viewfinder–not hip shots–but really I don’t think that deeply when I’m taking pictures. With those shots, it’s just all about composition. Sometimes it’s all about shapes and angles and light and sometimes color. When I do tilt the viewfinder purposefully, it’s to fit a certain composition, more than anything. With the police at the Supreme Court, it was really about trying to fit as many of the cops in the frame in a certain way, with the Supreme Court building composed in a certain way in the frame.
Rumpus: So I read into it.
Murrmann: Well that’s good. I love to hear about the way people read into the photos, because sometimes it’s subconscious.
Rumpus: A couple of masks of animals appear in some of your street photos. What do you feel like you lose or gain by photographing masks instead of people?
Murrmann: Both those just happen to be photos that I liked. But it is interesting photographing people in masks during street photography, because I think that they’re a little more open to being photographed. It’s more like a performance in a way. It’s more expected of them, they can act out a little more. It’s not weird for someone to be taking their picture.
Rumpus: OK, so now let’s talk about some punk photography. Your photos are buzzing with energy, so it seems fitting that you’d take to photographing musicians and performances. What else draws you to continue to photograph bands?
Murrmann: Well, I love music. I listen to music constantly and I’m a big record collector. When I first started taking pictures of bands, I was always wanting the person looking at the photo to feel like they are right in the front row, right up against the stage, there at the show. That’s the goal of my music photos.
I’ve been to so many shows, that now a lot of it feels very much the same, so it’s hard for me to go to shows and have a good time if I don’t have anything else to do, so I take pictures.
Rumpus: You are less comfortable as the bystander; you want to be involved.
Murrmann: Yeah, and be more of a participant. It’s very much the punk ethos. Not just being an observer but participating, and taking pictures is one way for me to participate.
Rumpus: So even the content of the music you dedicate your interest to has affected the way you interact with it.
Murrmann: Yeah, definitely. And for punk music, in particular, the role of photography has a long history. It’s something that has gone hand-in-hand. Photographing other types of bands and bigger stages is just so weird because of security, and you’re only allowed to photograph the first three songs. But with punk bands, you’re right up against the stage, and often they’ll play on the floor. It’s all so much of the same experience rather than being separated. Punk bands are just more accepting of people taking their picture.
Rumpus: Of all those bands, which was the most fun to tour with?
Murrmann: My own band, Short Eyes, went on tour. That one, at the time, was the most miserable by far, but led to some of the best photos and best stories. If you can get through the tour, no matter how miserable it is, in the end that’s usually when you get good photos and good stories out of it. Going on tour with Battleship, who was from Oakland, was a lot of fun. I’ve never not had a good time on tour.
Rumpus: In the Short Eyes series, you portray a guy wrapped up in a rug next to some drums. He showed up in another photo as well. He seemed like a very whimsical and funny character. Is there a story behind those photos?
Murrmann: On tour there’s usually one or two people who are really photogenic and just respond really well. That’s Vince, the drummer for Short Eyes, and he was somebody who didn’t mind me taking pictures any time; I was invisible to him. He also partied the hardest on the tour, and that led to good pictures. After our first show on tour, I was sleeping on a futon on the stage and he kept trying to steal the futon from me, and eventually he just rolled up in the drum carpet on stage, which was pretty gross. When I woke up I saw him and grabbed my camera and took that photo.
Rumpus: What do you think people gain from looking at silent shots of musicians without the music as an accompaniment?
Murrmann: When I show the music photos to certain photo editors, they’re really dismissive of it because they’re like you’re just showing a performance. It is a performance, but I disagree that the photos should be discounted as just photos of performance. I like the photos being able to stand on their own without the music, as photos with interesting compositions. Or making people feel the energy of the music or being at the show just by looking at the photo.
Rumpus: And when are people not performing, right? You’re just capturing emotion, whether it’s a band or a person on the stree
Murrmann: I completely agree. Any time you raise the camera to the eye, and somebody sees that you are taking a picture, they are more or less performing for you.
Rumpus: On one side of the spectrum is your photography of the punk rock world, with its recklessness. Then you have these very sobering shots of political and war-related themes, plus a whole series that takes place in old prisons. Is it ever hard to be invested in these two worlds; one that is possibly trying to escape reality and the other that is forced to deal with harsh circumstances?
Murrmann: It’s not hard for me because I’m interested in politics and music. Photographing the news stuff, I approach it exactly the same way as I do music. Going to the Orange Revolution, it was a really festive atmosphere so it was kind of like shooting a tour or a show. It was a lot colder, but it was basically kind of the same thing.
Shooting Congress was a little different approach because of the distance. I had to use long lenses which I don’t normally do. And talk about performance: everybody there was performing constantly. Getting interesting shots out of more or less nothing was a challenge, because you are photographing the same people in the same rooms every day. But in a way it was like being on tour, because you’re photographing the same people in the same setting every day. You’re always looking for a way to shoot the same thing differently.
The higher up you get in either music or politics it’s more of a performance, and it’s more controlled, and it’s just all so phony. That’s partially why I am more interested in the behind-the-scenes stuff. I would rather shoot what was going on backstage at a show than the show itself. I would rather step back and shoot the wider angle at the press conference where you see the lights and the backdrop and the chintzy table and the flimsiness of it all.
Rumpus: Too bad Nancy Pelosi won’t let you in her dressing room.
Murrmann: Well you can get shots of them getting make-up on. You don’t see those pictures very much but all the photographers take them.
Rumpus: What’s a photo you’re particularly proud of?
Murrmann: The shots where I was just kind taking a chance, whether I’m not sure if my exposure’s right or my camera’s focused, or taking a chance like “I’m going to go to the Orange Revolution and hope I get something.” So, I have a few. One is a hip-shot from New Year’s Eve that I shot on the (San Francisco) Embarcadero of two people kissing. Another is of this kid Tyson lighting a cigarette and everything is illuminated. And that was just a grab-shot.
You can find more of Murrmann’s work on his website, markmurrmann.com.