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Photo Essay

Music to His Eyes

Mark Mushet's portraits of musicians bend the usual notes.

By David Beers 30 May 2008 | TheTyee.ca

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

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About a decade ago, Mark Mushet got serious about photographing musicians. His aim has never been to bag the most glamorous stars. Mushet is an intellectual (he co-founded the current incarnation of Vancouver Review) and he has a cerebral relationship to music. Eclectic. Discerning. Drawn to the edges, whether electronic or orchestral. His first musician portrait, in 1985, was of the avant-garde rock and jazz guitarist Fred Frith. The film was accidentally fogged by a lab, but Mushet has gone on to gather images of "a couple hundred" other musicians.

It gets easier all the time. Part of the reason, he says, is "the music industry has become so scattered and fractured, you can access people more easily." Mushet often finds a musician's website, sends them an e-mail offering a casual and improvised no obligation shoot the next time they are in town. He is willing to sacrifice if he is a big fan. When he heard Stars of the Lid, which he graspingly terms "a post-rock ambient neoclassical duo" was going to be in Seattle, he contacted them through MySpace, drove through a white-out blizzard to meet them, shot them in a downpour of hail in a darkened alley, and the result is made all the more interesting for the fact that both musicians are looking over his shoulder at a homeless panhandler Mushet was not even aware had arrived on the scene.

You will find that photo among others by Mushet now showing at Zulu Records in Vancouver, which runs through the weekend. The photos in the image gallery accompanying this article are "outtakes" from that exhibit.

Mushet doesn't play an instrument, unless you count his mastery of f-stops and shutter speeds. But like the musicians he shoots, he is trying to explore an aesthetic outside the sheen of commercial appeal. He blames the ubiquity of digital cameras and the Internet for the "formulaic promotional crap" made to sell music. Most of the commissioned, big-budget portraits are, he says, "vanity images -- bizarre and unrealistic -- and I can't tell what the interest would be for the viewer."

Mushet wants to give the viewer something else, something he saw a while ago in batch of previously unseen photographs of Albert Einstein (who happened to be a pretty good violinist when not solving other mysteries of the universe). Einstein was a real rock star in his time. But the photos offered "intimate access," Mushet says, the same goal he brings to his own portraiture.

"Some people I've photographed numerous times over the years. It's strange and kind of wonderful to see them grow, change and age and still be deriving pleasure from the process of making music."

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