Photographer Lenny Gonzalez Knows How to Blend In
The Alameda music photographer has an uncanny chameleon-like ability to blend in despite having camera gear in tow.
Photo above by Lenny Gonzalez; photo of Lenny Gonzalez by Suzy Clement
Alameda music photographer Lenny Gonzalez cut his teeth shooting the punk scene near Washington, D.C., not far from where he grew up while attending art school. Eventually, he migrated to the Bay Area settling in San Francisco before finding his way to the island that reminded him of the Navy town where he spent his childhood, Portsmouth, Virginia. Favoring natural light, Gonzalez’ portraits are often quirky. For one of his favorite subjects, Berkeley jazz drummer Scott Amendola, Gonzalez took the musician up to Oakland’s Redwood Regional Park where he had him swinging symbols around on strings. Now, that’s edgy. And, in what seems to be a cardinal sin in his profession, he prefers to take photos of musicians without their instruments. What Gonzalez really excels at, though, is being able to disappear into the concert scene to capture those revealing golden moments only a photo can. This uncanny chameleon-like ability to blend in despite having camera gear in tow has made Gonzalez one of the Bay Area’s in-demand photogs for musicians and others. But, despite the notoriety, he remains a soft-spoken family man who enjoys spending time in his sunny Alameda backyard. You know, the kind of guy you’d like to take your picture.
A huge part of being a photographer is putting people at ease. How do you do that?
I have noticed I have this ability to disarm people, or at least distract them from thinking about the process of being photographed. I try to learn about them. We don’t necessarily talk about what the article is about. We just talk about them. One of the reasons I photograph musicians a lot is because I’m just profoundly interested in people that play music, but this applies to other people, too. Some of my go-to questions are: Do you take pictures? I know I said I try to distract them from the process of being photographed, but I like to know. These days, everybody says they use their phone, but that usually leads to some conversation about how it used to be when they were kids. I’ll ask nonmusicians if they ever played music when they were kids. Then I definitely have to ask them to stop talking because not a lot of people photograph well when their mouth is moving.
Is it at all like being an analyst?
I think so. I also think it’s more like interviewing someone for a documentary, because as you’re listening, you’re trying to figure out what to ask next to keep the energy going. I feel like my portraits are a conversation because they’re so collaborative. They need to be trusting, and I need to honor that and be there for that moment that they’re going to nonverbally tell me something about themselves by just being in front of the camera. It’s a process to get there where we’re comfortable not talking, and that’s really a beautiful thing.
Are you trying to be the proverbial fly on the wall when you’re shooting a concert?
I do want to be a fly on the wall, but to get there, it goes back to trust. I’m at the local music scene a lot. Some of those people are my friends. When you’re a familiar face, that’s when it makes it easier for them to ignore you. I look at it like I’m the family photographer when it comes to the local music scene. I photograph not just moments of performance but just people mingling, musicians setting up, breaking down. For me, performance photography is problematic because a lot of times it can look the same. There’s something not that special about it unless you can really find that golden moment of intensity. It’s not unlike sports photography in that you’re trying to catch peak action. Sometimes I get exhausted trying to do that and I focus on more subtle things and not worry about catching those climaxes. In some ways, they’re a little overrated because it’s what a lot of people expect with music photography.
You like to take shots of musicians without their instruments? What’s the rationale behind that?
I’m trying not to do something cliché, and so if I do have their instrument in the photograph, I like to have them interacting with it in an unusual way. Maybe put some wit and humor in there. I’m trying to avoid being corny, and I think in a lot of situations when a musician is hiring me for publicity, it’s just a must. If we can do it without the instrument I like that because lots of times when the musician is being presented in the media there’s an article with it, there’s some context, and I don’t think you need to hit people over the head with, oh, this is a cellist, or this is a drummer.
A lot of great music photography ended up on album and CD covers, but of course those outlets are either extinct or about to become so. What’s the future for the photography of performers?
Social media is where a lot of photography ends up, but it feels like vapor. It’s not concrete and printed somewhere. I think these days the photography book is having a good moment. It’s trying to help make up for that. I love photography books. To me a book is a great achievement, just as much as a gallery show. It’s a fascinating process — making the pictures, editing the pictures, sequencing the pictures. And it’s one thing I have not done. It would be really interesting to make a statement that way.