“Anyone can take a picture,” cry the painters. “Your photos only sell because we’re in them,” shout the musicians. “You only have a place to show your work because of the magazines and books we write,” sneer the authors. “Why pay for a single shot when movies contain millions of frames?” mock the filmmakers. Maybe detractors have a point: photography does seem more like a hobby than a profession these days. Modern digital marvels packed into ever smaller devices have placed the medium into everyone’s hands with a corresponding dilution of the job pool. When every joker on the street imagines himself a budding photographer, opportunities to build a career as one become few and far between.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in concert photography. Shootists are treated like dirt, pushed and prodded in cramped venue pits, undercut by an audience armed with crappy cellphone cameras, and deprived of income through rights-grabbing photo release forms courtesy of band management. Cast out. Forlorn. Forsaken.
Enter Beth Austin, rock and roll photographer extraordinaire. With an exhibit opening this month at Charlie’s American Cafe entitled Ex·ces·sive Noise, she looks back on an unlikely career shooting bands large and small throughout the Norfolk scene. “I mean, if you're in it for the money, good luck with that,” Austin confided. “I rarely get paid to shoot a show. It’s the freelance work I get the monies from. But shooting concerts? It’s… it’s just fun. And the minute it isn’t fun anymore, I’ll quit doing it.”
Born and raised in Norfolk, Austin’s first exposure to a camera came from classes at Booker T. Washington High School at the dawn of the 80s. She reminisced, “I picked up the camera in the ninth grade. I’d skip class and just go work in the darkroom as sort of an assistant to the the teacher, Mr. Knight. He didn’t care.” Deeply passionate about the emerging punk and new wave scene, she became a regular fixture at local shows by the age of sixteen. “I’d get in with a fake ID. It was all about punk and new wave. The Ramones. The Clash. I liked older stuff as well. The Beatles. But mostly I was into stuff like Crass. The Plasmatics. Plus less heavy music like The Bangles. And everything in between. My first national band was Cheap Trick.”
In the late nineties, Austin found herself in stagnant waters. “By 2001, I was off the wagon. I had a drinking problem. Really, since I was twenty-three. I had been in and out of sobriety. I had a major life event in ‘01 and I was in bad shape. With the camera, it was getting harder and harder to produce art. Partying became more of my main thing.” Serendipitously, she found that photography could give her the means to work through her problems. “I made the decision to clean up. I shot a show, really by accident. There was this ‘a-ha’ moment where I realized that I could use this to keep sober. I didn’t have to sit around the house. I could use this to go out. I mean, there’s no way I could shoot if I was wasted. I’d probably just end up dropping or losing the camera on top of everything else.”
Soon, she found herself shooting nightly, steadily building a reputation throughout Norfolk’s small band scene. “I’ll shoot anyone if they’re local. If I’m having a shitty day or I’m depressed, I can go out. Pick up a Red Bull. Have a great time and try to capture something no one’s seen yet.” Over the years, opportunities opened up with The Examiner, AltDaily.com, and Hardcore Norfolk. "We have so much great music here. There’s never nothing to shoot. I never lack anything to write about. I pick what I want. I’m my own boss with it.”
An examination of her work easily recalls the heyday of CBGB in New York back in the 70s. There’s a raw fluidity captured in her shots, a grittiness that seeps out and gets you all dirty. At heart, Austin is a storyteller, not some soulless technician obsessed with razor-sharp focus. The most impressive aspect of her work is the sheer dedication behind it all. Through the years, she’s shot over a hundred bands at hundreds of shows. Her style is nothing less than a paean to the roots of rock and roll.
Local promoter Benjamin Briggs first encouraged her to put the retrospective together. He also helped to book bands for the opening reception. The lineup is a solid showing of Norfolk’s punk scene including Feral Conservatives and The Electric Chairmen plus the Baltimore-based Lisa Doll & The Rock n Roll Romance. Austin explained that the show’s name has to do with the venue itself. “The thing about Charlie’s, when you shoot there, the light’s not the greatest. It’s a dive — and I say that with love, I really do, but with the lighting how it is? You have to push the camera to its limits. You get some grain. So ‘Excessive Noise’ just made sense for it, both with the sound of the bands and the high ISO noise in the photos.”
Now in her early fifties, Austin isn’t content to simply rest on her laurels. In addition to the upcoming show, she will be joining Feral Conservatives this month for a buzz up and down the East Coast as their official tour photographer. She’s also excited to photograph Joan Jett. “That’s a big one,” she confided, “She’s coming soon, so I’m hoping I’ll have the chance.” Most of all, she just wants to keep shooting for as long as possible. “I didn’t really get started until later in life — I relate so much to someone like Jini Dellaccio. She’s an inspiration. Never let her age hold her back. When I have times that I wonder what the heck am I doing, I turn to her.” She paused at this, hesitant. I prod, asking if there’s anything else she has on the bucket list. She cracked a devil’s grin and leaned forward conspiratorially.
“I want to crowd surf at least once in my life. It didn’t happen in my forties. Maybe by the time I’m sixty.”
Ex·ces·sive Noise [ ik'sesiv/ /noiz ] opens on Saturday, September 24 at Charlie’s American Cafe. Music starts at 9 PM, while the exhibit will be on permanent display. Prints available upon request. For more information, visit bethshoots.com.