A Conversation with... Barry Roden

A fixture behind the camera at the Juno Awards since 1981, Barry Roden has shot an encyclopedia of acts from Gene Pitney and Etta James, to Oscar Peterson, MC Hammer, Bob Dylan and Kate Bush. And not just pop stars, there have been candid shots of Brian Mulroney, Kevin Spacey, Dalton McGuinty and Vidal Sassoon. Every picture tells a story, as the song goes, and one day the Toronto photographer will sit right down and write that book; meantime, Bill King captured him recently for ‘a conversation with…’

But before the conversation, we asked Barry to tell us a little about himself. So many of us have known him for years and yet he has always been the quiet one, working behind the scenes. Here's what Barry has to say about himself.

“I started taking pics when I was 9 and was living music way earlier. My dad was a pharmacist so I was able to get colour films developed through his store, but it would take a week and I wanted to see my results faster so I learned how to develop black and white film. He took a lot of shots but growing up I didn't want to be in the shots.

“My passion for music came from influence from my mom but more so from my grandmother who also liked photography.

“I went to my first concerts in 1974 and saw George Harrison and then the Guess Who. I was a Beatle fan from age 7 (1967) when my parents would go out and have sitters come over to watch my sister and I. They would bring Beatles albums.

“I played trombone from grade 7-13 ....so in 1976, loving brass, I went to see Chicago -but this time I brought my camera.

“I knew from the first time I took photos that this was my passion and this is where I wanted to be in life. So for the next 5 or so years I figured out how to get great tickets and went to concerts with my camera.

“Around ‘77 or ‘78 I managed to befriend a guy named Marty Kramer who worked for Burton Cummings and got me in to meet the singer and be able to shoot all access. Well, this was a game changer; I got to know Burton and he taught me to be invisible, which is pretty hard when you have a camera and you are backstage.

“The passion for mixing music and photograph grew.

“I remember shooting Harry Chapin at Massey hall in around ‘78, when he called me and another photographer to come up and sing a song called "Circle." I’m 18 years old and I am at Massey Hall singing with Harry Chapin. Needless to say the bug was strong.

“Through Burton I met Brian Stutz who was working with Quality Records. He got me in to shoot my first label presentations with Billy Vera, BTO, and The Commodores just after Lionel left the group.

“So I pounded the pavement back then, honed my skills at black and white photography and things started to roll. I loved working with the record labels. They would hire me to shoot the big bands of the day and I wouldn’t have to chase anyone for money.

“I have to say that my grandfather taught me when I was really young to make sure you give your clients great service.

“This was ingrained in my brain which came in very handy to have great integrity, and to not just to take great photos but to deliver them as fast as I can. This meant do the shoots, go home and develop the negs, make contacts, then deliver them to the labels at 2am, so they would have them on their desks as soon as they came into the office the next day.

“The same went with prints. Since I have always been a night person, I was comfortable.

“So giving great service with great quality photos ensured my place in the Canadian music scene.

“Working for all the major record labels in Canada got me to meet and shoot many big artists. I was the house photographer for MuchMusic, Bravo , MuchMore, City starting in 1990.

“My reputation with the labels allowed me to shoot the whole intimate and interactive shows, not just the first three songs that the press were allowed to shoot. Being there working and helping Moses' vision was incredible.

“Lots of stories. To be able to shoot the contract signing for the Crash Test Dummies and then photograph them getting hardware was very special. It really made me feel that I was a part of the Canadian music scene; but also, as my photos got published, that I was contributing as well.

“David Farrell at The Record along with Walt and Stan at RPM were an important part of my history. I had such a great rapport with them and they got my prints from the record labels for publication. It worked out great as I was hired by the labels, they would publish the prints and everyone was happy.

“Times have changed when it comes to revenues from music sales but I am still active with great clients, the labels I work with. It’s much slower but clients like HMV are still going strong. I have to say a big thanks to Grant Martin who I have worked with for at least 25 years and to this day still do, through CMW, the CCMAs, Boots & Hearts, as well as some very interesting corporate shoots.”

Bill King: There’s usually an uncle and aunt, maybe a parent who has camera lying around then one day a child discovers, picks up, snaps a few images, and is then instantly hooked on photography.

Barry Roden: Or grandmother. My father’s drugstore. He was into Kodak Instamatics. I started taking pictures at ten, giving him the film to be developed. After the first couple years I decided I wanted to do my own developing and see the pictures quickly.

B.K: It could take a couple of weeks – send them out on a Monday get back the following Friday.

B.R: Sometimes a week. I wanted results and couldn’t do it like I wanted to so I started in the dark room when I was twelve.

B.K: At home?

B.R: Yes, I bought a really cheap enlarger – load the film in the closet and develop.

B.K: How did you do that? It’s really difficult to unravel and develop film in dark. How many rolls did you blow?

B.R: I was good from the start – just read the directions. It was the timing. You just followed the specs for best results.

B.K: Did you learn from reading or inquiring?

B.R: Asking people questions. Trial and error. I found I had a natural ability for this.

B.K: I hope your home was ventilated…

B.R: It wasn’t too bad. My biggest dark room was in my parent’s basement. I had a dry to dry darkroom with a 4X5 enlarger.

B.K: What did the other kids think about you?

B.R: I had other friends who did photography but they didn’t quite like my pricing.

B.K: Pricing?

B.R: My clients love me and still do. The record labels were really great and everyone was ordering lots of prints. I gave a reasonable price – almost retail – not a wedding price and the clients would go “wow.” I want twenty of those, no sixty. They were able to service radio and retail at that price. These were the people who came backstage and had their picture taken with a Garth Brooks or whoever during album presentations and would want to give them a picture to feel good about the experience and then they would go back and make sure that Garth Brooks CD was in a ‘good seeing’ place in retail and heard on radio.

B.K: When did you get your first backstage pass?

B.R: Burton Cummings!

B.K: How did you weasel this?

R.B: Through a friend, Marty Kramer. He’s quite a character and we are still in touch and still friends. He brought me back and introduced me as a great photographer – Burton loved my work and said O.K. He loves archiving and still to this day collects images.

B.K: I wonder how much is stored at home.

B.R: I’ve been told he has an enormous amount of memorabilia and stuff. I’ve done a lot of promo shots and T shirt stuff.

B.K: Didn’t he give you a good bit of advice?

B.R: He taught me how to be invisible. Photography – you can be in people’s faces. I would capture stuff and he’d look at and ask, “When did you take that?” He’s the first real artist to let me do what I wanted so that made me feel more comfortable as I developed my career and began to engage other artists. Doing backstage stuff – I’m quick. When artists are just getting on stage or getting off – I’m not going to bother.  

B.K: The photography I most enjoy is the backstage or time when players are hanging easy. So much of what’s taken in performance looks the same.

B.R: With Burton it was easy to do that. With Britney Spears we did 150 people in fifteen minutes – boom, boom, boom. I did something in HMV recently like that. It’s really rock and roll, even the corporate stuff I do.

B.K: On a shoot you really have to be focused on the job and not be taken in by the artist. 

B.K: Luckily, it’s the music I love. I learned a lot about music I would have never cared to listen too. 

Those years at Much Music, there’s no way to not listen to bands. When you photograph someone and you’re only ten feet away from them, you do get to know them. 

My first concert was the summer of 1973 when my girlfriend took me to see George Harrison. I was already a Beatles fan. Ravi Shankar opened up – it was at Maple Leaf Gardens. Then the Guess Who. When I saw them I thought, “wow!” When I was seven years old Sergeant Pepper came with the sitters. The Beatles just clicked with me.

B.K: Did you ever check out the work of American photographer Jim Marshall? He had access and it’s all about access and earning the trust of artists.

B.R: A lot wasn’t just artists but either management or label. I didn’t gear myself towards the artists. In the early days when you were allowed to shoot concerts I’d just bring my camera and go photograph my favourite artists and sit in my seat with an actual tripod and make sure I wasn’t blocking the patrons. I’m the same way today.

B.K: I think that’s what caused so much conflict between venues and photographers through the years.

B.R: Absolutely.

B.K: Massey Hall – shoot from the back of the room.

B.R: Still have to. You also have to pick your moments. Now with digital it’s almost unlimited. Back then I took five rolls of 36 and every frame counted. It was a great lesson. It’s a great way to teach photography. Make them go out for a couple hours and only take 30 pictures.

B.K: I find it I’m much more economical with digital, not monetarily, but in instantly seeing the work.  Here’s one – shooting Aretha Franklin on film years back at Roy Thomson Hall in balcony. I had access and two rolls of Fuji color 800. I knew I had the decisive moments. I get the film back and she’s blown out in every frame. The issue – she wore white from head to toe. Have you lost a shoot for reasons as this? (My partner Kristine went a step farther reminding me Aretha was wearing glitter sequins that messed with exposures)

B.R: You didn’t use a spot meter? Even going back to when I used to develop and process and extract from the canister I’d go, oh yes, I’ve got exposure. I’d be anxious from the time I was shooting it until I look at the negatives and as soon as I see that I’d exhale, put in the dryer and that would be that.

B.K: When did you hook up with Much Music?

B.R: About 1990.

B.K: Complete access?

B.R: No, at first they gave me a shot list of what they needed. For the next decade I never got direction because I would wide angle the whole building. Moses Znaimer loved his building, his environment. I understood that and loved it. I’d take pictures waiting for an artist to come to the front window and just take a picture of the crowd. The next thing you would see would be a bus shelter ad with the shot. I learned his attitude. I hung with him a lot and shadowed him for festivals and shows where he’d have his picture taken – his photographer basically – but a lot of times just the event photographer. Bravo, Much, Much More, amazing. Denise Donlon!

B.K: There were a number of ‘A’ list artists who performed and the lighting was already set.

B.R: And you were at eye level. Normally you are on stage but here, you were right there. Burton Cummings taught me in 1976 to stand on a chair when I took his picture or an artist picture so you don’t get a double chin. I do that with Neil Young, Marc Jordan and the amazing Tom Cochrane. When they are playing at eye level you never get a chance to do that, they are playing at full intensity.

B.K: I had a friend – a great award winning jazz photographer who liked to be on the stage and part of the spectacle.

B.R: I’ve done that a few times. I’ve kind of been part of the show. Don’t like to but as long as it is permitted, I’m there.

B.K: You’d need clearance to get on stage.

B.R: I don’t go where I’m not cleared to go.

B.K: Best stage situation?

B.R: The Guess Who at the SARS concert. What happened is, I told management after they play their four songs have them take their bow and just before they leave stage have them turn around and take another bow and I’ll take a picture of them. They posed for me with a half million people behind them. I still do it when there’s a stage and the label wants to present them in front of the crowd – the crowd are the fans, the ones who bought the albums.

B.K: Everybody waves a Smartphone and snaps freely. This must pose a dilemma for you. There was a time if you lifted a camera, security would throw you out. You can’t do that now. I remember the Barbra Streisand show where they confiscated everyone’s Smartphones and stuffed them in labeled paper bags, what 16,000?

B.R: They did, then they didn’t. They did that with Jimmy Page. They didn’t want anything getting out. I’ve been in that position a couple times when I was the photographer. I felt for the other guys.

B.K: Has an artist every yelled back at you?

B.R: I’ve had management come at me in a small venue and tell me I have to stop shooting but again, I’m unobtrusive – I’m at the back, I’m at the side. It's management just being management, they have to protect their artists – I understand. I’m always about getting a great shot – I want flattery – that’s my goal.

B.K: You ever cut a deal on the spot with an artist?

B.R: Recently, Blue Rodeo. I have a bunch of shots in their new CD release.  I went out to a couple of their shows, because I want to shoot them and a fan to begin with. When you are a fan of the artist, you know their songs. Anybody out there who wants to shoot an artist, know their songs and be in the songs with them. That way you know the peaks and the valleys. Blue Rodeo, I shot 4,000 images through all the light changes - sequences, click, click, click. I sent them the pictures and they took eight to ten images for their new release.



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