Photographer spotlight: An Interview With John Lyons

Photographer spotlight: An Interview With John Lyons

28th July 2022

Earlier this year, we launched the inaugural Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards, the first ever awards to celebrate the art of music photography and the talent behind the lens.

The competition ran across a series of distinct categories, with winners selected by a panel of photographers, music artists and creatives. The awards recognised 2021’s most unforgettable, unique and unsung music moments and the varied and talented photographers who captured them.

Shortlisted emerging & professional photographers were unveiled and celebrated at an exclusive awards ceremony, hosted here at Abbey Road.

Over the last month we've been profiling some of the talented photographers who participated and had their work shortlisted by our judges, including Rankin, Shygirl, Jill Furmanovsky, Moses Sumney, Sacha Lecca, Dana Scruggs and Simon Wheatley. Last Thursday we spoke to photographer Chris Suspect and in the weeks before that, we profiled photographers:

- Anthony Harrison

- AboveGround

This week it’s the turn of John Lyons, who won the Live Music Photography Award - the category created to capture THE image that defined live music in 2021. From the undeniable electricity of a small venue, and the euphoria of a returning festival, to the intimate connection between artist and audience, these are the photographs that showed us what live music meant to the photographers.

Check back every Thursday as we continue to profile some of the talented photographers who participated.


Live Music Photography Award Winner

Live Music Photography Award

Photographer spotlight: John Lyons

“A good music photographer needs to be in love with the music and able to anticipate and capture the expressive moments.” - John Lyons

John Lyons is a photographer who specialises in live music and portrait photography. Based in Durham, he does much of his work in and around London. He was the recipient of the Live Music Photography Award at our inaugural Music Photography Awards and has snapped photos of St. Vincent, Maceo Parker, Billy Cobham and Mansur Brown, to name just a few.


How did you fall into music photography specifically?

This dates back to 2016, when I was visiting New York on business. I'd taken the opportunity to go to the Blue Note Jazz Cafe in Greenwich Village and I had a camera with me so I thought I'd try to take a few photos. I used to be a keen photographer years ago when I was a student, back in the days before digital but had drifted away from it over the years.

The gig was performed by the funk and jazz soul saxophonist. Maceo Parker and his band. Maceo came to fame by playing for James Brown in the '60s and also played with Prince in the '00s. It was a great high energy show.

I converted a few of the images to black and white and did a bit of editing. I was quite pleased with the results, in particular two images - one of Maceo and the other of trombone player, Greg Boyer with the other guitarist, Bruno Speight. To my surprise, the guys in the photos found them on Facebook and also liked them.

When I returned home, I discovered that the PizzaExpress Jazz Club in Dean Street, Soho welcomed audience photography, so then I was off...


And was there a particular image or body of work that was a major inspiration when starting out?

Quite a range really. I've always hugely admired Yousuf Karsh. His ability to capture his subjects' character in his portraits is beautiful and incredible, I'd call out his image of cellist, Pablo Casals, as an example; I love Robert Mapplethorpe's work - particularly his portrait of Patti Smith on the cover of Horses; and my favourite 'live, capturing the moment' music image is Pennie Smith's photo of The Clash's Paul Simonon smashing his bass at a gig in New York (and of course ended up on the cover of London Calling).

From a jazz photography perspective, I always loved those moody, black and white images on the '50s and '60s LP covers such as: Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, though, for a long time, I didn't know who had taken them. I've since discovered that many were taken by Jean-Pierre Leloir. His work is incredible.


What makes a good subject in music photography and what makes a good music photographer?

For live music photography, the best subjects are those who convey the feeling in the music through their expression when performing. A few times, musicians have told me that I've managed to capture them 'in the moment' and those are the images that I'm most proud of.

For that reason, I think a good music photographer needs to be in love with the music and able to anticipate and capture the expressive moments. Since I've been involved in live music photography, I've learned to watch as well as listen and you get far more out of experiencing a gig that way.


What advice would you give to someone getting started?

For someone starting out in live photography, scout out for small venues where the artists and the venues welcome photography. There are plenty of them around. That way, you can build a portfolio before approaching agencies – which is something I’m working on right now.

Another piece of advice I'd say is, if you're intending to do it seriously, even if it's just for your own pleasure, invest upfront in a decent camera. Someone once said "the best camera is the one that's with you", which is true but I'd add to that, "if the camera that's with you is good quality and you know how to use it, you'll get much better photos." If you're taking photos at gigs, by definition you'll be coping with dynamic subjects and, particularly at small venues, you're going to need to cope with very variable and low lighting.

That said, it is possible to get great results with more modest equipment. I have a compact camera that I use for gigs where I don't have a photo pass. In those situations, you can make the lofi nature of the images a feature, for example to convey the feeling of being in the audience. I used a compact camera at a recent St. Vincent gig at Hammersmith Apollo and got some interesting results.

Finally, take the time to get to grips with the basics of post-editing. I'm not in the least bit interested in wholesale manipulation of images, but it's easy to turn a good image into a great one with some very simple editing (just like those film photographers used to do in the darkroom, but far simpler).


How does your approach differ when working with upcoming talent versus established artists?

For the type of photography I do, I honestly don't think it matters. Most of the artists I photograph are not established in the sense of being household names, though many have been making great music for many years. Maceo Parker, for example, who I mentioned earlier.

That said, recently I've been trying to build my skills in studio and portrait photography. It's a whole different set of skills of course, so having a number of musician friends who are very much in the 'upcoming' bracket has given me a great opportunity to practice with some 'willing victims' and build my experience.


Do you think there’s a genre of music that naturally lends itself to powerful portrait photography?

As I've mentioned, I've tended to specialise in jazz music. That does lend itself to expressive imagery. However, I think any genre works but in different ways, as long as the subjects are passionate about what they do and expressive. When I talked about images that inspired me earlier, I mentioned photos of Pablo Casals and Paul Simonon of The Clash, who couldn't be from more opposite ends of the musical spectrum (apart from specialising in instruments with four strings, I suppose!).


Do you have a preference of working on location/on tour vs in a studio? How easy is it to create “tour energy” in a studio? How easy is it to get “studio focus” on tour/on location?

Most of my music photography to date has been at gigs. I have done a small number of studio and location shoots in the last 9 months. On pretty much all of these, the subjects have played some music or sung at some point in the shoot, even if it wasn't the main theme of the shoot. It's the best way to get musicians to loosen up!


How does the photographic process differ between working with introverts and extroverts?

With live photography, I guess I'm always capturing the subject's extrovert side, even if they aren't extroverts per se. In the studio, putting the subject at ease and then directing is a key skill. If I'm honest, I'm still working at that, although it gets easier with every shoot. Having some dialogue and sharing ideas before the shoot helps enormously, even if the shoot itself ends up going in a different direction. I'm really enjoying the experience.


Have you ever been starstruck when photographing someone? How do you overcome that?

Not so far. Also, the musicians I've met so far have all been down to earth and friendly. That said, I can think of plenty of musicians that I'd be nervous with if I had the chance to photograph them. I guess the trick is to remember that they do what they do and I do what I do.


How has social media shaped music photography, both as a craft more generally, as well as your personal work?

The impact is huge, particularly in terms of immediacy and accessibility. It has removed a lot of the elitism associated with music photography. Anyone can take a photo of their favourite artist, post it on Instagram and have their image seen by thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of other fans.

Most of my connections with musicians have been made through social media, largely through tagging and sharing images after gigs. I've met a whole new set of friends (in real life) who I would have never encountered without social media.

It is a double-edged sword, however. With social media being the default mode of consumption for photography, I think it's possible for the really great images to get lost in the sheer volume of photos out there. Would Pennie Smith's picture of Paul Simonon have made the impact it did if it had been posted on Instagram alongside thousands of other images? I'm not sure.

At the St. Vincent gig recently, I took a photo showing a sea of iPhones in the audience that were taking the same shot. Multiply that across the whole audience and the 90 minutes or so of the show, then multiply that by the number of nights on the tour and you end up with a huge amount of Annie Clark related imagery. That's kind of interesting. It definitely calls for a lot of editing and quality control, which the internet isn't famous for.

But, yes, overall I think, for photography at least, social media is a positive thing and it’s worked for me.

St. Vincent by John Lyons

St. Vincent by John Lyons

The photo in reference to the above answer.


Who is someone, alive or dead, you’d love to photograph?

Without hesitation, Joni Mitchell. For me, she's the greatest singer and songwriter of all time. I'd love to have photographed her back in the day when she was performing and I'd love to photograph her now.

A close second would be Patti Smith. A true artist and huge personality, who's maintained a great look throughout her career.

And, of course, David Bowie would have been amazing to photograph.


In one word, how would you describe your photography?

I'd like to say: 'Feeling'. I hope, in my best images, I capture the feeling of the moment.


How did it feel to be nominated in the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards 2022?

It was a huge honour and a complete surpise. The fact that my image was even reviewed by that incredible panel of judges is incredible. The hardest part was hearing I'd been nominated and then needing to keep quiet about it until the press announcement. I was itching to tell everyone I knew.

I'm still buzzing from the whole thing and the awards evening. The moment I heard my name announced at the awards will stick with me forever.

It felt like a big vote of confidence in my photography and has inspired me to want to go further with it.

Also, as someone who was brought up listening to The Beatles, just getting to go inside Abbey Road Studios fulfilled a long-held ambition.


Why do you think it is important to create a platform like the MPAs to showcase music photography?

It's really important. Giving photographers like me the opportunity to put my work forward to be recognised is brilliant. I'm sure it will hugely help me build my career as a music photographer.

Also, as I mentioned earlier when you asked about social media, the sheer volume of photographs of musicians and performers is scary. The MPAs create a platform to showcase and celebrate the best images and this is really critical to maintain music photography as an art form.


Have there been any benefits to you since being nominated?

It's certainly already got me more attention and given me more credibility as I try to build my photography career. Before I was nominated, my photography was largely for my own interest and enjoyment with a vague idea that I'd like to do it a bit more seriously. Since being nominated, and then being lucky enough to win an award, I've been using it as a springboard to turn it into a full time career.


What have you been doing since the awards? And what do you hope is next?

From a photography perspective, there have been a few more gigs and a few photoshoots. I'm still learning with every click of the shutter. I recently did my first 'corporate' shoot which included some headshots and team photos for a commercial organisatio, the day after I took some photos at an album launch for a friend.

I've also been building my website, which has just gone live. The MPAs and the image that I submitted are front and centre on it. Hopefully, that will be the start of something even bigger...


Be sure to head to the official MPAs website to get a comprehensive overview of all the participants, nominations and winners.

If you would like to keep up with John, follow him on Instagram, @johnlyons99 and his website.


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