My how things have changed. Christine is one of my favorite media humans out there. She was kind enough to agree to be the first local media member to do an interview (in what I was hoping would be a series of interviews with local media members - this may still happen). She finished this written interview on May 20th when society's main focus was the pandemic. Of course we now know there are many, many additional important issues taking place that need to remain a primary focus for the months and years to come.
I've talked about this before that any kind of self promotion right now feels wrong considering what is going on in the world. But, I also don't want this wonderful interview to sit on the proverbial shelf any longer. Enjoy!
Thank you Christine!
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(Whitney Petty of Thunderpussy - (c) Christine Mitchell)
Eclectic Arts: Hi Christine! I wish I could write that we're both working a Thunderpussy gig right now but we both know that's not true. How are you and your family holding up during this pandemic?
Christine Mitchell (Housetornado): We are mostly a family of introverts, so we’re doing...okay? My youngest is our social butterfly and he’s been signing up for every Zoom meeting that the school has to offer, optional or not! But the hardest thing for my husband Jason and me is missing out on shows, you know, going out for some grub and a beer and spending time in a hot, loud, sweaty room. We got together in college over a love of music, so while we love each other tons...we need our music!
EA: I feel you. As the events disappeared from my list in March and beyond it was just like a punch to the face with each announcement. Even now, it still hurts when I hear of something in the summer or fall being cancelled (even when I knew it would be).
EA: Since I really know very little about the backgrounds of any of the media folks here in Seattle, let's start at the beginning. Please tell me a bit about yourself.
CM: I live up in Snohomish County in Mill Creek. I have three kids and I work volunteer shifts at my two youngests’ co-op elementary/middle school teaching art. My oldest is about to get their driver’s license. Yikes! I’d like to tell you all sorts of cool and amazing anecdotes about my day to day existence, but we’re pretty basic (laughs). Without shows we’re even more boring than usual!
EA: When did you first start getting involved in photography - amateur or otherwise? How long have you been shooting professionally?
CM: I got a point and shoot camera when I was something like ten, I think. It took 110 film and I took photos of my stuffed animals and my sister and my pets. I honestly didn’t think too much about photography for decades! I just took vacation photos and pictures of friends like most folks do. When I got married, we chose our photographer because he photographed my aunt’s wedding...and our photos are pretty meh (laughs).
I love art and have two art degrees, but I didn’t find photos to be very compelling EXCEPT for music photos. I think that album art really ignited my love of art in general, because LPs were something I could hold in my hands in my home and really examine as the music played as a kid. And a lot of those albums involved band photography, especially during the grunge period when I was in high school and college. I loved Charles Peterson’s work long before I even had an inkling that I could take music photos. Those messy, flashed-out moments captured the essence of what I felt going to shows as a teenager and into my twenties.
I had a very short break-in period of about three months between when I first started seriously shooting music and making money off it. Sometimes I feel embarrassed about how quickly it happened, but I have to remind myself that I have a sturdy art background and also a love of everything music. Anyway, in 2014 my dear friend Arlene Brown, who was half of our duo at Seattle Music Insider called “The Wonder Twins” (she photographed and I wrote articles), set me up to work for SASQUATCH! as an assistant to their chief photographer, Matthew Lamb. My job was to upload photos to his workstation and choose the best ones, which he would then edit and upload to the photo pool. I brought our family camera, a Nikon 5100, so that I could take photos of my friends. It was set to auto, hahaha. Matt started sending me out to photograph some bands on the smaller stages as well as general shots of people and art installations, which I protested because I was NOT a photographer. Anyway, some of my shots were published online from the photo pool, and weirdly enough, a sunset shot of mine was chosen to head the gallery of 2014 SASQUATCH! shots. It was kind of freaky.
Anyhoo, soon after that I was asked by David Conger, who shoots for iHeart Radio, to cover Capitol Hill Block Party. It was there that I learned how to use my camera in manual. And then it was Bumbershoot. Wash, rinse, and repeat! I was on my way.
EA: That’s amazing! So, you have three degrees - two in art, one in english. What are the areas are the art degrees in? What concept are you teaching at your kids respective classes? How does that work having to teach art online due to the pandemic?
CM: One is just a general visual arts degree. The other is in Fibers. My focus was more on paper media like collage and book making, but I also do more “fibery” sounding stuff like weaving and dyeing and printing fabrics. I’m a very tactile person and also very heavily a composition-brained person, which I think really informs my photography.
When it comes to teaching art, we do a little bit of everything, like painting and clay projects and whatnot. I always shoehorn in a bit of my favorites, so I bring giant bins of collage materials in and I also bring in fabrics and doodads that I collect from zero waste events and have the kids make stuffed animals. They learn how to hand sew and I coax other parents into bringing their sewing machines to school.
Art during the pandemic isn’t easy, because kids don’t all have equal access to materials. So far, other parents have taken up the charge and run Zoom meetings having kids draw and watercolor. Our school is very lucky in that we have a lot of parents who love art! I need to pull something together to teach...maybe I’ll have kids go through the recycling and we can play with collage that way!
EA: Your writing style is unique and quirky - and fits your personality in my opinion. Do you have a writing background (journalism, wrote in high school or college, etc)?
CM: Ha! Thank you! I do have a writing background...an English degree from the UW. Yeah...that’s three degrees. I was at school for a long time.
My high school English teacher, Mr. Bates, was a huge inspiration in my love of writing and art, which led to me pursuing said degree(s). And my love of music led me to read many essays and biographies by and about musicians, which helped to inform my writing when I started at Seattle Music Insider in 2013. I hadn’t written about music before that time, unless you count MySpace notes.
As far as my writing style goes, I take a lot of inspiration from both Hunter S. Thompson and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, both of whom have very distinct voices that can be pretty informal and “break the rules” at times. I’ve always had a problem where I use big words when I speak and write. I love words and I love putting words together that make your mouth move in specific ways or force a certain metre. I like phrases that are beefy and make you feel like you’re chewing and digesting them. And I love, love humor, although I’m pretty sure that I’m the only one who gets some of my jokes.
EA: Present day - whom do you shoot for and how did you become involved with them (one or all companies)?
CM: I still shoot for David Conger and iHeart. I love shooting for David; the mix of shows he needs coverage of keeps me on my toes and gets me out of my comfort zone and I really value that. It’s also taken me to venues all over Western Washington, large and small (but mostly large, haha!). David is also really funny; his deadpan humor has faked me out countless times.
I also work with Jim Bennett of PhotoBakery, who is an awesome human in addition to being a great photographer. My work with Jim has put me on the house teams for both Capitol Hill Block Party and THING! festivals as well as for MoPOP for event photography. I started working for him in 2017 at CHBP doing music, lifestyle, and sponsor photography there.
I’m also the editor for Seattle Music Insider, which is where almost all of my writing and review work ends up. I started there in 2013 as a writer.
EA: Do you ever get an assignment that you are not too keen on shooting? How do you handle that? Have you ever turned down an assignment based on the genre of music (for example - a metal show)? Do you ever shoot shows just for fun (unpaid)?
CM: I like to roll my eyes and say something snarky or complainy to my husband, but the honest-to-Blob truth is that I love it all. I never turn down assignments based on what type of music or event it is...only if it doesn’t fit into the family schedule. I’ve shot everything from Ellie Goulding to GWAR to Ozuna to endurocross to people taste testing vodka. And it’s fun every single time.
I shoot LOTS of stuff for love and not money. I can’t think of a better way to support musicians and venues that I love. I also pay to get into those shows, and I’m happy to do it. Local folks deserve every penny they can get! Especially now. I donate to every live stream I watch.
EA: For the gear heads out there - what equipment do you use on a regular basis when shooting events?
CM: I’m gonna put myself out there and say that most of my gear is used. There. I said it. And I feel good about it! I’m definitely into gear and love talking about it, but I also believe in not sinking all of my cash into the shiniest new thing. I focus on taking great photos, and that’s ultimately up to me, not how expensive or fancy my gear is.
I shoot Nikon and I own two D750s and I love them. The D750 has been around since 2014, so it’s not exactly new on the market, but it’s still a great camera. My main lenses are a Tamron 24-70 2.8 G2, a Nikon 80-200 2.8, and a Tokina 16-28 2.8. I use the 24-70 the most, but my favorite is the Nikon...it’s a total tank and it’s super sharp. I have an assortment of primes for when light is lacking, and my Nikon 35mm 1.8 DX lens is probably my favorite of those. People freak out when they hear that I use a crop sensor lens on a full frame camera, but this particular lens uses the entire full frame sensor, with very little vignetting in the corners when used wide open. It’s also a fantastic lens, and it’s super cheap. It’s saved my bacon plenty of times.
I also own a Nikon F5 for shooting film, and I own an assortment of Polaroid cameras. I use these quite a bit when I’m shooting bands in the recording studio or for portraits before and after gigs.
(Christine Mitchell - (c) Abby Williamson)
EA: Do you spend much time in post-production when editing your images or are you mainly in camera and then tweak things after?
CM: I always try my best to get things right in-camera, but at the same time, I try not to be constantly checking my photos while shooting. I keep my eye on my metering for the most part and adjust from there. If I’m futzing with my settings I might miss an important moment, and I learned very early on that if you miss the moment, you miss the shot. And honestly, having a really boring but technically perfect shot isn’t going to move anyone. It isn’t going to punch you in the gut. If you look back into the history of music photography, it’s easy to see examples of iconic photos that are obviously technically imperfect, and I actually think that imperfection can add to a sense of the urgency of the moment, the loudness of the music, or the seething mass of a crowd of fans. I think a lot about the limitations of film and how that informed music photography until relatively recently. Again, I look to Charles Peterson and his control of light and use of flash. His live photography is messy and imperfect and GREAT.
I also, of course, always think about who I am working for and what sort of photos are needed for the job. I tend to lean more technical in both shooting and editing for publication. I get more crazy with things when I’m shooting for myself, hahaha!
But yeah, I do edit. The larger the venue and better the lighting or if I’m allowed to use flash, the less editing I have to do. When I’m shooting in the dark at extremely high ISOs I usually have to massage the photos to where I want them to be, and they tend more toward the weird. But I like that just as much as I like the more “in-camera” photos.
EA: How do you decide which events you will be covering? Also, do you determine if it's a shoot only show or a shoot and review show? Do you make that decision or does an editor? Approximately how many events do you average a year?
CM: When I was starting out, I reviewed just about everything for SMI except for when I shot for iHeart as they only publish galleries. As time has gone on, I’ve taken on a lot more on the paid side of things, shooting festivals and events for the house at various places, and that leaves less time for the writing side. This has also resulted in my spending more time simply attending and just shooting shows because I love live music. I love seeing my favorite bands over and over. I can’t really write about a band every single time that I see them; I don’t want to oversaturate SMI with my goings-on, and bands don’t need me constantly yawping my gawp about every move they make. But I do see a need for photo coverage for these bands so that they can promote themselves. That’s truly valuable. So at this point I have my work and then I have my passion when it comes to photos. Writing has been a little less forthcoming lately but I still love it. I love writing album reviews.
EA: You're becoming (or already are) synonymous with the band Thunderpussy. You have done an incredible job documenting their career thus far. How did you first get involved with the band and what else can you tell me about your experience working with them over the years?
CM: The more that I think about how it all started, the more sort of fairy-taley it seems, like it was some sort of strange thing that was fated to be. Because the first time that I photographed Whitney Petty was the first day I took concert photos back in 2014 at SASQUATCH!, when she was still in The Grizzled Mighty. And the even weirder thing was that they had dancers with them on stage, and Molly Sides was one of the dancers. So I photographed her, too. Whitney was wearing a homemade Thunderpussy shirt.
The first time I photographed Thunderpussy as a band was in September 2014 at the now-defunct Everett venue The Cannery. They opened for My Goodness and they totally stole the show. I think that that was basically the headline for the article I wrote. They had the whip and Molly had the moves...it was maybe their fourth show ever?
Of course I had to see them again. Their shows were (and still are) so fun. And we got to know each other. I know the feel of their music, so I’ve learned to anticipate when a good shot might happen.
I mean, let’s face it: Thunderpussy is a photographer’s dream. They are so easy to shoot. They’re fun, they’re enthusiastic, and they love what they’re doing and it shows. They have great outfits (thanks to Pakio Galore). I’m definitely not the only one who has killer shots of this band.
I never had a mission in my mind for my photos to become synonymous with the band. I think that I’m able to capture the way that they feel live very well, and I feel that my photos radiate my love for these humans. I love experiencing and capturing their joy in performing. I do feel entrusted with conveying their image. I’ve been able to be a fly on the wall during so many moments that were special to them, whether it’s getting ready for their first CHBP performance, powering their way through a one day video shoot, or reveling in the sonic power of an abandoned nuclear cooling tower.
Maybe it hasn’t been fate so much as it has been just being there for the long haul. Or maybe it was the first crack of that whip that did me in. THEY HAD ME AT WHIP.
EA: When I first started covering shows, I thought the big media folks around town did this for a living. I was disheartened to discover almost everyone had a day job. Do you have a day job? If so, is it completely separate from your media work or are there similarities (for example if you work as a graphic designer, that would be in a similar ballpark as a photographer)?
CM: I’ll say this: all of my cash money comes from shooting shows and events. The reality: I’m the mom of three teenagers (laughs) and my photography income is far from a livable one. I drive a minivan and I volunteer at my kids’ school. This arrangement where I go out a few nights a week to work or go out of town for a weekend for a festival works pretty well for our family although it doesn’t win me cool points with cool people. Also I think that other moms find me weird, which is kind of true.
I agree that it’s disheartening that photography is rarely a full time, full pay kind of thing. I know so many photographers who work so hard and have two or sometimes three jobs. But that’s also true for musicians. Artists get a raw deal, which is sad because they give us so much.
EA: You've worked a lot of shows over the years. What are some of your best memories off the top of your head? How about a not so good memory that happened at a show?
CM: One time I got kicked in the head at a NOFX show in the nineties. I feel like that’s a good memory. The crowd at that show destroyed the first seven rows of seats at The Moore Theatre.
Another time I was seeing Sky Cries Mary at the Mercer Arena during Bumbershoot and I was up against the rail getting squashed and had to get pulled out by security, and then the festival cut Sky Cries Mary’s set short because the fest was running behind schedule. That’s a bad memory. Also once we rode the bus from the U District to RCKNDY to see Sky Cries Mary but it was sold out. We used to see them a lot.
I saw 7 Year Bitch play The Moe, which later became Neumos. Get it? New. Moe’s.
A few years ago I was shooting Bumbershoot and got to see Billy Idol and I almost lost my mind. That dude is larger than life. Of course the stage was super tall and all you could see was directly up his nostrils, but I didn’t care.
Tom Petty was the first huge artist that I got to photograph, I grew up listening to every album he put out, thanks to my mom. I was super starry-eyed for that one at The Gorge.
Also, there are countless shows I’ve been to at Black Lab Gallery in Everett where it’s been packed, all stuffy and hot, and I’m trying to photograph bands while dancing and singing along to every song. That’s my favorite kind of moment.
EA: Where do you want to see your work go in the next coming years (once live events return and beyond)?
CM: I have a couple of pretty simple ongoing goals. One is for my images to project the feelings on the viewer that I intend them to, whether that’s a fan in awe of their favorite singer, or someone looking at a festival photo and it reminds them of how they felt in that time and place themselves. My other goal is for my images to go to bat for local bands and events that I cover. This second goal is more personal rather than business oriented.
Other than that, I have ideas for books floating around in my head. One for Thunderpussy and one for the music scene in Everett. I’ve been documenting both for most of my career, and I think that memorializing them in a “tome format” would be sort of an ultimate accomplishment.
EA: I know you cover a lot of local bands as well. Who are some of your favorites (time to plug)?
CM: My heart is with Everett. Local music is where it’s at, and Everett is my second home, the place where you walk into a venue or a bar and it’s hugs all around. The bands of Everett are making great music and have been for the past few years. Oliver Elf Army just put out a record (Oliver Elf Army are sending thoughts and prayers is on Bandcamp) that’s been giving me life during this weird-ass time. I started covering shows there in 2014 and fell hard for the scene there. The bands support each other and they’ve become like family to me. And these aren’t some roadhouse covers bands, which I’m sure crops up in people’s minds. This is excellent stuff, I’m tellin’ ya! Everyone should come up north for the next Fisherman’s Village Music Festival, because it’s my favorite and that’s all the reason you need to bomb on up I-5.
As far as non local music goes, Frankie and The Witch Fingers’ ZAM has been getting heavy play at our house. We saw them three times last year, the first time sight unseen, and now we want to see them in their stomping grounds, which is LA. LA is huge.
EA: Thank you so much for doing the interview!
CM: Thank you for having me, Mark! It’s fun to be able to sort of chat about things. We’re always working when we see each other and other photogs, so it’s really nice to be able to go on and on about music and photography and how I live in the suburbs, hahaha! Maybe I should interview you for the next installment! (I'm down to do this if you are - Mark/EA)
(Griz - (c) Christine Mitchell)