These days, anyone with a camera phone can be a rock photographer: Snap a band's photo and post it to MySpace, and your image is part of history. But it takes more than an itchy trigger finger to match the indie cred of Pat Graham.
Longtime tour photographer for Modest Mouse (and close friend of lead singer Isaac Brock), Graham was a visual historian for the '90s independent music scene. Living in Milwaukie, Wis., Washington, D.C., and now London, he's collected pictures of bands like riot grrls Bikini Kill—including the iconic image of drummer Tobi Vail on the band's self-titled EP—Portland phenoms the Shins, and plenty of other notables into his first book, Silent Pictures
(Akashic, 137 pages, $22.95). The 37-year-old spoke with WW
about life on tour, earning a band's trust and the niceness of Elliott Smith.
WW: Has Modest Mouse changed since you first toured with them in 1997?
I've seen them just grow as musicians. When I first started touring with them, it was just me and those three guys…and we would drive around in a van and usually miss the shows because we'd show up late. If Isaac would break a string, it would take like half an hour to change in front of the crowd, you know? [Laughs] Now it's like, we're on time…things are more organized.
How long does it take until a band feels comfortable having a camera around?
I think it takes a while. When I was taking those [Bikini Kill] photos, I was living at the house [with Brock] where all the riot-grrl meetings were happening…Bikini Kill would start all their shows out by saying, “All the guys in the back, all the girls up front.” The fact that they let me stay up front and take pictures was really cool, you know, because I'm a guy. I just really respected what they did and tried not to get my camera in the way.
In Silent Pictures, none of the photos have captions. Why only use the index to list what bands are pictured?
I'm hoping that someone who doesn't even know any of those bands can pick it up and be interested in it. We kind of tried to lay the book out like a song, like music, like a record: Start out with a really explosive music or action and then get kind of calm and then get loud again.
Is there a story behind the photograph of Elliott Smith at the Black Cat club in Washington, D.C. (above)?
What I was doing for two or three years was taking a Polaroid every single day…and it just happened to be that day that [Smith] was playing. But there's a better story: Modest Mouse was opening for Elliott Smith, [and] Isaac's amp literally blew up on stage. At that time, all he had was one amp, and you know, we're not making that much money. After the show Elliott Smith came up to us and he's like, “Oh, man, you guys, that sucks,” and then he gave us a few hundred dollars to go by another amp. And he wasn't that popular then, either—it was like 1997. He was a cool guy.
Graham will discuss Silent Pictures at the Ace Hotel on Monday, Sept. 17. 5:30 pm. Free. All ages. Photo: Elliott Smith at the Black Cat, taken by Pat Graham. Read the extended Q&A here.