Cosmic Rock

(Photo by Coston: Les Paul, July 18, 2003)

Tonight we sat down with world class celebrated photographer Daniel Coston. Daniel is an old friend from North Carolina who has worked with countless greats in the music industry like the late Johnny Cash, sixties great Roky Erickson, The Monkees and many others. When we have a chance to catch up we always have good interesting talks about photography, music and life. Daniel and I had an excellent in-depth talk on many subjects and catching up on his news. - G

Hey Daniel, how are you always good catching up with you what have you been up to lately?


1.Doing fine, thank you. Last year may have been my busiest year ever as a photographer. Photographing musicians, photos of numerous galas, social events and luncheons. It’s fun work, and the fact that people seek me out for that kind of work has been very gratifying. The show that I did at Spirit Square also brought a lot of attention to my music archives. People like yourself know the people that I worked with, but many in Charlotte didn’t know that, until that show.


I also re-wrote a book I co-wrote some years ago on the Double Door Inn, a legendary music venue in Charlotte that closed last year. Working on the book was my therapy over the loss of the Double Door, and I feel like I allowed myself to become a better writer through working on the book.


2. The 15th anniversary of your photos of Johnny Cash is coming up. Tell us a little bit about the history of the project?


In the summer of 2003, something told me to drive four hours to the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, VA. The venue was the home to the Carter Family, and Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash had played the venue for 35 years. It was a month after June Carter Cash had passed away, and no one thought that Mr. Cash would ever play again. Through a set of circumstances, the Carter family liked me, and asked me to come back the following week to photograph Mr. Cash’s tribute show to June. My mantra the whole week leading up to the show was, “You’re dreaming this, Coston. Now go document the dream.”

(Photo by Coston Johnny Cash, July 5, 2003)


The show itself was unlike anything I have ever seen in my life. Everyone in that venue had some personal connection to the Carters, or to Mr. Cash. It was like emotionally heavy air. The place was overflowing with air, but one of the Carters let me sit on the floor in front of them, near the stage. Two weeks later, Mr. Cash came back for another show, and I photographed that, as well. He was supposed to come back in Hiltons that September, but he passed away before he could do so. The Cash family has now used several of my photos from those shows, and have said that my photos are among the best of Mr. Cash from that time in his life. I’m very proud of that. To think that someone I read about in a comic book when I was nine years old, listened to all of my life, and then was able to say that I had my photos used by him, and his family. Kind of amazing. Somehow, I keep pulling that off with musicians and bands that I was a fan of, or was friends with. There’s a lot of work behind that last statement, but the work still has to stand on its own, and hopefully, it still does.


If you notice, I say "Mr. Cash". It seems strange to say Johnny. Almost any of us that were lucky enough to spend time around him all call him Mr. Cash, then or now. We all loved him that much, and still do.



3. What are some of your best memories over the years?


The Cash shows I just mentioned just seemed to happen in a different place, emotionally. The early days with the Avett Brothers, and working on their early albums. Hanging out at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas in the 2000s, and searching for the people that I had listened to for years. Two legendary names when I was first listening to records were Roky Erickson, and Alex Chilton. I met them both on the same day. I photographed Roky’s first live show in 12 years the following year, and it was such a joyous moment to be a witness to. Two days with Les Paul in Nashville in 2003, just two weeks after the last show with Mr. Cash.


Working with bands on their way up. I photographed records for the Avett Brothers, Drive By Tuckers, Andrew Bird, and worked with many others in their early days, like the Carolina Chocolate Drops. I have really enjoyed my work with Chatham County Line. I’ve shot four records for them, and still feel like that there’s something I can do with them. Reuniting some of the bands from the 1960s for concerts. One of the band I helped to reunite, the Bondsmen, will be releasing their first ever album later this year, 52 years after they formed.



4. In what ways has the project been rewarding for your creative work?


To this day, a great project fills something in my soul that nothing else can do. Some of my subjects, I’ve now been photographing for over 20 years. I see the growth in the subjects, and sometimes in myself. Survival isn’t always easy, but the rewards do multiply as time goes on.


(Photo by Coston : Chatham County Line, August 2016)


5. Your work has been featured with so many great artists over the years who are some of the artists you have not worked with that you would love to do so?


I am a huge fan of the Zombies, and have photographed them several times, yet I still haven’t worked with them directly. I’ve come close, a couple of times. The War On Drugs, who I really feel made the record this past year that they’ve been working towards for some time. Most of the bands that I am a big fan of, I’ve been lucky to work with.



6. What other projects have you been up to lately?


I’m working towards another show of photos at Spirit Square, opening in August. I still have my 2015 retrospective up at the Charlotte Museum Of History, and I would like to do more with that soon. I’ve recently shot for a few new albums, and am waiting on a few bands to reissue records that I photographed some years ago. I’ve also been helping Maya Beth Atkins put together her first album, which should be out soon. I’ve also been working on more theater productions, for the Blumenthal Arts in Charlotte, UNCC, and other clients. It’s a lot of pressure to get that right shot in the middle of a live production, but I enjoy the challenge.


(Photo by Coston: Monkees, Sept, 16, 2016)


7. Are you working on any new books?


I have a couple of smaller books done, which I may release later this year. I’m starting work now on a book on the Left Banke, a 1960s pop band with a fascinating history. Usually, when I work on books, I try to give myself a hard deadline to finish the book. This one, I’m just saying that I’m working on it at times throughout this year. I also have an autobiography of a musician that I may also work on later this year, if our schedules line up.



8. Have you been traveling with your work and any interesting stories lately?


Yes. Most of my trips these are one or two day trips, due to my workload back in Charlotte. A good example is my day with the Monkees in Los Angeles in September of 2016. I shot a number of those shows on that tour through the band, and they used s number of my photos in social media. Mike Nesmith announced that he would do one full show with the band, in Los Angeles. It was, unofficially, their 50th anniversary show, and I was asked to photograph it. The only problem was, I was already committed to photo shoots the before, and the day after the show.

The day before, I shot three events in Charlotte and Concord. The next day, I caught a plane early in the morning, and flew out to Los Angeles. Got the venue, hung out with the band, and then photographed the show. Which was, honestly, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. As soon as the show was over, I caught a cab back to the airport, and took the redeye back to North Carolina. I got home at 9am, slept a few hours, edited some photos, and then shot three events over the next ten hours. Crazy? Perhaps. But sooner or later, you are left with the experiences you had, and not the what-ifs.


The best show I photographed last year was the Sun Ra Arkestra, at the National Folk Festival in Greensboro, NC. Seeing and photographing them was so exhilarating, I couldn’t talk for a good while after the show. I’ll be driving to New Jersey to photograph The Fest For Beatles Fans, and I’ll work with a couple of the performers while I’m up there. There’s also more tours to come this summer.


(Photo by Coston: Roky Erickson, March 2004)



9.What are your feelings about people/cellphones and photography in the modern age, particularly cellphones at concerts.


I’m torn about this issue. Yes, it gets to be a bit much sometimes with everyone’s cellphones out at shows. That being said, some great moments have been documented that would’ve been lost to history, otherwise. There is also a trend among bigger artists to demonize media and photographers, and to make photographers sign away all rights, or not allow photography at all. I’ve never been the enemy. I’ve always been Daniel Coston, an independent artist, much like some of the musicians’ purport to be. Every once in a while, I decide to forgo the hoops that one has to jump through in covering a show, and I just take photos with my phone, or with a pocket camera. And I sometimes get something good, and it’s mine. I’m an archivist, as well, which does change my point of view on documentation. So, I guess the answer is, document your life, but don’t be a pain to those around you. Especially if I’m standing behind you, and you are blocking my view.




10. Do you have any photographers that you admire that you would recommend your readers to check out their work?


As a kid, my heroes were older photographers. The 1920s and 1930s portraiture of Edward Steichen, the 1930s documentary work of Walker Evans, early blues and jazz photography by Herman Leonard, Herman Gotttlieb, Lee Friedlander, and Ernest Withers, 1960s rock & roll photos of Jim Marshall, Henry Diltz, and Elliott Landy. All of the Beatles’ photographers, and any era of Richard Avedon. They are still largely my inspirations.



11. What music have you been enjoying lately?


1920s and 1930s dance band music, early 1930s big band, 1960s harmony pop and psychedelia, the Sparks album Kimono My House, and the new War On Drugs album, A Deeper Understanding. Kind of all over the place, much like my life.



12. Are there any films you have seen recently you enjoyed and why?


The recent Avett Brothers documentary, which features several of my photos. It’s always interesting to have people that you know be documented, or anthologized, and the movie largely portrays the people that they really are. I also really enjoyed the recent Ric Flair documentary on ESPN.



13. Aside from photos and music talk, what is one life skill you feel everyone should have?


Guts, gumption, bullheadedness. Any way you define it. If you believe in it, work to make it happen. It may not happen the way you planned on, but it can happen, and may instead happen in greater ways.



14. What advice would you give a young photographer starting out in this era?


Shoot what you love, and what you care about. Be open to possibilities, and other opportunities. Talk the work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. You’re always capable of being a little better than you think you are. Don’t be afraid to believe in wanting to create something better.



15. How do you feel the music industry has changed from your early days to present time?


The major labels really don’t exist to independent photographers like myself, anymore. It is all high-end fashion photographers in that scene. The dichotomy of the social media era is that is now easier than ever to reach any artist, label or management with your work, but they are more closed than ever to looking at unsolicited or independent work, or paying for usage of the work. In the late 1990s, when I started, I would mail prints to bands, and more often than now, the photos were purchased. You cannot rely on the larger music business to come to you. You have to put your work out there in a way that allows people to find you, be it new or archival work. The best thing to do is to take a lot of photos, and post a lot of photos. And introduce yourself to the musicians in person, if you get the chance. And stay in touch with them, as well. Ultimately, it’s the relationships with the people that means more as time goes on.


(Photo by Coston: Sun Ra Arkestra, September 2017)


16. As much as you have done great work for so many musicians have you ever been a musician yourself or any desire to create your own music?


I occasionally do sing or scream with a band. I played tambourine and sang with the Sammies at the recent Tom Petty tribute. Most of that crowd, and even members of the band didn’t know that I’ve done that a few times with North Carolina bands from the 1960s. People were stunned, and I had a great time. I’ve toyed with recording my own songs, but if I ever did it, I might just create something under a completely different guise. For all my work in documenting music, I still love the air of mystery in art.



17. In what ways do you keep your photography fresh for your inspiration?


I try to let the subjects tell me how the photos are going to go. By that, by the way that people are being themselves, lost in the moment, or just being themselves. Everyone is different, so the way that you photograph everyone can be different, as well. I do also keep a log of things that I like and didn’t like about a shoot, and what I would like to get out of the next shoot. That makes me try to do some different each time.


18. Do you carry a camera with you at all times and randomly take photos if you see them or is your photography work usually a regimented plan?


It’s with me all the time. Life happens 24/7, and on the best days, the photography happens at all hours. I’ve never drawn lines on time on and off. If it’s happening, let it happen.



19. People say that songs with great lyrics are like a word picture. How do you feel a photograph expresses a story artistically like a song?


I started taking photos in the mid 1990s, when I was struggling to find a place writing about music. A great image says so many things that multitudes of words cannot. It shows the people, the emotions, the moment. All of the things that one sometimes feel, but struggle to articulate. It’s all there in a great photograph, and I’ve spent most of my life in pursuit of those ideas.



20. If you had a series of photos of an all-new theme you have never done what would you choose if asked today?


Yes. I actually have a series of portraits that I’d love to exhibit, that I still haven’t yet. As for completely new work, it would depend on the subject, but I love new challenges. Especially if it allows me to create something better than what I might have once planned.



21. Any last words or news for your audience?


Time is a state of mind. Live, breathe and create as much as you can. Don’t worry about being or appearing trendy. Just be yourself, and just live. Survival and growth don’t always seem so cool when you are younger, but they mean so much more as you go through life.