Rad People Who Make Rad Art: David Williams
by Interviews

David Williams likes to take photographs of men drenched in water that are wearing nothing except tightey-whities. He also lived in Antarctica for three months and shot pictures of seals in sub-zero weather.

But, he's not just a weirdo that likes taking photos of exposed flesh, be it of the homo erectus or pinniped variety. He also tours with punk bands, including Elway, and snaps live shots. Also, this one time, he shot pics of Metallica for Ozzfest. Oh yeah!

Because Williams has been around the world snappin' them pics, Punknews features editor John Gentile spoke to Williams about his world travels, shooting pictures amidst ice, and why Dad-Rock bands are the true party kings.

Click read more for the conversation and some pics.

How did you get started in photography?
My mom was always taking pictures of my family when we were growing up. It used to really annoy me in a "I'm too cool" kind of way. But, when I was in high school, I took a photography class that I really enjoyed. There I learned about photographers like Martin Parr and Andres Serrano, which really influenced me. I was lucky enough to have an older brother that listened to punk music and didn't mind dragging me around to shows when I was probably too young to be going to punk shows.

That's where I started taking pictures with the same camera that my mother used growing up. When I was 15, I got involved with a webzine in LA that would help me get photo passes to take pictures at shows. After that folded, I had a list of some great publicists and started my own webzine. I stopped doing that sometime in 2009 or so to focus on shooting portraits. Now, I live in Brooklyn and work mostly in the editorial industry. Shooting, assisting, and doing some work with a really great photo agency.

Did you receive any formal training?
Yes. I went to photo school in Denver and graduated in 2010, but most of my training has come from assisting some really phenomenal photographers both when I lived in Denver and now in New York. There's only so much one can learn in school, especially in photography or any field of art. It's really important to get out there and learn from your mistakes.

What was one of your favorite shoots?
The Flaming Lips are a concert photographer's wet dream. I always loved shooting them. Photographing Propagandhi at Fest 11 was really rad because I respect everything that band has ever done and had never shot them before. I did a shoot a few months ago where an Art Director from Norway contacted me to take photographs of him and his fiancee's elopement in New York City. It seemed weird at first because I have never shot a wedding before. But, they wanted some strong portraits of them in New York instead of cliché wedding photos. They hired a driver and we just drove around the city for a few hours shooting in various locations. They just told me to take them to some of my favorite spots in New York. So, it was cool not only to shoot portraits all day, but to play tour guide to a very nice couple I had never met before. They even asked me to be the witness at their paper signing at city hall. I also have had the pleasure of photographing a lot of really great comedians. Todd Glass and I had some great heart-to-heart conversations when I photographed him in 2012.

You shot in Antarctica. Did the cold weather make it challenging?
I went to McMurdo station for three months in 2009 to photograph Weddell seals for the National Science Foundation with the University of California at Santa Cruz. It's the most beautiful place I've ever been. Doing anything in Antarctica is challenging. Cold weather definitely made it difficult to take pictures and make sure none of my gear got damaged. But I was so motivated by what I was surrounded by that I just had to bundle up and go for it every day.

I was there during a "spring-fly" season, which is the time in between the winter and summer seasons. The military flies one plane down with about 150 people to start work before the majority of other science groups go down two months later. It's still dark for about 20 hours a day for the first month of the "spring-fly" season, so it's also difficult for your mental stability when it's dark at 2 p.m.. I survived by playing ping pong every night and drinking Speights, a cheap beer from New Zealand that you can buy at the base.

You were Elway’s band photographer for one of their tours. What can be gained over a long tour, as opposed to a photo shoot?
I would use the phrase "band photographer" loosely. But yeah, I did a few tours with them. It was more of a "hey do you want to come on tour with us to sell our merch and take pictures and drink a lot of beer and make fun of Joe?" Having an opportunity to travel the country with some of my favorite people and take pictures is something I'll rarely turn down. The more time you spend with a person, or a band, the more comfortable they are with you taking pictures. When you only have say, 20 minutes, to really connect with your subject it can be challenging to get the shots that you want.

You also shot photos at Ozzfest. How was photographing metal different than photographing punk?
In 2008, Ozzfest only did one show in Dallas and asked if I wanted to cover it. It was the year they did a big Pantera tribute and both Ozzy and Metallica played. I never really spent any time photographing smaller underground metal bands like I did with the punk scene so it's hard to say what's different or if there even is a difference. The bigger metal bands always seemed to put a lot more money into the production of their shows, which is always cool as a photographer. It was always exciting to shoot a band that had pyrotechnics, but most of the bands that spend large amounts of money on the production value of their performance were never enjoyable for me to listen to.

When I toured with The Warped Tour in 2006, it seemed to have a lot of similarities with Ozzfest. Long days in the summer heat is something that can wear on you over time. The crews on these tours work really hard and don't really get the attention they deserve. I recently saw an advertisement for a show about the Warped Tour Roadies though, so maybe they're getting their 15 minutes of fame, although I've never seen the show because I feel like my PTSD would kick in if I have to think about being on the Warped Tour again.

What bands are wilder backstage - punk or metal?
Dad rock bands are the true backstage partiers.

How important is it that you like a band that you shoot?
It's always fun when you get to shoot a band that you actually enjoy listening to. It also makes it easier to converse with them if you genuinely care about their music and you're doing any kind of promotional shots with the band before or after a show. I've never really let what a band sounds like get in the way of photographing them, though. When I was running my own zine I definitely gravitated towards music that I enjoyed and wanted to cover. But I have photographed a lot of bands that play terrible music that were really great to photograph and hang out with, and a lot of bands that I enjoy listening to that were horrible to work with.

When taking pictures, are you trying to portray exactly what happened, or are you conveying your perspective of what happened?
I guess it varies with every shoot. When I'm shooting an editorial assignment, I try to create the most honest photograph that I can, but it's also important for me to stay true to my vision and style. It also can get more complicated when you're hired for a shoot and have to collaborate with the vision of the client. But it's always been important for me to create photographs for myself and not for what I think people want to see. Being a photographer is more than just taking a picture, it's about being a genuine person that people trust.

You’ve been an "official Fest photographer." Please describe the mania involved in being an official Fest photographer.
I hooked up with a local music news site out of Denver called For the Love of Punk to shoot The Fest in 2012. I had been to The Fest previous years and thought it would be cool to put together a series of images of more than just live shots. I shot most of the project on film. I think that The Fest is more than just bands playing music. It's also an opportunity to see friends for a weekend that live all over the world.

I think they choose ten photographers each year to cover the festival. It ended up being a lot more work than I thought it would be, as you have a deadline the next morning for what you shot the previous day. Sitting in your hotel editing photos until 4 a.m. isn't as fun as shotgunning beers on the parking garage roof with your friends or catching up on sleep for the next day. But it was a really cool weekend of shooting and I'm honored they gave me a press pass that year. So many people work very hard to make The Fest happen, and I think it makes sense that they expect their photographers to work hard every day as well.

You have several series with people holding animals. What is the concept behind this series?
Yeah, I have a series called Men & Cats. It started as a fun project when I was still in school in 2009. I suppose the concept is to break an old stereotype that owning a cat can't be masculine. In reality it's just a way for me to meet as many cats as possible.

You take A LOT of shots with dudes in their underwear… often they are drenched in water. What’s the deal with that?
I guess deep down I'm just a dude in my underwear… often drenched in water.

Have you ever had anyone use your work without authorization?
Yes. When that happens, what I do depends on the situation and is never fun to deal with. One time a metal magazine used one of my photos and didn't even credit me next to the image. I was young and dumb and gave some hi-res images to a record label of a band I photographed that ended up being featured in the magazine. I tried to take it up with the magazine and I think they ended up crediting me in the next issue in their "mistakes" column. I heard that the record label folded and the guy that owned it was found dead in Mexico. I guess what comes around goes around. Haha. But, it's really important to talk about these things before the shoot and to protect your work.

What do you have in the works?
I'm heading out to California ithis week for a couple of shoots I have in San Diego, Santa Cruz and San Jose, which is a great opportunity to skip out on the end of winter in New York. I recently went on tour with my buds in Chumped and filmed a bunch of video for the first time. I put together a little tour video that should be out soon. [Editor's note: It's out now! Check it here.]

The group I went down to Antarctica with just got approved for another grant that will take place over the next three years. So, I'll be working down on a portrait project of the people that work at McMurdo Station. Other than that my days are spent hustling for work trying to pay my electricity bill on time like most other photographers'humans.

You can see more of my stuff at davidswilliamsphotography.com. Note the 'S' in there because I have a generic name. Or follow the blog at davidwilliamsphoto.tumblr.com.