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Alysse Gafkjen shares the memories and stories behind her music portraits

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Alysse Gafkjen signs prints for her Sound In Frame exhibition.

In this episode, we take a journey with music photographer Alysse Gafkjen. Born and raised in Ohio, the Columbus College of Art & Design grad carved out her own path merging two of her passions - music and photography. A new exhibit in Columbus celebrates a decade of her music portraits of artists that include Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Billy Gibbons and ZZ Top, Marty Stuart, Duane Eddy, Keith Urban, Yola, and The Highwomen. An opening reception for Sound In Frame takes place October 15 in Columbus at The Mansion 731 from 5 to 8pm. The exhibit runs through November 13. Find more details on that in the pdf below. Here on Music Journeys, Gafkjen shares how the love of music and photography started and merged, what she's learned over the years, and some of the behind the scenes accounts of her favorite shoots. Thanks for listening.

Boston by Augustana plays...

Alysse Gafkjen counts Augustana among the bands she enjoyed and photographed early on in her career. The love of music may have always been there, but the interest in capturing images took a little longer.

"I grew up in Marion, Ohio as the youngest of four in a very musical family," Gafkjen said. "All four of us kids sang at church and harmonized together. My mom was a pianist and a choir teacher, and I was in the school band and in musicals and all kinds of show choirs. Growing up, music was everything."

See Her by Truth & Salvage Co. plays...

"Then, my oldest sister built a dark room in our basement when she was in high school," Gafkjen recalled. "I was about ten years old and thought it was the coolest thing. When it was time to figure out what I wanted to do after high school, I went to the Columbus College of Art and Design. Sophomore year came around, and I switched my major to photography. I've always been fascinated by the dark room and shooting on film. I learned how to light in the studio at CCAD. So, I gravitated toward photographing musicians."

Into The Open by Heartless Bastards plays...

"One of the biggest influences on me when I was in college was going to the Columbus Museum of Art's Richard Avedon American West exhibit," Gafkjen reflected. "His portraits were all on large format, black and white film, daylight, white backdrop, very simple - all about the human and the person and their expression and what they were wearing and the feeling of them in that moment. That heavily influenced me to pursue shooting classic portraits on black and white film."

Gafkjen began building her brand by word of mouth and the quality of her work.

"The first time I was published in Rolling Stone, I went to SXSW on my own dime," Gafkjen said. "I photographed as many bands as I could. They didn't help me get into any shows. I came back and they ended up publishing a few of my images in the next publication."

Spoon from SXSW 2010 plays...

"Photographing live shows is a whole different ball game compared to portraits," Gafkjen said. "Live shows, it's really all about figuring at the vibe of the show. I like to get there during sound check to see when they'll be backlit or vice versa and I can get a nice shot of the audience. Live shows - it's all about capturing as many moments as you can. Then with portraits of musicians - it's a lot longer of a process pre-production wise. I talk to the musicians, the management team, or whoever's hiring me to find the goal and what the photos are for. I try to listen to the new music and brainstorm from there - do we want to shoot on location or stay in the studio, do we want props, do we want loud clothing or jeans and a t-shirt. That all comes from the feel I get from listening to the music."

Sound In Frame represents a little over a decade of Gafkjen's music portrait photography working in Nashville, TN. From all the album covers, press photos, and magazine covers and spreads, she definitely has a few favorite experiences.

"One of them would be photographing ZZ Top at the Ryman," Gafkjen said.

Sharp Dressed Man by ZZ Top plays...

"I brought my Rolleiflex camera and as Billy was coming down the steps he looked at me and said 'cool camera' and we hit it off from there," Gafkjen said. "I hung out with him and Dusty the whole day and documented the whole thing, including Billy eating cheeseburgers before the show. Then Billy called me a few days later and said 'I want you to take some photos of me.' We went to a White Castle because he wanted a photo there. You can see that photo on my website. Then there's a black and white photo in the exhibit that I love, just an iconic classic portrait."

You're What's Happening Baby by Billy Gibbons and The BFG's plays...

"I actually photographed him again that week for Magnatone Amplifiers, so I got to photograph Billy three times in one week," Gafkjen said. "That was a really special experience. Another one would be photographing Marty Stuart."

Look At That Girl by Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives plays...

"Marty is a dear friend now, and I've been photographing him for about 8 years," Gafkjen said. "There's a few photos of him in the exhibit - one from Joshua Tree, one from this year, and one with his band in 2015. He's like another dad to me. I got to photograph his wife Connie Smith's latest album cover."

Look Out Heart by Connie Smith plays...

"Another one that was really special was the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss photo shoot," Gafkjen said.

Gone Gone Gone by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss plays...

"I got a phone call from the Guardian to photograph them together, and we decided to photograph them in the recording studio where they recorded that first album," Gafkjen said. "They came in from another photo shoot. I've actually photographed Robert a few times before, and so we were catching up as we have mutual friends in Austin and just talked about music. Alison is the sweetest. We had a ton of fun. She said 'these are the best pictures we've ever had' and that made my heart melt. They were so sweet and so kind. I really love this photo of them. It defines who they are as musicians for sure."

Your Long Journey by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss plays...

"With Robert and Alison, I had them get close and then had Robert look here and Alison look left - and that's the shot," Gafkjen said. "Every photo shoot is different. My goal is to make them forget they are getting their photo taken. I talk a lot and find mutual interests with these people. Music is always one of them. We start there. The playlists are always a big thing, and I always put music together for photo shoots. But putting them at ease is goal number one. Making it as painless as possible and fun."

Laughing Guitar by Duane Eddy plays...

"Seeing everything on these beautiful prints brings back all the memories from the photo shoots," Gafkjen said of the exhibit that features her work. "And then creating these images with musicians like Yola for example."

Lonely The Night by Yola plays...

"This was for her first album for Easy Eye Sound, and we wanted to create a new image for her," Gafkjen said. "I was given total art direction freedom, and it's just a raw photo of her. I would say the most patient and nicest person would be Keith Urban."

Days Go By by Keith Urban plays...

"He makes sure to thank every single person on the set before he leaves and when he arrives," Gafkjen said of Urban.

Polaroid by Keith Urban plays...

"I think having a distinct style is the first way to start," Gafkjen said "I built my portfolio around black and white portraits. It's about the person. I don't like to do the big sets. I love photographers that do that but starting with a vision of what you want your work to look like and that's going to evolve. And then being honest. Your character is everything. People will never forget your character. You may have this grand vision, but when the day comes, you have to read their energy and find out where they are that day. You might have to scrap what you had in mind and that's okay because you have a raw photo of someone and really capture their soul."

This new exhibit in her home state brings everything full circle.

"With Sound In Frame, it's really looking at a collection of my music portrait photography, the work I'm proud of and that defines me as an artist. These prints are available for sale, but the goal is to share what I've done. I'm from Ohio. I went to school in Columbus, and I want to share this with the people that were there when it all started for me."

Check out the pdf below for more information about the opening reception and exhibit, which runs through November 13 - and for more about Alysse and her work check out her website.

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Mike Foley joined WCBE in February 2000, coming from WUFT in Gainesville, Florida. Foley has worked in various roles, from producing news and feature stories to engineering Live From Studio A sessions. A series of music features Foley started in 2018 called Music Journeys has grown into a podcast and radio show. He also assists in developing other programs in WCBE's Podcast Experience. Foley hosts The Morning Mix, a weekday music show featuring emerging and established musicians, our Columbus-area and Ohio-based talent, and additional artists that inspire him.