R.E.M. Photographer David Belisle
In his new book Hello, David Belisle, R.E.M.'s tour photographer, takes us behind the scenes with one of the world's greatest rock bands. Here, he takes Uinterview on the road with the band
Leave a comment
In 2001, I was introduced to the band by my old friend and R.E.M.'s tour manager Bob Whittaker, as a photographer and waiter that could possibly work as Michael Stipe's tour assistant. R.E.M. was participating in Neil & Peggy Young's Bridge School Benefit for a one-week gig in San Francisco. I thought I was going to be nervous working with famous people but that week was packed with a month's worth of work–rehearsals, live shows, radio shows, recording studios and various promo work. I was too busy to be nervous, and at the end of every night, we hung out, had some drinks and constantly laughed. Michael and I became friends quickly. R.E.M. geared up to do back-to-back tours, and I was hired again and have been working with them ever since. I'm on tour with them again right now. Actually, I just started the process of waking Michael up, which involves about 5 to 7 snooze phone calls. It's 11 am, and we got in around 4 am after the concert. I call this part of my job "keeping vampire hours."
Since day one, in 2001.
No restrictions, although I am very sensitive as to when it's appropriate–or not–to pull out my camera and sneak some good shots. I don't use a flash for most of my work, and that makes it easier and less intrusive too.
[There were] some my publisher thought I shouldn't show, but for those I plan to put in an exhibition some time. I can't describe them because they are all different. The ones the publishers nixed were some that had some nudity in them.
When I was 18, I got a garage-sale camera. Two years later, I accidentally moved into an apartment that had a darkroom space attached to my bedroom. I was working at a restaurant, waiting mostly on senior citizens and a lovely couple gave me an enlarger that was up in their attic. I quit art school and lived in my darkroom. Basically, photography fell in my lap and I've been working at it ever since.
I am a romantic, even with photo journalism. I like to take photographs where people look good and the story gets told. Where you can tell that the photograph shows the craft of classic photography from film to negative to paper.
One that makes you stop and look, makes you find the story and beauty in it.
There's one of a blue dusk-lit window where Michael's striped shirt is hanging behind him-he's very dark and lit with some awful florescent greenish light. He's looking down, probably texting, and it's in his dressing room at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. It's a beautiful photograph. Sometimes, I think it's odd that that is my favorite, but it really is.
Michael says it best in his introduction in the book: "It's like some form of permanent jet lag on speed." That's it for real. I get a "day sheet" from Bob, our tour manager, the night before, and it is packed with press, soundcheck, travel, concerts, etc. From there it is orchestrated, and it's a whirlwind of busyness. I take photos throughout, usually film, except I have to also use a digital to get stuff quick to R.E.M.'s website. The evening ends with travel on a tour bus, or a flight to the next place and often I forget either where we just were, or where we are going next.
If in crazy, you mean crazy-good, I would have to say being at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Patti Smith was inducted with R.E.M. 2007, and I was invited to band assist and photograph. Michael and Patti are great friends and both shared a huge suite–complete with an empty servants quarter–at the Waldorf Hotel. I helped them get ready, I remember I went and bought Patti a red toothbrush.... it was just us three in the suite, no security people, and I photographed them writing their acceptance speeches, and getting ready. I was very proud. I am a huge Patti Smith fan, and she let me take a photograph of her in a pantry closet of the servants' quarter. I only took two photographs of her in there, and one is in the book. I'm very proud of that shot, she has her speech in her jacket's right side hip pocket. It's very Patti Smith. I just love it.
Going into my darkroom and making all the photos I haven't [developed] yet. I have years of photos–not from R.E.M.–that still haven't made it off the contact sheets, and I'm really excited to make some work. I'm going to move to New York City from Seattle and that's scary for me because I have to leave my sister Jana, and nieces. But I'm gonna and it's going to be killer. Then I'm going to save a bunch of money and buy a house in North Bend, outside of Seattle, and live like the beautiful photographer Imogen Cunningham.
Get the most-revealing celebrity conversations with the uInterview podcast!