Shooting at the Top: Q&A with Sebastian Artz

Interview by Jeanine Moutenot

Music group the Beastie Boys

How long have you been photographing musicians? Is there a session with a musician or band that particularly stands out?
I’ve been photographing musicians for about ten years. One of the highlights for me was photographing the Beastie Boys, which I had to do on the rooftop of their rehearsing space with HMIs (Hydrargyrum Medium-arc Iodide bulb lighting). Also, portraits of Green Day which I chose to explore rather closely.

Can you tell us a little about how you approach lighting? Do you have a set-up you rely on, or do you mix it up?

I used to have a lot of rules about lighting—especially when shooting on film—but over time I let go of most of them. I would say it’s become “motivated lighting,” which means that there’s a reason, at least in my mind, for every light on set. I like shooting with Profoto strobes because of their wide selection of modifiers and general availability. A lot of the portrait work nowadays I shoot digitally, Canon 35mm, or medium format, but I look forward to the day when I can pick up my favorite medium format camera, the RZ67 and shoot digitally unencumbered.

You have such amazing group shots. Do you feel like composing an image with four, five maybe six or more people is a skill in itself?

Sure, composition is a skill. But what I like doing is composing images with subjects in motion which is something else: there is too much going on in the frame and it happens too fast for the brain to react rationally, so when I compose groups in motion I press the shutter when I feel it’s right. When I started photographing musicians I also used to shoot live stage shows on film, and that, I guess, prepares you for decisive moments.

This is an extension of the question above, but as you’ve mentioned, in a lot of your work there is often a great sense of motion, from a group walking or people swaying, to simpler motion like a laughing or gesturing subject. Do you have any advice for getting your subjects to relax and be themselves?

These are the moments I shoot for. I’m trying to anticipate and set the stage for it, and this is something that comes with experience. The interesting thing about commercial portraiture is that photographer and subjects both have an agenda. The photographer wants a great shot that fits into her/his aesthetics while the subject would like to convey a certain image. Skillfully tapping into these sometimes-conflicting agendas can create an eye-catching visual. My advice? I don’t think there’s a one-trick-fits-all solution, but I would say be yourself and honest about your intentions and try to understand who your subjects are. Having a clear vision that you can communicate for the final picture might also help.

Who are some of your favorite clients to work for?

I do like editorial work for the creative freedom it allows and particularly for European publications that give a lot of space to the photographer. The downside is that sometimes they don’t have the budgets to make a good idea great.

Your core body of work is portrait photography, so it’s interesting that your personal work is still life: octopus, sharks, crabs and pictures of water.  What inspired this body of work? How often do you share your personal work/ art projects with clients? Was it refreshing to work with animals rather then presumably boisterous bands and artists?

A few years ago I started shooting underwater and also become quite interested in ocean creatures. Some people meditate. I go and photograph water critters, which to me, seem familiar and alien at the same time. Because of the introspective nature of the process, these shots tend to be rather simple and minimalist. We normally don’t send these out to clients but show them in art shows/galleries. The fine-art prints have been well received and were in the 16th LA Art Show in January next to Ansel Adams’s and Robert Ketchum’s images, two fantastic environmentalists.

What’s next for you?

Artistically I think there’s a convergence going on between the commercial and personal aesthetic, something you can see in a recent shoot: I’ve photographed the album packaging for a New York musician in Death Valley using parachutes as props. The connection is not obvious, but if you look at the shape of the parachute blowing in the wind you may see similarities to the jellyfish.

To see more work by Sebastian Artz, visit or check out his blog at



PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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