A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of shooting one of my all-time favorite artists, Sufjan (pronounced "Soof-yahn") Stevens.
My appreciation for Sufjan's music goes way back to the late '90s, when I was a student at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. At that time, Sufjan was a student at our nearby rival, Hope College in Holland, MI. While at Hope, Sufjan was part of a tremendous 4-piece alternative/folk band called Marzuki, which often played in the West Michigan area. I had the opportunity to see Marzuki play at my school on a few occasions, usually in front of very small crowds, and I was always awed by the talent and musicianship they put on display. They'd play an amazing song with guitar, bass, cello, wood flute, etc... and then swap their instruments and play another amazing song just as well as the last. Led by guitarist and vocalist Shannon Stephens, who has since put out a number of amazing albums of her own, Sufjan took on more of a supporting role but his influence on their sound was undeniable.
Marzuki is one of those bands that I still mourn the loss of to this day - their low-fi self-titled album and their more polished EP No One Likes A Nervous Wreck remain two of the most prized albums in my collection. There are songs on those albums that will send chills up your spine and stay in your head forever. (I hope one day Sufjan or Shannon or somebody else will re-record and release some of those songs - "Kissing the Ceiling", "I Love You I Hate You" or "You Can't Be Happy Without Me" would be amazing and they deserve to be heard - but I'm not holding my breath.)
So all this to say, it was incredibly special for me to shoot the first of his two sold-out shows at the Fox Theater in Oakland, CA on June 5th, 2015. Sufjan was touring in support of his phenomenal LP Carrie & Lowell, an intimate exploration of the grief he experienced in the wake of his estranged mother Carrie's death, and the affection felt for his step-father Lowell with whom he remains close. The show was emotional, powerful and I believe cathartic for Sufjan. There were a lot of tears shed in the audience as well.
At the end of the first set, a young woman made her way onto the stage, crying, to shake Sufjan's hand and thank him for his music. In a way, it seemed not just appropriate in that moment but necessary, as if the audience collectively needed to exhale and reach out to the man and share in the grieving process. I quickly snapped a photo of the young woman as she hurried off stage.
I shot this show as the house photographer, and was surprised to find that I had the "pit" to pretty much to myself, which I can only assume is related to Sufjan's seeming lack of interest in things like social media. (I call it a "pit", but in reality they had me shooting from behind one of the two bars that flank the orchestra level of the theater. Because the show was a seated show, there was no photo pit at the front of the stage.) Not that I would complain about being lonely in the pit, however! Thankfully I was prepared for being placed farther back and I brought along a monopod and a 1.7x teleconverter to pair with my 70-200mm f/2.8. They paid off, though the angle I was shooting from was not ideal and the light was dim for those first three songs, so I ended up getting my best shots from the balcony.
It was a magical night and one I won't soon forget. Sufjan has come a long way in the years since I first attended his shows - his audience has multiplied across the world and his songwriting and musical talent has grown exponentially, but he still comes across with a humble charm that can put you at ease before knocking you flat with the most beautiful and sorrowful sounds you've ever heard.
I can't wait to see what he does next.