“Zoran has been a friend to the band and organization for many years,” says Wilco singer and guitarist Jeff Tweedy, depicted here by music photographer Zoran Orlic. “His beautiful work has been used on our record covers, in videos and for promotion.” Of photographing an iconic musician like Tweedy, Orlic is equally complimentary: “Capturing the in-between moments of Jeff Tweedy lost on a sonic wave is a beautiful thing.” This photo was taken in June 2012 in Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Denver.
Zoran Orlic’s photography journey began early. When he was just 12 years old, he got a Canon AE-1 film SLR and was instantly hooked; his obsession grew, and he was quickly shooting nonstop. He’s never stopped. Photography became one of the great passions of his life. The other is music.
Orlic is a world-class music photographer, known in particular for his unique perspective on live music—instantly recognizable to fans of bands such as Wilco, The Frames and Tram-pled by Turtles.
The Croatian-born photographer relocated to Chicago at an early age and began photographing bands in college. As a young musician might, he took his mantra seriously: practice, practice, practice. It wasn’t until he chanced upon the work of one of the greatest rock photographers of all time that lightning struck, and he realized what he wanted to do with his life.
“Nels is simply one of the best guitar players,” says Orlic. “His passion for life and his mastery of the strings is mesmerizing,” says Orlic. “ The photographer shot this image of Nels Cline in August 2016 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago.
Getting Started in Music Photography
“It was a photo of Bono by Anton Corbijn,” Orlic says. “When I saw the poster, I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I’m not one of these guys who studied classic photographers or modern photographers or anything. Anton Corbijn is literally the only reason I do this. I still have the poster.”
Fandom has continued to be essential to Orlic’s work. Not only because he remains an admirer of Corbijn’s luscious black-and-white photography, but also because he’s a fan of the bands with whom he works. It’s as if he can’t put his all into an assignment unless he feels a connection with the artist and their music. That passion is evident to the fans who consume his visuals to help connect with their favorite artists.
In this sense, it’s as if he collaborates with the musicians themselves.
“I don’t know if I want to, or can, consistently shoot artists I’m not interested in,” he says. “I’m 52 now, and essentially since college, I’ve done two major projects that have slightly overlapped for roughly 24 years.”
The first gig began shortly after college. Orlic had been begging bands to let him photograph them while trying to make any contacts he could. It was another chance encounter that changed the course of his career when he happened upon the music of Glen Hansard’s band, The Frames. He fell hard and wrote Hansard an adoring fan letter. Then, as it only happens in books and movies and songs, the phone rang and magic happened.
“He was just blown away,” Orlic says. “How could this even happen? Those times were totally different. We ended up talking for hours about the Chicago music scene, which was enormous, and he was a huge fan. That was it. A year later, my friend and I paid about $160 round trip to Dublin, saw The Frames play and met the whole band. It was amazing.”
As these things go, at least for Orlic, that encounter led to a 12-year working relationship that saw him do practically everything for The Frames, from marketing to managing tours and, eventually, handling their promotional photography. That culminated with a coffee table book showcasing his photographs of the band.
Being There…With Wilco
When that relationship waned, another began—one that continues to this day. For more than 15 years, Orlic has provided promotional shoots and live concert photography for the Chicago-based band Wilco. This, too, sprung out of correspondence—not a fan letter this time but rather a solicitation to photograph the band.
“I shot Jeff,” Orlic says of his first photo shoot with Wilco’s founder, Jeff Tweedy. “They liked it, and the rest is history. I just kind of never left.”
From the perspective of the bands and record labels for whom he works, Orlic’s easygoing manner and ability to produce images efficiently and without getting in the way are equally as important as his artistic prowess.
“There’s a high level of respect involved with not interfering and being stealth,” Orlic explains. “That’s kind of me in general, anyway. I can tell you any photograph you’ve ever seen posed with Jeff and the band, those are all completed within minutes. That’s the only reason I’m still around: Because Jeff loves the fact that he doesn’t have to think about that, doesn’t have to think about me. Which also creates an incredible environment for me, as I cover pretty much every record, and I’m in the studio quite a bit. I can literally be a proper fly on the wall because no one cares, no one even notices me.”
Tweedy agrees. “We rarely trust photographers the way we trust Zoran,” he says. “He has a stealthy, fly-on-the-wall quality that makes it easy to have him backstage and in the studio, enabling him to capture the moment without getting in the way of the proceedings.
“Plus,” Tweedy adds, “he’s a great hang.”
Earning the trust of high-profile artists is no easy feat. Frankly, any level of success in the music business is elusive for photographers and musicians alike: years of low-paying gigs that lead to fame and fortune for a lucky, if statistically insignificant, few. Yet a glimpse at the foot of any stage reveals more photographers joining the ranks every year. It has made the job more challenging and access more essential than ever.
“Ironically,” Orlic says, “that’s probably my most personally enjoyable work. I just love capturing live music.”
Orlic’s concert photography is artful and unique, filled with odd angles and peculiar perspectives that emphasize the fleeting, magical nature of the spectacle of live music. He manages to capture essential moments during performances without resorting to the same old cliché images so many other photographers are after.
“People kind of recognize me by how my live photos look,” he says, “by the negative space. That’s complete success for me. That’s what I love! I think the other part of being a huge music fan—especially of the band that you’re shooting—is you have enough knowledge of the music and what’s going to hap-pen. Because to me, live photography is about the moment. It’s the moment between the expected—which is the cliché photo—and nothing. It’s that moment right in between. It’s emotion, it’s composition…it’s something, but it’s not the newspaper photo, it’s not the Rolling Stone photo. It’s more on the art end than the obvious. Because the obvious isn’t interesting to me.”
Learning the Business and Art of Music Photography
Sometimes music photography entails collaborating closely with the artists themselves, while in other cases, the label oversees the production of every shoot. Some labels dictate specifics, though Orlic typically receives a lot of creative freedom.
“With Wilco,” he says, “they have their own record label, so it’s a different animal because it’s all in house. But I’ve done a few shoots with the band Low, up in Duluth, and that’s strictly through Sub Pop [Records, the band’s record label]. Sub Pop is paying for it, and they’re commanding the expectations, the entire thing. I literally just show up. But there’s no communication with the band whatsoever outside of getting there and hopefully scouting locations.”
Across genres, photography is too often undervalued by the industries that utilize it most. In the music business, this is at least partly a function of the army of up-and-coming photographers trading photographs for access to the bands they adore. It’s a meritocracy that functions much like the system for musicians themselves. Still, Orlic encourages young photographers and music fans to follow wherever their passion may lead.
“I think it just comes down to a band’s management having pools of people who are willing to just be there and give them everything for free,” Orlic says. “Unfortunately, that’s the bottom line. But you know, [pioneering musician and producer] Steve Albini has been quoted a million times saying, ‘Never, ever do your art to survive, to put food on the table. You will ruin your art.’ That’s an extreme view of it, but I think there’s something in the middle. If you’re in photography school right now and you think you’re going to be Anton Corbijn, you better have a Plan B of being a commercial photographer. What I would have done if I took myself seriously, if I could do it all over again, I would’ve gone to photography school or art school, and then I would have interned…in the commercial world, where you’re actually going to be able to make money to survive. And then during that whole time, absolutely shoot your ass off with thousands of bands. Do whatever you can to keep that as pure art, and enjoy it.”
To learn more about of Zoran Orlic and his evocative music photography, visit his website at zoranorlic.com.