Jeff Fasano

Interview: Jeff Fasano on “Americana Portrait Sessions”

Interviews


Jeff Fasano’s “Americana Portrait Sessions” Offers an Intimate View into the Hearts of Americana Artists

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All photos © Jeff Fasano

Peek backstage at the IBMA or Blues Music Awards or at legendary music venues like the Ryman Auditorium, the Bluebird, or City Winery. Peer into the media pits at major Americana or Bluegrass festivals. You will undoubtedly see Nashville-based music photographer Jeff Fasano in these locations. Fasano has been a fixture on the Americana music scene for over 15 years shooting intimate and revealing portraits of singers and musicians.

Along his journey, along with his thousands of images, Fasano has developed many deep and lasting friendships with the artists he has encountered.

During April 2023, Fasano published “Americana Portrait Sessions,” a volume of 190 select images of artists chronicling his musical journey so far. The inspiration for the book came from artist portrait sessions he has been shooting at AmericanaFest in Nashville since 2011. The book also includes portrait sessions at City Winery in Nashville as well as formal and informal shoots with artists across the country.

I first had the pleasure of meeting Jeff Fasano at Blue Ox Music Festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin during June 2022. We reconnected at this year’s Blue Ox, where I had the opportunity to discuss “Americana Portrait Sessions” with him under a tent during a driving rainstorm that interrupted Charley Crockett’s set. Set forth below is my more extensive interview with Jeff following this year’s Blue Ox Music Festival.

At first encounter, Jeff comes across as a quiet and unassuming guy. However, when you begin to talk with him about music, photography, and his journey in this world, his eyes light up and his passion for his craft truly comes through. He recalls each portrait session with specificity, recalling the mood and the discussions at the time.

His personal story is intriguing. Born and raised in New York, Fasano followed a traditional path into the corporate world into his 30’s. However, there was always an underlying sense of unease—a sense that his life was unfulfilling and unrewarding. After encouragement from friends and relationships, Fasano took some formal classes in photography, including entering into a mentoring relationship with photojournalist Mario Cabrera. From these sparks, his passion took off and ultimately led to his brave decision to chuck his corporate job to devote his full time to photography.

Through a series of meaningful contacts, Fasano began his career as a photographer shooting everything from street life to classical music performances to theater and Broadway productions. With encouragement from actor Terrence Howard, Fasano moved to Los Angeles for 5 years to cover the film industry. Fasano’s path ultimately led him to Nashville, where he resides today.

While the concept of “Americana” has always been amorphous, Jeff’s interpretation will resonate with any music lover of this genre—Americana is about what’s important to us as individuals, from the inclusiveness and diversity to stories of artists that touch our souls. Jeff’s interpretation boils down simply—American is about what’s important to him in life.
First and foremost, “Americana Portrait Sessions” is a book about the artists—those men and women who are the lifeblood of Americana. Each image is notable for the empathy it portrays—providing a glimpse into the essence of the person before you. Conveying this essence is what Fasano strives for as he pursues his vision.

Included within the book are images of musical legends as well as emerging artists and others who may not be as widely known. Regardless of fame, Fasano treats each subject with the dignity and respect they deserve. Fasano’s basis for selecting each subject is that they simply provide music that he loves.

However, for students of the art of photography, this book also provides exquisite examples of how Fasano masters the use of light and composition to highlight his subjects. Fasano’s studio set up is quite simple—he uses a single studio light. His skill shows through in how he moves that light around to achieve the results he seeks.

Nicki Bluhm Jeff Fasano

If he lived in a prior life, Fasano surely would have been a painter who may have rivaled the great Renaissance masters. Examples abound in “Americana Portrait Sessions,” which bring to mind the work of the masters. For instance, compare the side lighting and the gentle pastels appearing in the image of Molly Parden with a painting by Johannes Vermeer. And compare the shots of Rufus Wainwright and Nikki Bluhm. You will see the style of lighting that’s become known as Rembrandt lighting, where a triangle of light appears under the eye on the less illuminated side of the face.

Perhaps these comparisons led to the single criterion used in selecting images for the book. As Fasano explained during my interview, to be selected, an image had to be worthy of display on a gallery wall.

The portraits in the book run from serene to serious. From wistful to downright playful and funny. From the quiet pride evoked by Rhiannon Giddens—reflecting perhaps on the hardships and obstacles she has surmounted to arrive at her moment in time. To the introspective David Crosby, especially poignant so soon after he left us. To Judy Collins and Stephen Stills, allowing us to share in their deep friendship. And to one of my personal favorites, Del McCoury, whose image perfectly encompasses the warm and embracing man that he is.

 

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Simply, “Americana Portrait Sessions” is a masterpiece. An essential possession for those of us who love the music encompassed by the moniker of Americana.
Americana Portrait Sessions can be ordered directly from Jeff Fasano’s website at http://www.jefffasano.com
Please join me in my interview with Jeff below, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Americana Highways: Please tell me a little about your background. How did you fall into photography?

Jeff Fasano: I’ve been doing photography since high school. I had pictures in the yearbook. I played football, baseball, hockey in high school and baseball in college. My father gave me this camera when I graduated from high school. (Jeff showed me his Fujica 35mm film camera). I took that to college and did a lot of photography. Then years went by after college and I stopped shooting.

After I got out of a relationship with a woman, the girlfriend, now wife, of my friend at the time, said, “Hey you love photography. Tom’s taking a course at The New School learning to play guitar. Why don’t you take a photography class.” And I did. That was 1987.
Then Mario Cabrera, who I dedicated the book to, saw my work and said, “Why don’t you take my class next semester?” I ended up studying with him for 2 years. It was in that first semester with Cabrera that I hooked into a passion for photography I didn’t know I had. After that, I went to SVA, the School for Visual Arts, and took a lighting class. I took another class at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan with Harvey Stein and it hit me. I loved photography. I loved it so much.

Towards the end of another relationship, the woman I was dating said, “You hate your job you hate your life. The only time you are happy is when you are with me.” And I would photograph her a lot. I was at SVA at the time and she was probably one of my biggest cheerleaders doing this. This was like in 1993-94. Then there was one day when I was leaving my job at the World Trade Center and taking the train and I leaned back and heard that voice—you hate your job, you hate your life, etc.

I realized it was time to grow up. I went home, took out a yellow legal pad and wrote at the top “What do I want to be when I grow up? I made a list of all these things I could do. About 11:00 at night, “Photography” just leapt off the page. I felt it in my soul and said this is what I’m going to do. I was 33 at the time and I dedicated the next 4-5 years to putting it all together. I made a dark room in my kitchen in Manhattan and bought lights. I practiced, practiced, practiced. I shot each and every single day at lunchtime at work. It’s all I did. It’s all I cared about.

At the end of 1998, New Year’s Eve just happened to fall on a Friday. That’s when I left, not so much the job, but that old life and I created a whole new life that I’m doing now.

AH: When you started doing photography, did you focus on any particular genre or subject? It sounds like you may have been shooting everything from people to scenics to street life.

JF: Cabrera is a photojournalist; he is an AP photographer. That is how I was trained. I learned from a photojournalist and three photographers—Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Eugene Smith. They are the three photographers whose work hit me the hardest. If you look at their work, and I’m sure you have, especially Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange—what I wanted to do was do what they were doing. Meaning that, when you look at a Walker Evans portrait, you literally feel the person. Same with Dorothea Lange. That’s what I told Mario Cabrera I wanted to do.

It wasn’t being a photojournalist, per se, or doing what they were doing, I wanted to capture what they were feeling. I wanted to get there. I wanted to do that. And that is what I aspired to do.

When I went to the Dorothea Lange exhibit here in Nashville a couple years ago, I had tears in my eyes walking around. I get emotional even thinking about it. It’s just amazing what she felt when she took those images.

AH: How did you get into music photography?

JF: It’s a great little story. During my day job, everybody knew I was going out at lunchtime every single day with my camera shooting downtown Manhattan. I did an entire homeless project for 4 years in New York. Every weekend I would go out and shoot homeless people. So, I started this homeless project and I would go out and shoot with something like a 70-200mm zoom on my Nikon FM2. I brought in contact sheets to show Cabrera. He looked at them and said, “What lens are you using to shoot these with?” I said. “Oh, you know, maybe my 70-200.” He goes, “Get rid of that lens. Put a 24mm lens on and go up and talk to your subjects. Get to know them. That’s what Eugene Smith does and all your favorite photographers do.”

It was a little scary. So, I got my little 55mm lens on and went back out there and I approached homeless people who I was photographing. I talked with them and I got really up close. Then I brought the contact sheets to Mario Cabrera. Cabrera goes, “That’s what I’m talking about.”

That was a big pivotal moment for me to connect with whom I’m photographing. To this day I hardly ever use my 70-200. You saw me shooting at Blue Ox with a big lens, but I never use that thing.

AH: Did getting up close and personal with the homeless people you photographed help you develop your sense of empathy for your subjects?

JF: Yup. I would sit and talk with some of these men and women. It was phenomenal how incredibly intelligent and worldly they were. Often they made a choice because they didn’t want to be part of it all. There were a couple hairy moments. A guy with a machete chased me once.

To answer your original question—a woman I worked with asked me what I wanted to do with the photography thing. I told her I love music and I wanted to shoot music. She said, “Oh my friend is a VP at RCA Records.” I asked if I could get my portfolio up there. During the years before I quit my job, I was building a body of work.

The woman at RCA happened to be the VP of classical. I dropped my book off. Two weeks later they called, and they offered me a job to shoot James Galway in Chicago. That’s how I started.

I’ve shot more than just music. I love theater. I love actors. I love all of that, so I shoot a lot more than just music.

AH: Will “Americana Portrait Sessions” lead into other projects, such as publishing books in the classical or theater realm?

JF: I don’t know. I’ve been doing a City Winery backstage portrait project. Keb Mo on the cover of the book was shot at City Winery. Many of the images in the book were shot there. So that might be the next book.

The basis for “Americana Portrait Sessions” are the portrait sessions I’ve been doing for 13 years at AmericanaFest.

AH: You focus on Americana music. How do you define Americana as a music genre?

JF: Ahhh, that is a whole talk in and of itself. It’s everything. I mean, Americana is everything that you could love. What I love is the soul in the music. The artist has something to say. It’s diverse. It’s all inclusive. There is something about Americana that has depth and soul to it that is important to me in life. Americana is not mainstream. I’m not a mainstream guy and never was.

To be honest with you, I didn’t know much about “Americana” until one day at South by Southwest, around 2008, when publicist Cary Baker said to me, “You should go to AmericanaFest.” I said, “What is it?” Cary said it was like a mini-SXSW, but with “all the music you love.” I asked how to get there, he said, “When you get home, call Jed Hilly (the executive director of The Americana Music Association). And that’s what I did. In 2009, I went to AmericanaFest and met Jed and he gave me a badge because I was shooting predominantly for Paste Magazine at the time.

And I just fell in love. I fell in love with the town. I fell in love with what they were doing. Cary was right. Everywhere I went I realized this is what I love. Two years later we formed a partnership and I’ve been doing portraits at AmericanaFest since 2011.

AH: Is that what led you to move to Nashville?

JF: Oh, that’s a whole other shell. I was living in New York City at the time—I’m from New York. Then I moved to LA. I lived in LA for 5 years and I needed an easier place to live and Nashville is the place. This book would never have happened anywhere else but there.

AH: The moniker you use for your personal brand is “Revealing the Soul’s Essence.” Tell me a little about what you mean by that.

JF: Back when I was working with Cabrera, back in the mid-90’s, he said to me, “The most important thing is, what do you think you are saying with your work?” And I said “Well you know,…” I kinda referenced Eugene Smith and Dorothea Lange and said I want to do what they are doing and go beneath. And he said “No, no, that’s not it.” And I asked, “What is it then?” And Cabrera said, “I can’t tell you that—you have to find it.”

So, fast forward to about 2003 and I did a photo shoot with Terrence Howard, the actor, for Gotham Magazine in New York. He and I are friends to this day. We worked together on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway when he was in that. So, we did that photo shoot and we hit it off immediately. One day his team called me, it was a Monday, and said “What are you doing today?” and they said, “Come down, Terrence is doing this out of market.” The movie Crash had just come out and I think Hustle and Flow had just come out as well. So, Terrence was just starting to blow up from both those movies.

One funny part about this is when he told me he did Hustle and Flow. I asked what it was about, and he said, “It’s about the rap world in Memphis Tennessee” and I had just done a rap CD for Koch Records in Memphis. And when Hustle and Flow came out, they shot in all the places I shot. It was pretty cool—they got it.

So, we did the shoot. I went down and he goes, “bring your portfolio with you.” I brought my portfolio and we hung out and had lunch. Terrence was looking through my book, and he’s going, “Bro, holy fuck! Bro!” He got to a photo of him that I shot that wasn’t in the magazine. He looked and he goes “Bro! You captured my soul! That’s what you do!” And then he said, “We need you in Hollywood.” He hooked me up with Taraji P. Henson and that’s how I got to Hollywood.

I did another photo shoot with a woman–I don’t remember who it was. When I gave her the contact sheets, she’s going, “Oh my God! You reveal the essence of my soul!”

I immediately called Cabrera after talking to Terrence and I told him that story and he said, “You got it.” He said, “I saw that all the way back into 1990.” And that is how all of that came about.

AH: When you approach your subjects individually, like at City Winery, what do you do? How do you set the scene for your portrait sessions?

JF: At City Winery, I use a 1,000 watt Lowel light with an umbrella. Other than the natural light shots, everything that you see in that book, including the cover with Keb’ Mo’, was shot with the 1,000 watt Lowel light with an umbrella. And for how each session goes, it depends. When I shot Jewel, with no light—we were shooting for like 45 minutes. And we wanted to keep going, but she had to get on stage. Some of my subjects give me a time limit. David Crosby came in and said, “You’ve got 15 minutes.” Alright, I gave him 15 minutes.
Typically, my sets occur right before they go on stage or maybe right after sound check. At City Winery, there is a big green room downstairs where most of the images were shot. David Crosby was shot there. Rodriguez was shot in there. There’s also a small room upstairs that looks cool that I use.

I choose the people at City Winery that I want to shoot. If I like their music, then there is an automatic connection. I have made a lot of close connections from those shoots. For example, from that shoot with Jorma, Jorma and I have really become really good friends.

AH: Do you tell your subjects to move or pose in any particular way?

JF: Sometimes, I’ll say, “sit back,” “sit in the blue chair,” or “play your guitar.” I will move my light a lot. I move my light to see how the light flatters my subjects. I might come up with an idea or two. But it’s really not about me posing people. It’s about what I’m capturing in the moment. That shot of Jorma in the book, he was just standing there and I was moving my light and I said “Jorma, don’t move!” And it just happened.

AH: The detail in your images is really interesting. Take Sean McConnell for example. Dark setting with his silhouette. You set this little mirror off to the side that reflects full lighting back onto the opposite side of his face. I’m sure this was intentional.

JF: McConnell wasn’t intentional. You go into the upstairs dark room at City Winery. I might move a thing or two. Sean was doing that show and he was sitting there. A local singer-songwriter, Alyssa Bonagura was there opening for Sean and they were both sitting upstairs in the green room. That mirror was there and Alyssa was doing her makeup in that mirror. So, I did a bunch of shots of her in that spot. Then Sean came in and I put my light where it was. Sean was sitting back and playing and I saw his head in the mirror and I went, “Dude, don’t move.” That’s how I got that shot. I remember it. There was nothing other than where I placed my light to get Sean and I saw him in the mirror.

But as you go further in the book and you see the image of Charlie Starr, and you see him in the mirror, the placement of the mirror was intentional because I remembered the Sean McConnell shot (laughter).

Sean McConnell

Charlie Starr

AH: For each of your subjects, you took lots of shots. How did you pick the shots appearing in the book?

JF: Do you know Merlin David from M Music & Musicians magazine? Merlin is the publisher of that magazine and is a really good friend. The long and short of it is that we pulled out over 700 images and he came up with the criteria for image inclusion. To pare it down, he said, “Can you see one of the images hanging on a gallery wall by itself?” That was our criteria and it took a while getting from 700 down to almost 190 or so.

We agonized over some artists that I really wanted in the book, like Jerry Douglas. Jerry is a good friend and I wanted him in the book, but the images I had of him did not fit that criteria. And John Sebastian. I mean, shooting and hanging out with John Sebastian when he played City Winery was really special. But the photos I had just didn’t meet the criteria for inclusion.

AH: Many of your images are in black and white as well as color. Often your black and white images are very dark and underexposed. Is there a particular mood you are trying to convey when you decide to go black and white instead of color?

JF: We all shoot RAW so we have everything in color. To me, it’s about the feeling I get when I see an image. I’ll look at an image and I’ll go “let’s see what it looks like in black and white.” All the black and white images you see in the book were that feeling where I thought “that would look really cool in black and white!”

The shot of Judy Collins and Stephen Stills, for example. I didn’t like the color of Stephen’s t-shirt. In black and white, it just took on the feel of the two of them, your memories of them and everything. That’s how that became a black and white image.

AH: Many of your shots have a playful side. Marcus King, for example or Del McCoury. I fell in love with the image of Del McCoury because that picture is so emblematic of his personality—warm, friendly, gregarious. You have serious shots but you also have shots where the artists are laughing out loud and not taking themselves too seriously.

JF: That image of Del was taken at the IBMA Awards. I set up backstage at the IBMA Awards to take pictures of the winners. Del probably won an award. I think Jerry Douglas was standing behind me. Jerry is a pretty funny guy and he kept on talking and Del was laughing and I just got that. And it’s a great shot.

The shot of Marcus King was from the Ryman Auditorium. Little Feat played at the Ryman one year. I went to document both nights and I came upstairs and Jeff Hanna, Charlie Starr and Tommy Emmanuel were all upstairs in one dressing room—the green room. Marcus King was also there. Jeff, Charlie and Tommy are all in the book and all three of them said “How’s the book coming?” And I said “Jeff, you’re a good friend and you’re in it, Charlie, you’re a good friend and you’re in it and Tommy, you’re a good friend and you’re in it.”
And Marcus said, “How about me?” I said, “Well I’ve never photographed you before—go downstairs to the first floor dressing room. I’ll come down and we’ll do some images there.” He agreed and we went down. He has his guitar and he’s playing and talking. His girlfriend, now his wife, was there. And it was just funny. We were laughing a lot of the time and I just kept on shooting. I did some serious shots. I got that shot in the book and I showed it to him and he goes “That’s it.” And I said, “Ok, you’re in the book.”

AH: Did you get the input from the singer or artist about the final image going into the book?

JF: Most people no. Some people who are friends, yeah. Del McCoury bought that image to use for PR. Other artists have purchased a number of images in the book. Like Vince Gill. When I did that photoshoot, he picked 16 images and that was one of the images. I know how Vince is about photographs. Cheryl Crow–the same thing.

 

Vince Gill by Jeff Fasano

AH: Any final thoughts you can share?

JF: No man. I just love talking about all of this stuff.

Thanks so very much for chatting with us, Jeff Fasano!

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