Of the myriad of publishing arts, photography might be the most ambiguous and unteachable. Being in the right place, at the right angle, at the right millisecond, with the right lens, in the right light — it all amounts to an act of practical magic. And no amount of photographic skill is useful if you can’t infiltrate the alternative scene in the first place. Nathan Cailleach — the photographer formerly known as Nathan Leach — could get there and get the shot, infiltrating levels of venue security, pinning down artists, chatting them up and snapping unforgettable images that established the Alternative Press legacy of sterling photography.
Cailleach was AP’s first photography editor. In 1985, he was also its first staff member over the age of 20, as the rest of the staff was made up of mostly teenagers. And he was its first professional. At the age of 22, he was an established photographer with news service, the Associated Press. He was already publishing his own spoken-word zine, Grey Matter, the first time he first found himself in the right place, at the right time, and met AP CEO & founder Mike Shea. Mere minutes after they met, Shea hired Cailleach as the magazine’s third staff member. From 1985 to 1989, they helped document the path from underground clubs to the larger outside world.
Nathan was a charmer,” recalls Shea. “He could talk himself into any backstage, and he seemed to know everyone. We scored that famous pic of Robert Smith backstage at the Music Hall because Nathan talked himself backstage when we couldn't get access from the label. He was always just the nicest guy around and a really great photographer.”
Nearly 26 years after he moved on from the magazine, the veteran photographer is the head of Dandelion Photography. Cailleach still has the magnetic personality and expert timing that made him an asset in the magazine’s formative years. Cailleach discussed the magazine’s beginnings, his chosen medium, and what it takes to get the perfect shot.
How did you meet Mike?
I worked in Coventry at a place called Ascherman Photography, as color production manager. I was on my way back from lunch, and there was this guy giving out papers or selling them. And down the street was this Communist bookstore. I thought he was one of those guys. But then, I thought, “You’re not dressed like a Communist.” He was dressed sort of nice: T-shirt, nice jeans. At the time, if you were to look up, “boy next door,” that would be [Mike Shea]. He said, “This is my music zine!” He was really excited about it.
I said, “Do you need a photographer?” And that was it. That was my interview. His enthusiasm and passion was like a surfboard: You just wanted to get on and ride. He even threw in the disclaimer: “You know you’re not going to get paid or anything? I’m like, “Alright, whatever!” I hadn’t shot a lot of music at this point.
The Cure, captured by Nathan Cailleach
What was your first assignment?
The first show I went to was, I think, at [Cleveland club] the Underground. My musical taste was more the early punk scene, Howard Devoto, like that. And I was listening to a lot of metal. And so I went to a punk show, and there was a band called Civilian Terrorists. And they were hilarious. It was a bunch of kids from Cleveland Heights or something, all punked out, playing this punchy, fast music. I had never seen anyone slam before; I was familiar with the pogo thing, but not this. This seemed a lot more fun, and it had a lot more energy. Like, “If they’re angry, it feels good. Let’s go with that!”
You were five years older than Mike and Dave [Earle, editor]. What was the dynamic?
With Mike, it’s really fascinating: He has this weird thing…. He’s the guy you want as your boss, because you want things to go well. When he has an idea, you say, “OK, let’s flesh that out.” You want to do that. You trust him. [Age] never came up as an issue. I never really noticed it, because the stuff he was suggesting doing was nothing outrageous or over-the-top.
I hung out with activists—people saying, “Let’s have a revolution.” And that left side of your brain goes, “Well, we could do that, but that’s probably going to be pretty hard, and that would hurt.” Mike, on the other hand, was saying, “Here’s this whole thing in music that nobody knows exists, except the people that are directly involved with it. What if we make the available to people everywhere?” It was the catalyst for creating “community,” without that word ever being used.
Mike says your greatest asset, on top of your skills, might have been your personality.
Working with police, you don’t have a lot of wiggle room. But if you’re working with a security guard, most of them should have a shirt that says “insecurity guard.” They probably have some issues because they’re not a policeman. Being a stringer with Associated Press, you learn who really has how much power, and what’s going to get you past them. And if you show up as a professional and respect them and talk to them like, “I’m supposed to be here. Why don’t you know about that? I don’t know. Tell you what: I’ll stand here. You go get your boss. And I’ll wait here.”
Now it’s up to them. That’s a pain is the ass, so they’re not going to do that. They’re going to say, “OK, you seem cool, go ahead.” I got into many a place just playing the part, whether I had credentials or not. If you have your camera out and you have a sense of urgency, that’s even better. The other thing, I think, that was sort of a weird advantage: If you show up to punk shows, being African-American, people are like, “Why are you even here?!”
Was that odd, being in this new, very white scene?
No. It was never an issue — there was your occasional skinhead, but they were outnumbered. That was the thing about the scene: It was really cool.
How did you infiltrate the Music Hall to get the picture of Robert Smith?
That was one of those, “I’m totally supposed to be here!” I think there was a clump of people who were going in, and I literally held up my camera. And one of the writers was with me, and I remember saying, “I can’t believe we just did that.”
And you get back there, and the whole band is capital-D drunk. And the stuffed animal, some fan had given it to him. I’m like, “Hey, you should put that on your shoulder — that would be funny, ha ha.” Everybody thinks that your notoriety opens doors, but sometimes it’s your anonymity.
The Cure's Robert Smith, captured by Nathan Cailleach
What are some of your greatest hits as a professional circumventer?
One memory that stands out: We shot the Ramones, and [legendary Cleveland-based rock critic] Jane Scott was there. She was in her 60s, and had met everybody and seen everything. We were in that cordoned-off area where they let journalists be. I said, “Hi, you don’t know me at all, but I’m shooting for Alternative Press.” And she said, “Oh, I’ve heard of you guys.” And for someone like that to be cool and exchange stories, that meant the world to me.
Dan Coogan, he was a stocky little Irish guy, one of those guys that if you wanted to start trouble in a bar, you wouldn’t mess with him, because even though he’s short, he’s stocky, and it’s all muscle. One of the big arena shows that we did not have credentials, we wanted photos. He had a Canon AE-1, a big 1980s camera with a telephoto you would need to shoot at an arena show — Dan put that in his pants. And the pictures he got were phenomenal. He said, “They’ll frisk me, but they’ll touch the lens, and they’ll back away!”
What are some of your favorite AP photos?
Some of the local bands put on interesting shows. There was a guy called Floyd, and he had the Floyd Band. One time, he hired strippers to perform as he played. Those were interesting pictures. [Cleveland postpunk group] Knifedance was one of my favorite bands to photograph. Weird little venues like the Dudley Hall shows. There used to be a band called the Almighty Bag of Fred. They were always a good time. [AP #7 cover band] Numbskull.
Skinny Puppy, captured by Nathan Cailleach
Probably one of my favorite things I’ve ever shot with AP was the Dead Kennedys. I want to say that was the Variety [Theater]. I was up on stage, out of the pit. There was a point where he was too close to the edge, and he got pulled into the crowd. He kept singing for a minute, and you didn’t know if they were going to crowd-surf him or pull him in, but the microphone cord just disappeared. The Variety, being a traditional proscenium theater, the only place to get decent photography was onstage, next to the cabinets. I was up there the whole time.
I look at a Glen Friedman photo, and I think, “I could be onstage, next to him, with the same camera, but never capture that moment like he did.” It’s this convergence of location, light, timing, camera…. To you, what does a photographer do?
Here’s where I lucked out: I was trained as a portrait photographer. And a portrait, I was told, is three things coming together: Your self-image, the person you see when you look in the mirror. There’s how other people see you. And there’s the actuality of what you look like from across the room, or to someone standing in front of you. Those things coming together make a good portrait.
So to apply that principal to taking live pictures of music: If I take a photograph of a musician, can you tell what kind of music you would hear if this photograph had a volume switch on it? And so I try to wait for that moment with any particular band or musician — be it punk, be in bluegrass, be it spoken word — to try to capture what this music is about.
So the picture you take of Robert Smith performing is very different than Morrissey or some local band, because yes it’s all music, and yes, there’s that universal message of music. But then there’s that reason the person is up onstage, in the first place — whatever motivated them to put themselves there. I try to capture that.
Morrissey, captured by Nathan Cailleach
So how do you do that?
It’s a little bit of alchemy, but it’s also waiting. There was a French photographer called Henri Cartier-Bresson. He wrote a book called The Decisive Moment. He talked about how you can’t plan for the decisive moment. It will happen. You have to be there. You have to be ready. You have to sort of know what direction to look in and where to point the camera.
But the biggest thing is: You have to wait for it. So in terms of shooting something that’s happening very fast, you’re probably shooting a lot of frames. I never used a motor drive. I always used a crank. To me, that keeps you honest, actually doing photography. But it really is just about waiting. Sometimes where you’re located in the room comes into play. But mostly, it’s about waiting for that person to tell you why they’re there.
What makes somebody photogenic?
Mostly the energy they bring to it. I find if someone is a dynamic performer, they are also a dynamic person to just meet in the grocery store. It may not even be attraction; maybe it’s the way that people carry themselves. That’s what I liked about working with Mike: how he carried himself. He was never the bulldozer, cracking the whip. He was always like, “I’m excited about this — you should be, too.” And you were.
Keep in mind: In those first few years, none of us got paid anything. The tradeoff was: You got to spend time with really cool people who had a purpose, to get organized and put something out consistently. AP was never a sporadic publication. It was always, “AP is going to come out every month, at roughly this time, and hopefully, we’re going to have the money.”
This is where I have to underscore the coolness of Mike’s mom. Because the days when we were working out of his bedroom — I remember one day, there were about of eight of us hanging out. And she ordered pizza and fed us all. I remember thinking, “Your mom’s really cool. I don’t know if my mom would be cool about having eight people over.” And my mom was pretty cool.
[Mrs. Shea] was one of the most understanding— I think she realized that this was something that was really important to him. And he seemed to be enjoying it and good at it. And she supported that. She stayed out of the way and asked if we needed anything. She remembered our names. There was a lot that couldn’t have happened anywhere else. She probably saw the future in this before anybody else did.
Dead Kennedys, captured by Nathan Cailleach
When did you start to feel like you were doing something big?
I was at a party one time at somebody’s house, and I saw an issue of the most recent AP. It looked like it was a couple years old, because it was so tattered. And there were only a few people who lived in the house. I realized, “I get it. The four of you have all read this. Each one of you has different friends, probably, who have read this. And now there’s this party, and each one of these people is going through it.” That’s what you call circulation. You can’t pay people to do this. That’s when I started realizing we were bringing people together, that we were important to this community that is now known as “alternative.”
It’s hard to explain this to people now, because you wind up sounding like a grandfather. But at the time, so much of alternative subject matter was truly transgressive. Bands with names like Suicidal Tendencies and Millions of Dead Cops, it was like, “Are they allowed to do this?”
At one point, we changed printers. And we had done an interview with Big Black. Any interview with Steve Albini, a third of the interview is the word “fuck.” And we get the copy back from the printer, and I said, “Something’s wrong. I think they edited it.” And sure enough, they had gone through it, and every speck of profanity had been removed, taken right out.
And I’m like, “What the fuck? You can’t do that.” And the guy was apparently Christian, and he hated the fact that he was working with something that had profanity and adult themes. And he took it upon himself to censor the whole thing. Mike was on the phone, “This is a real newspaper, you can’t do this to us.” And ultimately, I think we wound up having to do something else.
Do you ever look at the magazine now?
I’ve seen it recently, and it’s very impressive. This music is important: it’s saying something, it’s moving the story forward. Here’s an interview with somebody who’s saying something that you probably need to know — versus some kind of sensational fluff from people who probably aren’t going to be making music 20 years from now. It has aged like a fine wine. alt