Music is first and foremost an auditory art, and we more often than not remember and obsess over it as such, but when we go to see music live, it becomes a multiple sensory experience that is arguably a completely different kind of intense and unforgettable than when we listen to our first favorite record or hear a life-changing song on the radio. Sharyn Morrow is one of a select group of invaluable Twin Cities live music lovers who document the way the lights hit the stage, the contorted expressions on musicians’ faces mid-catharsis, and more.
“I enjoy the energy of live shows,” the longtime concert photographer says. She muses on the subject a bit more before telling me her story: “I’m an agnostic but have always thought of music as my religion. Especially when there’s that vibe, when you know the show is something special.” This is when she breaks out the camera and tries to translate the ephemera to a collection of images. “The crowd isn’t talking through the performer’s set,” she suggests as an example. “Everyone is enjoying what’s happening on stage and transfixed by it. That communal experience is so satisfying.”
Morrow captures these vital moments of unity and awe with her work, which she’s been doing for over a decade now, with a Pentax K-1000SE she got more than 10 years after she had already become enamored as a young kid with Twin Cities venues legitimate and otherwise. It started, like it does for most, with First Avenue and the 7th Street Entry (“It was always pretty jarring crossing over from the Mainroom’s Sunday night dance party to the raw power of the hardcore shows in the Entry,” she recounts, “but I needed both.”). Then, as she started following around Babes in Toyland, Blind Approach, and others, she was led to house shows and St. Paul’s dearly departed Speedboat Gallery and Motor Oil Cafe. “All that finger pointing, screaming, singing along,” she pinpoints. “The raw energy was my release.”
Release from what? Well part of it was from being a punk rock teenaged Lebanese Arab-American growing up in White Bear Lake. “Everyone gets teased for something in junior high and high school. Me? My classmates got Lebanon and Libya mixed up and called me Qadaffi’s Daughter for years,” she looks back in disgust. “More annoying than actually hurtful,” she admits, but still not the average suburban adolescence.
This, coupled with the death of her older brother Tom in the tenth grade, sent Morrow on a spiral. “The loss left me vacillating between anger and depression,” she describes. “I’d always been a good student, but when eleventh grade rolled around, I no longer cared much. Thankfully there was one extremely patient and inspiring teacher: Mr. Skunberg. I’ve been meaning to send him some sort of thank you for years now,” she confesses. Who knows? Maybe this will find him. She continues: “I took his graphic arts course for two years. It was equal parts desktop publishing, offset printing and photography. And just what I needed. And what’s led to my dual career of the last 20 years – in web development/IT work and photography.” It’s also one half of the reason Morrow went from photographing architecture and flowers to Paul Metzger and Daughters of the Sun. “It took me a little while to work up the guts to shoot shows,” she concedes, but once again, a big life change had an indirect effect on her path.
“I felt relieved and surprised, about being excited and having something to take my mind off my troubles a bit,” she says of first starting to use the camera outside of school. “But I didn’t have the self-confidence then that I do now. Too often I was gun-shy about taking my camera out at shows unless I knew the bands personally,” Morrow reflects. “In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was going to far too many male-dominated shows and most photographers I saw, but not all, were dudes. Thankfully I got over it.” She takes a second to ponder where the shift came from. “Maybe the riot grrl era had something to do with it, but more likely becoming a mother in 1999 made everything else seem less daunting.”
Thirteen years later, Morrow now has a successful career in desktop publishing (which she still emphasizes is largely courtesy of the skills gained in Mr. Skunberg’s course), and of course she’s going to as many shows as possible, lenses in tow, but she also works part time as a professional photographer in various capacities, and you can hire her as well as view her portfolio at her web site Sharyn Shoots. “Photography had been a long-standing hobby, but not one I ever thought would be lucrative,” she emphasizes, but after serving as an assistant to a photographer at a wedding in 2007, she’s since gone on to shoot dozens of weddings, engagement photos, family photos, real estate photography, pets, and band photos, as she puts it, “for actual money.” When asked if she’d ever give it a go as her primary career, she responds, “I’ve entertained the notion of doing it full-time but I don’t ever want to come to hate this precious thing that brings me so much joy. That, and I’ve got a pre-teen son to feed.”
Right now, anyway, for Morrow it’s the thrill of snapping a picture right when something unpredictable happens on stage, or of a one-of-a-kind reunion like TVBC at the Loring Theater last year. “I just go with my gut,” she explains her style. “I try to get the most playful shots possible. I love capturing those easy-to-miss moments when band members smile at one another or when they’re really having fun with the audience. Or the times when musicians are so lost in what they’re doing they’re rendered oblivious to anything else around them.” As for what environments make for the best shooting conditions, she believes there really aren’t any rules. “Sometimes a new or unusual venue can make all the difference, like when I saw Low perform inside a kayak shed at the Square Lake Festival, while it was pouring rain outside,” she says on the one hand. “But it can be the same old venue – like the Turf or Triple Rock or the Entry or the Varsity – and something unexpectedly magical will come across during a performance.”
This weekend in particular will mark the return of one of Morrow’s favorite (author’s note: it should be one of everybody’s favorite) recurring Twin Cities traditions: the three-day Heliotrope music festival. The event is celebrating its ninth installment at the Lab Theater this year. Talking about the vent, in the same automatic breath Morrow mentions the beautiful moments that arise from the most photogenic shows, calling it “the annual local festival that very deliberately fosters conditions so that this magic can occur.” She hypes it up more: “The organizers put so much effort into finding just the right venue while lining up three days’ worth of underexposed but amazing bands, with atmospheric projections by the gifted Emily Kaplan that always perfectly match the music, and other volunteers who make the whole thing run as smoothly as possible.”
In the future, Morrow simply plans to keep on shooting as much as possible. “I’m game for whatever,” she summarizes. Her work as a music photographer doesn’t end at bar time on a given night, though. “In fact I’m in the planning stages of a big ‘Battle of the Bands’ project – not for pay, just to scratch a creative itch.” She details the concept: “It will be a series of diptychs where I try to capture the underlying currents of tension that can plague bands – that comes with the territory of maintaining an essentially polygamous relationship. But I’m hoping this will be more therapeutic than violent.” It’s a unique idea that will surely resonate with anyone who’s ever attempted to make music with more than one other person. She finishes up by promoting the project one last time: “I’ve got a pretty diverse group of bands who have volunteered so far, some with fake blood, but I’m open to taking on a few more.”
You can contact Morrow at email@example.com if you’re interested.