High Rise Phoenix
by Jared Gruenwald
Shooting portraits of famous musicians is always easy, breezy beautiful. Well, maybe not. But if you’re Philadelphia-based photographer Chris Sembrot, and you’re shooting in a swanky hotel in downtown Manhattan, that just may be the case.
Chris was commissioned by British magazine The Guardian (who found him on Wonderful Machine) to capture images of Phoenix—No, not the mythological bird that rises from ashes, or the Arizona city, but the popular French rock band.
Chris was informed that the release of the Phoenix feature would coincide with the beginning of the Coachella Music Festival. Guardian wanted the band’s images to reflect the cool attitude of the mega-fest, but in a city-like atmosphere where buildings and skylines could be worked into the composition.
Now if you’ve heard of this New York City, and I’m sure some of you have, you’re aware of the fact that there’s no shortage of buildings, skylines and street scapes, so there was no issue there. In fact, the band’s rep had already secured a location when Chris called them up: The East Village Standard Hotel. The building’s surroundings and design had Chris smiling from ear to ear. “Once I did a quick scout prior to the band arriving, I knew we were about to get a pretty good set of shots. The space allowed me to shoot with available light and that made me happy.”
The two-hour time slot Chris was given to shoot the band was more than enough. However, he made sure to note that having too much time can cause you to over-think your process. But that was not the case here. This extended window allowed Chris to experiment with each band member. “Since I had so much time, I would basically shoot each member for 5-10 minute “mini sessions” multiple times. I think this helped keep the energy high and the guys engaged the whole time”
To help set the mood and prevent an awkward environment, Chris put together a playlist of some of his favorite tunes. He advises, however, not to incorporate the music of the band you’re currently working with into the mix. “I never put the band I’m shooting into the playlist. Not only is it transparent, but it’s not who I am. These guys are musicians, which means they probably listen to many types of music. I’m basically playing the music for myself or to keep my subjects pumped. If the band likes it, cool. If not, they always have a veto I give them at the beginning.” And only once was this right exercised by Phoenix, when guitarist Christian Mazzalai killed the song “I can make you famous” by Spank Rock.
One challenge Chris did face during the shoot was visual diversity. Remember, this is New York after all, and just because you’re shooting in a penthouse doesn’t mean you have the luxury of too much space. He was presented with two rooms and four band mates. Shooting them together was no problem but transforming the space into different locations for each shot initially had Chris concerned. However, due to the available light and the backdrop of the city, he was able to pull it off. “The guys were great and really down for whatever I asked. They were true professionals.”
View more at chrissembrot.com.