Mitchell Kearney: This Time Is The Right Time
Introduction and interview by Daniel Coston
For many years, Mitchell Kearney has been one of the most successful photographers in Charlotte, with clients ranging from many non-profits, to the NASCAR Hall Of Fame. However, many people were not aware that Kearney had spent years documenting the New York music scene, catching the Punk and New Wave scenes at their greatest scenes. Kearney’s work also found its way into Trouser Press and New York Rocker, two of the most respected music magazines in the nation.
This fall, Kearney is finally throwing open the doors to his archives, and showing off his early work in “The Night Time Is The Right Time,” a fantastic show at the Middleton McMillian Gallery in Charlotte. This show is the first chance for many to see Kearney’s documents of the New York scene, in all their original glory.
Conversing via email, Kearney and I talked about his work from those days in New York, and some of his favorite people to work with.
Coston: How did you get started in photography?
Kearney: I watched my Dad take pictures for years during my childhood. He loaned me his camera. And I found two stacks of Popular Photography magazines, which I paged thru for a month realizing who much more fulfilling this would be than becoming an architect...
Coston: What were the first things you photographed?
Kearney: I was obsessed with super close-ups, macro photography of ice crystals on wood planks in the winter.
Coston: What brought you to New York City?
Kearney: I was born in Greenwich Village, in NYC. My parents moved me to suburban Northern New Jersey, when I was one month old. I remember riding back and forth into Manhattan for Sunday dinners with my extended family of: cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents...
Coston: How much had you heard about the punk rock scene, or the other scenes, before you came to New York?
Kearney: I was accepted into the School of Visual Arts as a Photo Major, and it was in one of my classes that a new friend of mine suggested checking out the new music being played at a club called CBGB.
Coston: Early on, did you shoot, and make yourself known from there? Or did you line up work with a magazine, or another outlet early on?
Kearney: I was already photographing assignments for an alternative weekly, much like the Creative Loafing, called the Aquarian Weekly. So all I did was tell the editor about this exciting new music scene in lower Manhattan, and if I would cover it he would pay for everything I could bring him back.
Coston: What were your favorite bands to shoot, and why?
Kearney: The Ramones were the first band I saw live at CBGB. They were fully formed by '76 and only got smarter and better with each live show I covered. Patti Smith was the best live show for me since she and Lenny pushed way out of their comfort zone, every time they got on a stage. Mink DeVille taught everybody - something new - about music of all kinds. And the Dead Boys were, are and will always be Young, Loud + Snotty.
Coston: How soon did you move from live photography, into posed work with the musicians?
Kearney: When I started working for Ira Robbins at Trouser Press Magazine it was because by this point in time I had just graduated from SVA with a BFA and began working for Len Prince Photography on 5th Ave @ 21st Street in the heart of the Photo District. I was learning how to light scenes with lots of studio strobes, and applying my day job to my passion for portraits of musicians.
Coston: How did your work with Trouser Press, and NY Rocker come about?
Kearney: So my opening came at Trouser Press because Ira wanted to upgrade the photo content to better reflect his now - very edgy editorial story content. New York Rocker simply wanted the best photos nobody else had already run, period.
Coston: What were some of your favorite shoots from that period in your life?
Kearney: My interview with Lou Reed was a sea change. I expected one thing, and it turned out that Lou walked, talked and told jokes just like my cousin Louis. Well, to be fair, Louis did grow up two doors down Christopher Street from the Stonewall Inn. My interview with Frank Zappa was, like the Lou Reed portrait slated for a cover of TP. Frank corralled a dozen rock writers into a room for a 45 minute round robin Q&A session. After which, I was the only photographer in the room. I had a plan and he was great with the impromptu creative process, I served up. However the most memorable portrait session of all my Trouser Press assignments, was to photograph William S. Burroughs during an interview set up by Scott Isler, with Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale, the masterminds behind DEVO. What an amazing afternoon, on the Bowery, just blocks from CBGB.
Coston: How much did the music scene change during your time in New York?
Kearney: Well as soon as the first and second waves of Punk Rock band got signed, it was off to the studio they ran, and then out of town for months of first album touring and promotions. So the NY scene was decimated for a time by the exodus of prime talent. The wind never truly blew as hard again for the punk bands as it did from early 1977 thru the end of 1978.
11. What brought you to Charlotte? An opportunity to partner with the best - Ron Chapple & Associates and settle into a new phase of my personal live and my professional photography career, in this wonderful city, state and region.
Coston: Describe the changes in Charlotte since you first moved here.
Kearney: Well, the side walks did sort of roll up in downtown Charlotte in May of 1983, around 5pm. And yet, there was a strong pulse running thru a group of creative entrepreneurs in Charlotte in those days, which helped create the city we now enjoy.
Coston: How has the business of photography changed in Charlotte?
Kearney: It has always been in a constant state of evolving needs and moods. I have created photography for practically every type of business, in business here in Charlotte, and the region, over the years. And then there is the transition from film processing to digital capture and optimizing. It is wonderful to be able to perfect an image to match my aesthetics.
Coston: Too many people, and even some of your own business clients, don't know the history that you had in New York, and what you were able to document. What do you hope that people will get out of your upcoming Light Factory show?
Kearney: I have created insightful portraits for many years and now I have edited a visionary poem dedicated to the human spirit running thru us all, with this group of 32 images, titled "The Night Time is the Right Time", based on the lyrics of one of my most musical of mentors, the Great - Ray Charles. [Editor’s note: Charles’ version of “Night Time” came from Charlottean Nappy Brown, who had released his own version of the song several months before Charles.]
Coston: Tell me about the John Waters photos that you made in 1977 and 2007, and the emotional ties with those photos.
Kearney: As a student at SVA, I attended a lecture by this guy from Baltimore. He was a filmmaker who knew a film professor at SVA, who opened the doors to everyone interested in attending. John Waters was funny, and he was a bit nervous. I thought he was great, because he kept "it" simple. So, I made his portrait at the end of the three-hour tour of his first four films, and he wished me the best. Thirty years to the month, John Waters made me laugh again when after a two hour lecture about all the films he has made to date, including plenty of details about those first four films, he greeted his fans here in Charlotte in the lobby of the McGloghon Theater in Spirit Square and marveled at how much hair he had in that 1977 portrait. So, I asked again if he would allow me to make his portrait. He replied, "With pleasure."
Coston: Lastly, I'm going to throw some band names, and folks you worked with. Tell me whatever you would like about those people, and your photos of them.
Kearney: Ramones - The hardest working Rock and Roll Band Ever.
Blondie w. Debbie Harry sang and danced her way into my heart.
Dead Boys - Sonic Reducer Live at CBGB is still one of my top five: Greatest Musical Moments.
Lou Reed is one of Rock Music's greatest composers, and the God Father of Punk Rock.
Peter Gabriel helped me to become the visionary I strived for, simply by observing his effortless genius in action.
Andy Warhol had the most fun of anyone on the planet, in his day.
William S. Burroughs came the closest to Individual Genius, of any one I have met, so far.