From publicists to managers, the photographer talks to Julia Cumming about the unsung female heroes behind your favorite bands
On a pleasant early spring afternoon, just three weeks ago, I rode the bus almost 30 stops to the TV EYE gallery in Ridgewood, marveling at both the efficiency and the lack-thereof in the MTA transit system. The coronavirus was just starting to sow its seeds through New York City (now the idea of riding the bus now seems like a deep pleasure and privilege). As I hustled towards the gallery, I was happy to take a break from all the increasing declarations of doom.
It was the opening night of photographer Ebru Yildiz’s For the Record, and the excitement was palpable. I had been looking forward to the show for a long time, as a fan of Ebru’s photography and of the idea behind it. It had been advertised as “An ongoing series of portraits of women behind the scenes in the music industry,” and my own manager Crista Simiriglia had been asked to be photographed. As a female musician myself, and someone who relies on my manager’s strength and vision daily, I was thrilled she would get the chance to be recognized for her work within the musical community.
TV EYE—opened by Caleb Braaten among other trusted names in New York Nightlife—was already being regarded as one of the newest and coolest venues in New York City. It’s everything you want a New York venue to be: dark and vaudevillian, yet clean and tasteful. It’s obvious that the people who run it know what they’re doing, with a backyard space that rivals the ever-so-popular LA spot Zebulon. The heavy-hitting women of indie were hugging, complementing, and celebrating each other in good spirits. Younger women who I’ve seen at shows were in attendance as well, soaking up the scene and paying attention, maybe imagining what their future might look like as the leaders of alternative music business.
Without a doubt, the past few years have been exciting for women in music. There has been astronomical growth in the amount of women and girls starting bands, and festivals are reckoning with the fact that fans will not accept only male headliners. Whether or not the improvement is as rapid as we may hope, none of these careers, male or female, would be possible without the women behind the scenes. But who are the women that make those careers possible, and have they been recognized at all? Ebru is finally setting the record straight by honoring these backstage heroes. It also feels like she’s creating her own record of this moment in time, as women continue to take their rightful place as leaders and innovators of indie music.
As I currently sit in the time of quarantine, unable to visit any venues or shows at all, that evening seems especially beautiful. Ebru’s love of live music, the way it feels when the sound waves reach your face—all of it makes me feel that I could never take watching a band playing for granted again. As Ebru walks us through her career in photography and how For the Record was conceived, I implore us all to take a moment and imagine how we could use our creativity like Ebru. To bring light, art, and honor to those who deserve it.
Julia Cumming: Hi Ebru! Let’s start with where you’re from, and how you got into photography.
Ebru Yildiz: I am from Turkey. I moved here so many years ago, in 1998. It’s been 21 years. I came here to go to school. I was so obsessed with marketing and advertising.
Julia: Where did you go to school?
Ebru: I actually got two master’s degrees. One was at Baruch college, for advertising and marketing. Once I got into it, I realized I liked the visual parts better. I went to Pratt, and did a communications design master. What’s funny is that I’m not doing anything with either now. I’m doing the only thing I have no training for. I was always obsessed with music. So it wasn’t like, photos first, then music…in Turkey, when all of my friends were going clubbing, I would instead go to weird venues where local bands would play cover songs. It wasn’t cool to listen to Turkish music. It was cooler to listen to bands cover songs from Europe and the United States.
Julia: So you’d watch cover bands?
Ebru: Yes! There was really nothing else. When I came here, the internet wasn’t like how it is now, so it took me a while to figure out what was happening where. Eventually, I took a photography darkroom class because I was always curious about it. My teacher said, ‘Oh my god, your photos are so boring. You have to find something you are interested in!’ I was just going out every night. After a while, you don’t have as many friends who would want to do that. If I was at shows by myself, I was worried people would think I was a weirdo. So I took my camera to a show once. There were not many people at the shows I was going to. It was just me, the bands, a couple of their friends, and their girlfriends. So the camera gave me a purpose. It just happened that way.
Julia: I think that’s really cool about the cover bands. I feel like cover bands get a bad rap, because people think they’re cheesy. But there’s something so important about seeing live music. I was playing a festival maybe a year or so ago, and [my manager] Crista was standing next to a little girl. She turned to her parents and said, ‘How do they all know what the other one is going to play?’ And I always thought that was so interesting. People feel so far away from bands now, they are unsure of how live music even works.
Ebru: I think it’s so different to see a band live rather than just hear the record on your headphones. You see and feel their passion, which songs they like better. You can tell these just from being in the audience, it’s so powerful, the expressions on peoples faces are just priceless.
Julia: So it’s like a way to be closer to the music as well.
Ebru: Quite literally. I always loved being in front of the stage. I’m always interested in feeling the music hit you. It’s actually the worst spot to listen, since you’re right by the speaker. But there’s something special about being in front and seeing people do what you love.
Julia: Were you surprised that something that started as your own obsession became public?
Ebru: For over 10 years, I was just shooting things for myself because I enjoyed it so much. Once I got my green card, I decided to give it a try to see if I could get some assignments. My first paid one was with Pitchfork. When I first started taking photos, I was not showing them to anyone. A friend of mine said, ‘You’re taking photos of all these bands who are maybe even more broke than you are. Maybe they can use them?’ For so long, I wouldn’t speak to anyone, or approach anyone. I’d just take photos and go home. So I started emailing the photos to the bands, thinking maybe they could do something with them instead of them staying on my shelf.
It was the Myspace era. People started posting them. Your name gets around! So by the time I got my first assignment from Pitchfork, I had been shooting for 10 years, and only a group of people who were frequenting the DIY venues already knew of my photos. It happened so slowly and over so many years that there was not a big surprise moment.
Julia: What’s it like shooting bands? Being in a band I know it can be hard to get everyone looking in the right place at the right time. Who are your favorite musicians to shoot? I know you’ve shot Interpol, Angel Olsen, lots of other amazing artists…
Ebru: It’s funny. Most of these people do not want to be photographed. So that’s why I keep saying—I made a career out of photographing people who do not want to be photographed! But at the same time, it’s definitely not always like that.
I was listening to this photography podcast I’m obsessed with. This one photographer I love was talking about shooting with Bowie. He was saying that he might only get five minutes with him, but for those five minutes, Bowie was present. He’s there for the shoot. He’s going to do his best so you can do your best. I think that kind of attitude makes such a huge difference with bands. Most of the bands I like don’t really like the process of making photos, they do it because they have to do it. But then there are people who are really present, like Angel Olsen, Zola Jesus, Chelsea Wolfe, Mitski—they are present, they want to do their best.
Julia: What has been your favorite experience as a music photographer? Is there a shoot that sticks out to you?
Ebru: There were actually two shoots that were super important for me. My musical obsession started with The Velvet Underground. They’re one of those bands where I remember what it was like hearing them for the first time, how I felt, what the room looked like. It was one of those magical moments. It also had a lot of weight on me deciding to move here. So when I got to shoot John Cale, I almost died! Same for the shoot with Laurie Anderson. I was so nervous for both of those shoots. I always get nervous for every shoot—the night before I can’t sleep. And it was multiplied for them because it was like, emotionally, how can this be happening?
“Most of these people never get the credit for the hard work they put into these projects. There’s something so special about that. It’s super selfless. You’re putting your talent, time, and energy into other people’s success.”
Julia: The music world is startlingly small. After a bunch of years you have these weird inroads and all these things you could never imagine would happen. I definitely agree about the Velvets. They are my band’s biggest shared influence.
Ebru: The first time The Velvet Underground released their record, they only sold something like 30,000 records. It was said they may not have sold many copies at that time, but all those 30,000 records went to people who went on to form their own bands. Could you imagine the ripple effect of that influence?
Julia: I think most artists feel that way. Late at night when you’re feeling sad, like, ‘What am I doing? Does anyone ever see this? Does anyone hear this? Does it matter at all?’ And then you get a little message from someone saying what a lyric meant to them, or that a photograph made [them] feel a certain way…it’s one person at a time. It keeps you in the game.
Ebru: Imagine how powerful the music is. The Velvet Underground reached a teenage girl growing up in Ankara, Turkey at a time where there was no internet. You just got music from other people, mixtapes, and learned that way. For years, I thought Mo Tucker was a man! There was only one photo I saw of her. The impact of music is universal.
Julia: That’s what’s funny about trying to write about music. You’re writing about something that could never be put into words. If it could be put into words, it would just be a piece of paper.
Ebru: It means something different for everyone. I wonder what their music and lyrics mean to you. I didn’t know they were singing about drugs.
Julia: It’s just about the feeling it gives you. I often think about music as religion for the non-religious—or even for the religious. Music has a certain spirituality to it, and reflects a choice. Once you make that choice, it becomes your spiritual language.
Ebru: For sure. Look at me! I can’t play any instrument, but I found my way to stay around music. I mean, with these women I’m shooting, too, they are people working behind the scenes. They all love music. They found their own unique ways to be around music.
Julia: I think that’s a perfect segue into talking about your show For The Record. Tell me about the conception of the show, the idea behind it.
Ebru: I was working on a personal zine project with Iceage so I was at their show. After the show was over, I learned that their publicist Jessica Linker was at the show. I have known her for years and she was the one I was communicating with for this project. Even though it was a small show, I realized I would not know who she was because I have never seen her in real life. So I was thinking, ‘Dear god, all these women I worked with over the years but I’ve never met!’ Publicists, managers, the people whose work I consume, the writers, the editors… Most of the time, I never see them. If someone gets on the cover of a magazine, it’s because this woman works really hard to make it happen. But she doesn’t get any credit! Most of these people never get the credit for the hard work they put into these projects. There’s something so special about that. It’s super selfless. You’re putting your talent, time, and energy into other people’s success. So I wanted to put the spotlight on these women by photographing them.
I shot 13 women in total over the last year, whenever I had the time. A month ago, Brandon Stosuy and Caleb Braaten said they are curating a gallery space at TV Eye, a multi purpose new venue in Ridgewood, and asked me if I was working on anything. I casually mentioned the idea of women that work behind the scenes in music, and they got super excited, which got me really excited. I didn’t think anyone would care. I thought it was just something I was doing as a thank you to the women I work with. Then I thought 13 women did not represent the community I had in mind. I needed to take more photos. And they were thinking of doing the exhibit opening in, like, two weeks.
Julia: A very New York timeline!
Ebru: I already had a list of everyone I wanted to photograph, and I sent out emails to all of them, thinking a couple of people would say yes. If I got to 30, it would feel more like a community and I can do the exhibit. And then everyone said yes! People were recommending other people—the whole thing grew so organically. Now I have 68 women, and I shot 55 of them in three weeks. I dropped everything, and was like ‘I’m just going to focus on this.’ I shot with everyone for about an hour. Of course I’m nowhere close to being done. I haven’t even shot anyone out of state. It’s an ongoing thing.
Julia: So the show is like a snapshot of where you are now…
Ebru: Absolutely. I have so many more on my list that I would love to shoot.
Julia: You are a woman in music yourself, behind the scenes and behind the lens. Do you feel people have treated you differently because you’re a woman? Have you experienced gender bias while you’re in this field that most matters to you most?
Ebru: If you think about it, so much of what we see visually has been determined by white men for so long. Photography in general is super male-dominated. So there is an innate bias against women. For example, since females are considered physically weaker than men, they don’t get hired as photo assistants as often to start their careers, because they don’t think you can carry gear. Or many important magazine and newspaper assignments, cover shoots are done by men. One time during South by Southwest at the Oh Sees show, the security guard wouldn’t let me into the photo pit. There were these big guys with tattoos in the pit with their cameras. And I’m saying ‘Why not? I have my pass!’ And he’s like ‘No, no, this crowd is gonna get really wild.’ And I’m like ‘No, I’m going in!’ He actually was right…
Julia: But you’re like ‘It’s my right! It’s my right to get pummeled!’
Ebru: Exactly. If I’m going to get crushed I’m going to get crushed, but I’m going to be in that photo pit. So I was in the pit. The barrier was a flimsy wood thing. Literally the minute he started playing, the barrier came crashing towards the stage, that same security guard lifted me out of the photo pit right before it crashed. But it was fine. That kind of thing always happens. I hear it all the time from musician friends. Even though the band is her band, it is her project, the sound guys won’t talk with her, only to the male members of the band.
Julia: My last question: what advice would you give to any young woman who loves music and wants to be involved, but maybe feels that they don’t know where to start, because it’s too daunting?
Ebru: I think the only thing I would say to anyone is that you have to be persistent. If you hear ‘No’s,’ you can’t let them discourage you, you have to let them roll off your back. If you’re already doing the thing you love doing regardless of whether you’re getting paid, getting attention or not, I believe eventually it’ll work out. As long as you are truly putting your heart into what you’re doing, there’s no reason it shouldn’t work out.