Brian Wagner's Photo Project Lets Local Musicians Show Themselves Off

Photographer and music enthusiast Brian Wagner wants us to see eye-to-eye with members of the Knoxville music scene. Wagner's upcoming show Sound Booth is made up of large-scale black-and-white photo prints of Knoxville musicians. The 32-inch-by-42-inch portraits on canvas—many of them waist-up and life-size, some just oversized faces—beg to be stared at.

"If I can get that person to really be there and open up—there's not much more that a photographer can ask for," Wagner says. Viewers get the sense that all of these musicians really are "there" in the portraits, whether they're hamming it up or smiling placidly or doing their best glam-rock body contortions. Sound Booth includes portraits of such Knoxville notables as saxophonist Jason Thompson, country music husband-and-wife duo Jeff Barbra and Sarah Pirkle, jazz icon Donald Brown, singing cowboy Marshall Andy, indie-pop band Tenderhooks, and Americana chanteuse Robinella. It's evident that these people are performers, though they've been captured as still images.

The photos were taken in a 6-foot-by-3-foot photo booth Wagner made himself at his home in North Knoxville. He says that the booth lends a "spontaneous flair" to his portraits and has "a life of its own," filling in for the photographer and allowing subjects to get more comfortable without the pressure of a live photographer's expectations. The quirky and impromptu nature of the photo booth, he says, matches the musicians' creativity. Wagner experimented with getting shots through the booth using his own camera, but few of these made the final cut.

"Trying to wrangle musicians is difficult," he says. When he invites subjects to be photographed, the musicians have to come to him—the photo booth isn't easily portable. Despite the challenge, Wagner intends to continue his project until he has photographed every available face and facet of the Knoxville music scene. Transferring each photo to canvas requires a minimum of five hours; Wagner estimates he's got at least another year's work ahead of him. The task is eased by Wagner's delight in the fruitful exertion—he insists that his work is "wearing me out in the best way possible."

One of the curiosities of this series of photographs and the photo-booth method of portraiture is that it lets the subject set the scene for the photo. Since the portraits are taken automatically in small black boxes, the photos' moods rest entirely on the musicians' facial expressions, what they're wearing, and how they hold their bodies. The artificiality of the typical method for portrait-capturing and the photographer's directions are bypassed. The self-posing dictated by the photo booth makes it an ideal medium for portraits of performers; it allows them to have control over how they're represented and offers a view of how they want themselves to be seen. Wagner describes the photo booth as a "destination" for the musician being photographed—it serves as a mini-studio in which the subject is responsible for how he or she will be shot.

An intriguing feature of the photo booth itself is that everyone being photographed has some sort of visible reaction to it, which shows in the portraits. Some musicians look nonplussed, others irritated, while a number display absolute joy at being left alone with a camera. The subject's sense that no one is watching really lends a great deal of variability to the show's pieces. This same series of photos includes shots of those who look like they're taking corny promotional photos, as well as slightly formal-looking images of people who would prefer to assume a more dignified posture. The portraits are compelling in that they show people who are looking for their own "best sides." This is not merely a showcase of local musicians: Sound Booth uncovers the process by which photographic subjects scramble to achieve the best representations of themselves before the shutter clicks.

The photo booth will make the journey from Wagner's living room to the Emporium Center on Gay Street for the show's opening this weekend, allowing guests to try out the contraption themselves. This participatory and experiential aspect of Wagner's work, it should be noted, contributes directly to its success. Take your turn in the booth during first Friday; Ben Maney and other Knoxville musicians will entertain, but don't expect Wagner to play.

"All I can play is an iPod," he confesses.