I have been meaning for some time to write about my time with Wilco in 2002. It was quite a journey, from hopeful photographer, to having ten pages of photos in the recent Yankee Hotel Foxtrot boxset. These are some of the verbal pieces of the puzzle that go with the visual ones.I first saw and photographed Wilco in Charlotte, NC in the summer of 1998. They played halfway through a remarkable show dubbed The Newport Folk Festival tour. Alongside Lucinda Williams, Dar Williams, Mark Eitzel, Marc Cohn, Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, this show had everything but ticket sales on this day. A few of my photos from this show later end up in the 2014 Wilco best-of What's Your 20? I then saw them in Raleigh, NC the following year, thinking that I would photograph them opening for REM. However, I found out upon arrival that my pass was only good for REM, so I had to watch their set that evening from the lawn area.
In 2002, I spent the year convincing myself that my "big break" was around the corner. I had been working on larger projects, and any spare moment that I wasn't working in Charlotte, I was on the road taking photos. I didn't know where I was going, but I felt I was going somewhere. Even after six-plus years of living out of my car, with only my camera and gas money with me, I was still very hungry. And there were still a lot of artists that I hadn't worked with yet.
In the summer of 2002, Wilco played a free outdoor show at Vanderbilt University. The release of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the year before was still a big deal for myself and many of my friends. I drove seven hours to the show, and discovered that I had arrived during soundcheck. I snuck photos of soundcheck through the fences, and then made my way to the front after the doors finally opened. At one point, I decided that I had gotten everything that I could out front, walked outside the venue, and decided to see if anyone would yell at me if I got photos from behind the stage, again shooting through the fence. Get something different, something cool. There's a few photos from Nashville, including from behind the stage in this new boxset.
A few months later, I was at my computer on a Sunday night, and an email came in from a magazine that I had been contributing to in California. "We have the chance to photograph Wilco for the cover story. Who wants it?" The magazine later admitted to me that the email had only gone out of their photographers on the East Coast, figuring that someone in New York City or Philadelphia would take the gig. In short, I yelled first (via email), yelled the loudest, and kept yelling until I got the gig.
They originally offered me $80 for the gig, but they eventually offered me $125 for the longer drive. I should have spent that money on a hotel room, in retrospect. To this day, I'll spend money on everything but myself. I was tough (I thought), I was living the dream. I drove all night to Philadelphia, sleeping in rest stops along the way.
Sleep deprived, and having spent a few hours wandering through Philadelphia, I arrived at the Electric Factory for what was supposed to be a 3pm photo shoot after the band's soundcheck. I had asked my friend Nicole Atkins, who had already met the band at a previous show, to tag along. Quickly, 3pm and 4pm flew by. Soundcheck was taking forever. I began to feel my sleep-deprived nerves crashing hard. I wandered around, found a Coca-Cola that I downed as fast as I could, and kept waiting.
While we were waiting, Nicole noticed a box of vintage Christmas lights from the 1940s. I had bought them in West Virginia for a dollar on a recent trip. "Do you think that they'll want to play with these?" she said. I don't know, I replied. We wired the lights up, and left them on top of my bag.
Wilco finally came out for the photos around 5:30pm, still a bit tired from the soundcheck. We quickly said hello, and I began to nervously take photos. Within a minute or two, Jeff Tweedy walked over to my bag, and said, "Are we supposed to play with these?" Question answered, I thought. "Yes!" I exclaimed, and quickly threw the lights at them. It broke the tension of the moment, and the band quickly joined in with the idea. Page 2 and 3 of Wilco's Best Of comes from this moment. The band only held them for forty seconds to a minute before they got too hot to touch, and I quickly unplugged the lights. But I knew that I had something good.
I knew that Jeff was a big Captain Beefheart fan, so I asked him and the band about Beefheart, and other artsists that everyone was listening to. I knew that Jeff and the band didn't come naturally to posing for photos. Their tour schedule for the day had my photo shoot on the schedule, next to a sad smiley face. I later had everyone sign the schedule, just for a laugh. Interacting with them, talking with them, and being a person with a camera, instead of being an unemotional, unblinking eye, was what I wanted in the photos. Let them think less about the camera, and the people will emerge through your lens.
We quickly had to set up everything backstage when the doors were about to open, and the band helped me carry my gear away. The rest of the shoot was all done backstage, with me clicking away in the hallway, and their dressing room. Back then, I shot with two cameras. One with black & white film, and the other with color. I'd had this high-falutin' idea that we could combine both sets of photos in a cut-and-paste style, as much as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot utilized a collage aesthetic. The magazine agreed to this, and then quickly ditched the idea as soon as I sent them the photos. It's not a great loss, in retrospect, but it is interesting to view both sets of photos with this in mind.
While Jeff rested backstage with friends, I ended up talking to the other members of the band for some time. John Stirratt offered to take me drinking after the show, which I really wanted to do, but I convinced myself that I should drive back home after the show. I politely declined, but I still need to take you up on that sometime, John.
The magazine told me that they didn't need any live photos, and I already had burned much of my film on the posed pics. Despite that, I was eight hours away from home, and I wanted to get some new live shots of the band. All I had left was the majority of a color roll, and a color slide roll that was tucked deep into my camera bag. Much of what you see in the YHF boxset comes from those two rolls.
Again, I drove through the night, sleeping again at rest stops when I started to nod off. I got back home to Charlotte at 1pm, slept a few hours, and ran camera for a City Council meeting at 5pm. Then went home, slept, bought more film, and spent the following day in Athens, GA with Guided By Voices, sitting on the floor of a record store with Robert Pollard, trying to convince him to let me buy a rare Left Banke-related album. Pollard told me last year that he still has that album.
One of my favorite compliments of my work came from Wilco's publicist after she saw my photos. "They're smiling in their photos!" she said in an email. "They never smile in photos! How did you DO THAT?!?" In recent years, I've noticed that Wilco is often smiling in their press photos. Those were different times, but I like to think that I started a trend.
Several years ago, the band got back in touch with me about photos for their Best Of. By that point, I had let my organization lapse, and could only find a portion of the photos from that day. When the world shut down in 2020, I spent months getting my photo archives back together. I even found that slide roll of live shots, including prints I had made for myself at Eckerd's.
My work on the recent boxset didn't come through the band this time, but through another avenue. I had met producer extraordinaire Cheryl Pawelski in line for a show at SXSW in Austin, Texas in March of 2002. Within five minutes, we were talking about a mutual favorite of ours, the Left Banke. In 2021, when Cheryl and I were shepherding the release of post-1968 Left Banke recordings, she sent me an email with a question. "Didn't you work with Wilco? In 2002?"
I assumed that they would just want the unseen posed pics from the Philadelphia shoot, of which there is still a lot. Being a completist, and partially because I was so proud that I had found the slide roll, I made a separate folder for all the live shots. I even used the Eckerd's prints as a guide for balancing the colors. It wasn't until they sent me the boxset that I realized that they had only used the live shots. Unseen for twenty years, even to my eyes. But there they were, for all to see, another part of the adventure from those fleeting days.
Here it is, twenty years later. The intervening years were filled with blind faith, ups and downs, and more miles than money. I believed that I could create something good, and that I could make all of this happen from Charlotte, NC. I even kept believing even after I should have given up on such notions. I should have been rational, turned my back on it all, and moved on. But I couldn't, and I didn't want to. I did, and still believe that I could create something good. The circumstances can change, but the heart does not, if you're willing to keep going.
I'm really glad that the musicians that I photographed that day are doing well, and are still creating on their own terms. I don't know when or if I'll get to speak to them again, but as they plan their next tour, I look forward to seeing what happens next in this ongoing visual conversation. And that I, and my camera, are here to continue it.
Here's to the past, the ongoing boxset of life, and what comes next to turn your orbit around.
January 23, 2023