Photo Spotlight

Photographer Spotlight: Brian Santostefano

Brian Santostefano is a freelance photographer based in Chicago, IL who is taking some of the best punk-related pics out there right now. The reason I started the Photographer Spotlight series on my site was to try and give some of the folks behind the camera lens who risk their health in order to document this music we all love. Brian and his work exemplifies this.

Where were you born and raised, and were your parents into the arts?
I was born in Libertyville, IL and grew up in Mundelein, IL. It’s a northern suburb of Illinois that sits about an equal distance between Chicago, IL and Milwaukee, WI. My parents loved all kinds of music from the '50s and '60s mostly, but neither were really into the arts. My older sister was into a lot of good music when she was younger and was all about the arts in high school. Her focus was mostly on drawing and painting. My Mother was the one that was very supportive of my passion for photography, she had always pushed me when I was my worst critic.

Hewhocorrupts at Pool Party House, Bloomington, IL, 2006. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

What came first, your love for music, or your love for photography?
Definitely my love for music came first. My older sister had opened Pandora’s box for me with tapes and CDs of bands from the '80s and '90s in my preteens. Specifically it was The Crow soundtrack which had bands like Helmet, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Rollins Band, Pantera, The Cure, etc.. that got me into alternative and metal which later molded into more obscure metal to discovering punk and hardcore. I got into photography by taking basic level courses in high school. I bought a used Canon AE-1 and started taking pictures of my friends bands playing music in their parents' basements. The worlds of music and photography collided instantly.

Masked Intruder at Wurst Fest, Chicago, IL, 2017. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

3What was your first musical love?
I listened to a lot of alternative radio which got boring, so I was always eager to find something new musically. Watched a lot of MTV’s 120 Minutes. I heard bands like Rancid, Offspring, Pennywise, NOFX, which were definitely the gateway bands. Up until I met this kid with a mohawk and patches all over his clothes that I attended middle school with, that showed me bands like Dead Kennedys, Aus Rotten, Naked Aggression, Blanks 77, Black Flag, Subhumans, and Minor Threat. Keep in mind I didn’t have the Internet at this point so It was pretty mind blowing shit to hear for the first time. Punk music spoke to me in ways like nothing I had ever heard before. It was music made for losers like me. I did my fair share of homework by researching liner notes, cover songs, and discovering some of the same musicians in the bands I liked played in multiple groups or discovering their previous ones to expand the web even further.

Ceremony at Schubas, Chicago, IL, 2017. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

I eventually found out where a small scene of punk and hardcore shows we’re going on in the suburbs and soaked it up like a sponge by hitting various basement shows, legion halls, Knights of Columbus, civic centers, and record stores. I made the biggest jump discovering the Fireside Bowl in Chicago, IL. My all-time favorite show at the Fireside Bowl was in the summer of 2001 with Kill Your Idols, American Nightmare, Life’s Halt, What Happens Next?, and Kungfu Rick. two different tours combined into one show and it was so insane and fun all at once. The Fireside was the best place for shows, they always had something going on. Even if you didn’t know who was playing. The possibilities were limitless. That’s how I found a lot of my favorite bands.

Nine Inch Nails at Riot Fest, Chicago, IL, 2017. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

Who were some of the photographers you looked up to during your formative years?
Nathan Baker. I saw him at the Fireside Bowl all the time. He captured a lot of the bands that I loved with 35mm film with these amazing compositions of slow shutter speed photography that just added to the intensity of the band's performance. Most notable work of his were the images of Converge’s The Long Road Home DVD that jumped out to me. It was obscure, chaotic, and dark. His style and work had really inspired me to take on live band photography.
A few other classic band photographers I looked up to in my formative years were Glen E. Friedman, Edward Colver, Charles Peterson, and Murray Bowles. I also took interest in others out of the music world such as Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Robert Frank, Joel Peter Witkin, Bruce Davidson, and Scott Mutter.

Ascend/Descend at 2040, Chicago, IL, 2016. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

What is your camera and post set up?
I shoot with a Nikon D5100 with a battery pack for better balance and stability. I regularly use the Nikon sb900 strobe with a pocket bounce for action shots. I shoot primarily with a Tamron 10-24mm wide angle zoom lens and a fixed Nikkor 35mm lens. I would regularly shoot my N80 for 35mm film photography before converting to the digital world. I miss shooting film and wish I could afford doing it more. I work with Adobe Lightroom and photoshop for my post process work. In my mind, it doesn’t matter what you shoot through, it only matters on how you use it. On the other hand It never hurts to take a plunge into an upgrade after a while. I’m just waiting for the right time to do it.

Burn at the Double Door, Chicago, IL, 2016. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

In terms of your non-musical photo work, what kind of stuff do you do?
I get stoked when given the opportunity to photograph my friends' dogs. I’ve done a few weddings and family shoots here and there which were okay but very stressful but animals in general are way better to tolerate than most people. Especially when it comes to photographing them. I really like street photography and landscape photography. I am fortunate to live in one of the greatest major cities ever. There is a lot to capture. Most of the time If I see something that appeals to me, I’ll shoot at any given the chance.

Olive, Arlington Heights, IL, 2016. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

.Who are some of your favorite bands to shoot?
This list could easily go on forever. American Nightmare, Modern Life Is War, KungFu Rick, Hewhocorrupts, the Hope Conspiracy, Suicide File, Dead to Fall, Ceremony, Converge, Kill Your Idols, Burdened, Victims, Ascend/Descend, Paint It Black, Culture Abuse, Night Birds, Bad Sons, Ovef Ow, Torche, and Nine Inch Nails.

Dead to Fall at Fort Knox Studios, Chicago, IL, 2016. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

If you could go back in time, who are some bands that you would have loved to shoot?
Queen and David Bowie in the '70s. Throw in Van Halen with David Lee Roth in their prime. I really wish I would have brought a camera for all the times I saw the John Brown Battery, as well as the time I caught the tour with The Rites and Cut the Shit. I would also say the Nerve Agents. I shot them once with a busted camera and I would love to see them again as well as shooting American Nightmare in the early 2000s one more time. 

Modern Life Is War at their final show, Marshalltown IA, 2008. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

What are the toughest aspects to shooting live shows?
I struggle with the appropriate amount of light to get a sharp focus on my subjects. (Most of those issues occur with basement shows or DIY spots). Dodging stage divers. Getting crowd killed, my glasses falling off, getting trampled on, knocked over, hit in the face, kicked, punched, puked on, spit on, and on a rare occasion, shows with way too many photographers. Everyone is just stumbling over one another and it gets annoying at times.

KungFu Rick at Knights of Columbus, Arlington Heights, IL, 2007. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

Tell me about some newer bands that we should all be on the lookout for.
They’re not necessarily new, but I really like what I hear coming from the Bay Area with Spiritual Cramp and Culture Abuse. I just shot Chris Colohan’s newest band, SECT, and they had the support of Hive from Minneapolis. I was digging their performances in Chicago, IL. I really like Strange Passage from Massachusetts. I like that new EP from Death of a Nation.

SECT at the Cobra Lounge, Chicago, IL, 2018. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

Chicago has an amazing scene of talented artists such as Thieves, Burdened, Ribbonhead, Atonement Theory, Bad Sons, Mystery Actions, Engines, Ovef Ow, and Decline. There is so much new stuff out there I still need to hear.

Burdened at La Bodega, Chicago, IL, 2018. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

Who are some modern-day photographers that you admire?
I feel a tremendous amount of inspiration by the work of my peers in the music scene. Thanks to the connectivity of social media, I’ve come across so many gifted individuals that I wouldn’t normally stumble upon. I really love the work of Reid Haithcock, Martin Sorrondeguy, Rob Wallace, Dave Mandel, Angela Owens, Joseph W. Carey, Adam Degross, Dan Patrick, Quinn Curren, and you may be surprised. but Cy Young-Award-Winning baseball star, Randy Johnson is really big into band and nature photography. His work is pretty impressive.

ALL at at Riot Fest, Chicago, IL, 2008. (Photo: Brian Santostefano)

If you had to pick one of your photos that best encapsulates why you love shooting bands/artists, which one would it by and why?
It’s really hard to say with one photograph. I picked this image of American Nightmare from the Fireside Bowl in 2003. It’s one of my all-time favorite shots ever taken. It's all of one of my favorite bands in my favorite venue ever. It captures the intensity and raw emotion felt by this music in the singer, Wes Eisold’s face. Plus, “Don’t Fuck with Punks."

American Nightmare at Fireside Bowl, Chicago, IL, 2003. Photo: Brian Santostefano)


See more of Brian's work on Instagram.

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