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Banjo! Exposed brick! Open sky! Still, Mumford and Sons, you could use some hay bales... (Courtesy of the artist)

The Good Listener: Why Do Band Photos Look Like That, Anyway?

Aug 1, 2014

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Stephen Thompson

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the Archer paraphernalia we bought at Comic-Con and shipped to ourselves is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on musicians' publicity photos.

Erin Briskie writes via email: "While traveling abroad recently with friends, our typical group photos in front of iconic landscapes slowly transitioned into a group of seven non-musicians attempting to take fake, ironic 'band photos.' Because everyone does that, right? Which got me wondering: When you Google the phrase 'band photos,' it's hard not to come across (regardless of genre) a bunch of people melancholically looking in various directions, not hard at work, and in an abandoned location. Can you help classify what makes a good 'band photo,' and is it possible to judge a band by its picture?

"The common trends I have found: Folk-rock band photos typically contain cow pastures, exposed brick and/or cobblestones and rolled-up, well-fit jeans. Just like a heavy rock band's photo commonly contains some combination of corrugated metal, sawdust, sweat and fire. Who set the trends for this in the first place?"

The first thing to keep in mind about band photos is the utilitarian purpose they serve: They're conceived and designed largely so that people like me can slap down an image around which to wrap text. In many ways, they function as the visual equivalent of the press releases they often accompany — and, like press releases, you can be artful with them. If you're too artful, though, they serve almost no purpose at all.

In band photos, as in book covers, you're dealing with two powerful and often opposing forces: You want to look like no one and nothing else, while at the same time setting a tone for what people can expect from the work itself. This is an incredibly tricky assignment, which means that much of what you see focuses on the latter. A band's management may ask for "blazingly original, while also signifying that fans of Mumford and Sons would like it," and in the end, you're still likely to wind up with, well, exactly what you'd expect. After all, if your band has banjos and mustaches and whatnot, which setting will make more sense: hay bales and open skies, or an alley full of burning trash cans? For most bands, there's a time and a place to confound expectations, and press photos aren't generally the ideal opportunity to do so.

There's also a larger sense of reluctance at work. Band photos, like many of the dreariest promotional obligations musicians face, often feel like exercises in inauthenticity — and are thus widely regarded as something to be either endured quickly or subverted outright. Consequently, you get a lot of photo shoots in which bands do as they're instructed (stand there, look natural, you gaze off in the distance, you sit on that hay bale, and so on) until it's time to goof around and do something that seems wild and subversive in comparison. Those wild and subversive photos are then discarded by the label and management, who are more conservative by nature and know which kinds of photos actually get published.

Speaking of which, a quick guide to how to do press photos right (and wrong), coming from someone who's been dealing with the fool things for the past 20-plus years. Hire a professional. If you really can't afford a professional, find a way to come up with something that doesn't look as if it's been shot with a disposable wedding camera in low light. Make sure at least one of your primary photos is configured in such a way that all band members occupy a squarish space, surrounded by areas that can be cropped out. Remember that what looks arty and weird for you might look like a production error in a newspaper or on a website. For heaven's sake, don't configure everyone in a two-inch by eight-inch strip because you think it looks cool. (Many sites employ content management systems that force the use of standard crops.)

Band photos are, to come right down to it, obligatory for everyone involved: for the publications that run them, for the bands and managers and labels that circulate them, and for the photographers who'd rather shoot something that moves. Nothing squelches creativity quite like reluctantly executed promotional obligations with many masters to please. I'm not saying there aren't cool publicity photos in the world — and there are most definitely photographers who shoot a lot of great stuff. In a lot of the most optimistic scenarios, though, at least the music's interesting.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

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A pair of giraffes being transported in a crate approach a low bridge on a freeway in Centurion, South Africa on Thursday. (Barcroft Media /Landov)

During Transport, A Giraffe In South Africa Hits Head On Overpass, Dies

by Eyder Peralta
Aug 1, 2014

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As one South African journalist put it on Twitter, this tale is worthy of Aesop: It starts on a South African highway on Thursday. A truck is transporting two giraffes and as you might imagine, it creates a great buzz among drivers.

Pabi Moloi, a well-known TV and radio host, snaps a picture that portends trouble:

The truck zooms through the underpass and Moloi tells South Africa's ENCA-TV that she heard a loud thump; so loud, her cousin who was driving asked her if it was a gunshot.

Tragically, what happened is that one of the giraffes, which was blindfolded, smashed its head against the overpass.

As Agence France-Presse reports, The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is taking this incident seriously. It is launching an investigation and "may lay criminal charges against those involved in transporting the animals."

Rick Allan, of the organization, told the paper: "Our investigations so far showed that the transport used was inadequate and incorrect. There are lots of projectiles flying around on the highway (and) especially leaving an animal with its heard sticking out blindfolded, is looking for problems."

But back to Aesop. The lesson, wrote Gus Silber on Twitter: "Don't think laterally, think vertically."

This story reminds us of:

— "'Star Rabbit' Dies When Photographer Takes Wrong Step"

— "Copenhagen Zoo Euthanizes Giraffe Despite Online Protest"

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What is this emoji? (NPR)

Simmering Online Debate Shows Emoji Is In The Eye Of The Beholder

Aug 1, 2014

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Images, GIFs and emojis — particularly the latter — have morphed into ways we express our feelings. They've quickly replaced words and sentences in our texts, tweets and emails.

So, what is this emoji? (As I'm writing this, it's consistently been the 25th most-tweeted emoji, according to the real-time emojitracker.) On Thursday, a report from a local Philadelphia TV station re-ignited a debate and got people all up in arms. (Or should I say, up in hands?)

An anchor suggests it's someone praying. "What we've discovered is the intention of this emoji is to represent a high-five," he says. "But a lot of people really, truly believe it's someone praying." (How they've "discovered" such a claim is unclear.)

And if you want to play by the book, turn the question to your iPhone: Highlight the emoji and prompt your iPhone to "Speak" it. It'll tell you that the emoji is "hands folded in prayer." And if you think of how folks usually high-five one another — using opposite hands, with thumbs crossed — this makes sense.

The Emojipedia doesn't choose one meaning, but says it varies depending on the cultural context. In Japanese culture, it says, it can mean "sorry" or "thank you."

I tossed the question to folks on Twitter:

When we think about emojis and what they mean, we have to consider how these symbols have evolved into their own language. Emojis aren't quite a universal form of communication; their meanings are malleable and often develop in unique ways as we build relationships with the people we're texting or tweeting. I assign different meanings to the same emojis based on inside jokes with friends, moods and specific situations.

Jessica Bennett wrote for The New York Times:

"There's also a certain subjective quality to the sequences. Depending on whether you think the little face with the teardrop on his forehead is sweating or crying, your friend may have either just been dumped or been to SoulCycle. 'I think it's clear that a rough grammar exists for emoji, or is at least emerging,' said Colin Rothfels, a developer who maintains a Twitter feed, @anagramatron, that collects tweets (and thus emoji) that are anagrams."

But if I had to choose one meaning for the hands-pressed-together emoji, I'd probably go with this one:

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House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va., left, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. Cantor relinquished his leadership post on Thursday and said he would step down before the end of his term. (AP)

Cantor To Step Down This Month To Make Room For Successor

Aug 1, 2014

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Fresh from relinquishing his House majority leader position in the wake of a stinging primary defeat, Rep. Eric Cantor now says he will give up his Virginia congressional seat months before his term expires, to make room for his replacement.

"[It] is with tremendous gratitude and a heavy heart that I have decided to resign from Congress, effective Aug. 18," Cantor, 51, said in a guest column in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. "During this time of transition for me and my family, it is my foremost desire to ensure that representation is maintained for the people of the 7th District. For this reason, I have asked Gov. McAuliffe to hold a special election on Election Day, at no additional cost to taxpayers, so my successor can be sworn in immediately in November."

Cantor, who lost to Tea Party-backed Dave Brat in a surprising June primary, tells the Dispatch that he wants "to make sure that the constituents in the 7th District will have a voice in what will be a very consequential lame-duck session of Congress."

Brat, who is heavily favored to win the special election in the conservative district, thanked Cantor for his seven terms and service to the state.

"The time one has to sacrifice to be an elected official is enormous, and he has sacrificed a great deal to serve the people. I also want to thank him for his endorsement. I wish Eric and his family the best in their future endeavors," Brat said in a statement, quoted by The Associated Press.

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"You need to fold the worst events of your life into a narrative of triumph, evincing a better self in response to things that hurt." -- Andrew Solomon (TED)

How Do Our Worst Moments Shape Us?

by NPR/TED Staff
Aug 1, 2014 (TED Radio Hour)

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Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Growing Up.

About Andrew Solomon's TEDTalk

Writer Andrew Solomon dives into his childhood to describe moments of great adversity, and how they helped him build identity.

About Andrew Solomon

Andrew Solomon writes about politics, culture, and psychology. His newest book, Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, tells stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children, but also find profound meaning in doing so. He writes about families coping with deafness, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, severe disabilities, and many other challenges.

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