Rock photographer Eddie Sung tells us about the magic of black and white photography and the glamorous life in the company of rock stars and musicians.
What’s the first thing we need to know about black and white photography?
To me, black and white photography speaks to one’s subconscious. Sometimes you don’t know why, but certain black and white images captivate you. If shot right (with the perfect angle, light, subject, and ‘wow’ factor) the image becomes iconic.
I always tell my beginner shooters that we photographers are like kite-flyers. We should let our images (high flying kites) tell the story. You don’t have to say anything when your feet are firmly on the ground. If you have consistently flown enough iconic kites for others to admire, you then become the story.
On the down side, some of the black and white images I see are gray and dark gray, not exactly close to black and white. These are lackluster and boring.
How did you get into this genre?
Easy, I loved rock music and rock photography since I was a young lad. I still listen to music at home at least three hours a day. I enjoy browsing through photography books even until today. My passion never stops.
In fact, I’m honoured to what Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie said of me – “Besides being a gentleman, he has a terrific photographic eye that we have utilised on various occasions for our band. Eddie is devoted to music and photography and should be considered an A-list camera handler.”
What comprises your rock music camera arsenal?
Earplugs, alert mind, a trusty camera (Canon EOS 5D Mark III) and fast lenses (Canon EF16-35mm f/2.8L II USM, EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM, EF70-200mm f/2.8L USM, EF15mm f/2.8 Fisheye). No flash.
Why is your Black and White style different from the other rock photographers?
Western rock photographers say I shoot with an eastern relaxed Zen. There is ideally a moment that is perfect–playful eye contact, a finger pointing into your lens, a flamboyant pose, etc. It is the split-second “one shot, one kill” pressing of the shutter in capturing that crucial moment that makes all the difference.
I like to shoot intimate ‘Stage Portraits’ of rock stars. People ask me where my photo studio is, I reply ‘The Stage’. I shoot ‘eye contact’ images of rock stars as if it's shot in a studio. I don't have the luxury of the rock star at my disposal but only a split second of visual engagement.
That’s where your trusty camera and fast lenses cannot let you down. One must feel at ONE with his camera. But without the EYE, there is nothing to talk about.
What about your favourite black and white images? What are the stories behind them?
There are too many to list. I’ll just share some of my favourites black and white images here.
I remember getting an email from someone in Beach Boys, asking if I was free to hang out. I said “Of course, but I want to shoot as well.” And they replied that was a given. Long story short, my images ended up on their live album cover and CD sleeve!
Blondie was recording their “Panic of Girls” album, and I was invited to Woodstock to hang out and shoot. The shot I took of them ended up in their album (CD and Vinyls) artwork.
I was backstage with Kitaro while he was doing his sound check. I saw the brilliant light shining on him and I asked him to look into my lens. He loved the result so much that he duly included that in his next album “Thinking of You”.
Slipknot was one of the most thrilling concerts I shot. When Joey Jordison invited me to shoot him, I knew it would be special. This iconic image is featured in Slipknot’s Live 9:0 album and is proudly displayed at the Hard Rock Café.
Stefanie Sun gestured a jubilant “50” to me. This was shot backstage at the Sing50 concert extravaganza. As a Singaporean, I’m mighty proud of what Singapore has achieved in five short decades. I felt this shot captured the jubilant mood of a whole nation.
I respect Jon Bon Jovi for his tenacity as a giving rock star. He always goes the extra mile for his fans. I loved the intimacy that he gifted to my lens during a split second break in the middle of his song.
To me, Chris Stein (Blondie) is the music wizard of Blondie as well as an accomplished photographer. I’ve bunked at his home several times, and he’s been to mine. In this picture, he was doing his mojo guitar fret work in the Magic Shop studio in New York City. This was where David Bowie recorded his final two phenomenal albums, The Next Day and Blackstar. Sadly, the studio has since been closed. Blondie is the last major band to have recorded there. I was lucky and honoured to have spent two weeks watching this legendary band craft out their new album.
I know Steve Tyler of Aerosmith is a visually flamboyant singer. He did not disappoint. In the picture, he was like the Wild Man of Borneo–visually stunning. When he strutted his pose and stared into my lens, I had chills running down my spine.
I met Carlos Santana many times in the past. Those stories are worth another article. He liked the fact that I shot most of his blues guitarist friends–BB King, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, etc. I normally get to shoot the entire concert instead of the usual first three songs. There was a special moment when Carlos clowned for my lens.
Besides shooting rock stars, I do like to hang out with other friends who follow their passion 150%. I thank the 501st Stars Wars Battalion for helping me to stage this shot. Even baddies of the galaxy, like Darth Vader needed to get a grip on certain urgent tasks at hand.
I had the honour of meeting and shaking Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s hands as a corporate head honcho the first half of my life. I was shooting at Sing 50 concert during soundcheck when this image of LKY doing an ‘It’s gonna be alright’ gesture appeared on the screen. He had just passed on a few months back and the general mood was still somewhat somber.
When I saw this reassuring image of him emphasized by the brightly lit spotlights from the Sportshub stage, I knew this image was special. Through a friend, I presented a framed picture of this image to his son, Mr Lee Hsien Loong.
Where has your black and white photography taken you recently?
My black and white photo journey has been a magical one indeed. I just came back from a two-week trip to New York. I was invited to hang out with the legendary band Blondie as they were recording their new album. I hung out with them as they recorded at the notable Magic Shop studios, the same one David Bowie recorded his iconic last two albums–The Next Day and Blackstar.
What are some perks of Rock Photography?
My beloved images are proudly displayed at Hard Rock Cafes, featured on the covers and artworks of rock stars/bands’ albums (CDs and Vinyls), and on their official websites.
I’m honoured to be the first Asian to be inducted into the famous Morrison Hotel Gallery, and for sweeping up the top three prizes at the Lucie Awards (the Oscars of photography). I’m featured regularly in prominent local and international newspapers and magazines.
Oh yes, and I get to hang out with the iconic rock stars backstage, at their homes and sometimes even at mine.
What type of photography best suits the black and white style?
Every kind of photography fits into this genre. See the image with your heart. Feel the image- it all depends on the mood. If everything falls into place, the image will be iconic. Black and white adds a dash of timelessness and poignancy. If done right, it can be more “colourful” than a colour image!
What’s your philosophy on photography?
My philosophy on photography is the same as on life itself. Enjoy what you do, aim high and go with the flow. Be positive, and your images will have a positive vibe.
Who are your inspirations?
Since young, I followed the works of Jim Marshall and Barry Feinstein. I was lucky and honoured to have hung out with them before they passed on and I’m proud to be colleagues with them in the Morrison Hotel Gallery. I’ve spoken at length with them on our photography.
Jim Marshall bought me a steak dinner and I stayed at Barry Feinstein’s home. In fact, I was the last hospital visitor (besides his wife) to have seen him alive.
On looking back at your illustrious photo journey, what are some of your proudest milestones?
I’m one of the lucky few who can proudly say that my reality has far exceeded my dreams. When I was younger I was glued to reading Rolling Stone magazine. At my solo rock photography exhibition in New York, Rolling Stone’s photo editor dropped by and invited me to visit their office. Coming full circle, I’ve published three well-received photography books and count my childhood rock photo heroes as my personal friends.
When I left my corporate head honcho job, I was known in Singapore’s business world. Now through my rock photography, I’ve made a name for myself in the international rock photography scene.
I do not plan anything, I simply go with the flow. I call it “Flow with the Go!”
Any advice for beginners who wants to dabble with black and white photography?
Go for it! Keep shooting until your style emerges. Do not let others tell you what they want to see and listen only to your heart. Failure is temporary and is only a lesson. Self-defeat, on the other hand, is permanent. You need to pay your dues in honing your craft.
I always tell the young, “in school, we study; in life, we learn.” One can never stop learning. Look at the works of master photographers, but shoot with your own ‘eye’, for it is your story to tell. Do your 10,000 hours and enjoy the ride! Happy Shooting!
For more of Eddie’s rock images, visit www.eddie-sung.com
Profile of photographer
After getting his MBA, Eddie Sung worked in various consulting firms, but he knew he’d always wanted to become a rock photographer. After retiring as a recruitment consultant, he ventured full time into his lifelong hobby–rock concert photography. He’s since shot some of the most famous musicians in the world, and holds the honour of being the first Asian rock photographer to be inducted into Morrison Hotel Gallery, specialising in fine-art music photography.