An Interview with Latvian photographer Aigars Lapsa: The picture reflects the person’s personality and emotions.

"My photo dream is to photograph every well know artist in the blues field."

Aigars Lapsa: The Hunter Photographer

Αigars Lapsa is a Latvian photographer, who in parallel with his work in 2003 started photographing musical events and concerts. In the beginning, he published only in Latvias press his impressions of places he had been and reviews of the concerts together with photographs. After that he began focusing on representing visually professional blues music events on the internet and in the world’s most popular blues publications.
His entertainment and music work appears in the World's blues magazine “Blues Revue” (US), “Big City Blues” (US), “Blues News” Germany), on the covers of “Blues News” (Norway), “Twoj blues” (Poland), “Back To The Roots” (Belgium) and numerous other periodicals and national releases, CD covers & inserts, promotional items by offering a real look at the subjects.
All photographs are taken live where performers are not specially posing. The goal is to capture those moments where the performers appearance and emotions reveal the individuals soul, mentation and looks beauty.
In a years time he has developed a large and impressive collection of portraits of blues performers. His photos have been on display in exhibitions at blues festivals in Germany, Denmark, Norway, Lithuania, Latvia. In 2009-2010 together with two other Latvian photographers (Normunds Kalnins and Sergejs Budanovs) has developed a traveling bluesman and jazzman photo exhibition called „Epson Roots and Fruits” which successfully toured around Batic states. Aigars is a “Blues Supporter” member of The Blues Foundation and has attended the Blues Music Award each of the past four years. Each year Aigars donates several of his larger photos to TBF fundraising auctions.
In the September 2008 newsletter, TBF wrote “The Blues Foundation has members from all corners of the globe. We have only one from Latvia, but he is a very special one...Thanks Aigars for supporting the blues around the world and for supporting the work of The Blues Foundation.”
In November 2011 Aigars received German International Blues Award but in February 2012 “Keeping the Blues Alive” Award in Photography.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Aigars, when was your first desire to become involved in photography? What does „photo” offered you?
During the Soviet era I had two Russian cameras „Smena” and „Zorki-4” (considered quality cameras by soviet standards). However, I can’t say that I took photography seriously back then. During my youth, taking photos was just one of many things that I learned to do, but it didn’t develop into a passion. After marriage and beginning of family formation, photography became more important since I wanted to record the images of my children to remember their formative years later on. This is when I started to appreciate the composition and the catching of the right moment in the picture. After Latvia regained its independence and access to western goods became the norm, I bought the Canon EOS 300 camera. With this camera the quality of my pictures significantly improved and increased my interest in photography. However, my main motivation was to record interesting moments in my family life as well as interesting events, and gatherings with friends. About this time, my wife Zeltite and I began to travel a lot and of course I wanted to record these trips to later share our adventures with others. Due to the increased quantity of photographs, I started to develop photo albums with notes on each picture to explain the why and who of each picture. Friends and family who saw my albums indicated that they were impressed and liked the work, which gave me inspiration to continue and do more of this work.
My first digital camera was the Canon EOS 10D. Digital photography opened totally new vistas for me. With film based camera’s, I was limited to the number of photographs that I could afford to make, since the film and development of the photographs could quickly become a very expensive hobby, but these costs were no longer an inhibiting factor. At the same time the camera’s became more automated with increased functionality which reduced my effort in worrying about camera settings and allowed more time to compose and capture the picture itself. The result was that the camera became an interesting tool to experiment with picture taking and in the process creating interesting effects through the use of advanced functionality. Through the experimentation I learned what worked and what didn’t work. I also gained a lot from my friends who praised some the photographs and gave me ideas on how to improve on others. The positive feedback gave me encouragement to devote more serious time to photography. As my pictures improved, my interest in this field increased.
Another major turning point in my photo career started in 2001 when a business friend of mine invited us to the grand opening of his „Bites Blues Club” (note that the Latvian name Bite in English means the bee) in Riga. We sat at a table next to the stage which allowed me to easily capture the happenings on camera. The main performers on this occasion were Gloria Rogers and Phil Guy (brother of Buddy Guy). They were accompanied by the local „Latvian Blues Band” (16-18 year old boys/men). Although we, at that time, didn’t have particular interest in the blues music, we enjoyed the entertainment. The club brought in guest entertainers every few weeks and we attended every new concert and sat at the front row table which our friend reserved for us. During that first year we saw many famous names including John Primer, Dietra Farr, Eddie Kirkland and many others. During the subsequent years many other major blues entertainers have performed in the club, for example, including almost the whole Muddy Waters band – Bob Margolin, Willie Big Eyes Smith, Carey Bell, Jerry Portnoy. The „Latvian Blues Band” accompanies all of the entertainers that appear at the club and over the years has matured into one of the best blues bands in Europe.
All of these concerts at the club were captured by professional photographers. Observing the professionals at work inspired me to try my own hand at this and I started to take more serious photographs of the entertainers. In comparing my own work with the professionals, I noticed that mine were different and somewhat unique (in my opinion of course), which convinced me to get more serious about this. This created a need to find a broader field of subjects. Upon researching on the internet I came across the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival which seemed like the answer to my needs. So, in late April of 2004 I decided to attend the annual New Orleans Jazzfest. I knew that I needed some kind of credentials in order to be able to have the freedom to photograph what I wanted. With the help of the „Bite Blues Club” manager Ziggy I got an official request from the magazine „Riga Time” to record the events at the jazz festival for a story to appear in the Latvian press and accreditation as a professional photograph. This then allowed me (an amateur at the time) to travel to the Meca of the music along with the opportunity to photograph the performances to my heart’s content. Upon return many friends and close blues fans were satisfied with my work and who urged me to do more work. Soon afterwards, I became the exclusive photograph at the club. I also continued to attend the New Orleans jazz festival each year as well as any other blues festivals around the world that I could afford to attend. From this was born the „Aigars Lapsa – Blues Photography” project. My wife, Zeltite, is a true partner and very supportive who accompanies me on all these trips. Her critiques of my work have been very helpful.

What do you learn about yourself from the photography and music?
To me photography and music are both complementary and one. The music provides the emotional backdrop to the picture that captures the image of the event. Without the music the picture is bland, without the picture the music is a passing emotional event soon forgotten. The key here is the entertainer who creates and feels the music. My challenge is to capture the entertainer and as much as possible his emotions and feelings at the time he is performing and when the picture is taken. Much of my attention in taking the pictures is to find the right angle and moment to snap the picture in order to insure that the picture reflects the person’s personality and emotions.
I have learned that to achieve my goals I have become a perfectionist and developed an appreciation to detail in photography. Over time I have evolved a deep appreciation of the blues music and the personalities that create and play the music.

What characterizes your work & progress, how do you describe your philosophy about IMAGE?
Following the previous thought, I am what best could be described as a „hunter photographer”. By that I mean that I patiently wait for the moment when I believe that I will capture the image that I want. Of course with the advantages of digital photography I also take multiple shots of my subject and later erase many that didn’t capture exactly what I wanted, but in shooting I always wait for the right moment. I always try to capture the exact composition and image that I want on my first shot and as the years have passed, I have developed the instinct that guides me to my goal quicker and I miss less of those shots that I wished I had gotten. In the music performance photography field this instinct is especially important because you have no control of lighting, posing of the subject, or the background.

What are some of the most memorable shoots that you have had?
The most challenging shoots occur when I am photographing a new artist that I have not shot before. Whenever I can, I try to prepare myself for these shoots ahead of time by gathering as much information about the artist as I can. In order to get the shots that I want I need to be able to anticipate all of his moves. I study available photographs, videos, the planned program at the event and any other information that I can get. Follow up shoots become a lot easier because you know which musical number will be played when Honey Piazza will step up on the piano, when Lil’ Ed will walk on his fingers, etc.

From whom have you learned the most secrets about the image?
Since I am a self-taught photographer, I try to learn from all professional photographers as much as I can. I try to learn both what to do and what not to do. For example, take the HDR technique that people often praise for the quality results that it provides, I only use it when my shot has turned out technically faulty, but there is enough good material in the picture to create an art form from it.
My true heroes in photography are Dick Waterman, Jeff Dunas, James Fraher, whose books on blues are my primary references and I consult them often and at times they trigger new ideas for me. After shooting in internet I also try to compare my shots with other blues performance photographers and learn that way.

Which was the best moment of your career and the worst?
I am still waiting and hoping for the best moment. The worst are when my camera decides to go on strike and worse when it falls out of my hands or from my bag. Both of these bad things have happened to me, but at times like this fate has been kind to me. These things have happened on the last day of the shooting and usually when I am exhausted. The Canon technology is superb and has survived all of my abuses so far.

How does music come out of your lenses?
When I shoot, I don’t consciously worry if the picture will also reflect the music. As I listen to the music being played, I follow the artists movements and when I see a particular moment that interests me, I snap the picture. I suppose that subconsciously, I try to capture in the picture a particularly expressive mood of the moment and, of course, the mood reflects the music that is being played. In my experience, I find that I can hear the music in some of my pictures where others can’t and in some, others hear the music, but I don’t.

Are there any memories of all GREAT MUSICIANS that you meet which you would like to share with us?
Once traveling through the Mississippi delta my wife Zeltite and I stopped in Leland, MS. That was on a workday and we stopped and talked to a local tour organizer to find out more information about the place. When she discovered that we were blues enthusiasts, she got on the phone and organized a jam session at the local „Walnut Street Blues Bar” for the evening. When we arrived there were only 3-4 locals, but for the next couple of hours we were entertained by T-Model Ford and Pat Thomas to fantastic music. At the time I didn’t know much about these artists, so later on I did a little research on the internet and found out the great honor that fate had bestowed upon us.

Which is your favorite photo? In which photo can someone see the best of your work?
I don’t have any photograph that I would consider to be my favorite or that I would say is my best. The most popular, to the public, seem to be those of B.B. King, Buddy Guy or Gary Moore. Of course these are very famous musicians and in their performances they show more vividly their emotions through their facial expressions. As I answered in a previous question, in a picture the music is reflected through the artist’s expressions. The more vivid the expression the more of the music can be seen. Also, I often find in some of the older pictures that I have taken and didn’t particularly think them noteworthy, upon closer inspection I saw things of interest that I had not seen before. Maybe what I am trying to say is that the viewer’s tastes are not static and depend on his mood at the time he is looking at the picture, and hence what I might find a favorite at one particular time will be different at another point in time?

How would you describe your contact people, when you are "on the project"?
During the shoot, I try to avoid all communication with others so I can concentrate on my subject(s). If a regular festival guest can later tell to other what he saw or heard, then a photographer can only tell the story through his pictures… People who know me are aware of it and I hope they understand my reasons. This is particularly difficult at festival first day when people want to acknowledge their presence and talk to me. Of course it’s very good and I like talk but after then my pictures are not so qualitatively.  This is where my wife plays a very important role and manages the situation so I can do my job. Of course, you can approach this issue more simple – make some random photos of each artist and case closed but I am aiming higher in this case.

What advice would you give to aspiring photographers thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Choose to focus on what you like best. Usually a good wedding photographer is unlikely to be a good concert or sports photographer. Once you have found your niche, pursue it with passion and remember to objectively criticize your work. Best learning method is to learn from your mistakes.

What do you feel is the key to your success as a photographer?
I'm not at all sure that I can be called successful, because I feel that I can always do better. As I have indicated before, I have fallen in love with my craft and if others feel that I am successful than it must be because of that love.

BW or Colors, Digital or film and why?
Without doubt for me, digital is the right choice. So is color over B&W. I am aware and agree that BW is an effective solution for blues photos. Though I don't know anyone who does it constantly these days in settings before shooting. There is one tricky moment – stage lights can create wonderful effects, and then it's a pity if I'm missing it because of BW. I guess you need to have a strong conviction that BW is the one and the only right choice. Another thing – I have seen and I enjoy how other photographers later edited the image to BW on computer. I choose BW in two cases – if I feel that it is the best solution for a certain photo or when my picture is technically faulty, but there is enough interesting material. But so I do not often.

Which of the musicians were the most difficult and which was the most gifted on pickup lens?
I have not come across a difficult musician, but often have encountered lighting problems and access to full facial views which is especially true with harmonica players and those holding microphones close to their faces. To overcome these obstacles often requires patient waiting until the obstacle is removed from my view and yet the music is still playing. Sometimes it is a very long wait and happens only when the artist gasps for air.

How important is image to artists? To which person do you want to send one from your photos?
I believe that all artists like to have good pictures of themselves and their performances. However, some of the more famous artists have received so many pictures that one more has little meaning to them and some artists are very self conscious about their appearance and don't want pictures of themselves that do not show them in the best light. I ready to give pictures to all of the artists that I photograph if they are interested. If an artist has unwanted blemishes I will use the computer to correct the images so that the artist is satisfied with the photographs that I give them. I think we are allies - "photographer and artist". I would like to be.

„A picture is worth a thousand words” it is certain ... can music has image and the image to have notes?
I agree with the statements. I often prepare slide shows and try to match to them the appropriate music that will complement the visual slides. From experience, I find that matching the music to the pictures is an art form in itself. The right match creates a fantastic end product, but a mismatch destroys both the visual as well as the music. Sometimes the effort to create the right match is more difficult than doing the shoot. The music often helps the viewer see things in the picture that otherwise would pass him by, but it is also true that the pictures often allow the listener discover sounds, melodies, etc., that otherwise would pass him by.

What is the strangest desire that someone has requested in the shooting?
All my subjects want to look attractive - always. I have not had any strange requests.

What is your „secret” PHOTO DREAM?
My photo dream is to photograph every well know artist in the blues field. However, I know that I will not be able to achieve this, since men, including entertainers, do not live forever. I just read the news that Bug Henderson had passed away (March 9th). This makes me sad and makes me realize that I will not be able to fully realize my dream.

Of the entire field of musicians that you have met, who do you admire the most?
I admire all of the entertainers that work hard and long hours often 365 days a year and then appear on the stage fresh and rested and you have not an idea how old they are. From other side I admire some big stars who step on the stage and looks so tired... But they too are only people – we all sometimes doing our job just without emotion.

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new, that you would like to meet and photograph?
I have already met most of the living artists of note and have photographed many of them. At the same time, I would very much like to meet them again and photograph them again.

Is there any shooting made by mistake, but now you’re proud of?
I would not say that I am proud for any shooting by mistake, but sometimes for some unexplained reason happens completely unexplained snapshot and you can’t repeat it again, especially in live concert photography.

Some music styles can be fads, but the blues is always with us. Why do you think that is so?
It was, W.C. Handy who later said, "the weirdest music I had ever heard is Blues”. Jazz and the early blues are perhaps the best examples. As a result the listener can find something familiar in most blues performances and otherwise – when you can find blues elements in other music styles. Another factor in blues music is that it most clearly reflects people’s emotions, both sad and exhilarating. For me blues first of all is the rhythm.

You had a pretty interesting project „Epson Roots and Fruits”. Where did you get the idea?
The project is closed. The project was essentially a blues & jazz artist photo exhibit that travelled around the three Baltic countries for 2 years. The project initiator, photographer and manager was Normunds Kalnins who is the chairman of the Latvian Blues Appreciation Society. I was one of three photographers whose work was exhibited. The word Epson came from the fact that the Epson company was the sponsor of this exhibit and we used their photo printers and special paper that could survive outdoors (even rain) where many of the exhibits took place.

Aigars Lapsa - Official website

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