Some time ago I made a trip to a nearby college town to celebrate a friends 21st birthday. The next morning I woke up in an unfamiliar apartment, not 100% sure whose names I could expect to see on the lease, were it presented, let alone whose sofa I had slept on. Though I was clearly not alone, I was apparently the only person awake at that fine hour. Among the bodies spread out on the floor was that of my roommate, who also happened to be the person who had driven me to this far away place. I certainly wasn’t going home until he woke up, something that I did not expect to happen anytime soon. Hungry, decidedly hung over and faced with the prospect of entertaining myself for a few hours, I would probably get to know that strange living room more intimately than I would care to.
Now, more than two months later, there are only two things that distinctly stand out in my mind regarding that morning’s experience. One, there’s a girl who lives there who apparently has no qualms about finishing off my cold, half-eaten Whopper Value Meal. Two, I recall that hanging side-by-side on the wall are photographs dissected from the liner notes of the Promise Ring’s Wood/Water album, framed and displayed prominently above the stereo.
I had seen the pictures many times before. I remember thinking that it was not at all strange that someone would choose to display these particular photographs in their home – surely pictures of lesser taste and quality adorn mantle places across the United States. But now, face to face with these distinct pictures outside of the protective context of a jewel case, I found myself considering the images for what they really were – simple photographs. True, the series of greenhouse photos certainly illustrated the chosen title of the album. However, much more than that, they seemed to offer up a stunning visual characterization that captured the overall tone and complexity of the music itself. No, I certainly wasn’t surprised that someone had decided to offer these pictures a place outside of the layered confines of a CD rack.
Chris Strong, the photographer who took the pictures, defers most of the credit for their success to Wood/Waters’ art director.
“Jason Gnewikow had a pretty good idea of what he wanted going into the project,” said Strong, who works for bands such as the Promise Ring on a freelance basis. “He’s the one responsible for the metallic ink used to print the album. I think it’s the ink that makes the images look good.”
“We went to about three or four locations shooting for the record, trying to get the right one,” Strong continued. “Of the four photos that got used there are probably about a hundred that didn’t.”
All modesty aside, the freelance work of this Illinois-based photographer is visible all over the world of independent music- if you know where to look. Chances are that, if you’re reading this article, you’ve probably seen his work many times without knowing it. Strong has taken pictures for companies as large as Dreamworks, recently doing the packaging shots for the Jimmy Eat World Live DVD. On the other end of the industries spectrum, he represents artists on his own miniature music label, Brilliante. Between the two are an assortment of clients, ranging from celebrated staples Hey Mercedes and Joan of Arc to Owen and American Football. That Strong seems to have an ongoing working relationship with the Kinsella brothers should come as no surprise – he met and became friends with Mike Kinsella when they both attended the University of Illinois.
“I met Mike when his roommate and I worked on an installation piece together,” said Strong. “We discovered a mutual love for the Bond video game and playing catch.”
Strong is currently doing work for the band Ester Drang on Jade Tree Records, Armor for Sleep on Equal Vision Records, and Ariel Kill Him on Kasual. A look at his resume seems to suggest that he has been widely recognized as the premier, if not official, photographer of an entire indie scene. Yet even with a cornucopia of freelance work apparently at his fingertips, Strong still has to work a day job. He has a full time position doing post-production work at a motion graphics firm in Chicago, Illinois.
“Ideally all I would have to do is shoot photos,” said Strong. “At least for me, that isn’t so.”
Still, it hasn’t turned out too bad for a young man who started drawing pictures of unicorns to impress girls in the first grade. After wooing the young female population of Champagne, Strong went on to study painting at the Art Institute of Chicago. He settled into his undergraduate work at the University of Illinios, where he double-majored in painting and photography before dropping the former. He still uses the Canon AE1 35mm camera that his father bought him on his 15th birthday. Another interesting side-note: Strong is also working on a documentary film with some friends titled Ladies and Gents.
“It’s about three people who are in different stages of having their sex changed,” explained Strong.
And so, as his photographs continue to meet the highly stylized visual demands of the musicians he works with, which piece of work can Chris Strong look back and say that he’s most proud of?
“One time I made a table out of cardboard,” he answered. “I was a sophomore in college and I had a foundation design teacher who was this very small, tough Eastern European woman named Chris Martins. She always gave us impossible deadlines and expected the best from us. For our final project we had to make furniture out of cardboard that was both functional – it had to support 100 pounds or something like that – and resemble some famous artists existing work.”
“It was the hardest thing I’d ever done,” he continued. “I worked on it for weeks and then stayed up for 72 straight hours during the last three days before the due date. Ever since that project everything else has seemed like a piece of cake. I learned a lot about myself and what I was capable of doing by making that table. The best part is that I forgot it in the hallway of the school over Christmas break and I think the janitor took it out back and made a bonfire with it. I suppose having a nice table made of cardboard wasn’t the point of the whole thing anyway.”
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