Photographer Steve Birnbaum has recreated music history by photographing images of musicians and bands in the exact location where they were originally photographed. The project started in 2010, and since then it has covered 500 to 600 filming locations for 100 to 150 days a year.
Birnbaum begins with an existing photo of musicians. Then he finds the exact spot where it was taken, positions the photo in his hand so that the image site and the background line up to form a seamless composition, then captures another photo.
“I started the project in 2010, working from family photos with the same concept of matching them with the places they were taken,” Birnbaum said. PetaPixel. “I was inspired by a photographer who mixed war photography with the real places of today [that he found in a British tabloid].”
Birnbaum tries to avoid going online and seeing where the place is because it would take the fun out of it. He likes to challenge himself by going through interviews, researching photographers, chronology of musicians in certain periods and other methods. But, sometimes it will also comb through Google Maps going from street to street, looking for the location and trying to match it.
Sometimes there is a series of photographs of the same musician in the same location, but usually each location is unique to the photograph.
“I personally find inspiration in being in the same place they once were,” Birnbaum says.
Birnbaum’s favorite photos are those of the artists who inspired him the most: Kurt Cobain and Nirvana.
Creation of the composite image entirely in the camera
“Most of the time I print the photo myself [at Staples] from online sources,” says Birnbaum. “I always print them out before going on site. Occasionally I’ll use an actual album cover, like Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, instead of printing a photo.
“They vary in size, ranging from 5×7 to 8×10, and I always look for the best image quality before printing them. If the only image available is low resolution or has a watermark that interferes with photography, I will not use it.
Birnbaum prints the photo on thick cardstock that isn’t too thick. He likes having the ability to bend and position the photo a bit if needed to better fit the location. This is especially important if the site has changed a lot and contains new landmarks and objects that it may need to navigate around.
“There are a lot of things playing into it. [whether he holds the photo from the sides or the bottom center]says Birnbaum, explaining his positioning technique. “Mainly trying to get the best grip to keep the shot steady while aligning the camera and trying not to get hit by a car.
“I think my photos are most effective when you see me holding the original images in the places they were taken and then looking at the empty frame of what the current location looks like.
“I started doing it more recently and it really has an effect on people. Especially photos of people who are no longer with us. There’s something wonderfully odd about it. The exact emotion that I hope shines through when looking at my photos.
Although the final image is a picture-in-picture composite, everything should be created in-camera, not in post. There is no digital moving of the photo later to align it better.
Birnbaum can make small adjustments to photos in Instagram, but that’s it – Photoshop or any other editing program is a big no for him.
Most filming is done on Sundays because there are few parked cars Birnbaum has to contend with in the composition.
Although the original photo is taken at night, Birnbaum prefers to take it during the day.
“It provides better clarity of the original photograph,” says Birnbaum. “And there’s a nice juxtaposition for the viewer to see what the location looks like now versus what it looked like when the photo was originally taken, and daytime is the best way to do that, I find.”
Birnbaum also prefers B&W to color.
“B&W photos work well for what I do,” he explains. “It gives a more historical touch to these images, which were often shot decades ago. Out of personal preference, I like black and white photos anyway.
Connecting with photographers and musicians
Birnbaum tags the original photographer when he posts the image to his @thebandwashere account. This resulted in many memorable relationships with photographers. However, he never contacts them beforehand to ask where the photos were taken.
“Justin [Bieber] said he really liked what I was doing and that he was continuing and looking forward to seeing more posts,” Birnbaum proudly mentions.
Christopher Stein, the co-founder, guitarist of new wave band Blondie and accomplished photographer, was “super nice” about what Birnbaum is doing.
Henry Diltz is a music photographer who shot over 250 album covers and thousands of publicity shots in the 60s and 70s, including the iconic Morrison Hotel cover for The doors.
“It was amazing to have a connection with him. [Diltz] through social media and the images of him that I used,” says Birnbaum. “He has been so kind to promote the photographs I have taken and what I do and share them on his page.
“It’s good when the photographers I look up to respond positively like Henry.”
Other photographers Birnbaum has linked up with are Chris Floyd, Justin Borucki, Sam Erickson, Guido Harari, Tom Sheehan, Dan Winters and Danny Clinch.
Birnbaum never received a complaint from any of the photographers he featured in his project, and many encouraged him to continue.
Professional camera vs smartphone
“I started using a Canon 5D Mark IV but found it too bulky to hold the photo in my hand and the [large and heavy] camera in the other”, explains the musical photographer. “So I upgraded to an iPhone 11 with a Manfrotto 18mm lens attachment and used it going forward.
“Using the iPhone also helps me offload the photo faster and makes it more ‘instant’ and accessible to the social platform. Yes, I upload directly from my iPhone to Instagram, but I don’t always post the photo I took right away when I’m still there.
“When I go out to take photos, I tend to take a batch of photos over the course of a day. [never a quick grab shot], and I post a few times a week… I don’t want to bombard people with too many posts every week. Also, if I know a birthday, birth, death, album release, or photography-related historical event is coming up, I’ll hold the post until then.
A lot of people have been asking about a potential book, and it’s something Birnbaum would like to do in the future, but he’s unsure if or when that will happen and what the process would be at this point.
Birnbaum is a professional filmmaker (documentaries, commercials and music videos) operating in Glenfield, NY, northeast of Syracuse and also in Philadelphia. He has also done photography, including Harley Davidson’s social and print campaign for their e-bike and Hellmann’s Real Mayonnaise.
“Part of my passion for this project is to share a wide range of music with people, some of which they may not be familiar with until they see my post,” says Birnbaum. “I also hope to share my wide range of musical tastes.
“The other important thing for me is to shine a light on these incredible photographers who have inspired me in my career. Hopefully this will open up their work to a new audience and help cement their incredible photographs as important to music and the cultural history.
“The response has been really positive. It’s a way to stay creative while working on bigger projects in my career that take up more time, and I have a list of places I’d like to travel outside of New York and LA [Washington DC recently, with hope for Japan and England in the future] where most of my photos were taken. So, I plan to continue as long as this all lines up.
About the Author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera courses in New York at the International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was director and teacher of Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days workshops. You can reach him here.
Picture credits: All photos by Steve Birnbaum