Lens On: Robin Laananen

The photographer takes us on the road with Warpaint.

If you’ve ever been to a Warpaint gig, chances are you would have spied Robin Laananen on the sidelines. As the band’s “tour manager/photographer/dear friend/long suffering sister”, Laananen has been working with the band since 2010. “I’ve been traveling with these women for nearly seven years, they’re family, they know me better than most.” Laananen says, “We travel the world together, immersed in our bubble; experiencing a life that can feel unreal most days, one that resembles an odd fantasy groundhog’s day. To either wake up in a giant hotel bed or within the confinements of my bunk, I look forward to seeing their faces every morning (or afternoon).”

Surrounded by musicians for the majority of her life, Laananen’s interest in documenting the creative process of some of her favourite bands – combined with a curiosity about what really happens on tour – led her to join them on the bus. Capturing the inner workings of incredible artists, including The Blood Brothers and Dum Dum Girls, she describes how her favourite thing is to catch candid moments: “When a person lets their guard down and truly forgets my camera is around, that’s the most sincere compliment,” Laananen explains.

Now releasing a photography book documenting her seven years with Warpaint, US/THEN is a unique look at the band’s career path in 180 pages. “Suffice to say, this book highlights the meatiest cut of our career as a band, between 2010-2017,” drummer Stella Mozgawa says. “From our very first tour with Robin to last week’s Coachella, there’s not a great deal missing from our history. It’s not hyperbolic to say that Robin knows the four of us better than most members of our family, because she is our family. The intimacy allows her to capture the flickers outside of self-awareness that no one else could.”

So when did you first become interested in photography?

My interest in photography began as a teenager, when I started shooting punk shows in basements. I shot only black and white film and was immediately drawn to capturing the intensity of the live performance within the four walls – the energy, the heat, the sweat, the flying limbs… it was exciting, and it’s when I felt like part of it all.

Who or what are your main influences?

As for what inspires me the most, it’s music, travel, remaining aware of surrounding atmospheres and the people passing through; at airports, on streets, in hotels. For visuals, ways of life, for a slew of reasons; David Bowie, Wim Wenders, David Byrne, David Lynch, Stephen Shore, Doug Aitken, Joel Sternfeld, Mick Rock, Daniel Kramer, Annie Liebovitz, Wong Kar-Wai, white noise and countless musicians who’s music evokes a feeling and can transport.

And how would you describe your style?

Documentary, as a silent witness. Whether I’m photographing people or landscape, I prefer to not be a part of what’s happening in front of the lens, to not affect what’s happening naturally. When exploring cities, if a street or a building catches my eye, I’ll wait until there is no one around. I’m a fan of desolate landscapes, a timelessness, providing a complete feeling of solitude that’s rare while on tour, which I try to find in people too.

What drew your lens to musicians?

My family moved around a lot when I was growing up, and music continued to be a very important part of life, the one constant. Despite not being able to play an instrument since the brief years of clarinet as a kid, I believe the connection felt with music is what drew me to shooting the musicians behind it.

You’ve said that your work with musicians made you want to jump in a van and see what life on the road was like. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

While shooting editorial, there are time constraints and entourages involved, there is rarely time to make a connection, to be able to capture moments that are not posed. A number of these shoots progressed into the studio to document recording sessions, which I really enjoyed witnessing the creative process. There is definitely much to be said about a powerful portrait, but I grew curious about the times that weren’t scheduled, when there wasn’t typically a camera present. Combine that with constantly hearing stories about tour from musician friends, my curiosity grew. I remember one of my first “jump in a van” scenarios was involving a straight drive from Seattle to Minneapolis with The Blood Brothers… that’s a drive more than 24 hours straight which provided a quick understanding of the road.

US/THEN documents your seven years with Warpaint. How did you first meet?

When I moved from Seattle to Los Angeles in 2006, I lived in a house called ‘death camp’ for the first few months. It was full of artists from North Carolina, and due to mutual friends, Jenny [Lindberg, bassist] lived there for a couple of those months.

Your photos show the candid side of the Warpaint world. What made you want to explore this?

I had become familiar with the lives of musicians through the years, being around them and working with them all the time, and when I met the ladies of Warpaint, there was a natural connection. They’re incredibly talented and unique from each other yet so connected with each other while playing. I was curious about their creative process, and how they worked on the road.

You began snapping these pics in 2010, was a book always the end goal?

I wouldn’t say it was the end goal in 2010, but once I began to realise how their strenuous touring schedule would allow one to experience many different aspects of tour, in so many cities, that I was able to photograph, that’s when I began to see a potential for a book.

Do you think your closeness to the band has had an impact on your work?

Definitely. There’s a trust that can only come from being close. There are moments that are beautiful but not necessarily glamorous or happy, and I’ll still take a photograph since it’s part of the whole picture. That shared moment takes a closeness. But at that at the end of the day, each other’s happiness is the most important. We’re on this ride together.

What do you hope that people take away from these pictures?

I hope people are able to get a sense of the daily lives of musicians while touring. I included pictures of the cities we traveled through to give a sense of movement, and I wanted live tracks to accompany the pictures, to show that despite all of the rigorous travel, the being away from home, the lack of sleep, all of this is for the music and performing live.

What has been your favourite memory on the road with Warpaint so far?

My favorite moments with Warpaint tend to involve being somewhere in the world, out of our comfort zone and inspired to explore. I rented a mini van in Santiago, and we drove to the Andes, miles above the city. We hiked one of the mountains, stood on the top and soaked in the view while a giant condor circled overhead. That bird looked way too big to catch air. The first photograph in the book is of Theresa and Emily watching the condor fly overhead, most likely trying to decide who was small enough to carry away. Those experiences of being immersed in our surroundings, feeling genuinely free, are ones that won’t be forgotten.

Who would be your dream artist to follow on tour?

This question initially makes me think of bands and artists who, unfortunately, are no longer around — Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Joy Division, The Stooges, The Who (this list could go on forever)… But the legends being Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Radiohead, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits… and the newer ones like Kendrick Lamar and Vince Staples! I admire who they use for their visuals, their videos, they’re onto something. Next level. That’s a tough question, I would enjoy and be open to new experiences with artists who are passionate, who challenge themselves and don’t know what else they’d do with their lives aside from music.

What are your plans next?

I’d love to shoot more documentary, both photographs and video, whether it be involved in music or otherwise. The stories behind people and what makes them who they are is very intriguing to me.

Elly Watson
Lens On: Robin Laananen

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