As a percussionist, I've been obsessed with Tom Tom, the only magazine in the world dedicated to female drummers, since it started rocking my world back in 2010. It's got some killer content, ranging from interviews with inspiring musicians to recipes from the road. But one constant that makes every issue super extra special is the beautiful portraiture supplied by Tom Tom's head photographer, Bex Wade. In the following interview, Tom Tom's founder Mindy Abovitz talks with Wade about their mutual obsession with women who drum, and about the eye it takes to make their images come alive.
Bex Wade showed up at the Tom Tom offices almost three years ago with the typical spunk of a Brit who'd just arrived to the U.S. Sarcastic and hilarious. We were about to cover the drummer Anna Prior from the U.K. band Metronomy. And when I set up the shoot with her label, Bex seemed to be the shoe-in photographer for the job. The photos of Anna that Bex shot were gorgeous and articulated Anna’s personality. Since that shoot, Bex has slowly become our head photographer here at the only magazine for female drummers in the world. She shoots many of the drummers we cover from N.Y.C. and most of our U.K. ones. She has shot Beyonce’s drummer Nikki Glaspie, Japan’s beloved pop-punk band Shonen Knife, N.Y.C.’s only all female samba reggae band Batala and dozens of others. We were sitting around the office the other day and realized, Bex may very well be “the” female drummer photographer. As in, she has intentionally shot more female drummers than anyone else in the world. Woah. It was then I decided to ask this Brit, who has now become a dear friend, why she decided to take this obsession on with me.
Mindy Abovitz: Bex, your background is originally in documentary and nightlife photography, what got you into shooting female drummers?
Bex Wade: Around the time I met you back in 2010, I was shooting a lot of parties and live shows, always documenting performance as such, but wanting to expand my portraiture. To be honest, I knew very little about drummers, let alone females ones, but your incessant passion is pretty infectious so I got on board and decided to learn as I went along. Part of me likes how uninformed I was about this world as there's a lot to be said for raw intrigue.
Love that answer. Cute. So you've never drummed yourself?
No, never. I think I did always want to be a drummer growing up but my mother was hell-bent on having a daughter in the school orchestra so I was sent towards the brass section. To play the cornet. Perhaps this is my way of dealing with lost teenage opportunity.
I counted and you have just completed your 20th shoot for Tom Tom in the last 2 ½ years. What drives you to keep shooting these drummers and to keep shooting the same subject relentlessly? Is it becoming a bit of an obsession?
That's crazy. I had no idea it was that many. I'm not sure if it's got to obsession levels yet but I do find myself ending up talking about female drummers to a slightly excessive degree. I've never intended to confine myself to one particular subject, but there is something magical about shooting the same task over and over. Like anything there's the possibility of something becoming repetitive but it really just serves as a valuable common ground. Together with the drummers' contrasting genres of music, it's this commonality which challenges me to find an individuality and always something original.
Yes, I love that there is always something original in your work. One thing that strikes me most about your portraits is the unique interaction between the subject and the background elements, you use a lot of long repetitive shapes for example.
I think that the originality comes from the different locations that I choose. I want to bring out the differing characters of each drummer I shoot and frame that within each setting. Sometimes I don't know what the tone of the portrait is going to be until we find that setting. I tend to favour backdrops of texture and yes these lines you talk about. I'm not sure if that's a conscious effort or not. Maybe it's my way of subconsciously channeling the line of the drum sticks. I'm obviously joking.
I love that answer. I will pretend you are channeling drum sticks as well. How do you end up choosing these locations and how come you don't really shoot in a studio?
There's not too much of a method but I always prefer to photograph outdoors. I have a visual list in my head of places and certain locations which obviously suit different tones and aesthetics. I like the idea of the subject responding to an environment and that can't really happen in a studio.
Usually it's just me and whoever I'm shooting, literally going for a wander, often with a favourite snare under one arm and an outfit change the other. When I shot beat maker Rucyl Mills we just jumped in her car with no plan and spent the afternoon driving all over Brooklyn, discovering unchartered territory and ending the day lost in Greenwood Cemetery as the light faded. There's an honesty created in a shared experience and the way I work, something I hope I never have to sacrifice.
So why just female drummers and do you think you have an advantage that you're shooting someone of the same gender?
I'm just not as interested by male drummers. I mean, there's nothing wrong with them, I just feel they already have enough representation and prestige within both music and drumming worlds. For me it's much more intriguing to focus on a minority.
As for the girl on girl thing, I never really like to adhere to stereotypes but I think it would be naïve not to acknowledge that advantage. I think it's interesting to remove the male gaze and an often perceived sexualization bestowed upon these women. We're also both coming from a comparative position of male dominated worlds. Although female photographers have obviously made it to a fairly prolific standing, unfortunately the same I don't think can be said for female drummers, yet.
What influence do you hope your portraits have in the music world?
Visibility. I hope that this growing body of work can expose an ensemble of talented and inspirational role models to the masses. Too often, I encounter surprise that there are even enough female drummers to photograph, so I intend to play at least a small part in changing that.
At the rate you're going, you could one day be remembered as the quintessential photographer of female drummers. If you were forever remembered as this, like epitaph style, would you be fulfilled?
Of course! It's a humbling thought and I feel like I'm only just getting started on this, but sure, that sounds pretty damn wonderful.
I want to do a show and a photo book of all the drummers I've shot so far with you.
And finally, what would be your dream shoot?
I'd like to re-shoot every drummer, but simultaneously. I think they'd all get on well. There seems to be a kindred spirit thing going on with every female drummer I've met. Sans ego and collectively thrilled by each others' success. Maybe I'll make the shot just one big drumming circle of love. Yes, I'd like that.
Emily Rems is a feminist writer, editor, rock star, playwright, and occasional plus-size model living in New York’s East Village. Best known as managing editor of BUST magazine, Emily is also a music and film commentator for New York’s NPR affiliate WNYC, and is the drummer for the horror-punk band the Grasshoppers. Her nonfiction writing has appeared in the anthologies Cassette from my Ex and Zinester’s Guide to NYC, and her short stories have been published in Rum Punch Press, Lumen, Prose ‘N Cons Mystery Magazine, Writing Raw, and PoemMemoirStory. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for fiction in 2015 and is working on a novel. Follow her on Twitter @emilyrems.