Jeremy Saffer – Beauty in Darkness

Thursday, 29th October 2020

If you’ve been following metal for any period of time, you’ve undoubtedly came across Jeremy Saffer’s work within the scene. At this point, one of the more esteemed photographers within the scene, he’s captured many iconic photos from a plethora of international acts. We are almost to the unveiling of a pet project of his, a book called Daughters of Darkness, in captures hundreds of nude models in corpse paint in a tribute to his favorite genre – black metal. For over a decade, he has captured photos to showcase the essence of the genre, and merging beauty in darkness. We caught up with Saffer to discuss the ins and outs of the book, including his curated black metal compilation that accompanies it, as well as some talk about his approach to photography and the way it has been impacted by the current pandemic.

Dead Rhetoric: Where did the idea stem from to create Daughters of Darkness?

Jeremy Saffer: It kind of goes back to when I was a kid. Around 11 to 13, when I was first getting into black metal I found Cradle of Filth and Immortal. That was basically it. I would go to my local music store and flip through records – as soon as I saw something that looked cool based on the album art, I would just buy it. That’s how I found bands like Gehenna, Limbonic Art – I found so many bands like that. It was usually someone in corpse paint, a nude model, a forest/nature/occult setting, and a variety of things like that. That’s how I really got to know so many black metal bands. As I shoot, it’s mostly bands and fine art nude models. Those worlds don’t really co-op.

So I was doing a shoot for a clothing line called NLSL Clothing. The Black Dahlia Murder’s tour manager Karim [Peter] was doing a black metal clothing line. So he had me do a shoot that was mocking the pulp This is Hardcore album cover, which is a nude blonde model face down. So we shot a model in corpse paint and said, ‘This is Black Metal.’ The model was also a fan of black metal, so aside from just shooting that one t-shirt design, we ended up doing a big shoot because we were both really into it. From there, I thought it was awesome. It reminded me of Cradle of Filth merch or Marduk stuff. So I did a couple of shoots like that thinking I would do a series, and then it snowballed exponentially from there – from a small series to 400 models in 12 years. Also, on one side, it kind of brings back that flipping through albums and getting that ‘Oh, this is going to be cool because of the art on the cover’ feeling as well as mixing band photography and model photography into a single project.

Dead Rhetoric: So this is a culmination of over a decade’s worth of work then.

Saffer: Yeah, it was a lot of shooting across the US with models from all over the world. That was awesome. It’s finally happening.

Dead Rhetoric: So you mentioned looking at the album art for black metal. What does black metal mean to you and how does it inspire you?

Saffer: Black metal has always been my favorite music genre. As soon as I got into Cradle of Filth, Immortal, Darkthrone, Satyricon – all of those bands, that was it for me. It was my favorite. I really like the duality of it, where it can be so raw and grim. You have bands like Mayhem, Darkthrone, Carpathian Forest and these raw bands, but you get lost in the atmosphere of the riffs that drone on for a while and you can close your eyes and kind of visualize what they are doing. You also have the symphonic black metal too. You have the raw and grim, but you have the beautiful and I love that beauty and beast duality. There’s bands like Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Limbonic Art, Diabolical Masquerade, and Old Man’s Child. They are way more symphonic and beautiful, but they give you that symphony feeling. Oh my god, that Satyricon live at the opera that they did with the Norwegian Opera, that’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen in my life. It was amazing!

It kind of shows black metal is beautiful, as well as heavy, raw, grim, whatever you want to call it. It can definitely be both things. That’s sort of what the point of the book is. Its showing that these models who are beautiful and soft are also strong, grim, and metal.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel is special about the book – from creating it or even the way it’s being presented?

Saffer: I think the models involved are what makes this project. Every model did their own corpse paint. So it’s their project as much as it is mine. I think all in all the photos themselves as a collection – seeing 12 years of work together, just going page by page and seeing, myself anyway, and knowing that this one was taken with this type of lighting and these lens, or shots taken at a location that no longer exists, they are all little points in time for me. I know for the models as well, some of them shot for this book ten or more years ago, and they are finally seeing it come to fruition. It’s kind of a victory for all of these people involved. It’s awesome seeing how happy they are that it’s finally coming out.

Dead Rhetoric: You also helped to curate the musical portion alongside Season of Mist. What was fun for you about doing that side too?

Saffer: Oh my god, is it not the ultimate dream to put together your own compilation? Who doesn’t put together playlists? So when I was a kid, aside from flipping through albums, I would get every single music compilation I could get. Firestarter, Death Meister, Metal Meisters, The Metal Massacres, that’s how I learned about so many bands that I didn’t know about. Comps are awesome! So getting to put together my own black metal comp was like a dream come true! What I assumed would happen when I reached out to Season of Mist, and I work with a lot of Season of Mist bands so I have a really good relationship with them, was that they would just give me their current 12-ish black metal releases and give me the single for each one. That would have been fine, but they were nice enough to go, “Here’s the keys to the archives, pick what bands you want and pick what songs you want.”

So I could pick my favorite bands on the label, which are some of my favorite black metal bands, and pick my favorite songs they have done. Like for Mayhem, everyone would probably be expecting something from De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas but I like “Grand Declaration of War” because I really love Maniac’s vocals. Getting to have Abbath involved – Immortal is my favorite black metal band. Having Dani [Filth] involved with the book as well, he isn’t on the soundtrack but he wrote the forward, it’s awesome having these amazing musicians involved with the book and soundtrack. So getting to put that comp was a dream come true. I’m also a huge vinyl nerd and collector, so having it on double 45 rpm vinyl is such a nerdy, awesome thing. It’s like, how would you do the book if you could do it any way you want it? Exactly how it exists. If you could put a black metal compilation how would you do it? That’s exactly how it’s coming out. It’s a dream come true and then some.

Dead Rhetoric: Does the term beauty in darkness resonate with your concept of the book and music?

Saffer: I think that defines it. The comp on its own has every different subgenre of black metal on it. You have the more raw bands like 1349 and Mayhem, you have symphonic bands like Carach Angren, you have some newer thrashy bands. There’s a really good mix of everything. With the book, it really just defines it. Beauty in darkness. All of the shots are of beautiful models in corpse paint. Some are doing more black metal poses and some are doing more emotionless poses, but the whole book really embodies that idea.

Dead Rhetoric: More generally, how do you feel that you have been able to stand out and make a mark within photography?

Saffer: There’s so many photographers out there. I don’t know if I’m making my own mark or anything, I’m just doing what I do. I think it’s up to the viewer more so than myself to say what I am and what I do, or where my mark is. I’m just doing what I love to do. I love working with bands, so I get to shoot bands all the time, and it’s great. Putting out this book is just mixing my fine art photography and band photography, and I know there has been nude models in corpse paint, I know that it has happened. But I don’t think that it has happened at this capacity before.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you feel are some things that you take into consideration when it comes to shooting a band, either for promo/photoshoot pictures or in the live setting?

Saffer: Every situation is kind of its own animal. Knowing what you are going into is very important. Whenever I am shooting a band, I always do research on what they look like, what they sound like, what their photos look like, and what they are into/not into. So that I don’t take them too far out of their element when doing a photoshoot. I try to learn names too, so that I can address them when shooting like, “Hey Jeff, turn this way,” instead of pointing and saying, “Hey you, do this or that.” Usually the bands I’m working with are bands that I have worked with before, since I have been doing this for so long. So getting that working relationship with so many bands that know what to expect, and I know what to expect.

When shooting live, I don’t do it as much as I used to. I mostly am doing portraits nowadays. But when I do it, I tend to look up any live footage I can find from that tour, to get an idea of what the first few songs look like in terms of lighting or if they have anything going on in the show, so I can capture it the best that I can.

Dead Rhetoric: So research and prep is key then.

Saffer: Absolutely, you never want to go in blind to a shoot. That’s when things go wrong. You get things that the band doesn’t like, or you don’t like, and not to sound self-important but when you are doing your job you want to be happy with it. When you are creating images of a band, you want to be proud of those images as well. Not just the band, but you want to be stoked on what you have shot. It’s really important to do that research and know what you want to get. When I shoot with a band, it’s usually at a venue, and it’s usually one that I have been to before.

So I will visualize the shoot. Like, “This is the band I’m shooting, this is the area I’m going to be in, this is what I am using for lighting. I’m going to do three sets, I’ll do lighting from above, lighting from up and back. A few solos, bring the ring light back, then use a 24 by 70”…I have it all mapped out before I walk through the door. So when I meet with the band before the shoot, I can give them that rundown. That’s also very, very important. If the band doesn’t know what is going on, as you are messing with the light or something, they might get kind of annoyed. So going in prepped and meeting with them to tell them what’s going with lots of details, so that they know the layout, and you having that layout in your head and knowing what you want, means that there won’t be any lag time. When you shoot a band, sometimes you have five minutes, sometimes you have one minute. Going in knowing everything you can is vital.

Dead Rhetoric: How do you earn the trust of someone that you are shooting, particularly for the first time?

Saffer: I would say that it’s really important to make the first set you shoot with them, if you have the time, the one that you are going to keep. When I am shooting a band like say Slipknot, and I have five minutes to shoot them while they are walking to stage, that first shot has to be perfect. So I will spend all of my time posing, and getting everything ready for that first shot. But if I know I have a full day with a band or model, I will start with very gentle full lighting, on a white background. Do that for the first set as kind of an icebreaker and show them the back of the camera as I am shooting to give them an idea of how they are posing, how I am posing them, what the lighting is like, and what they are doing. They can also then give that feedback of things they like or don’t like.

It gives you an idea of their preferences and you can hone in on making a more successful photoshoot. Especially with models, if you are shooting tons of different sets, it’s really important that they have the feedback and knowing what they look like, knowing what looks good/doesn’t look good, and you knowing their likes/dislikes – you never want to use an image that the band doesn’t like. It will bum them out. You can say, “Hey, it’s my photo and I’ll do what I want,” but I’m not that kind of photographer. If they don’t like it, they aren’t going to promote it at all. So I want them to like it as much as I do. So I really like having that feedback from the bands and models, and I’m very vocal with directing. That’s feedback I constantly get from bands and models. That photographers just hold up the camera and say go. I don’t. I give directions like, “Chin down. Turn your face a little bit. Step to your left.” I’m that kind of director when it comes to a photoshoot. It’s important for them to know that you know what you are doing. That you are a professional, you are on point, and you know your stuff.

Dead Rhetoric: What do you wish you knew about photography when you first started?

Saffer: Oh my god, everything I know now [laughs]! There’s not a singular thing – there’s a lot of regrets and mistakes, a lot of things that went right and things that went wrong. There’s no one thing I wish I knew when I started…you know what, maybe the thing I wish I knew when I started was that I was actually going to be a photographer. When I first started, I had no plans on being a photographer. For the first few years of being a photographer, I had no plans to be one. I was a musician and I was going to Berklee School of Music. That was my future. Being a production guy.

So if I knew I was going to be a photographer back in high school, maybe I would have had the opportunity to shoot so many bands that don’t exist now. So many bands earlier that I didn’t get to because I wasn’t really taking it seriously. Maybe that would be the one thing. My biggest regret is that I toured on Ozzfest for two years but I never asked to shoot Ozzy. I stayed in line and always did what I was supposed to do and did my job and shot who I was supposed to. No one shoots Ozzy, and no one shoots these higher bands, so I didn’t even ask. I was shooting Lacuna Coil, Hatebreed, All that Remains, Bleeding Through, and all of those bands. I feel like I definitely should have asked [laughs]. So that’s one of my biggest regrets, though I did get to shoot Black Sabbath, and that was fun.

Dead Rhetoric: How has COVID-19 affected photography, from your perspective?

Saffer: It has completely shut it down. If you are a music photographer, what do you have to shoot right now? Absolutely nothing. With no tours, you don’t have concerts, and you don’t have bands other than what is local to you. The bands that are local to you aren’t really doing anything because we are in a pandemic. They don’t really need new promotional images, they are just getting by like everyone else. Unfortunately, a lot of the local bands for me that I work with, like In This Moment, Hatebreed, All that Remains – everyone who is around here, they don’t have the whole band here. Killswitch [Engage] doesn’t all live a town away anymore. Some of them live in San Diego and Florida. Same with All that Remains, some of them are in California. With In the Moment, half of them are in California. So I can’t really do band shoots.

I am kind of digging into the archives and bringing out old photo shoots and posting those when I can. I was really lucky that this book came into fruition when this pandemic hit. I was in LA all of February doing photoshoots. That was when Coronavirus was starting to be thing. Nothing was shutdown. I was in Disney nonstop before March. Then around March 4th I flew home for a day, then flew down to Nashville to shoot with Dave from Megadeth for the cover of Metal Hammer. Flew back home, and did a shoot with a high school music teacher, and then the next day the pandemic hit and the lockdown started. Luckily I didn’t get sick, and no one around me got sick. But ever since the lockdown, I am immunocompromised and my partner is immunocompromised, we haven’t done much.

Dead Rhetoric: Other plans for the fall and 2021, outside of the book release?

Saffer: There’s a lot going on around the book. We are trying to do a virtual gallery show and virtual book signing if we can. But aside from that, I recently started working with Leica so we are going to be doing more corpse paint and gallery shows. I’m messing around with all sorts of new equipment, from aperture to lensbaby and doing all sorts of test shoots. Luckily my partner is a model so I can shoot her all the time and test out the gear. But aside from that, work on whatever my next book will be early next year, while I’m still promoting this book.

Dead Rhetoric: Any idea on what that might be, or is it too early on?

Saffer: I have a pretty solid idea. Being that I shoot a lot of bands, my next book would likely be a music photography book. Not just pages of photos but telling the story behind the shoot. That’s something that doesn’t really exist. You see the photo and that’s it. Seeing the story behind the shoots would be interesting. Some shoots go well, some don’t. Some have some issues and some are just funny. Being able to tell those stories would be really cool, and if this book does well there will definitely be a follow up to Daughters of Darkness.

Dead Rhetoric: That book sounds like a great idea. I’m sure I wouldn’t be alone in being interested in something like that.

Saffer: That book would be the easy sell, which is why I held off on it for so long. My whole thing with Daughters of Darkness is that I started shopping it over 5 years ago and I got nothing but no. It was too niche, or a company did fine art nude but the concept was too weird, or no we do metal stuff but we can’t do nude, or no we can’t do this because of the Me Too movement. Then as soon as I met the publisher for the book through Nekrogoblikon, since I did the photos for their book, I reached out. I mentioned this book project and asked if they were interested and they immediately said yes. It wasn’t a “let us think about it” or “let’s check it out,” it was “let’s do it!” When I first met with the publisher he was wearing a Satyricon hoodie, and we talked black metal for an hour before we started about the book. I knew I had found the right home for sure. But I also held off on the band book for so long because I knew it would be an easy yes.

If given the option of doing a band book or corpse paint book, everyone would choose the band book. So I wanted the corpse paint book to come out before I did that band book. Now that it’s happening, I can shift focus to writing the stories in those shoots, the struggles that I went through, and some of my story. So it’ll be sort of autobiographical, but also having the stories of the shoots. Some were rough and some were fun, so it’ll be interesting to go through it all. Kind of like the corpse paint book. It’ll be interesting to write and remember those stories. One of the cool things with the corpse paint book is that I got to reconnect with all of these models. There wasn’t one that I couldn’t reach. Some I hadn’t seen in ten years, so getting that memory of working with them and the memory of the photo shoot was like taking a trip down memory lane. Every one of them, when I reconnected, was asking when I would do volume 2 because they wanted to be involved.

Dead Rhetoric: It’s awesome to hear how dedicated you were to this book, when you could have just pitched the easy sell and did it. Instead you stuck to your guns and said, “This is what I want to make.”

Saffer: Thank you, absolutely. The band book is an easy sell because that audience is everyone. How easy is it to put Alice Cooper, Slipknot, A Day to Remember, Dimmu Borgir, Slayer, KoRn, and Motionless in White into a book and sell it? How easy is it to sell nude models in corpse paint to a very specific audience? Not as easy. So I knew I wanted to do it first. If I did the band book, the corpse paint book might not have ever happened.

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