I’m in Cologne, Germany, on Sept. 16, and Photokina, the world’s largest photography expo, is in full swing. It takes up the whole Koelnmesse: We’re talking 284,000 square meters of photo trade show, enough room for 40 football fields.
It’s after hours on a Tuesday night, but at the Leica reception, some of the world’s top photographers are mingling with industry reps. A smiling, e-cigarette-smoking D.C. photographer, Chris Suspect, takes another Kölsch from a server and practices toasting the German way, looking others in the eye in front of a collection of famous rock ‘n’ roll photos that hang on the walls. Jim Marshall’s shot of Johnny Cash and his middle finger? Check. Beatles shots by Mary McCartney? Yes. Miles Davis portraits by Glen Craig? Also yes.
But the reason Suspect is smiling is because 18 of his photos are hanging there, too: Claustrophobic, bleary-eyed black-and-whites of the music scene he’s been a part of for the past 30 years, shots of D.C. punk singers like Serge Goon and Dave Homeowner playing little clubs like the Sidebar in Baltimore.
“This is like winning the Superbowl,” Suspect says. Here he is rubbing shoulders with the likes of Thomas Hoepker, taker of the famous 9/11 shot of good-timing bicyclists chatting with the burning Twin Towers in the background, and the one of Muhammad Ali’s fist. On the other hand, Suspect’s still relatively unknown in the States. Perhaps that’s about to change.
This reporter met Suspect back in 2000 in his Spitfires United days. He was on the other side of the camera then, and was already widely respected for his earlier punk band, the Suspects. “I think my association with playing in bands and being part of the community has given me an edge and perspective other photographers don’t have, but it’s not just that.” he says. “I am also an avid student of photography and am always reading and researching photobooks from all sorts of photographic genres.”
Suspect’s foray into photography didn’t begin until much later, when he and his wife Aimee got a nice camera to take pictures of their son, Strummer.
“I didn’t know photography was like heroin,” he says with a laugh. “It opened up a whole world for me, and I have become addicted. Seriously though—-at that time I was between bands and couldn’t tour because of parental responsibilities, and photography gave me a creative outlet that took the place of playing in bands. In fact, I think it’s even more fun to do and easier because you only have yourself as the limiting factor on your drive and success. In a band, you have to deal with personalities and the life conflicts of other members. In photography, I only have myself to blame if I don’t take advantage of an opportunity.” Suspect recently photographed a Washington City Paper cover story on hip-hop trio Diamond District.
Suspect started out by shooting concerts and street scenes, posting them on his website and the Strata Collective blog. Then came his book on the D.C. punk scene, Suspect Device, which attempted to capture the “fun and danger” Suspect felt 30 years ago when he first saw Naked Raygun, T.S.O.L., Government Issue, and the Cereal Killers at WUST Hall, now the location of the 9:30 Club. Empty Stretch, a D.C. photobook company, put out 100 copies with a foreword by Alec MacKaye and they sold out in three days (a second run is in the works).
Suspect submitted images from Suspect Device to Leica in hopes of making it into the company’s magazine, Leica Fotografie International, and his work caught the attention of Inas Fayed, the publication’s editor in chief and one of the curators of the Photokina exhibition.
“From the beginning, I knew that his imagery is special, his approach different. He is directly there where things are happening,” Fayed says. “His usage of a flash light and the immediate perspective even give some images an unreal appearance, although you can see everything. Nothing is hidden there. It is, in a way, documentary but with a personal style that transcends the limits of simple documentation and lifts the images into a personal interpretation.”
While most manufacturers at Photokina used their spaces to push their latest products, Leica pushed its photographers. “Most of the famous photographers in the history of photography used a Leica at one point for their work,” Suspect says. No other exhibitor took this approach.
Leica’s reception was all about the photographers, too. A seated presentation named every one of the showcased 22 photographers, and all but two of them were present to receive the honor. Suspect was called up to the stage and quoted by Karin Rehn-Kaufmann, general manager for Leica Galleries International: “I don’t set anything up. It’s all a question of how attentive and open you are to the possibilities in front of you.”
With such a warm welcome in Germany, it’s likely that Suspect’s second book will be well-received in Europe. He is currently shopping his new project—a documentation of “down-low” culture in America and the role faith plays in the gay black community—-to prospective publishers.
Still, photography is not Suspect’s main gig. “For me, photography is not about earning money or making a living,” he says. “It’s primarily a creative outlet and I want to keep it fun.”
Top photo by Carrie Donovan, bottom two photos by Chris Suspect