His photographs have graced the covers of Outburn, Inferno, and Xpressions. And his Corpse Paint project blends gorgeous nudes, featuring each model’s own designs. Jeremy Saffer’s website is filled with intense imagery, from the rock majesty of Alice Cooper to the haunting DVD cover for “Plague Town”. Despite frequent travels and mingling with superstars, he remains down-to-earth, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Not one to rest on his laurels, he focuses on his work, meeting new heroes every year, and working to bring his twisted visions to life.
The concepts and characters in Saffer’s photographs are surreal, intriguing and frightening. But Jeremy doesn’t necessarily drive every shoot by himself. He often enjoys working with his subjects to co-create photographic works of art. “The majority of them are collaborative. I will come up with an idea and bounce it off the artist, who will put their spin on it. Other times, an artist will come to me with an idea. The best shoots are always the collaborative ones, because everyone worked to create it, and everyone is happy with the outcome (the whole point of working together).”
Jeremy has photographed some of the most recognizable faces in rock and metal. Yet he’s very relaxed and not one to gloat about his accomplishments. When asked about any moments where he felt he “had arrived” as a photographer, his answer was completely in line with his work ethic. “I’m not there yet, and even if I was, I would never let myself get into that sort of mentality. I have a lot to learn and accomplish in my career. I never want to be content to the point where I stop trying to achieve my goals. That being said, I am very happy with my accomplishments thus far. Some are still so unreal to me, like the first magazine and album covers and getting to shoot people I’ve looked up to since I was young. Every time anything like that happens, I have my moment… then I get back to work.”
Like most creative people, Saffer draws inspiration for his shots from everywhere, including movies, dreams, and life experiences. One of his covers looks like something right out of a black-and-white, Victorian ghost story. It was the cover of the Halloween 2014 issue of X-pressions, featuring Ghost from Motionless in White. “Devin and I have an incredible working relationship and love for each other’s art. Devin takes on a new character every tour (Charles Manson, Beetlejuice, Leatherface), and in 2014, he was doing the Dead Silence look with Billy the Puppet. We were doing a photo shoot with the band that day backstage at Tsongas Arena (Lowell, MA) and decided to do a cool Halloween-themed session for this cover at the same time. With Devin, all I have to do is know how to frame it up and light him properly, and he does the rest. There is no way to get a bad photo of him! He’s a make up artist, model, and wardrobe stylist all in one.” It’s true that the majority of rock stars and actors already have a carefully cultivated visual presence. But it’s the photographer’s job to translate that physical presence to an image on a flat page, and Saffer excels in his efforts.
Typically, the biggest hurdles a photographer would need to clear would be related to continually creating new shots or staying busy enough to make a living from their photographs. He laughs that he’s always catching up on editing. “I’m always behind!” But Jeremy faced a very personal challenge recently, which he has discussed on social media.
While in Los Angeles, Saffer woke up one day with blurry eyesight in his right eye. After a couple days of not being able to see very well, he went to a specialist. Although they didn’t find any damage, he was still having problems, so he took a few days off from shoots and took a month off from editing. When he got home, additional tests were run, but they didn’t turn up anything significant. Saffer was given glasses for editing, and sent on his way. While his right eye has not gotten worse, the damage is permanent, and he now wears glasses for editing tasks. “I kinda hit a depression, which made my work suffer. I’ve never felt anything like that before. One of the theories the LA doctor had was that it could be diabetes. So I told my eye doctor about the diabetes theory, and he quickly dismissed it.” Eventually, Saffer was diagnosed with diabetes, which can rob the eyesight of those who have it. Jeremy knew he had to take immediate action. “I started dieting and working out, and now I walk five miles every day. Within a month, my diabetes was in complete remission, and I’ve lost almost 80 pounds since February. I am so stoked! I’ve never felt defeated and these daily walks really give me clarity. I’m back to working hard, and balancing my health with my work.” Bouts of depression following a health crisis are very common, and it’s encouraging to hear Jeremy say he’s happy for the first time in a very long time.
There’s an element of glamour surrounding band shoots, which makes it easy to overlook the immense amount of time and tasks it takes just to get one great shot published. There’s no such thing as a typical day at work, and there are hours spent in preparation before a single picture is taken, not to mention the hours of editing afterwards. “An editorial feature/magazine (non-cover) shoot is usually set up where the band is playing, before they go onstage. I’ll drive to the venue a couple of hours beforehand to scout locations. Then I plan out lighting, meet up with the tour manager, and usually do a 20-45 minute session with the band. Then they leave, and I stay to shoot the concert or head back to my studio. Some shoots can be as short as 30 seconds with bands like Behemoth, Slipknot, and Gwar, who have stage clothes/make-up on while they’re heading to the stage.”
Shoots for magazine covers can take even longer. “A bigger shoot sometimes happens over one or two days, shooting at the venue, studio, or both. I drive/fly to the location and scout a bit if necessary. Then we shoot for three to five hours a day (indoors, outdoors, etc.). But some cover shoots can get done in five minutes. Last year, I was flown to SDCC to do a cover shoot with Kirk Hammett (Metallica/ex-Exodus) and Gary Holt (Slayer/Exodus). I flew in to LA, drove to SD to set up, and waited around until about ten minutes before the doors opened to a secret show they were playing together. Then I did the shoot in three to five minutes… the doors opened as I was finishing! I stayed during the show, and then I flew home to Massachusetts.” But there was no rest for Saffer after that particular shoot. He had Mayhem Fest the next morning and was busy snapping pictures of Korn, Ice-T, Asking Alexandria and 12 other bands!
Like many of our readers, I’ve also heard about Richard Prince and his unauthorized use of photographs ripped mostly from Instagram. Prince makes tiny modifications to the pictures and then sells them for a small fortune, without crediting the original photographer or getting a release from the model(s). It’s shocking he’s able to get away with this, considering it’s very easy to track the original artists. Jeremy doesn’t mince words on his opinion of all this. “Well, this is certainly a multifaceted (issue) with different answers depending on the situation. Richard Prince is not an artist… only through legal loopholes can he exist in this capacity. And only through people who continue to buy his trash does he keep moving forward in his quest to offend every passionate, hard-working artist who knows of his misdeeds.”
But the Prince episode (and many before it) has raised some serious problems for photographers who need to protect their work and income. “The DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) was a huge step forward. However, there are so many companies who give photographers a “work for hire/we own your copyright” contract, which strips it all away from us.” And Jeremy, like most photographers, has experienced having his work used without his permission. “At first, I would freak out if someone posted an image of mine without my watermark on it, or if they cropped it out. I would get it deleted, and I would message that person. But I don’t do that anymore. You’ll see photographers go off the deep end over an artist posting a photo of themselves that the photographer shot (even WITH credit), saying something like, “You posted this on Instagram, so pay me or ELSE!” This is an amateur way to go about that. Being polite will get you much further.”
Saffer says he’s stopped freaking out about it, because it’s going to happen and there’s little anyone can do to stop it. It doesn’t make any sense for photographers to stop posting images, as that’s the most effective marketing tool they have. Much like musicians who find portions or all of their song being used without permission, there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer or one that’s completely fair to the creators, while still allowing for usage by fans.
Asking a photographer to choose their favorite assignment is like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. “I do love covers, no matter what or who they are. Some of my favorites have been those of artists I’ve looked up to since I was a kid. I call those “bucket-list photoshoots”, and I’m fortunate to check a few off my list every year.” And Jeremy hopes to keep adding to that list every year. When asked about people he’d love to photograph in the future, his choices are widespread. “Black Sabbath, Ozzy, Henry Rollins, Ron Perlman, James Hetfield, Die Antwoord, Elvira, Abbath, Madonna… the list could go on forever.”
He‘ll be releasing his next book of band photography sometime in the next year, and he’s just released his “Corpse Paint” book. But don’t expect to see any paintings by Saffer in the future. “I have the artistic ability of Michael J. Fox and Ray Charles fighting over a paint brush on a roller coaster during an earthquake… at best. My handwriting alone has been compared to that of a second grader (and I believe that was a compliment at the time).” But he does have something in common with his rock star subjects. He was once a musician who played in metal bands (guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, etc.). After leaving Berkley School of Music to become a photographer, he left playing music behind. “I often say I put down my guitar and picked up a camera. I do play a few riffs here and there, but usually while on the couch watching TV.”
Saffer has enjoyed many opportunities over the years and met many talented musicians and singers along the way. But as he said earlier, he still feels he has a lot to learn. And when it comes to wisdom already gained, he lists a few that may benefit future photographers.
- Get the shot you need first (take the time to make sure your first shot is perfect)
- Get it right “in camera” (to avoid extra editing)
- Don’t take business decisions personally
- If you ever get sick of what you love doing, take a break. Once you stop loving it, you’ll stop doing your best work.
That last lesson is one we can all benefit from following.
Visit Jeremy at www.jeremysaffer.com or follow @jeremysaffer on Twitter and Instagram