What’s that saying again? You know. A picture speaks a thousand words. So, it’s fitting to have to sum up John Hancock in about that many now. I’m honored that I get to write this article about the photography and the man behind the lens. If you’ve never met John, you’ve likely seen his photos. They have appeared hundreds of times in the San Diego Troubadour and many times on the cover. One time, he was even a cover guy himself, with some of our other snappy heroes. But right now, we’re all about John and believe me, he deserves to be honored. If you don’t already know the power photography has on music, you will. Keep reading!
John Hancock and I sat down on the back garden patio of Cattle Dog Coffee in Ramona with one of his other favorite subjects—my dog Garfunkel—by my side. We had just returned from a crazy photoshoot at Bombay Beach the day before and I still had glitter on my eyes and a cut from the rusty sculpture I very smartly climbed on. Never a dull moment on a Hancock shoot. John has become a really good friend of mine in the few short years I’ve lived in Ramona, so I already knew quite a bit about him, but I realized I hadn’t known much of his history in photography, so I was excited to dive in. Like me, you probably know about the famous “Musical Chair” best…we’ll get to that.
I’m going to be basic and go back to the beginning of time, I began.
I was there.
What got you into photography and how did you pick up a camera? I’ve had a camera in my hand for as long as I can remember. As a kid I had little Kodak instamatic cameras and polaroids. I don’t know what got me into it, honestly, I think it was my parents. We traveled around a lot when we lived in Europe, so I took pictures…I was terrible. But I’ve been a photographer at least since I was 10 years old.
I’m not surprised by this one bit; John is a natural. He claims that he’s not a professional photographer, but a hobbyist that does it for fun. “It’s not how I make a living or I’d be living on the street and probably starving to death.”
Personally, I’ve always defined a professional as someone who gets paid for their craft, even though John defines it as an “expensive hobby.” But really, he didn’t make photography a regular thing until about 10 years ago when he moved to Ramona. “That was when I started doing studio shoots but I was charging so I could pay for the studio, so I still wasn’t really making any money.” John doesn’t do a lot of weddings but does a lot of volunteer work. “I like to volunteer for music festivals that are fundraisers. Most of the time when I shoot concerts, I’m just trying to get into the concert.” John claims that’s sometimes payment enough. This is why we love John Hancock. He’s an actual music fan. “And I meet a lot of cool people like you.” This makes me laugh. “Fooled you,” I reply. “I know,” he says.
I ask John if he remembers the first concert he shot. “This is a funny story. I didn’t even have a 35mm camera at the time; I was still shooting with a little instamatic or something. But my friend had one and neither of us knew anything about it. We went to see Bad Company, and this was back in the day when you didn’t need a photo pass. So, we brought his camera in, we were sitting in the nosebleed seats, with a 50mm lens on it and were just taking pictures. We got that roll of film developed and it was nothing but a lot of squiggly colorful lines because we didn’t know the shutter speed or anything like that. It was terrible. And that was the first concert I ever photographed.” Great start, John.
John states that the first band he regularly shot was a friend in the army who did country music, named Roger Slone. He would play in the bars in Germany with his band of soldiers. “I kinda knew what I was doing.”
I asked John if he prefers live music photos or stills, and his answer doesn’t shock me. “I prefer live music photos. I don’t know why, I just like the music and action, lights, all that kinda stuff. Though I’ve gotten much more into the promotional type of shoots and those are a lot of fun. A lot of times those turn into concerts anyway.” It’s an interesting way to see a concert, through a lens.
John really caught the photography bug when he lived in Hawaii between 1993 and 1999. “Hawaii is a lot like here. There are so many great musicians, but they play in smaller venues over there and are very approachable and happy to have their photos taken. I shot people like Israel Kamakawiwoʻole and Willie K. and not only did I get to shoot them live but I also got to hang out with them, which is just the way they were.” His daughter danced Hula, so they also had a lot of music at the Hula shows. Pretty cool way to get started in live music photography. John retired from the Army in 2000 and moved to Scripps Ranch from the Bay Area in 2001.
I only met John when I moved to Ramona a few short years ago. But to me, he’s on the pulse of the music scene. Not just in Ramona, but San Diego too. “I think I was more on the pulse of it before I moved to Ramona,” he replies. “I got my start shooting in San Diego in places like Lestat’s. I’d go down for their open mics or whatever shows they had and got to meet Astra Kelly, Cathryn Beeks, Jeff Berkley, Gregory Page, and all those people that played there. I was good friends with Louie, the sound guy, so every time we’d go in there he’d make sure the lights were good. It was just a great place to shoot. It was a small venue but the sound was awesome; all the musicians hang out together and national touring musicians would come once in a while. So that’s really where I got my start in San Diego and it’s big thanks to Lou for letting me do that. Then I hooked up with Danielle LoPresti and Alicia Champion for the San Diego Indie Fest III and eventually became their lead photographer. I got to hang out with some cool people and photograph Metric and We Are Scientists. We hung out backstage afterwards and drank and took pictures. That lasted about seven years before they moved up to the Bay Area. But that really helped me get into the music scene and, of course, I took a lot of photos for the Troubadour. I’ve probably done about 10 or so covers. I was on the cover once with a couple of other photographers, including Dan Chusid, Steve Covault, and Dennis Anderson.
“But now I’m up here and the music scene in Ramona is just so amazing with so many amazing musicians. I don’t have to go down the hill anymore, which I like.” We laugh. Because it’s a known fact that both San Diego and Ramona residents alike don’t love to travel the 67 or 78 to get to the other side. Which, as a side note, that gap is a goal the Ramona Music Alliance aims to bridge. Come on you guys, let’s do it! It’s not that far. Back to John.
“I think I’d like to do more bigger shows this year. I kinda got away from that for a little while. Sometimes getting a photo pass is a pain in the butt and they kick you out after three songs.”
I couldn’t wait for this next part of the interview. You can hear the passion in John’s voice as he re-tells the legend of The Musical Chair. He almost wanders off into a daydream. “Tell me more,” I ask. “I used to shoot at this studio in Mira Mesa. A good friend of mine named Dave King passed away from cancer a few years ago. But he loved music as much as I did and loved it when I brought musicians into the studio and thought it good mojo, so he never charged me when shooting with a musician. So, one time Steph Johnson came in to do a photoshoot and there was an old chair. And we got this idea, what if we did all the musicians in one chair. The one was kinda old and rickety so I found a chair for $25 on craigslist. I didn’t even know the name of the series. Someone said to call it “The Musical Chair,” and I thought that was genius. So, we put the word out for a 30-minute shoot and you can do anything you want in the chair. It was fun! I think probably one of the most famous photos is of Jeffrey Joe. He tried to imitate Steph Johnson’s pose that made her famous, which was laying back with her legs up in kind of a pinup pose. But Jeffrey Joe he did it and it became one of the more popular photos in the series. Everybody had wanted to do something that nobody else had done. And at about the 50th person, I thought, you can’t! Everything has been done. But every single time they’d figure out something nobody else had done and it was just amazing to me. I think I shot about 85 musicians in the chair total. Most of the time they were solo but I did a couple bands, a couple duets. Some moved on to Nashville like Megan Carchman who plays drums for everyone. AJ Croce (Jim Croce’s son), Marcia Claire, it was fun. We took the chair to the Troubadour Christmas party one year. We made a little book. We did a photo show. Jaime Shadowlight came and it was her birthday. So, joking I said we should shoot you in your bday suit and she said okay! So one of the other famous photos is Jamie, not nude but pretty close, with her violin strategically placed. People would do all kinds, they’d sit on the chair, stand on the chair, hold the chair, which I thought was nuts. Megan Carchman who plays every instrument known to man, weighs about 90 pounds and she held it over her head! She also sat in the chair with all of her instruments and you can barely see her cause she’s got drums and bass guitar and regular guitar and cajon and everything she plays. It was just a great shoot. I got to meet some amazing people and I’m still friends with most of them. Liz Abbott sat in the chair! It lasted about a year and a half. Some people asked if I’m gonna do it again and I dunno…I’d like to do another series. I started one called “inkling,” based on tattoos with the story behind them. It never took off. Or do another chair but not in the studio, like on location. Someplace that’s meaningful to you. I thought it would be cool to take a chair to Jeff Berkley’s studio or maybe you at Ramona Ranch. But I dunno. I still have the original chair but believe me, it took a beating. I keep waiting for the Smithsonian to call me. I was kinda hoping the San Diego Music Hall of Fame would call me, or the photos if they wanted them.” Hey Jefferson Jay, are you reading this?”
Back to the Ramona music scene. It’s been a really interesting year. We started the Ramona Music Alliance, which John has been a big part of. He’s also helped me book the Songbirds of Ramona Ranch series over the past two years and has been our official photographer. He’s even helped kick off some music series and small festivals like Rockin’ Robin’s Nest. As a musician, I know the things I’ve felt and seen and been a part of. Some of them have been absolutely mind blowing and others a little bit frustrating. So, I wanted to know what the experience has been like behind the lens?
“Fun. It’s always fun! Rarely do I have a bad experience. If I do a photoshoot and you don’t laugh, then it wasn’t a good shoot. I don’t have those very often and generally not with musicians. Every once in a while, I’ll really like a photo and will show it to the musicians and they don’t like it and I’m like um, okay. But I take so many photos, I’m always gonna get a couple of good ones. The only thing frustrating is when I come into a place with you or any of the other artists and it’s just dark and that makes it a little hard. I hate to use flash for live music. But I think the venues up here are pretty good. I like shooting at Reds [Whites and Brews in Ramona] although I don’t like the horrible lights they have.” I interject with a laugh, “those are my lights.” Sorry, John! John continues, “I love shooting musicians, I really do. Most like to be photographed so that makes it easier. It can be frustrating when they ask you to come take photos of them, and they don’t even thank you. Or they expect you to come for free. I come for free all the time but if you ask me to come take your photos, you should at least buy me a beer. Other than that, I love everything about it.” Me again, interjecting. I would like to remind our audience to always offer to pay your photographers. Even if you can’t afford much, at least offer what you can, even if it’s a beer. I guarantee you, they appreciate it more than you know and they’re more likely to show up and support you again.
Okay, back to John, I wanted to know some of his more memorable photo shoots. Aside from, of course, The Musical Chair! We immediately laugh when he mentions my band, Lady Psychiatrists Booth. We’ve done some pretty insane shoots in there. “In the rain room was a good one, or LPB anytime is fun cause you guys are all crazy, especially with Stephanie.” We laugh harder. If you know, you know. “Locally, Ramona wise, I love shooting your Songbirds shows, you always have amazing talent, and it’s nice that people are sitting and listening. Probably my favorite show in the past year was the Songbirds Anniversary show. So much talent. That’s a great setting now. As far as overall all-time favorite shows, I saw Jimmy Buffett at the Belly Up. I’m a big fan and to get to shoot him there and have one of the photos I took make it on the wall of the Belly Up, that’s pretty cool. I shot Van Halen, or whenever I get to shoot a group I really like, Styx; generally those are pretty fun shoots. Humphey’s is always fun. I’ve shot great bands there like ZZ Top, Grace Potter, but probably the Belly Up is my favorite place to shoot. There’s always good light and the sound is great. I did get to shoot DEVO and hangout with them backstage. It’s always cool when I get to go backstage. Everyone thinks music photographers get to hang out with the bands but nine times out of ten you get kicked out after the third song.” Garfunkel starts barking, convenient timing.
Moving on I ask, “Who are some of your favorite photographers?” It’s funny because I’m probably not going to name many concert photographers, although Alan Hess is amazing and so nice and helpful. When I first got started shooting real concerts and arenas, he was there and a big inspiration. I love Ansel Adams; he is my biggest inspiration. Roy Toft, a local guy, does wildlife photography and his stuff is great. If I wasn’t shooting concerts…I do occasional landscapes, I shoot birds in my backyard, I’ll take pictures of anything. I follow tons of photographers I don’t know because I want to see what they’re doing. Annie Leibovitz is amazing, too.”
John touched on this a little earlier, but I asked him about goals for the year and he mentioned bigger shows again. Not festivals because they’re too much work, but he wants to get back to the Belly Up, Humphrey’s, and local musicians but more portraits. I want to give something back to the musicians for letting me come to their shows and take pictures. It’s my way of saying thanks. More location shoots but I’ll probably get away from the studio a little this year. If you go on location, there are so many cool backgrounds that you can use in Ramona and different landscapes. A big open space lends itself to anything. Album covers, posters, and a big sky you can use for writing. “There’s a great studio in El Cajon that I’ll start using more with about 15 different backdrops with neon lights, graffiti walls, more glamorous stuff. And I also want to do more horse photography this year.”
I already know that John loves photographing barrel racing. “I like funky stuff, which is why I like Bombay Beach and walking around Ramona. I’m always looking for weird stuff. Closeups, like tools hanging on the wall at Barnett Ranch, beer taps at Reds, Whites & Brews, those kinds of things.”
There is more power of photography in music than a lot of people realize. A photo can absolutely explode someone’s career. I think John has helped me get noticed in the San Diego music scene in the few short years I’ve lived here. I asked John his opinion on that. “I totally agree. Henry Diltz took the famous Doors photo. He was in a band and just happened to pick up a camera and started taking pictures then got to hang out with Emmylou Harris and the Doors and all these people. So, yeah, I do think one photo can make a difference not only in music but also with the photographer. You and I have a really good chemistry. We hit it off right away, which made for good photos. I think people saw the barn photo and thought, hey that’s cool and of course almost got me in trouble, but hey.”
I’m laughing again. The barn photo John is talking about comes from our very first photo shoot together. “Tell us about that story John. I mean, I know it.” “Yeah, you were there.” We’re laughing again. “So, the story. We had never met but you said hey, let’s shoot. I said there’s this cool barn and you were all up for it. We did the photos and we even looked and didn’t see a no trespassing sign. We took a bunch of photos, put them on Facebook, and I got a message from someone saying “Hey, we love that photo but who told you that you could go on our property? My dad wants to talk to you. I was like uh oh, I’m in big trouble now. So I apologized profusely, gave her my phone number, her dad called me and was a super nice guy. He said they just had a lot of trouble with people coming on the property. It’s abandoned but people keep stealing the no trespassing signs. He said we love the photos but we don’t want people going over there. So I asked if I could post the photos if I mentioned it was private property and to ask for permission before you go there. He said that would be great. He gave me the history behind the barn and we’re still in contact. It was very cool.”
I could keep John here for hours but I’m already at 3,354 words. Way more than a picture. To wrap things up, I ask John if there’s anything he’d like to say to the musicians. “To me, videos go by too fast. With a photo—until I’m ready to move on—it’s gonna be there. That’s where I think photography beats out tik tok and reels. But to the musicians, just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s incredible the talent in San Diego County and it blows my mind. Play the open mics, street corners, wherever you gotta go to get your music heard, do it. And if a photographer is cool and kind enough to take photos of you, just let them do it. It’ll work for you, trust me.” And buy them a beer.