Artist in Profile: Michael Weintrob

INSTRUMENTHEAD puts another face on music

  • MICHAEL WEINTROB’S PORTRAITS OF MUSICIANS ARE startling, whimsical, and unconventional, to say the least. A flute player holds his instrument at the ready, but no lips touch it as his head is a bundle of bamboo flutes that jut upward from his shoulders. A cheeky banjo player hooks his thumbs behind his suspenders, but no smile shows on the colorfully decorated banjo head that juts from the neck of his denim shirt. Other portraits feature guitars, keyboards, drums, saxophones, and more, all transformed into the heads of the musicians who wield them.
         While the images may be disorienting at first, it’s simply the world of Instrumenthead, the portrait series that photographer Michael Weintrob has devoted years to and is now coming to full fruition with the publication of a deluxe art book featuring 369 full-color examples of Weintrob’s melding of musicians with wood, brass, steel, and plastic.
         “I believe portrait photography is about taking an honest portrait,” Weintrob says. “And I believe my Instrumenthead work is a way to capture an honest portrait of musicians.”
         While it’s generally said that the eyes are the window to the soul, Weintrob’s work makes both the obvious and subtle connection that for musicians, it’s the instruments they employ that embody their personalities. It’s a simple but powerful insight, and one that Weintrob did not discover overnight.
         A native of Birmingham, Ala., Weintrob attended college for a year in Boca Raton, Fla., before transferring to Colorado State University in 1996, where his love for music found an outlet for expression.
         “I was studying public relations and wanted to work in the music scene,” Weintrob says. “I had taken pictures before, but I wasn’t really into photography until I got an internship with Bill Bass Concerts, a promoter outside of Denver. We worked with the Aggie Theater in Fort Collins, Colo. I began shooting concerts and became their house photographer. People told me I was good at it, and I had never been good at anything, really. So I decided that’s what I was going to do.”
         Weintrob quickly built a reputation for his concert photography and secured the position of house photographer at world-renowned Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver. Although his primary focus was concert photography, he never passed up the chance to take portrait shots, as in 2000, when he stumbled upon a fun “gimmick” while shooting a backstage portrait of The Derek Trucks Band.
         “I’d been shooting the band and wanted something different,” Weintrob says. “I told the bass player to put the neck of his bass down his shirt and cover his face with it. That made me realize I could talk people into doing crazy things for portraits. From then on I started asking people to pretend their instrument was their head for part of the shoot. It just added fun and momentum.”
         By 2003, his concert photography was regularly appearing in national magazines, and he was ready for the next step of his career.
         “I had topped out in my profession in Colorado and decided to move to New York,” he says. “When I got there, I met with my editors at Vibe, SPIN, Rolling Stone, and Time magazine. They all told me the same thing. My live music stuff was as good as it gets, but if I wanted to be a portrait photographer, I needed to study and find my voice.”
         Moving to the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Weintrob joined the local community of photographers and artists, taking the opportunity to learn from his peers. He continued to find success as a concert photographer, but his desire to make the jump to portrait photography never wavered. He continued staging ad hoc portrait shoots backstage and secured work shooting portraits. He began to push himself harder, trying to find the key to unlock his creativity as a portrait photographer, not realizing the answer had been in front of his face, and his subjects’ faces, for many years.
         “About 2008, I was thinking about what I could do that would be different,” Weintrob says. “How could I keep evolving as an artist? I found this book, Disciples, by James Mollison, in a bookstore in Brooklyn. It was all portraits of the fans of different bands, shot against a plain white background. The idea was to guess which artists they were fans of based on their portraits. It was simple, consistent, and it told a story. That’s when I thought about the photos I had taken of musicians with their instruments over their faces.
         “Instrumenthead became my art project, and it took on a life of its own. My iPhone played a big part in my success. I was still making a living shooting concerts, but I would go to music festivals and when I met musicians, I would show them the gallery of Instrumenthead photos on my phone, and they’d want to do it.”
         As he travelled around the country, Weintrob set up temporary studios specifically for portrait sessions with musicians. He soon discovered the process he developed to create the perfect Instrumenthead portrait also informed his voice for conventional portraits.
         “People started thinking of me as a portrait guy,” he says, “and I started picking up album cover work. It wasn’t about money, it was about creating art, but the money started to come as a result of me pursuing the art.”
          The process he developed for his portrait sessions is one that he still follows today. “Musicians show up with all their gear and I get them to perform for me to make them comfortable,” Weintrob says. “Musicians are not models, and they’re usually the most comfortable when they’re performing. Then I would shoot normal portraits of them with their instruments. The Instrumenthead portrait is always the last thing we do.
         The whole shoot may take two hours and theInstrumenthead portion only takes five minutes.”
         Although his Instrumenthead work became his No. 1 passion, Weintrob managed to keep that passion mostly to himself and his subjects for several years.
         “For the longest time I would only show the work to people in the business — the artists, their agents and managers. I kept it secret because I didn’t want someone to steal my idea. Around 2012, I did the first exhibit of my Instrumenthead work in Barcelona, Spain. Shortly after that, I got an email from someone saying, ‘Great photo in MOJO magazine!’ I had done work for MOJO, but not recently. It turned out there was a photo of an electronica musician with his instrument covering his face, but it was not my photo. That’s when I knew I needed to do an exhibit in a big way and do it fast.”
         Weintrob decided the perfect showcase would be the 2013 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but with only eight weeks until the start of the festival, he had to move fast. Calling in favors from many friends in New Orleans, he was able to mount a major exhibit that featured 75 prints of his Instrumenthead work that ran for two weeks and attracted over 7,000 attendees. With the exhibit a success, a book seemed to be the next logical step.
         “When I talked people into doing a shoot, I would always say there’s going to be a book,” Weintrob says, “but I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I met with several big publishers and they told me there was no market for the book, so I thought how can I create a market for it?”
         Over the next year, Weintrob used the prints made for the New Orleans show to stage showings at galleries across the U.S. At the same time, he was also shuttling between his home in Brooklyn, working in the Nashville area as the house photographer for the PBS concert series Bluegrass Underground, and visiting his ailing mother in Birmingham. After his mother passed in early 2014, Weintrob moved to Nashville to be closer to his father. In October 2014, Weintrob debuted a new Instrumenthead showing at OZ Arts Nashville. The opening night of the show included performances by 20 of the Nashville musicians featured in the portraits.
         With over 500 Instrumenthead portraits completed and the buzz generated by many exhibits, Weintrob decided the time for “the book” had arrived, and he would apply the same by-the-bootstraps attitude of his exhibits to the publication of a first-class art book. In October 2015, Weintrob launched an IndieGoGo campaign that generated over $51,000 to make Instrumenthead: The Book a reality. In the last year, he’s worked overtime, overseeing the design and printing arrangements for the first publication by his new company, Magnet Bound Press.
         “My whole career in photography has been backwards,” Weintrob says. “I was never an assistant. I never worked for a famous photographer. I just kind of snuck in the back door. Then everyone told me you have to sell a book, then do exhibits, but I did the exhibits first and now the book. To be a success you have to be ready when a door opens, and the worst thing you can ever do is believe what people say about you, that’s when ego and narcissism take over. You just have to believe that your work is good, treat people with respect and the way you want to be treated, and when you see an opportunity, just go for it.”