With unruly hair pulled back behind a bandanna and a standard-issue uniform of worn-out jeans and a plaid shirt, Sean Rayford is not necessarily the kind of photographer one might expect to be publishing books. To some, he might look more like a dive-bar bartender (which he is) than a professional photographer (which he also is).
Appearances aside, Rayford is a first-class photojournalist whose work has not only been included in local publications, but also in national press outlets such as USA Today and the New York Post. (Full disclosure: Rayford is a frequent contributor to Free Times.)
While Rayford will take on pretty much any assignment, what interests him most are performers in action, which is the thematic thread in his first photo book, Two Star Hotel, which he recently self-published.
“I just needed another outlet,” Rayford explains. “I was looking at getting another job [at Gibson guitars] and ended up not applying, but in the process of putting my portfolio together I realized that I needed an outlet to put stuff out and have fun.”
Rayford has been shooting professionally for more than 15 years, but he decided to limit the book to photos from the first half of 2013. Despite the tight chronological time frame, the book tackles a fairly diverse range of performers — ranging from alternative circus performers and independent rocks bands to country radio stars and eclectic audience shots.
Rayford says that the book is also designed to mark his maturation and growth as a photographer.
“I didn’t want to [go] back to photos that I took a long time ago, because I really think I’m a better photographer now,” he says. Eventually, he’d like Two Star Hotel to become a series.
In almost every selection, Rayford demonstrates his knack for catching that special live moment, whether it’s the cocksure swagger of Foxy Shazam frontman Eric Sean Nally tossing his microphone toward the crowd with a sneer or the unbridled aggression on the face of the members of the Charlotte death metal band Wretched. Local music fans will also appreciate shots of Happiness Bomb, Abacus, Mat Cothran and Jessica Oliver, among others.
In fact, one of the most notable things about the book is just how much space has been given over to musicians who really aren’t famous, making the appearance of someone like Billboard-charting country artists the Zac Brown Band stand glaringly out.
Rayford admits that his under-the-radar subject matter might seem a little surprising for a high-quality photo project such as Two Star, but notes that the selection of subjects is also representative of exactly the kind of photographer he is.
“That’s always been a thing for me — that for the most part, the bands I shoot I either listen to or am friends with,” he says. “I definitely think it’s partly about being a community, where there’s lots of great people and everybody has a role [to play].”
In addition to needing another outlet, Rayford says he was inspired by the possibilities of DIY self-publishing in the Internet age.
“It’s really easy and somewhat inexpensive to do,” he says. “I pretty much laid it all in one sitting using [self-publishing platform] Blurb. Five years ago, that wouldn’t have happened.”
Not surprisingly, Rayford is also taking a DIY approach to distribution of his new book.
“It’s available online, but I don’t recommend you buy it there unless you are from out of town,” he says. “It’s available at Sid & Nancy, or you can buy one from out of the trunk of my car.”
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