Veteran Ann Arbor music photographer Doug Coombe takes the spotlight in new exhibit

Ann Arbor photographer Doug Coombe has spent over 30 years exhaustively documenting Southeast Michigan's music scene, an artistic legacy that will be celebrated in an upcoming exhibit at Ann Arbor's CultureVerse gallery.

The show, entitled "Last Night a Camera Saved My Life," will run June 3-July 24, with an opening reception June 3 from 6-9 p.m. at CultureVerse, 309 S. Main St. in Ann Arbor. It will include around 100 of Coombe's photographs, featuring local artists ranging from Andrew WK to Athletic Mic League. The physical show will also be accompanied by a virtual component: a 3D scan of Ann Arbor's Blind Pig music club, filled with Coombe's photographs. Audiences will be able to view the virtual gallery either at the physical show or online from their own devices.

Andrew WK at the Magic Stick in Detroit, photographed by Doug Coombe.
Coombe and his camera are seemingly omnipresent fixtures in the Southeast Michigan music scene, never far from the stage's edge for both local and touring acts' shows. But Coombe says he had "no grand vision" when he first took a camera to a show in 1991, when he was still working in Ann Arbor record stores including Encore Records and Schoolkids Records.
The cover art to Fugazi's "7 Songs," an early influence on Doug Coombe.
He'd learned some photography skills by osmosis from his stepfather, an avid photographer. But he'd never actually taken pictures with his stepfather, and he had little experience when he started shooting shows. He just wanted to document the bands he loved, and the cover photo to Fugazi's "7 Songs" EP gave him an early template for how to do it.

"I remember seeing that and thinking, 'That breaks all the rules. That's what I want to do,'" Coombe says.

His efforts received validation in the early '90s, when his photos were featured on records by Ann Arbor funk-rock band Big Chief and Detroit power-pop band Outrageous Cherry.

"That just really encouraged me and inspired me to keep doing what I was doing," Coombe says. "For me, to have my photos on a cool album is one of the best paychecks."

After honing his craft for several years, Coombe says he "stumbled" into the office of Detroit's Metro Times in 1999 on the same day photographer Bruce Giffin quit the publication. Coombe left the office with six assignments, beginning a relationship with the Metro Times that continues to this day.

"At that time I was still shy taking pictures of people," Coombe says. "I walked out of there kind of like, 'What did I just do?'"

Joining the Metro Times had a significant impact on Coombe's career. Getting regular work for the publication prompted him to adopt a more representational style compared to his earliest work, which focused more on abstractly capturing the energy of performance. It also afforded him countless opportunities to shoot even more artists, scoring freelance gigs with major publications like Rolling Stone, Spin, Billboard, and NME along the way. 

Ann Arbor hip-hop collective Athletic Mic League at Parker Mill Park in Ann Arbor Township, photographed by Doug Coombe.
But for all the national and international reach his work has achieved, Coombe's allegiance is to Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Ypsilanti, which he collectively describes as "one of the great music cities in the world." While he was studying psychology at the University of Michigan, Coombe says he became fascinated with the idea of "win-win" outcomes – an approach he applies to his relationship with local music.

"I liked to think, and I do think it's true, that maybe my photography of artists and bands that I love could help them out. But I felt in a way that it was helping me out too," he says. "I was just learning my craft, and a lot of these bands put up with me being in their face repeatedly at concerts."

Ann Arbor musician Dani Darling, photographed by Doug Coombe.
Coombe's passion for our region extends beyond the music scene as well. Coombe, who is now Concentrate's managing photographer, started shooting for Concentrate in 2010, two years after he began freelancing full-time. He initially felt out of place as a rock 'n' roll photographer shooting entrepreneurs and other local leaders unrelated to the arts. But he found himself getting just as invested in his new subjects as he had in musicians. 

He compares his experience shooting Duo Security co-founders Dug Song and Jon Oberheide in 2010, when their now-massive tech company was still known as Scio Security, to shooting an early White Stripes show where the band played to a crowd of just 75 people.

"It's really exciting as a music photographer, but also someone involved in the startup scene here, when people do break through and enjoy success," Coombe says. "It's really exciting and gratifying to see because I feel like more people in the startup sphere and in the music sphere deserve success."
Iggy Pop performs at Iggy and the Stooges' tribute to late guitarist/bassist Ron Asheton at the Michigan Theater, photographed by Doug Coombe.
Coombe says he'll be "packing the walls" at both the physical and virtual versions of his show, seemingly in an effort to tell as much of the story of his 31-year odyssey through Michigan music as possible. He speaks like a gentle evangelist for the local music scene, noting that the Stooges – now widely lauded as founding fathers of punk – were once an Ann Arbor band mostly "beloved by hipsters." Coombe says that for every local artist who's gone on to receive Stooges-level appreciation, there's "a lot of genius and innovation going around in the music scene here that hasn't gotten its rightful due," citing Wolf Eyes, Laughing Hyenas, and Fred Thomas as just a few examples.

Through his new show and all his work chronicling the local music scene, it seems Coombe just wants to give back whatever he can to a community that's given him his livelihood. While the title of his show is a music nerd's nod to the Indeep song "Last Night a D.J. Saved My Life," it's also been literally true for Coombe.

"Music and photography ended up providing me with a community, a career, and also completed me in a way," he says. "I met my wife photographing a show. So I'm incredibly grateful to the community of musicians for inspiring me, supporting me, and giving me a career."

More details on "Last Night a Camera Saved My Life" are available here.

Patrick Dunn is Concentrate's managing editor and a huge fan of Doug Coombe.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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