Scarpati’s Harmonious Portraits; Shooting Music Biz Folks Requires A Good Eye–And A Good Ear

“Understanding the genres, history, and style of the music is a huge part of my success,” John Scarpati observes. “I work very closely with the bands and artists to make sure the cover art reflects what they want to say.” Scarpati (, as he prefers to be called (“when someone yells Scarpati on set, I know it’s me they want, not someone else named John”), has been shooting CD covers/packaging for the music industry for 25 years, working with clients from coast to coast. This Nashville-based photographer also shoots promotional portraits for the recording artists themselves. More recently, Scarpati has been shooting national advertising campaigns as a means to broaden the scope of his work.

A Louisiana bayou was the backdrop for Black Stone Cherry, a Southern rock band (shot for Roadrunner Records). Scarpati and company had to brave poisonous snakes and gators to make this picture. On top of that, Scarpati had to carry his camera, laptop, and lights across a rickety, partially submerged bridge. Two strobe heads with homemade beauty dishes helped to overcome the flat lighting.
All Photos © 2008, Scarpati, All Rights Reserved

The Right Environment
“The bulk of my work involves people and it also seems to be somewhat conceptual,” he explains. Often, the setting is the studio and it may be made to look like a location shot. But some of his most exciting assignments take place in the real world, and when Scarpati actually goes on location he doesn’t fool around. Recently, shooting a CD cover with Black Stone Cherry, he and the band ventured out into a Louisiana bayou outside New Orleans.

“The basic vibe for the shoot,” he recalls, “was that they play a really gritty Southern rock. It was the band’s idea to shoot in New Orleans and my idea to use the swamp. Now picture yourself, with all your gear, crossing a rickety, suspended plank-board walkway partly submerged in water. And did I mention, it had been raining constantly and there were water moccasins and baby alligators on that bridge, which led to an equally rickety cabin?” Scarpati crossed first, clearing a path, followed by the band and stylist. They managed to catch a break in the weather and do the photo shoot. The lighting involved a combination of ambient and strobe. The strobe was designed to kick in some contrast, to compensate for the gloomy conditions that led to flat lighting. And he used one of his favorite accessories: a homemade beauty dish on each of two strobe heads. A portable generator (also brought to the site) drove the power pack that powered the lights. There was quite a bit of postproduction here to give it an Old South quality and flavor, in keeping with the tone of the band (and album). His Hasselblad 503CW was a natural for the square format the CD cover demanded.

A vigilant eye is needed when scouting any location in advance of a shoot. And on that day, when Scarpati observed the light crashing through the interior loading dock entrance of an abandoned building, leading to strong contrasts, he knew this was all he’d need to photograph this country artist. On assignment for Sony Music, the only other thing he had to do for this portrait of recording artist Buddy Jewell was to rearrange those metal sheets on the floor so that they formed a more pleasing pattern.

Taking Control
“Even when shooting on location, I have a tendency to treat practically each shoot as if it were a studio shoot, which means I almost always light my sets,” Scarpati points out. “And I love to shoot with the camera tethered to a computer, or more specifically, a P30 Phase One back—all so that I’ll have better control over what I’m doing, to get the shots to look the way I want.”

He continues: “Working methodically does not mean that some spontaneity doesn’t happen on set. It’s just that the sets, posing, camera angles, lighting—all that is very scripted and determined even before the talent gets there.”