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After spending a night hanging out with Steve Earle, Doug Sahm and Neil Young at Farm Aid in 1996, Daniel Coston figured out his true calling.

Filling frames 

Charlotte photographer Daniel Coston puts personality to celluloid

click to enlarge Daniel Coston had nearly unlimited access to Johnny Cash's estate for Cash's final shows. - PHOTO BY DANIEL COSTON
  • Photo by Daniel Coston
  • Daniel Coston had nearly unlimited access to Johnny Cash's estate for Cash's final shows.

After spending a night hanging out with Steve Earle, Doug Sahm and Neil Young at Farm Aid in 1996, Daniel Coston figured out his true calling. "After photographing Neil, I realized, 'I don't know how to do this, but it's a lot of fun.'"

Coston's photojournalism has taken him all over the world and landed him in the pages of publications ranging from Esquire to USA Today. He's tailed Michael Jordan, Francis Ford Coppola and Douglas Adams in the past decade, and he's met Beach Boy Carl Wilson and been given the run of Johnny Cash's estate.

Originally from upstate New York, Coston has spent 23 of his 33 years in Charlotte. An aspiring filmmaker through high school and college, Coston was doing video work in Charlotte when he started writing for a couple of local Charlotte magazines. When a photographer assigned to his story didn't show for a shoot, he decided to take his dad's camera and do it himself.

He interviewed and photographed Douglas Adams for his first major assignment. The next week, he was backstage at Farm Aid in Columbia, S.C., where he got to meet Young, Sahm and Earle. Soon afterwards Coston started going to shows, lugging around his dad's camera. Local bands started asking him for pictures, and his career took off. "It was never a planned thing," Coston says. "It just sort of said 'Come along' and I followed it."

Following was not a concept that Coston was familiar with. As founder of Charlotte's now defunct Tangents magazine, he took the lead when staff writers proved not up to the task. "We had all these people on the staff who had big old English degrees, but not one of them could do feature writing to save their lives. So I said, 'I'll pick this up,' because I've always been that way."

Coston became a features writer, but eventually the photography took over. He discovered that being a successful photographer depends on personality as well as talent. "It's a mixture of hopefully being a good person and having the ability to transfer that on film."

That's not just some hippie mantra. A good photographer, says Coston, has to relate to his subject, convincing them to relax and reveal themselves in a new way. Coston found that difficult in his home base of Charlotte, especially when bona fide celebrities would arrive for shoots: "People who come to Charlotte don't expect somebody who's worked nationally to live here." But he has found that he has the ability to make clients feel comfortable around him and allow him to capture that feeling on film.

And if the clients sometimes are less than sociable, Coston still values the shoot. "Above all else, you have to keep yourself out there and make things happen and see what comes out of experience."

Adaptability plays a big role in being successful. Time constraints on high profile subjects sometimes only allow him a half hour to capture the personality of a band for an album cover. Planning can take months, but the whole concept may be scrapped in an instant when the band is late because of delayed transportation or long sound checks.

click to enlarge Roman Candle flies in front of Coston's camera at the Cat's Cradle in May. - PHOTO BY DANIEL COSTON
In fact, sometimes on-the-fly work yields better results for Coston than meticulous planning. A recent shoot with Chatham County Line snapped into focus when the band suddenly decided to go to a train museum in Spencer for the cover of their latest album, Speed of the Whippoorwill. Frontman Dave Wilson became a suave pitchman, talking the museum staff into letting the band have the run of the railcars for the afternoon. They wrapped up the shoot in two hours.

"Daniels' real good to work with," says Wilson. "He's really easygoing and lets you choose how you want to set up, whereas, with other photographers, they're like, 'You, here. You, there.'"

Wilson is impressed with Coston's live shots of CCL and The Avett Brothers, too. But says you have to look quick to catch Coston at the live show. "He pops in, and you'll say, 'Hey, did we see Daniel Coston for like three seconds?' He just comes in, takes photos, and then he's on to the next gig."

He improvised a shoot with Wilco in Philadelphia four years ago, too. After he drove all night to get there, the band showed up three hours late. He arranged everything backstage in half an hour. He says the nature of his work is so unpredictable that, at times, he can capture a person with the first shot. Other times, it happens on the fourth roll.

Esentially, he does what it takes to capture the right moment, like Jim Marshall, known for his famous Johnny Cash middle-finger salute, or Robert Freeman, who immortalized The Beatles in the mid-1960s. "All those greats had the ability to take a moment and put it on film, capturing it in such a way that it felt like art."

He's still writing, too, freelancing with New York-based publication The Big Takeover, which he calls the longest running rock paper in America. A '50s to '70s rock 'n' roll fan, Coston recently interviewed Buffalo Springfield's Richie Furay for the magazine.

"They let me do what I want to do, talk to people in music I really like," he beams, "whether they're current or put out records in 1956."

But it's his work as a photographer that he wants to be remembered for. "Hopefully I've been successful in making myself known and just capturing the world around me."

The Cash family thought enough of Coston's work and the way he comported himself to allow him virtually unlimited access to Johnny's last shows. But even with that access, he didn't get too close. Cash was experiencing serious health problems, including impaired vision from glaucoma. Coston was more at ease working from a distance.

click to enlarge Daniel Coston on the Blue Ridge Parkway - PHOTO BY DANIEL COSTON
"There were so many people at him. So many people felt they knew him. He obviously wasn't well for those shows, but everybody wanted to talk to him and to get him to sign their guitar," he says. "I didn't want to make a fuss. Just being able to have that much access for two different shows spread out over two Saturdays was as much as one could hope for at that period of his life."

Coston has an exhibition of his Cash pictures in Charlotte through July, and the past several months have seen the fulfillment of several major projects: There's the artwork for a Son Volt DVD that he shot, the notes for Chatham County Line's Speed of the Whippoorwill and Don Dixon's latest, The Entire Combustible World in One Small Room. He even has a photo inside Roman Candle's V2 debut, The Wee Hours Revue. Coston says working with Roman Candle is a pleasure, especially since he would attend their shows as a fan or a friend even if he wasn't a photographer.

Friends or not, Coston's talent is what impresses his subjects and gets him work. He says he wants his work to speak for itself. "Hopefully people will look at the work and say this guy did some cool stuff, worked with some cool people," Coston says. "I'm coming on 10 years of doing this, and hopefully I've still got a good while left in me."

For more on Daniel Coston, see www.danielcostonphotography.com.

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