Photo: Emma Delevante
Emma Delevante stood across from Tyler Childers in the green room at the Exit/In in Nashville, Tennessee and said, "I didn’t think I’d get this far." It was in November 2018, and Childers was headlining three consecutive sold out shows. After an evening of unexpected yesses–yes you can come shoot the show, yes you can come backstage, yes please take portraits, yes meet the band–Delevante now found herself across from Childers. The scrappy, determined, talented photographer was uncharacteristically at a loss.
“I don’t know what to have you do,” Delevante said.
“Do you want me to play my guitar?” Childers offered kindly.
“Yeah! Play!” She responded enthusiastically. What she expected to be a night of taking photos in the crowd has turned into an evening of intimate portraits of Childers and his band The Food Stamps.
Though her good fortune has surprised her, Delevante has worked tirelessly to get to this point. As the daughter of musician and photographer, Bob Delevante, Emma received a first-hand education on the intricacies of both professions. She tagged along as a young girl to her father’s shoots, studied his professional friendships (John Prine), and learned from his colleagues (Danny Clinch).
As a young adult, feeling uninspired by her design coursework at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Delevante spent her free time getting paid $10 a show to take photos at music venues. The master of dodging security guards, or knowing which ones would let her in, an underaged Delevante patiently saved her meager paychecks to buy her equipment, “I remember thinking fuck yes, I just have to shoot 300 shows and I can afford a lens.”
After college, the next few years consisted of cold-calling people for photography opportunities, showing up at venues to convince managers to give her a chance, and becoming familiar with rejection. Her friends and mentors cautioned her that the music industry wasn’t particularly hospitable to female photographers. Though discouraged, she appreciated their candor, “The touring world can be sexist. It’s gruff. It’s not luxurious, it’s not soft. It’s not gentle. And I think while I hated hearing that, I’m so glad no one ever sugar coated it.”
At first she resented how she was being treated, but then saw an opportunity, “I’m frustrated I spent that much of my early photography years being angry about being a woman in a male dominated space. Once I switched from being angry to embracing it, that’s when I did my best work.” She realized her femininity also brought a unique perspective, “I bring a different energy, I am really proud of that.”
That energy–along with an insatiable work ethic–is what changed the trajectory of her professional career. After that evening in 2018, Delevante was invited back. What did the Childers’ camp like about her? Of course her photography, but also how cognizant she was of interpersonal dynamics. She was thoughtful, and was masterful at reading the room. Delevante prioritized her relationships over getting a bold shot, “I’m never going to push them to do anything they don’t want to do. To some people risking that to get a great photo is worth it, to me it’s not.”
That sensitivity and respect is in the end what helped Delevate get hired. Soon she was going to other shows, and then officially brought on as their tour photographer. Where the Childers crew appreciated her sensitivity, she appreciated the work culture. The thoughtfulness was reciprocal.
Childers, having a reputation of a close-knit, familial crew, proved to be an exceptional boss. Delevante is the only woman on the tour, but she doesn’t feel ostracized or disrespected. The work environment is positive, and supportive. This energy shows in Delevante’s photos, her work with Childers feels intimate, fun, and genuine. It’s not overly contrived, or manipulated, it’s a group of folks living their lives out in front of each other. There are remarkable, humorous, and even mundane moments. That’s what makes them so special.
“The Childers crew made me feel safe, made me feel protected. And calm. That’s something that has so much value. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just impressive, and incredible, it feels like a baseline that everybody should have.”
Delevante has shared with Saddle Mountain Post ten of her favorite moments during her photography career with Tyler Childers and the Food Stamps.
This was the first show I ever shot with Tyler and The Food Stamps. Someone (TM Kyle Crownover) had a lapse of judgment and let me backstage, and I kind of just never left. I was incredibly nervous. It was my first time being backstage with my camera, so my solution to that was to stay as unseen as I could. I bought a flash for my camera the morning of this show from some guy off of Craigslist in the Kroger parking lot by my house. I wanted the band to forget I was there, and I’d like to think that worked in my favor.
This was the band’s Opry Debut. They were only playing a few songs, and I had never been backstage at the Opry before, so I asked if I could come shoot it. They were given matching jackets.
This was the first big music video Tyler ever shot, and the first music video set I had ever been on. At the time I had been looking for inspiration in a lot of old portraits of musicians like Ralph Stanley and John Prine. I’m thankful that Tyler feels comfortable enough in front of my camera to not take it too seriously.
This was the first time I was shooting for an artist playing the Ryman. This was on the second night of the residency, Marty Stuart had opened, and just before the set he signed James’ guitar with a dremel tool.
This was the first night of the Long Violent History recording week. While the other musicians were outside on Tyler’s porch rehearsing, he ran inside to tune his fiddle. I was nervous about only getting this shot on film- I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. It ended up being one of my favorite photos of Tyler I’ve ever taken.
This was on the last day of the Long Violent History recording week. Before traveling to Kentucky, I was told by Tyler’s manager, Ian, that we’d be recording a portion of the album in an amphitheater by Tyler’s house for reverb. After a couple days, I found out that it wasn’t an amphitheater, but a sinkhole.
I’m terrified of heights and had to be strapped into a harness (3 times too big), and climb down two ladders tied together. I remember my palms being sweaty, while everyone around me was uncharacteristically quiet as Tyler and Jesse got the rig ready for us to rappel down.
It was pitch black in the sinkhole, so I set a little video light on a ridge on the wall, and took a long exposure of Tyler sitting listening to the sound being tested. Afterwards, we turned the light off, and sat in the dark listening back to the album they had spent the last week recording.
This was my first time at Red Rocks Amphitheater, and one of our first shows back after the pandemic. After being away for so long, it felt like a big family reunion.
I had a week to prepare for this shoot, and didn’t have specific instructions. The band had recorded all of the Hounds album in the studio at James’ house, so it felt special to be able to take the press images for that in the space the album was created in.
It was 103° that day, but started cooling down right before his set. The crowd was wild from the beginning to the end. Shows like this make me think about the first time I worked with them at the Exit in, with only a 500 person capacity. Over 70,000 people attended Stagecoach that day.