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Backstage Access

Valérie Jodoin Keaton's new book of portraits gets you up close and personal with musicians backstage

Ever wanted to spy on your favourite rock stars in those precious minutes before or after they perform? An intimate new photography book, "Backstage" by Valérie Jodoin Keaton does just that, capturing Beck, Rufus Wainwright, Smashing Pumpkins, the Dandy Warhols, M.I.A., Jack White and dozens more. Some portraits from the book are also part of "Who Shot Rock & Roll", a photo exhibit showing at the Brooklyn Museum through January 31st, 2010.

One of Keaton’s favourite shots is of Paul McCartney. “Two days before his show in Quebec City last year, I sent his manager my presentation letter with samples of my photographs,” says the 35-year-old Montrealer, who's also a musician. (Until a couple of years ago, she was a member of the Dears along with husband Martin Pelland, with whom she now has a band called For Those About To Love - and a year old son.) “His manager answered back and said no, but I guess he liked my work because he asked, ‘Do you do live photography?’ and hired me to shoot McCartney’s show and asked me to use the same camera.”

Keaton's calling card is a classic 1975 Hasselblad, loaded with black-and-white film for an old-school, truthful documentary feel. When McCartney hired her again to shoot his Halifax, NS show, she dined with the former Beatle and his friends. “We spent some time talking about my work, and finally he accepted to pose for my project.”

As a touring musician and now, photographer (she’s also done album covers and press shots for the likes of Strokes’ alumnus Albert Hammond Jr.) walking the walk, so to speak, helped Keaton gain access to her Backstage subjects, as well as their trust. They know she understands what it’s all really like. In fact, spending so much time backstage herself is how she became fascinated with capturing those fleeting, human moments that unravel there when nobody’s watching. “The backstage is a timeless space of isolation. Right before performing the subject is so focused on himself that his authenticity shines through... You can see into their souls a little bit,” she explains.

After preparing a demo book as a sort of “passport,” Keaton used her personal contacts to slip backstage before concerts, when no media is normally allowed, and simply asked her subjects to pose. “I like to get up close, capture the moment. Not action shots. I just wanted their gaze.” (Of course, getting permission to later publish all these portraits took three years of legal legwork and red-tape. But she did it.)

An avid observer of people, she says it was humbling to go from being the rock star herself to experiencing, at first, a "weird, intruding feeling every time I photograph.” She would wonder, “Why am I doing this to myself? But every time, the picture is the answer.”

Published by Éditions Varia, Backstage launches in Quebec November 20 at the M for Montreal festival, and is available internationally at www.valeriejodoinkeaton.com. For Keaton’s band and new album, visit www.ftatl.com.