This Photographer (@TheBandWasHere on Instagram) Finds the Places Where Music History Was Made (So You Don’t Have To)

Rock Cellar Magazine

For the first time since the 1980s, vinyl record sales topped CDs in 2020. Each format has its fans for its audio quality but only vinyl has the large-format front and back cover art, liner notes and credits that listeners mull over for hours. It’s an experience CDs, cassettes and streaming sites cannot duplicate. Director and photographer Steve Birnbaum takes the vinyl experience a step further on his Instagram page @TheBandWasHere.

Birnbaum recreates music history by taking photographs at the sites where famous album covers, publicity photos and music videos were shot, but with a twist. Birnbaum composes each shot to include the original photo in his hand, lined up (as best he can) with the background as it appears today.

Based in New York, where most of his composite photos are shot, Birnbaum also documents iconic local sites around the country when traveling on business. Birnbaum’s popular site enables fans, without leaving their homes, to visit the places where their heroes once posed.

Birnbaum discussed his passion project and shared the backstories of some of his favorite shots.

Photographer Steve Birnbaum of @TheBandWasHere

Photographer Steve Birnbaum of @TheBandWasHere

Rock Cellar: How did you get started shooting these locations?

Steve Birnbaum: I started off about 10 years ago with personal family photos, going to locations of when I was young and recreating them. I had a private Instagram account and friends and family were the only ones that were seeing that. About three years ago I was in LA. I like going to locations where certain movies were shot and I started doing that again with movies.

One of my friends suggested I go public with my Instagram, which I then did. I realized there was someone else doing movies at the time so I shifted my attention over to music instead. I have more of an appreciation for music photography so it made sense that I go in that direction.

Rock Cellar: How do you figure out where the locations are?

Steve Birnbaum: There’s a lot of research behind it. Some are well known; I try to avoid going online and seeing where the spot is. You can just Google it and it will come up. With some there are little clues, whether it be a sign in the background, a street sign. A lot of times I get a hunch, being familiar with the city.

I dive through interviews with photographers. Sometimes photographers just put up locations. Thank God for Google Maps. Sometimes I just search down through Google Maps and that’s been really helpful in trying to find these locations.

Rock Cellar: What is your technique for lining up the two shots?

Steve Birnbaum: Just looking through the camera and holding up my hand at the right place. Unfortunately, I go to these locations and I hold up my hand and I take the picture and sometimes it looks great when I’m looking through my iPhone; then I go back and dammit, it didn’t match up exactly how I wish it did.

I’m holding this picture up and my arm is trying to stay in that location while also looking through the camera and taking the picture. Sometimes I’m in the cold so I’m trying to do this quickly. Sometimes I’m in the street, there’s traffic coming and I’m looking behind me. Being in New York, I go to locations and there’s construction, scaffolding, things like that are always a factor.

I was taking photos with my DSLR and it was kind of tough just to get the focus with the lens that I had. I switched over and I’m taking them with my iPhone. I use a wider lens attachment on my iPhone. I have an 18mm, so it gives a little more perspective of the surroundings.

Rock Cellar: Have you ever heard from the artists or the original photographers?

Steve Birnbaum: Yes, the photographers have been great, thankfully. I’ve built some connections with some photographers that really have inspired me through the years and that I look up to, so that’s been great. Artists too. Just recently I put up one of the hardcore punk band H2O and the lead singer really put it out there and was happy to share it.


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A post shared by Toby❌Morse (@tobymorse)

Justin Bieber follows me and he direct messaged me one night and really appreciated what I was doing and had some kind things to say.

Chris Stein from Blondie has been generous enough to share my work as well on the official Blondie account.

Rock Cellar: What’s been the reaction by people on Instagram?

Steve Birnbaum: It’s been positive. I think the way Instagram and social media works, it’s good, because we’re endlessly scrolling, going through content. What I hope to do is make people pause and take a look a few seconds more than just scrolling through a bunch of content. It enables us to connect with artists and photographers. I’m just taking well-known photographers’ work and classic iconic images and putting them into a different light. I like the juxtaposition of how things have changed throughout the years, especially in New York City.

It’s also highlighting these amazing artists. Album covers and album art, you don’t get a good grasp of that anymore with artists. It’s a shame. I’m not saying it’s dying but it’s a whole different thing. These images that I love, and that I grew up with, seeing and loving, I’m just trying to keep it alive and highlight these amazing photographers that did that work. It was a production. You got your photographer to do the photo shoot, the liner notes — it was a work of art.

You sat with the lyrics, you read over those things. And some of these images, it’s amazing for me to be a kid and growing up with these things and going to locations now. It seemed like a whole different world back when I was looking at these. Being in those locations, it’s kind of a trippy time warp thing, especially with artists that I look up to.

Rock Cellar: What are some of your favorite discoveries?

Bruce Springsteen in front of his childhood home in Freehold, NJ. Photographer unknown.

That image isn’t as iconic as other Springsteen images. It was for the inner sleeve of Born in the USA, Springsteen leaning against a tree. There’s a bunch of images within that album. Me going there so many years later, going to this location — it’s his childhood home, fans go there — and you see when you go to this tree, fans leave rocks and they leave notes. You can see from this image what it does for fans so many years later. It’s interesting how something as small as that still resonates with fans years later.

Nirvana at GMT Studios, Culver City, CA. Photo by Kevin Estrada.

Steve Birnbaum: An image like that was special because it might not be as iconic as some of the other images but that day was the day they were shooting the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” So capturing that day was iconic because it shifted everything after that. They just didn’t become Nirvana until after that day. I like the change of history before and after. They were different people before that.

The Rolling Stones on New York’s St. Marks Place.

Steve Birnbaum: That’s from the “Waiting on a Friend” music video. That same building is on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album.

Fugazi at Frankford YMCA, Philadelphia. Photo by Sean Gustilo.

Steve Birnbaum: There’s a video of that show that’s pretty iconic in the punk scene where the lead singer jumps up on that backboard and climbs through the basketball rim and continues singing his song. Going to that location, it was closed off for about 20 years. I was in Philadelphia and took a chance to go back there. I stopped by to see if anything was going on. It just happened that they were doing construction, revamping the whole place and thankfully the construction guys allowed me to go onto this court.

The same basketball net was there, the same backboard was there. It’s eerie being in these locations where people came together for this music and standing there alone in this cold, rundown, barely lit basketball court.

Trey Anastasio of Phish in New York’s Central Park. Photo by Sam Erickson.

Steve Birnbaum: You’re aware of how big Central Park is and it’s just Trey on a rock. Sometimes all I have is a rock. The photographer gave me a ballpark location so all I’m looking for is a rock. Google Maps is really helpful. In time he gave me a little bit more, he said, “I think it was near the Met [Metropolitan Museum of Art], I can’t really remember.” So I started fishing around in the Met area with Google Maps. I was able to go there and I was finally able to find it after searching for a good four months or so. It’s like finding Waldo.

The Band at Big Pink, West Saugerties, NY. Photo by Elliott Landy.

Steve Birnbaum: I talked with the owners. Neighbors don’t like the idea of people going there but the current owner of the house was very generous and he was OK with it. It’s off the beaten path, out of the way, but while I was there taking pictures there were at least three other cars that pulled up, took pictures there, just fans. And that’s just the one day I was there. It’s interesting how years later certain places resonate with fans.

Robbie Robertson saw that. He highlighted the pictures that I took. It was mind-boggling to me.

Cyndi Lauper and Sheryl Crow on New York’s Gay Street.

Steve Birnbaum: The music videos for “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” and also Sheryl Crow’s “A Change Would Do You Good” were shot on that same street. There’ve been tons of other things, whether it be movies or that involve music, on Gay Street. A lot of times people don’t know that. Cyndi Lauper saw that and she too reposted it and that’s crazy.

Kendrick Lamar, Damn album, Los Angeles. Photo by Dave Free.

Steve Birnbaum: I was able to find that location through a fan video on YouTube. Someone was just driving by in the neighborhood in LA and saw Kendrick Lamar doing a photo shoot in the street. He took video out of his car as he was passing. It was a quick clip but I was able to track it down just from a sign that was in that video. I was able to pinpoint where the exact location was.

So I went there and I also noticed that it was similar to his album cover for the Damn album, which is kind of iconic in its own way. It has taken on a life of its own just because of the image, just everything about it. It’s become iconic, not to mention the album’s great. But just a brick wall like that, I would have never been able to track that down without a fan having an iPhone catching this moment at the exact time and I was able to pinpoint it.

I think it’s actually that brick wall where the album cover was shot. The wall’s blue but on the album cover it’s red. And he has the word “Damn” on his shirt in the photo but I think that was taken off in Photoshop later.

Rock Cellar: Is there one location that you’ve searched for that has eluded you?

Steve Birnbaum: One that comes to mind is David Bowie, considered the last photo shoot of David Bowie, where he’s on the street. I thought it was outside of the theater where he was doing a play during that time of his last album. I just can’t find the location. I’ve been searching and searching. There’s no information with the photographer so I can’t really dive in too much on the backstory of how this shoot came about.

I would love to get that, also because of the setting. There’s a brick wall. There are certain ones that I know will just match up nicely and will look really nice with how I do the photos.


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A post shared by David Bowie (@davidbowie)

It was a promo shoot, he was wearing a suit, he seems pretty lively within the photos. It might have been a few months before he passed. I think that’s what is known as of now, the last photo shoot with Bowie before he passed away.


Do you have an idea where the iconic Bowie photo was shot? Or other sites you’d like Birnbaum to feature on Instagram? Let us know in the Comments section below.

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