David Brendan Hall Captures World-Renowned Artists on Austin Stages
The creative combined his two biggest passions — music and photojournalism — to create his dream career
When David Brendan Hall was a teenager growing up here in Austin, he was obsessed with music — so much so that he’d forgo eating in middle school to instead save up his lunch money, stockpiling it until he’d have enough to buy concert tickets. This usually got him to one or two shows a month, well worth waiting to eat until he got home.
As a sophomore at McCallum High School, in the North Loop neighborhood of Austin, David was introduced to the darkroom and world of photojournalism. He started spending countless hours in the darkroom by himself, mostly outside of class time, developing film and printing photos.
In the spring of 2004, he was assigned to create a photo essay using film scans of any subject, and he of course chose live music, specifically a show at Stubb’s by The Darkness (whose song “I Believe in a Thing Called Love” was blowing up at the time). It was purely by chance that in April of that year, he found a ticket to the sold-out show on eBay and brought a disposable camera. As David was laying out the images on the page and writing captions for each, he realized that music photojournalism was not just a teenage pastime he was going to let fade into a formative memory.
“This is something I would love to do as a career,” he remembers thinking during that time. “Marry these two passions that I have — photojournalism and music.”
It took the better part of five years to make that happen. He graduated high school a year early and took that time to apply to colleges. While he always thought he’d stay in Austin and attend the University of Texas, he suddenly felt a calling to move away — and so only applied to schools outside of Texas.
Thanks largely to a generous scholarship, he went on to study journalism at Chapman University, a private college in Orange County, California. He wanted to minor in photojournalism, but because it didn’t exist at Chapman, he had to create the curriculum himself. While he continued to study and practice photography, especially when Chapman eventually brought back a photojournalism class, writing took center stage for a while.
During his sophomore year, David started an internship at a newspaper called the “Orange County Register,” where he started out writing local news. During his senior year, he got the chance to move to the entertainment department to write about music. This move gave him a chance to ask his new editor, Ben Wener, if he could also take photos. When he was given the green light to do so, it felt like his dream was coming true.
After he graduated in 2010, he accepted a contract role with the Register to continue to cover music. During that time, with social media like Instagram on the rise, David recognized that people’s attention spans were waning, and that, more and more, they preferred compelling images over writing, especially long-form print stories. And unfortunately, while he loved journalism for which he’d gone to school to study, writing could often be a tough gig with low pay and stressful deadlines.
When he moved back to Austin in 2013, photography had become an even bigger focus. He started working for The Austin Chronicle, mostly taking photos. While they were a huge client, David was doing contract work for a variety of other publications at the same time, working tirelessly to build his career.
“I had a goal in my mind, a pipe dream in the back of my head, and I followed it all the way to California and back,” he says. “And you know, and it’s been a wild ride, a lifetime’s worth of experiences in a short amount of time.”
Many of those most formidable experiences were here in Austin, including at Austin City Limits. He attended the second-ever ACL fest in 2003 when he was just 15 and has only missed a couple since then. And that was just one of the dozens of festivals he would attend annually during those freelancing years of his 20s. Because he’d pay for his own travel and lodging, and with meager wages for his photo work, he’d often end up just breaking even.
“And so for a while, the goal was, starting with me saving my lunch money, how do I get to the next concert? And then it also became: how do I get to the next concert but also make this a living?”
David became a full-time staff member of the “Chronical” in 2017, where he mostly took photos but did some writing as well. He even had his own weekly column for a couple of years, called Snapshot, which was a photo-heavy conversational piece about whatever local topic he chose.
In 2021, he went back to being a freelancer — but this time in a different way. Because so many people want to do it, music photography (much like writing) often doesn’t pay well.
“Publications can almost always find someone cheaper, or to do it for free,” says David, “because people are really excited to do it, and they’re really hungry.” David had admittedly been one of those eager photographers in his former years, willing to take any gig even if it meant struggling financially. But these days, he has set up reliable, foundational work that pays him well. A lot of his income now comes from sponsorship photography, which has a branding focus at music events but also includes shooting music. For example, at SXSW, he shoots activations and lifestyle photography focused around the beverage sponsors along with the music headliners.
“I feel really lucky that I’ve had outlets that, ethically speaking, have to pay me right,” says David. “So I have been able to make money from it, allowing me to do the stuff that might pay less, like music, that I really love doing.”
It’s been almost 20 years since The Darkness show, where he first really discovered his love for photographing music. Currently, he averages about 160 days of live music a year, an award-winning photographer living the life his 15-year-old self dreamt up. He’s gotten to photograph some of the most iconic artists of all time, including Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones.
Often on the road traveling to shows and festivals, where he’s in the photo pit with other photographers, life can feel chaotic. And getting the best images requires both luck and skill. Sometimes there are specific rules the artists have photographers adhere to, and oftentimes you only get three songs to be in the pit. But it’s always a thrill, and David has never lost that pure music fandom.
“Interacting with the fans is part of what keeps me going. Keeps me in it. Because music is so powerful. It changed my life. It changes people’s lives. It continues to heal me and get me through some of the hardest times.”
When he sees and shoots the fans, David recognizes himself in their emotions. And sometimes those images are even more captivating than those of the artist. Similarly, he feels connected and inspired by the other people who work in Austin’s music industry, the folks who make it all possible.
“One of the most fulfilling things about my music photography career in Austin is the way in which it’s formed connections with people in the Austin music industry,” David says. “By photographing local artists multiple times over the years, my relationships with them have transformed from purely professional to some of my strongest friendships.”
In his free time at home, David loves playing the guitar and making music himself. From writing to photography to music, he’s a modern renaissance man. And even over all the years, all the assignments and shoots, he doesn’t lose sight of how special it is to cover subjects that are so inspirational to him. David’s authenticity and gratitude are as palpable as his photos. Austin is lucky to have him.