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
By Liz Harroun
Photos by David Brendan Hall
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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Muse at ACL Festival, Oct. 9, 2010
“I was still living in Orange County, CA at the time, and I had made it to almost every ACL Fest since it started, but this was my first time shooting the festival with a media credential. It was a particularly memorable experience, not just because of the excitement of covering my hometown festival for the first time, but also because at the time I only had one camera. During THIS shoot, something malfunctioned and I suddenly lost my auto focus. I was only able to pull off a few shots that I loved, and I spent the rest of the weekend toughing it out with only manual focus (extremely challenging with live music). Lesson learned: always carry a backup. Not long after, I invested in a second camera.”
Radiohead at Frank Erwin Center, March 7, 2012
“I basically told you the story of this one, but it’s also worth noting that this was my first time shooting Radiohead AND first time shooting at Frank Erwin Center, where I grew up seeing a bunch of shows. I was still living in CA at the time, and I’d flown back to see their Austin City Limits TV taping the night before. I wasn’t expecting to get approved to shoot the Erwin Center show, and I received my photo approval only a couple of hours before it started, so it was a mad dash to get there on time and probably one of the most thrilling experiences of my career up to that point.”
Foxygen at Fun Fun Fun Fest (Auditorium Shores), Nov. 9, 2014
I’m almost certain this was my second time shooting Fun Fun Fun Fest, which any photog, journalist or music fan will tell you was a HUGE highlight of every year (it ran from 2006–2015). Foxygen wasn’t necessarily a bucket list artist for me, but this shot stands out as one my favorites from that time period, and still one of my favorites to this day.
The Foo Fighters ft. Gary Clark Jr. at ACL Festival, Oct. 2, 2015
“Up to this point, I don’t believe I’d ever been lucky enough to shoot from the stage at ACL Fest, so to be able to do that during one of favorite bands’ performances — featuring hometown hero Gary Clark Jr. no less — I was on cloud nine. It was also shortly after FF frontman Dave Grohl broke his leg and did the entire tour sitting in an enormous guitar throne.”
Taylor Swift at the Formula 1 Grand Prix at COTA, Oct. 22, 2016
“Fun fact: I stan Taylor Swift big time. The first time I photographed her in 2013, I was on assignment and not really a fan, but she blew me away. I’ve made a point to photograph every one of her tours since then. This was the closing show for the race that year, her only performance of 2016 (a one-off) and it was estimated that about 80,000 people attended. I wrote about and photographed this one for Billboard.”
Solange at ACL Festival, Oct. 6, 2017
“Solange is Beyoncé’s sister, and at this point was well-established and loved for her own music. It’s one of my favorite photos I’ve ever made, one of those where my skillset and a bit of luck intersected perfectly. The composition, lighting, the moment … all the ingredients were there. I’m particularly proud of this image.”
Janelle Monáe’s Austin City Limits TV taping at the Moody Theater, Oct. 13, 2018
“Shooting the ACL TV tapings is always special. The PBS show is one of Austin’s biggest claims to fame in terms of music history as the tapings launched in the 70s with Willie Nelson and are considered a huge honor to play. Janelle was playing ACL Fest around this time, and as artists who play the fest often do, she scheduled a taping while in town. I’m including it because of the history of the show, and because stands out as one of the most stunning performances I’ve ever seen on that stage, of which I’ve probably photographed at least a couple dozen.”
Lizzo at Stubb’s during SXSW, March 14, 2019
“This show was historic. By 2019, Lizzo was a veteran of SXSW. Known for playing something like 14 shows during just the one week at previous SX’s, she was already considered a warrior of the fest. The significance of this show is that it was arguably her global breakout performance. She debuted songs from her hit album Cuz I Love You, which came out about a month later on April 19, and I remember her coming out in that sequined Texas outfit (she’s from Houston originally, so showing some home state pride) and just blowing everyone away with her singing on the opening song. I knew it right then: she was going to blow up. Sure enough, she was headlining festivals within a few months and now tours arenas. You can ask anyone else who was there — we ALL had that feeling. One of the best SXSW shows ever.”
Charley Crockett at Love & Lightstream’s drive-in concert series, Nov. 14, 2020
“Live music was mostly nonexistent during the first year of the pandemic, but toward the final few months, upstart concert promoter Love & Lightstream started holding a series of drive-in concerts up in Cedar Park where they built a festival-sized stage and had cars spaced out so everyone could enjoy the show safely. After live music’s absence, this felt like heaven. Charley Crockett, one of Texas’s top artists, put on a particularly memorable show. This drive-in series was a saving grace for a lot of people struggling at that time.”
A Giant Dog secret house show, May 21, 2021
“A Giant Dog is one of Austin’s best local bands, hands down. After many had received a couple rounds of vaccinations, they decided to throw a semi-secret house show in the backyard of singer Sabrina Ellis’s house (Sabrina, who identifies as they/them, is pictured during a run into the audience). Talk about catharsis … that show was one for the ages, and also kept a lot of music fans going during a time when the industry was still very touch-and-go.”
Lil Nas X at ACL Festival for Austin Chronicle, Oct. 8, 2022
“I included this one because 1) I feel we need some representation of 2022 and 2) it was one of my favorite images from one of the best performances of the festival. He was astounding live, and I love everything about this image in terms of the moment and composition, especially because the ACL Fest stage signage is visible in the background and ties it all into the place and time. “