Sean Rayford has been focusing his lens in the city’s downtown bars and clubs for 15 years, and is just having his first art show.
SODA ROCK: If you’ve been in a rock band that has played at New Brookland Tavern – or been to rock shows there – in the last decade, you’ve probably been in one of Sean Rayford’s photographs.
And, if you’re old enough to drink, he’s most certainly served you a cocktail. Rayford, the West Columbia bar’s longtime bartender, is also one of the scene’s most prolific photographers. It’s a wonder then that Rayford, who has been focusing his lens in the city’s downtown bars and clubs for 15 years, is just having his first art show.
“Soda City Rocks – A Photography Exhibit by Sean Rayford” opens tonight at The Garden Deli, the restaurant owned by Mike Lyons, who also owns New Brookland.
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“The opportunity is right there and the timing is right and I’ve found myself more interested in making prints of stuff,” Rayford said. “And it’s probably a reaction to Facebook and social media. Most of the time anything I shoot is going to be seen on a screen, if I’m lucky.”
Whereas Shigeharu Kobayashi, known around town as Shige (pronounced Shiggy), created the Columbi-Yeah! T-shirts and city nickname that has been adopted by many, Rayford is a champion of Soda City. (Get it? The postal abbreviation for Columbia is Cola., therefore it’s the Soda City.)
“I find that more fun to say than any other nickname for this town,” Rayford said. “I didn’t come up with it, obviously.”
Rayford, who, according to his bio, spent the first five years of his life in the Australian Outback, came to Columbia by way of Maryland in 1997 as a USC freshman studying computer science. He lasted one semester in the program before switching to media arts. He’s stuck to shooting the scene since he got here.
“Within that first week, I was down in (the original former Five Points rock club) Elbow (Room) taking pictures of whatever was going on,” said Rayford, who shot for his high school paper. “I wanted to continue doing things like that, and I wasn’t taking any arts classes. And I felt that would be the best route.”
O’Seannessy, as I call him, has shot for The State, Free Times and Columbia City Paper. In the early 2000s, Rayford, along with former Columbia resident Will Mills, published The Whipping Post, a local zine.
“It was just to cover the bands that we were interested in and had no real outlet to do it with,” said Rayford, who also printed another zine, The Angry Whale.
Rayford, 33, has been involved with the music scene even when a camera isn’t in his hands. He hosted “Under the Covers” on WUSC-FM 90.5 with Jonathan Dunagin, the former booking agent at NBT, in early 2000s. He’s also organized Pirate Fest, the dormant daylong festival of hardcore-leaning bands that might be reawakening soon.
“I think I’m going to bring that back this fall,” he said.
There’s more than 30 photos in the “Soda City Rocks” exhibition. The photos are primarily of bands playing in Columbia, and a lot of the shots feature local bands. Attendees will see images of Rise Against, ...for science!, mewithoutYou, The Wonder Years, Jason Isbell, All Get Out, Acid Mothers Temple, Thank God, Can’t Kids, Rancid and Circa Survive.
Rayford chose to use newer prints for the show.
“Because, honestly, I’ve shot a lot better stuff recently,” said Rayford, who had four prints in “We Shot Rock: Rock Photography of the Carolinas,” a companion show to a Columbia Museum of Art exhibition in 2011. “And it’s more accessible, because I don’t have to scan anything.”
At shows, Rayford was the guy holding the camera with one hand as he held his flash aloft. He was looking to capture less flat photographs. If he uses flash now, especially at NBT, he’ll probably have it hanging by bungee cord from the ceiling.
“I guess when you remove the flash from the top of the camera, from the same exact angle the lens is pointing, it makes it more dynamic,” he said. “The way that technology has come along, I honestly don’t have to use as much flash.”
He now even uses an iPhone. (Doesn’t everyone?)
This fall will mark 10 years of bartending for Rayford and Jen Harbin, two faces I always welcome seeing when I go to the club. When asked what his favorite drink to make was, Rayford said that wasn’t his job.
The club draws a diverse crowd, not diverse drinkers. Rayford said 75 percent of his job is grabbing beer and mixing bourbon and Coke or bourbon and ginger ale.
“Most shows are pretty simple,” he said.
And when someone asks for a more refined drink?
“You kind of gotta pause for a second and think, ‘When is this person going to look around and realize where we’re at?’ I’m not going to make a daiquiri,” Rayford said.
I’d like to see a photo from that exchange.