The stills

Through the inevitable cycles that have seen the Halifax music scene rise to delirious peaks and crash into oblivion, David Cieplinski has been there, capturing it all from the shadows.

It’s easy to pick out photographer David Cieplinski as he turns the corner from the parking lot behind St. Antonio’s Hall on Hunter Street. A camera bag, adorned with a colour wash of rock pins, straddles one shoulder. A palm-sized silver digital camera is hitched onto his belt, clipped alongside a mini-flashlight and a vintage belt buckle. He carries plastic bags marketing happy memories from a local photo developer. What’s not as apparent is that Cieplinski, or DMC as he’s known in some circles, is one of the biggest supporters—and fans—of Halifax indie musicians, and the unofficial owner of the scene’s largest photographic archive.

For over 12 years, Cieplinski, who resembles a gentle Jack Black with neck-length red hair and a clipped beard, has been a recognizable fixture at gigs. You’ve probably seen him alongside the stage, Minolta camera in hand, waiting for the right kick, chord or expression. He doesn’t take photos for money or recognition. “It’s hard to make a living as a photographer, particularly a rock ’n’ roll photographer, if all your clients are punk bands,” he admits.

Cieplinski doesn’t seem convinced there’s enough of a story to fill newsprint: “I like going to shows and I like to take pictures,” he shrugs. But then he starts reminiscing about one of the early shows where—still too young to enter bars—he lugged the removable backseat of his mother’s van outside the long-gone Double Deuce (Cieplinski could also write a novella on the tumultuous landscape of Halifax’s live music venues) to hear Eric’s Trip. “We sat outside and watched the band,” he laughs. “Julie said it was the best seat in the house.”

Cieplinski deftly switches to chatting about the five shows he caught across town the previous Saturday night, when Rob MacArthur appears. MacArthur is the owner of the Rock Garden, a rehearsal and jam space tucked away in the basement of St. Antonio’s. He’s also responsible for the exhibition of Cieplinski’s photos in the common area of the Garden, now called the Underground Gallery—ambient eye candy for the musicians and friends who spend long hours working and hanging out there.

Taking a cue from Fred and Utility Tattoo Studio, MacArthur says that once the studio walls were painted black, the idea of art in the space “just popped out.” Eric Hayes—who shot everyone from Dylan to Hendrix during the decade of free lovin’—was scheduled to share the show, but had to cancel due to scheduling conflicts.

“Originally Eric wanted someone else from the local music scene that would complement his rock photography. He suggested Dave,” says MacArthur. “Since I moved to Halifax I’ve always seen this guy at every show, taking photos. I thought he worked for one of the newspapers. I’m really happy that Dave agreed to do it. All the time, the money he’s put in and he asked for so little. He’s supported so many bands over the years, that it’s nice to see it turn around.”

It’s one day before the opening of Cieplinski’s first show, but he doesn’t seem concerned. Later, he will make cookies for the opening party, in response to musicians Laura Peek’s and Mike Catano’s penchant for baked goods. He ignores rolls of industrial carpet butted up against the walls, cans of goopy paint stacked in a corner beside garbage bags filled with bottles. Actually, Cieplinski seems at home amidst the chaotic surroundings.

Small adhesive labels mark where each photo will hang; according to Cieplinski, there are 82 photos from 50 bands, not an easy feat to select considering that he has shot over 1,000 rolls of film. Photos of musicians who rent space in the Garden—including Sharp Like Knives, The Holy Shroud, Great Plains, The Stolen Minks and Jenn Grant—will hang outside their respective doors, but not until later in the day, after a replastered hole is sanded and painted.

Cieplinski moves debris off a counter to pull out the photos from plastic bags. Each is framed in a simple black mat with a fisheye hanger and rubber stoppers on the back. A simple framing job that suits the diamond-in-the-rough gallery space.

He has a story for each band, photo, gig. He takes a moment to admire Wax Mannequin’s eagle belt buckle. He picks out Benn Ross, playing drums behind Ashley Moffat, noting Ross’s picture fanaticism. He takes a second look at a sweaty shot of Fugazi, which Cieplinski claims is one of the best shows Halifax has ever hosted. Moving through the photos, he defends Bearly’s karaoke (“It’s a performance, isn’t it?”), admires the colour tones on Tegan and Sara’s porcelain skin, and proudly points out an in-store performance by North of America with the HMV banner strategically cropped out.

Although there’s no discrimination in picking subjects, he pauses at one of ’90s pop outfit Plumtree—a crisp close-up of the Gillis sisters performing in front of a tie-dye backdrop. Cieplinski talks about the quiet Fredericton show shared with Thrush Hermit, caught on the way back from a Stereolab concert in Montreal. “I think one of my major inspirations for taking pictures was going to Plumtree shows. I took a lot of photos of those shows back in the day.”

Later, he pulls out four shots of The Maynards: “I couldn’t not have those shots in, that’s why there are so many.” Cieplinski only shoots what inspires him, and makes efforts to shoot all members of the band, including the oft-neglected drummers. “Someone who’s working as a pro for a newspaper or whatever has a deadline,” he explains. “They take their 10 photos of the lead singer and then they leave. But I can concentrate on everyone in the band, just explore the different angles and possibilities.”

Not every show offers possibilities—most musicians can recall a shitty performance or 10. Does Cieplinski shoot every concert? “If a show sucks, I might just take a couple pictures to say I was there. That’s the thing, if it’s a good show, I’ll spend a lot of money on film.”

It doesn’t take an accountant to figure out that 1,000 rolls of film equals one hell of a developing bill and filing system. “I organize them much better now,” he admits. “When I get a roll of film developed, I take it home, and then I scan it and put it away. Some of the first shows I took shots at—a couple of Sloan shows, Thrush Hermit—some of those the negatives are probably lost forever, which is a shame.”

Speaking of which, there are no Sloan photos in the stacks. “Sloan are some of my earliest photos. I know I had some good ones at a show—what was it called?” Cieplinski answers himself. “The Double O Gallery. They played way back just before Christmas. Chris got up on the side of the stage and dove into the crowd and I accidentally grabbed his crotch. That’s rock ’n’ roll for you… if only I had a picture.”

Cieplinski never attended art school. He’s a chemistry major who works at an inventory company. He started out modestly with his dentist father’s neglected Minolta 5201, which led a fascination with vintage camera equipment.

Another “nerdy pursuit” is his collection of Minolta promotional literature, manuals and brochures; it’s one of the largest in the world. He also likes to take photos of birds—eagles in the winter and hurons in the summer. He doesn’t use his antiques to shoot shows, but he trusts manual cameras that are over 20 years old. What about the digital camera on the belt? “I might occasionally use it for a snapshot. If I’m taking pictures, focusing on a quality shot and someone trips on stage, it’s a funny moment. I’ll take out the digital and take a quick snap, but not a serious photo.”

A couple of years ago, the popularity of digital cameras almost sucked the fun out of his hobby. “For awhile I was a bit uninspired when it seemed everyone had one of those little digitals—when it was new and fresh,” he recalls. “There would be plenty of digital flashes going off. I just didn’t take as many, didn’t put as much effort into it.”

And Cieplinski doesn’t digitally manipulate his shots either. He relies on lighting, flash, film and luck for affects. He also has favourite venues. Many of the photos in the show take advantage of the Khyber Club’s enveloping red walls and high, white ceiling. He likes bouncing the light off it to achieve warm skin tones—as he demonstrates with a gorgeous picture of Jenn Grant, her eyes almost sparkle in cartoon fashion.

If he’s not at the Khyber, you might find Cieplinski behind the lens at Stage Nine. Watch for him at One World Cafe or at Gus’ Pub (although he wishes their shows would start earlier so he could catch more in one night). He dismisses claims that the local music scene was ever on its deathbed—he’s been to more shows since the Marquee closed than he ever attended at the Marquee.

“Consider that in the past month and a half, I’ve gone to about 80 shows,” he concludes. “There’s definitely a renaissance happening. Lots of good bands, lots of good shows.”And Cieplinski will be in the shadows capturing it all.

Support The Coast

At a time when the city needs local coverage more than ever, we’re asking for your help to support independent journalism. We are committed as always to providing free access to readers, particularly as we confront the impact of COVID-19 in Halifax and beyond.

Read more about the work we do here, or consider making a donation. Thank you for your support!

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment


Did you vote in advance polls for the 2021 federal election?

Get more Halifax

Our Thursday email gets you caught up with The Coast. Sign up and go deep on Halifax.