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creative:impact - A photographer gets his close-up

Doug Coombe
Doug Coombe

Being in the right place at the right time put photographer Doug Coombe in the best seats in the house. Since 1999, his camera has captured the music scene in southeast Michigan and documented media stories throughout the region. Get a view of Doug’s world on this edition of "creative:impact" when he joins Deb Polich of Creative Washtenaw.

Deb Polich
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, 89.1 WEMU's David Fair and co-host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explore the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.


Doug Coombe is an Ann Arbor and Detroit based music and editorial photographer. Documenter of the world's best music scene for 20 years. Photographer for Detroit's Metro Times since 1999. Photographer for Concentrate Media and Urban Innovation Exchange Detroit.


Rolling Stone, Spin, Billboard, NME, Mojo, Wax Poetics, The Wire, Sub Pop Records, Ghostly Records and Michigan Radio.


Doug Coombe Official Site

About Doug Coombe


Deb Polich: This is creative:impact on WEMU 89 one FM. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw in my day job, and while David Fair is out on medical leave your solo host for creative:impact, I invite you to join me as we continue to welcome creative guests and explore the impact of the arts and creative industries in Washtenaw County. So, I'm going to guess that most of our listeners have seen the work of our guest, even if they may not know it. Ann Arborite Doug Coombe is a photographer and photojournalist, whose work appears frequently in local print and online media. Welcome to creative:impact, Doug. 

Doug Coombe: Thanks for having me, Deb. 

Deb Polich: Yeah, really. Happy to have you here, too. So, you know, taking photos is something that we all do. But taking pictures and being a professional photographer or photojournalist, that's not the same thing is just taking a picture. Let's take those one at a time. First, what makes a professional photographer? 

Doug Coombe: Well, I think that's really blurred in this day and age. I mean, technically, it would be, you know, being paid to, you know, making a living from your photography. But I think I've seen things over the course of being me a professional just change so much. And, you know, I think just I am a successful graduate of Washtenaw Community College, and that's where I learned--their photo program--that's where I learned my trade. But I mean, now you can learn so many things online on YouTube and stuff, and it's been interesting too. I've seen, you know, the profession change a lot where a lot of people just taking it up as a hobby. I think you can transition into being a professional photographer a lot quicker these days? Maybe. 

Deb Polich: Yeah, it could very well be. And the equipment's a little simpler, I think. 

Doug Coombe: Well, I wouldn't say it's simpler, but digital photography has evolved so much where I do think it is, generally speaking, a lot easier than shooting film, although a lot of people still love shooting film, too. 

Deb Polich: Right. Right. But photojournalism is very different than being a professional photographer. 

Doug Coombe: Well, that, you know, my personal story of how I became a photojournalist is kind of unique, so I don't know if other people could follow my path. I picked up photography as a hobby from working at record stores for a long time in the Ann Arbor area, and I was just documenting bands and shows that I loved, and, through that, I took classes at Washtenaw Community College after I graduated from the U of M. And then, after having completed that fantastic program, I walked into the Metro Times the day their staff photographer Bruce Giffin quit, who is one of my favorite photographers and really inspired me. So, just by dumb luck, I walked in there and that was back in the day of classified ads before Craigslist. The Metro Times was very thick back then. 

Deb Polich: Right. I remember. 

Doug Coombe: And they were like, "We have a summer guide coming out. You want to shoot six stories?" And I said, "Sure." And then I walked out and I was like, "What did I do?"

Deb Polich: Well, talk about being in the right place at the right time. That's perfect. You know, we hear a lot about how the photographer's eye and ability to compose a compelling image is really where talent is defined. Is that nature or nurture? Can you learn how to do that? 

Doug Coombe: Oh, for sure, you can learn how to do it. And, you know, again, I think just talking about how things have changed, I really love that, you know, pretty much everybody has a camera on them these days with their phones. And, yeah, I've seen people just kind of, you know, just learn from shooting on phones and then kind of, you know, a lot of times, you know, after a couple of years, they'll ask me, you know, what's a good camera? You know, the one interesting thing I was taught at Washtenaw Community College, which was actually helpful, but then later caused trouble, was--and it is true when you're taking photography classes a lot of times back then when you're shooting film--it's if you have one good exposure on a roll of film, you're doing good. So, we'll get that picture or try to learn from that picture. The one thing that's very different was when I transitioned into being a photojournalist, you don't want one good photo. I'm just 36 exposures. You need a lot of exposure. 

Deb Polich: Right, right. 

Doug Coombe: So I learned very quickly, you know, I became a little less experimental when I became a photojournalist. 

Deb Polich: This is creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. Our guest is photographer and photojournalist Doug Coombe. So, you've been, you know, having a front row seat at the music scene for in Detroit and Southeast Michigan for quite some time. You know, like a music lover's dream. You mentioned how you started doing that while you were working at the record store, but when did it actually turn into a job where you could actually sell photos? 

Doug Coombe
Credit Doug Coombe
Doug Coombe (right) with Violent J of Insane Clown Posse.


Doug Coombe: Well, I think the Metro Times really kind of helped started working there. You know, I was just shooting concerts. I mean, literally for fun and just not getting paid, and then, you know, suddenly, it did kind of become a paying gig. And I think, you know, the thing too is I do...I've lived in Ann Arbor for a long time now since I came to U o M, but Detroit is just such a fantastic city for the music scene and the arts. And I think just kind of having not only just a front row seat and just kind of getting to know people. And then, I think once you kind of know, you know, bands and people running venues, it's kind of easier to figure out who's kind of up and coming and really interesting and people. And, you know, if you just kind of listen to people who are at the shows, you kind of learn about upcoming talent. And I think that was kind of the thing that really helped me because, shortly after, you know, working at Metro Times, I mean, three really cool things I photographed, one was, you know, there's a little band called The White Stripes. 

Deb Polich: Oh, I've heard of them. They got a little bigger, right? 

Doug Coombe: Yeah, they did all right. I mean, they were playing to, like, 75 people at the Gold Dollar. And it's funny how like those pictures they just took, you know, for fun. And, you know, those pictures later bought me my first, really nice digital camera. So, I think, you know, for me, it's the coolest thing about which I was never expecting when I went to photography. But the cool thing is all the people that I meet. I just kind of went into it wanting to document bands, and the way I look at it now, my camera is just like this ticket that gets me into all these really interesting places with interesting people that I feel like I wouldn't have met if I wasn't a photographer. 

Deb Polich: Do you need an assistant? Can I carry your bag? 

Doug Coombe: It's funny, people ask me. I think the one thing that's unique about me photowise is I've had an assistant once. And I don't know why I've never really had an assistant. I mean, I think the budgets aren't always there for me to do it, but it's fun when people offer to help me, I'm just not sure what to have them do, right? 

Deb Polich: Right. I just want to carry your bag and be at the show. 

Doug Coombe: Yeah. 

Deb Polich: Right. This is creative:impact on WEMU eighty nine point one FM, and our guest today is photographer and photojournalist Doug Coombe. So, I really enjoy your portrait photography. You take what I would call never, you know, you don't take straight-on shots. You've always got interesting camera angles, and you really seem to capture the personality of the person in its photo you're taking. What inspires your frame? 

Deb Polich
Credit Doug Coombe
Deb Polich in her office on November 2, 2015.


Doug Coombe: Well, you know, it's interesting. One thing I would really love to do more but don't actually do much is studio portraiture, so a lot of what I do is just called environmental portraiture, and you know, what's fun about it, but what's incredibly challenging is a lot of times, I mean, I'm almost always walking into a place I haven't scouted out, I haven't really been to. And usually, in a short amount of time, one, I have to figure out where I'm going to take the photo that looks interesting. 

Deb Polich: Right. 

Doug Coombe: But, two, just kind of get to know the person who, you know, most of the time, just a stranger you haven't met before. But, again, I think, you know, the thing that really helps me out with that is I'm fortunate and working for a lot of cool publications and some really fantastic editors and writers along the way. So, usually, the person that I'm photographing is just interesting to me, period. So, I usually just talk to them about the story or ask them what they're doing. Because, I mean, this is genuinely that interesting to me, and I feel we usually have a bunch of shared passions or interests. So, in a way, anyway, that's a long-winded way of seeing my work as kind of an improvization. And, yeah, and it's a little easier with digital now back in film days, every time you click the shutter, that was a dollar, so you couldn't shoot as much. But now, you know, I am one of those guys who takes a lot of, you know, photos quickly and then just tries to figure out, you know, what looks best later.

Deb Polich
Credit Doug Coombe
Deb Polich


Deb Polich: I completely understand what you're talking abou--the curiosity and interest in the person. I find that here with creative:impact for myself too. You know, images have always been important in photojournalism and in music and the like. Do you find that online media and the images as important? Or has that changed?

Doug Coombe: Yeah, I do think it's as important. And I think, you know, I think it's easier to include more photos online. So, I think I've enjoyed that a lot. And a really cool photo essay I got to do before the start of the pandemic for Concentrate was a photo essay on gospel music in Ypsilanti, which was just a joy to shoot. And, yeah, I think it's, you know, I mean, obviously, there are long photo essays that appear in print, but I feel like that kind of pops up or happens more in online journalism, you know, a photo gallery. So, yeah, and I do think the web has kind of helped the photo essay a little bit. Some people might disagree with me, but I think it's helped. 

Doug Coombe: There's always that conversation. Who agrees and who doesn't. Hey, Doug, I hope that your appearance here on creative:impact encourages people to look for your byline, and I want to thank you for being a guest on the show. 

Doug Coombe: Thanks so much for having me, Deb. I really appreciate it. 

Doug Coombe
Credit Doug Coombe
Doug Coombe with a copy of Bobby Sherman's Greatest Hits


Doug Coombe: Yeah, that is photographer and photojournalist Doug Coombe. Learn more about Doug and see some of his work, including a photo or two of me, on WEMU dot org. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and for a few weeks, your solo host on creative:impact while David Fair is out on medical leave. Please join me next week for another conversation with a creative Washtenaw guest. This is your community NPR Station. 89 one WEMU and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti. 

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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