Hanging with the Jo Bros
At the start of the fall semester in 2007, Seton Hall junior Rob Hoffman was snapping women’s soccer shots in preparation for the Setonian production night.
Mid-game his phone rang,
“Can you be on a plane tonight?” a band manager asked. The next day Rob was en route to Virginia for what he thought would be a short photo gig with his friend Greg’s band, but it turned into two years of touring the world to take pictures of a family band from Wyckoff, New Jersey. You may have heard of them: the Jonas Brothers? Kevin, Joe and Nick Jonas just finished the third leg of their 73 city Jonas Brothers World Tour 2009. Last summer’s album, “A Little Bit Longer,” went platinum and this summer’s “Lines, Vines and Trying Times” premiered at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 charts. The brothers are kind of a big deal.Hoffman’s story started when his roommate and hometown friend Greg Garbowsky checked out of Boland Hall to go on tour with the Jonas Brothers. “I had never heard of them,” Hoffman said in a phone interview with The Setonian. “It was kind of weird. He [Greg] left and about a year later when I was a sophomore he called me and said he was playing a show at Starland Ballroom.” Garbowsky called Hoffman because he wanted some good press shots. The band’s management liked what they saw and called Hoffman a year later to shoot the band in New York, and again in fall 2007 to join the band on tour.”At that point I’m sure they knew professional photographers who wanted money to do everything,” Hoffman said. “I thought this was a cool idea, but I obviously planned on coming back to school the next semester. I’ll do this for three weeks, have a little down time, and then finish up school.”Although familiar with the Jonas Brothers from what Garbowsky had told him, Hoffman was completely new to touring, particularly with burgeoning celebrities. Hoffman said that he realized exactly what he got himself into on his second day of work after flying in a private jet to Texas and being air-lifted to fairgrounds in Dallas. “When we got there, there were like 50,000 people or something ridiculous, and at that point I still didn’t really know who the Jonas Brothers were apart from what Greg was telling me,” Hoffman said. “At that point I realized that these kids were really becoming huge. I was like ‘Wow, this is kind of serious.'”Serious enough to need a photographer as a member of the touring staff. Hoffman, along with Garbowsky, John Taylor, Jack Lawless and Ryan Liestman who make up the brothers’ backup band, has spent the last two years touring the United States, with stops in South America and Europe. Hoffman jokes that he’s currently “on call” while spending some precious downtime in his Los Angeles apartment. “I think the hardest part about it is all the work, it’s 365 days a year,” he said. “Keeping up with their schedule is very difficult.” Every day of the tour is a work day for Hoffman who wanders the stage in all black during shows, experimenting with shooting angles and finding hiding places to stay inconspicuous. “I pretty much have free range,” he said. “I mean, obviously you don’t run up to the boys and stand right next to them.” His favorite photos to take are behind-the scene shot; including the black and white portrait of the brothers at the Ed Sullivan Theater that was featured in the June 2009 issue of Rolling Stone. “Having that backstage behind-the-scenes stuff, just having that ability to go places that most photographers can’t gives a more personal feel to the images,” Hoffman said.Discussing the article in Rolling Stone, which features his biggest photo credit to date, Hoffman laughs: “My Mom bought a box of them,” he said. “I used to sit in the Setonian office on production night for hours on end and think, ‘Man, I really wish I could have taken a picture like that for Rolling Stone’ or ‘How do you even get a picture in Rolling Stone? All the hard work kind of pays off right there.”Hoffman said that another one of his monumental career moments was when he found out that the Jonas Brothers wanted to publish a book featuring his photography. “Burning Up: On Tour with the Jonas Brothers” published in 2008 by Hyperion gives a behind the scenes look at the boys’ 48-stop tour.Although the book was mostly compiled, the publishers were stuck on a cover photo and approached Hoffman about a substitute. “I didn’t really like it, the boys didn’t really like it, we only had two days to get something in,” he said. “Finally, Nick was the one who came up with it, he said ‘Why don’t you just come on stage and take a picture of us with the fans?'” The cover shot is just one of many of Hoffman’s photos featured in the book.As much as the book deals and world tours are a part of working for the Jonas Brothers, so are extremely devoted fans. Hoffman said he had a particularly difficult time falling asleep in Peru because six dozen girls were chanting “Jonas” over and over outside of his hotel room. Besides constantly having to self-edit and work under a deadline, Hoffman said that there are a lot of challenging aspects to photographing on the road, but he’s happy to play the role of curator. “They really are this pop culture phenomenon, that’s how I view it,” Hoffman said about Kevin, Joe and Nick. “Just to be the photographer with the most access to them is really, really cool.” Hoffman said that because he’s been with the boys for so long they have a good understanding of boundaries and a sense of trust which makes shooting a lot less complicated and enables him to get the intimate shots that get noticed. “We have this agreement where if they need a minute, they can just tell me and I’m not going to be offended,” he said. Business aside, Hoffman said that the best part of touring is getting to spend time with good friends. During the recent tour, the brothers and the backup band had a softball team, Road Dogs, and took a day off in Dallas to go jet-skiing. “They’re really great kids,” Hoffman said of Kevin, Joe and Nick. “Even though they’re my boss, I still have a really cool personal relationship with these people I work with so often and so closely.”He never spends too much time apart from the backup guys either. “Greg and I used to room together in Boland and now we’re living on a bus,” Hoffman said. But the guys are still close in L.A. “Actually, when I moved out to Los Angeles we were all moving out here at the same time except for Ryan, and we all live in the same neighborhood like two blocks away in either direction.”During downtime in Los Angeles, Hoffman remembers what he misses about college. “This sounds lazy, but I just miss sitting around watching TV, having nothing to do and nowhere to be,” he said. However, Hoffman still stands by the decision that he made two years ago in a split-second cell phone conversation. “I do kind of wish I had that senior year of college, everyone talks about how that’s supposed to be the best. As far as all these experiences I’ve had and the fact that I actually have a career, there’s no way I can regret it. I’ve been so many places with the boys and seen so much, it’s honestly the best decision I’ve ever made in my life up to this point.”Until the next adventure, Hoffman said he’s going to enjoy some time with his grill and Giants football, fixing up the apartment and catching up on some sleep.”Everything’s kind of happened so fast that I feel like I might not appreciate it as much,” he said. “When I sit down at the end of the night and think about everything that’s happened, I’m proud that I’ve stuck with it for so long.”Meghan Dixon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All pictures by Rob Hoffman/ JBE.