Saturday, February 20, 2010

Concert Photography: Spiral Out, Keep Going

Driving home from work today I had 2 things on my mind: Coming up with a new blog entry and listening to some kick ass music.

I make it a point to regularly mention that I got my start in photography by shooting concerts for my own music magazine. Partially because I want to continue to plug Paragon Music Magazine ( and partially because it's the area of photography that I am still the most passionate about.

I am always reminded of why I do what I do whenever I listen to any of my favorite bands. I got into music journalism because I wanted an "in" with the music industry, and I got into concert photography because I wanted a way to document my favorite bands and whoever we were covering in the next issue. I already wrote a lengthy blog entry about the evolution of all that, so I'll spare you the redundancies.

Instead of going into the "Why" of it all from a historic perspective, I'd rather talk about the "Why" from an artistic perspective. Because, after all, when you strip away the initial goals we set and the highly priced equipment we buy in order to capture the pictures we see in our imagination, there is always the imagination itself, the artistic side of it. This is the side that really makes us click. For every successful artist, photographer or otherwise, there is a person deep down that was once possibly on the edge of starvation and bankruptcy struggling along with their art just for the art's sake. In fact, almost all of the most successful artists got that way by being more dedicated to their art than to their bank account. This is because the life of an artist is one of complete devotion, and above all you need to always remember that there are greater payoffs than money. If to you, money is the ultimate payoff, then you aren't focusing on the right things and will lack the gut and drive it takes to persevere in the face of eating Cheerios 3 meals a day for years.

So what am I getting at here? I got in my truck and headed home after work while listening to one of my all-time favorite bands, TOOL. I love all of their music but I had songs from Lateralus stuck in my head, most importantly the title track. Inspiration comes at funny times, and even with music you sometimes find yourself uncovering a new meaning even after knowing a song inside and out for years. The bridge section of the song completely hit me right between the eyes, as if to scream "Hey dummie! This is what you do, and why you do it!" Here are the lyrics:

"With my feet upon the ground, I move myself between the sounds and open wide to suck it in. 
I feel it move across my skin.
I'm reaching up and reaching out.
I'm reaching for the random or whatever will bewilder me, whatever will bewilder me.
And following our will and wind, we may just go where no one's been.
We'll ride the spiral to the end and may just go where no one's been."

For anyone out there who has ever been front row at a concert, you sort of know the feeling. You're pressed up against a barricade of some sort and the music is literally pounding through your body like a freight train. That's only part of what we feel as concert shooters, at least those of us who really love, really feel our work. Not every show is glorious, there are nights when there is too small of a photo pit area, and nights when they overbooked the photo staff by about 100 people (That's a joke, those photo pits can barely hold 5 people comfortably, but sometimes you'll be crammed in with 15 people clamoring for "the shot"). But there are those nights when there is a flow, and to me, nothing is more beautiful. As much as I love all aspects of photography, I'd trade in every beautiful sunset ever for a non-stop experience of shooting people who create the very music that runs through my veins.

There is something tangible in music, especially at a live performance when there is a synergy, a real-as-dirt connection between the performer and the audience. The heat from the monitors, the smell of sweat as someone pours their soul into communicating their message, the vibration from the woofers under the stage, and the pulsing back and forth sway of the crowd behind you that you can feel in your bones even though you aren't looking at them and are separated by a barricade. The whole outside world ceases to exist in those moments and it's just you, your camera, and the artist in front of you.

So, like the lyrics I posted, you plant your feet firmly into the ground and you move your body between the sound waves. You open your every sense to the flow of the music, to the actual, physical existence of something that most people only ever perceive as sound, and at times, just noise. The monitors are humming, the stage is being stomped by a lively front-person who is completely in their element and you feel the bass graze over your skin as it makes the hair on your neck and arms stand on end while you are simultaneously calculating photographic equations in your mind that only you and your camera understand, and standing in awe of what is unfolding in front of you. This isn't being starstruck, this is being completely and unquestionably tied to the art of both the performance you are watching and the little split second instances you are trying to capture forever. No matter how many other photographers there are at that show, or on that tour, or that get to work with that band for the rest of their duration as performers, nobody will ever have the shots you have. Not even if they stood in the exact same place as you with the exact same gear. Only you can get or miss the shot that you are seeing, feeling and taking in. These moments are transient and may never exist again, so you have to get it right within your 1/60th of a second. You reach up with your camera, very much reaching out for the completely random result you are about to capture. A million things can go wrong or right during each press of the shutter button. This isn't studio work, there is no science to it, and with the settings you have to use to shoot a concert so much can go wrong it's amazing anyone ever gets it right. But we do, and we do it because we put our heart and soul into learning how to make it all come together. Concert photography should be described as the impossible act of taking an immeasurable amount of variables and mistakes and turning them into gold. It's photographic alchemy. You can keep your Photoshop and all the fancy treatments (read: nonsense) people throw onto a head and shoulders corporate portrait; this is where magic has to be made. You reach up with your camera to your eye, you feel the pulse of the music, you move between the sound waves, you feel the heat of the stage lights that are changing colors and intensity at breakneck speed, and you hope for the best, no time to look at the LCD, you just GO. You embrace the random, and follow the ever unfolding spiral of color, sound, and emotion that is going on all around you. You have to be somewhat of a psychic because at any moment during exposure, the subject can move, and if it's a lively show, they probably are doing a lot of moving already, so you need to plan every shot as if it's the last frame you'll ever shoot. If you're like most of us, this euphoric and hectic (all at once, because that's really what art is: part chaos, part beauty) action is over within about 15 minutes. 15 minutes is about the time it takes to perform 3 songs, which is typically all we're allowed to shoot.

The next time you see a photo of your favorite band or musician performing live, take a better look at that photo. That's not just a photo of a musician, it's a photo glimpse into someone's frantic effort to capture a whole lot of things that rarely ever synch up perfectly.

One day I hope to be the next Neil Zlozower or David Bergman, but for now I'm going to be me and do the best I can and continue to work harder and get better results.

That's all for now. More soon.

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