The following post is by New York-based photographer and artist Angela Datre, who provides a thorough introduction into concert photography and delves into what it takes to capture the essence of a concert. Learn more about her at the end of this post.
“It’s very hard with a still photograph to capture the action of a concert. You try to see something in the face, the body, the lighting…Once I see a good shot in the viewfinder, it’s gone. The music gets inside of me, it’s in my brain, I’m close enough to the stage so that the vibration from the speakers is making my skin tingle, and I’m filling the viewfinder with the musician. I just always feel high.”
-Baron Wolman, Concert Photographer
When it comes down to it, I take photographs at the shows I attend because I can’t not take photographs when I am there. I feel awkward if I am not all the way up front-able to see everything, shoot everything. It started with snapshots in the crowd when I was younger and has now become a lifestyle, an obsession.
I thought I would write a blog post on live music photography because it is something that is so near and dear to me. And I’ll admit it; I started off the same way many young photographers start out-bringing a point and shoot digital camera to shows and shooting with a slow-shutter speed or tilting the camera so the image is askew. It took me some time to realize that there is so so much more you can do with live music photography and I feel the need to share what I have learned with others.
Smaller Venues First
My first recommendation for people interested in this field is to start small. Do not go and ask for a press pass for Madison Square Garden before you have shot the bar around the corner from your house. Start by shooting local bands in a variety of venues, but mostly, venues where you will not need a photo pass. Afterwards, send the images to the bands and allow them to use them on their websites. You are helping out the band while simultaneously promoting your work. You have to be realistic and understand that you may not be getting paid to this for a while, as you build up a portfolio, and be okay with that fact. You have to be doing it because you love it, not because you are trying to make some cash.
Shoot What You Know
My next bit of advice is to shoot what you know and it comes with a story. One winter night early in 2007, I drove about an hour out east on Long Island to go shoot some hardcore bands in a temple basement and I consider that night one to be one of the defining moments in my life as a photographer. The year before I had shot some musicians because of acquired photo passes, at a local venue and at a music festival in New York City, but somehow this night meant more. It was then that I realized that I did not need a photo pass to create “important” images and that shooting the bands I was into was what I should have been doing all along. You should always start with shooting what you know. In that case, you are not an outsider to the scene; you are a member of the scene. You understand the music and in turn, should know the best way to describe it. Personally, I discovered that shooting hardcore and punk shows was all about describing the connection between the band and the crowd and the intense energy the music brings, and since that night, that has been my main objective.
The Decisive Moment
Another essential element of concert photography that I would like to reveal to young photographers is to think about “the decisive moment”. Henri Cartier-Bresson had it right. Concert photography is also about discovering that perfect split second in time. In this case, it is the second that can define the show, the band, and the night. It is about creating an image that can stand alone, that needs no introduction or description. Most concert photographers shoot digital these days, which can be a gift and a curse. The pro is that you can shoot a ridiculous amount of pictures. Ironically, it is also the con. You want to think about each shot as if you were shooting film and had to conserve frames (You should also try shooting actual film!). That way you are probably more likely to compose the musician into the shot the way you would compose a portrait. Pay attention to the way light hits them, crop out what is unnecessary, think about exposure, and do not forget to focus. When it comes down to it, you basically have half a second to consider all these things but soon it will simply come natural. You will not have to think about it, you will just find yourself doing it.
Camera Equipment and Technique
Once you have shot a few concerts you will realize that every venue and every band can be a different experience. In some concert halls you may only be able to shoot the first three songs. In others, you may not be allowed to use a flash. It is all about adapting to your situation. Bring a few lenses; bring two cameras (I usually do). Move around, try and shoot each member of the band, and do not forget one of my favorite things-shoot the crowd! It is because of them that the band is where they are and they can be full of such genuine emotion. And finally, look into your viewfinder to compose an image! Something that I have begun to see a lot of is photographers who do not look in their viewfinders while shooting a band but instead hold the camera out in front of them and just shoot shoot shoot. I find it to be absurd. It is one thing if you do it a few times at a specific moment in a show, like if they singer of the band jumps into the crowd and the only way you can shoot it is to put the camera above your head. But if that is not the case, please look in your viewfinder. Make a picture; do not take a picture.
Learning From Others
And lastly, learn from the masters. It is difficult to find good music photography on the Internet or even in bookstores or libraries these days. It is still not considered much of an art form when compared to various other “types” of photography. However, I know a multitude of photographers that challenge that statement and have created truly special images of iconic moments in music history in which you can really feel the era, the band, and the music scene in their work. You know it is a good photograph when you can almost hear the music.
The furthest back I could go was the 1940s and the photographer was Herman Leonard. Leonard shot jazz musicians such as Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington in New York City during the 40s, 50s, and early 60s. His powerful black and white images feel like movie stills-perfect little moments in time with amazing lighting illuminating the musician. He captured the true essence of New York City jazz clubs during his time.
Jim Marshall’s work should also be noted. He shot the well-known image of Johnny Cash “flipping the bird” at San Quentin Prison in 1970 and continued to shoot the 70s in an exciting way. His pictures of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones epitomized rock and roll.
When it comes to the 1980s, Glen E. Friedman and Edward Colver come to mind. They were around at the beginning of hardcore music in Los Angeles and shot iconic bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat. Basically, they were in the right places at the right time, the beginning of so many new and exciting things.
Friedman has been known to shoot few photos-just enough to get what he needs. He once said “When you have these voyeurs coming in to shoot this certain thing because it’s hot or it’s what the kids are doing, it’s ****ing lame. They may get a good shot now and then, but do they really feel it?” It is vital that photographers feel a personal connection to what they shoot and I think that it is evident in the work they produce.
I first came across Colver’s photographs when I read the book “American Hardcore”. His picture graced the front cover of the book-a startling image of the singer of the band Wasted Youth singing with blood dripping down his face and chest. These photographs put Colver right in the center of what was happening. Cynthia Murphy from Photographer’s Forum said, “He was visible at every punk show within a seventy-mile radius from downtown LA to Riverside County.” His photographs show an urgency and energy you do not see in many photographers’ work these days and he clearly had the dedication. If you want to see images of someone who was there for the music, down in the pit shooting every part of the scene-then take a look at Edward Colver’s work.
Putting It All Together
I think that a lot of people do not realize how difficult music photography can be. You want to capture these perfect moments without bothering the musicians or disrupting a show. You have to remain invisible in a way. Different situations make it “easier” of course. If you are standing in front of a barrier at a larger concert venue it is a lot different then being cramped in a basement hardcore show where you’re standing on the floor with the band and the crowd is pushing into you. But in my opinion, the latter makes it a whole lot more fun, more intense and spontaneous.
Music photography is just like other types of photography I suppose. You have the people that stand way up front with their fancy equipment and shoot the same typical, tired images and then you have the select few that are really there for the music and can totally capture a scene in a new and exciting way. I think that the advent of digital photography created a lot more concert photographers. Would this many people be photographing if they had to manually focus each picture then spend an hour or more developing their film afterwards? Probably not. You just hope that everyone is there for the music and that the photographers that are taking up space up front are trying to create something memorable.
Angela Datre is an artist living and working in New York. She attended Adelphi University on the Provost Talent Scholarship from 2005-2008 and concluded her time there with the BA Exhibition award. She graduated Magna Cum Laude with a BA in Studio Arts. Her work has been shown in both Long Island and Manhattan galleries. You can see some of her work and connect with Angela at AngelaDatre.com.