Time for my year-end retrospective already? Geez, the year goes by fast doesn’t it?
Though when looking back through all my shots from the last year, I was (as always) amazed that some of these shows were in 2018. It feels like forever ago that I shot some of these. So I always love reviewing my shots and reminding myself of all the fun I’ve had in the pit this year.
And so without further ado, here are a few of my favorite shots and shows from 2018. As always, the disclaimer applies that I’m choosing not just some of my best shots, but shots that are somehow special to me, or bring back good memories. So here goes!
Let’s start off with the show that started the year for me. Garrett Borns, who goes simply by Børns (I’d love to know how that’d be pronounced in Scandinavia, by the way), has always been fascinating to me. He grew up along the shoreline of West Michigan in a town called Grand Haven, not far from where I grew up, and it’s always been hard to picture a quirky, Gucci-loving pop artist like him coming out of a blue-collar place like that. He’s done well for himself though, recently releasing his second album of pop hits to great acclaim. When he announced he’d be opening his Blue Madonna tour in Oakland at the Fox Theater, I jumped at the chance to shoot it as the house photographer. But a few days prior I was also offered the chance to shoot the whole show for the studio who designed it, which turned out to be a really fun assignment. The show was beautifully lit and I had a great time trying to capture all the lighting cues.
There was one moment in particular I really enjoyed from this show, even though it’s quite simple. During a quieter ballad, Børns was lit by a single spotlight from behind, the light spilling off the stage onto the first row of the audience. A lone woman in the front row, illuminated by this light, reached up toward her idol, unable to reach him.
I happened to be in the balcony at the time, and found a great angle to capture this moment.
My biggest show of the year was none other than Taylor Swift, whom I haven’t taken photos of in quite some time. Needless to say, her show has evolved a bit since the last time I saw her! I was thrilled to have the chance to photograph just the second night of her massive Reputation stadium tour when it came to Santa Clara, California. I heard somewhere that she needed 82 semi trucks to haul around the staging, and I absolutely believe it. The stage was massive and elaborate, I’ve not seen anything quite like it. It was a beautiful show to shoot!
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Taylor has the best team of publicists I’ve encountered yet. Not only were they a joy to communicate with leading up to the show, but her main publicist even came out and introduced herself to each of us before the show, making sure we were set up alright and giving us tips on what to expect in the first two songs. Just the nicest people all around, really.
The sad reality in this industry is that there are many managers, publicists and artists out there who don’t care much for photographers. They might want your photos (and sometimes your copyright), but they don’t care much for you, the person taking them. They tolerate your presence rather than welcome it. They may even try to take advantage of you with unfair contracts, restrict you from doing your best work, and generally make your life difficult.
But Taylor’s team gives me hope.
One of my favorite albums of 2018, and one of my favorite shows as well, was by James Bay. His album Electric Light was incredible and probably didn’t get the attention it deserved, despite James getting a big break debuting two tracks on Saturday Night Live last spring. It’s a pretty great album, in my opinion, especially in the latter half.
James played a show at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco shortly before the album released, and it was all kinds of amazing. And I don’t know what it is, but the man seems to have a knack for looking cool in my photos, both times I’ve photographed him. I got one shot of him looking off in the distance in that sweet red leather jacket of his, bathed in harsh white light, that I’m particularly fond of. He’s the epitome of cool. Everything about this picture takes me back to that show and that album, and I’m thankful for it.
Changing gears to another brand of “cool”, I had the chance to shoot another legend this year: “Weird Al” Yankovic! I grew up listening to his music, and remember having my young mind blown by his movie UHF many years ago, so it was especially thrilling to capture his “Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour” when it came to Oakland. Weird Al left his props and costumes at home for this tour, choosing instead to play deeper cuts in a more intimate, sit-down setting. It was still awesome.
Speaking of legends, I also had the chance to photograph Rivers Cuomo of Weezer when he came to San Francisco to play a solo acoustic show at a small venue in town called August Hall. I hadn’t seen Weezer in a long time, and I had missed shooting their recent tour stop in the Bay Area due to summer travels, so I was thankful to catch him in such a unique setting. Unfortunately the venue was set up in such a way that there wasn’t a dedicated spot in front for photographers to work from, but I was able to grab a little spot stage right where I could get some fun profile shots.
One of my most pleasant surprises came in October, when I finally got to shoot The National performing at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley again. I say “finally” because I had been scheduled to photograph them one year earlier in the same location, but the show had to be postponed due to the unhealthy air that blanketed the Bay Area during the Santa Rosa fires. A year was a long time to wait for a postponed show, but it turned out to be worth it.
I had photographed The National once before, in the same venue, and came away a little disappointed. They’re the kind of band that produces some pretty moody, cerebral rock music, and lead singer Matt Berninger can deliver his signature baritone in a pretty subdued, melancholy sort of manner most of the time. The first time I shot them, that’s exactly what I got - Matt, standing at a microphone in near darkness, hardly moving. Not the most exciting photos. But this time, thankfully, I got the other Matt: a frenzied, demon-possessed version of himself that makes for much better photos!
I also got to shoot one of my favorite subjects again: Twenty One Pilots. It had been almost two years since I last saw them, unbelievably, and once again their show did not disappoint. (Except that we only got to shoot two short songs, that part was a bummer. But hey, still worth it.) These guys keep going bigger and bigger with their production and somehow keep finding a way to work new elements into their show to keep it interesting for their fans. I hope 2019 gives me another chance to photograph them!
So what was my favorite show this year? That one is easy: David Byrne’s American Utopia Tour.
But explaining why it was my favorite is maybe not so easy.
You see, David Byrne isn’t like most artists. If you’re familiar with his earlier work as the frontman of Talking Heads, you know what I mean. He’s got a slant way of looking at the world and he packages it into catchy, unexpectedly quirky lyrics and melodies. He’s an artist in the truest sense, and that extends to his live show as well. One viewing of Talking Heads’ groundbreaking concert film Stop Making Sense and you’ll know that David Byrne doesn’t do concerts the way most musicians do.
For the American Utopia tour, David seemed to have thought to himself, “how can I strip away everything that people expect to see at a normal concert?” He performs the entire show in a grey, featureless chainmail box with none of the expected concert elements - you know, like instruments and amps and microphones - cluttering the stage. His band, eleven strong, wear their instruments like a marching band and perform mesmerizing choreography synchronized with some pretty creative use of light. David wears his trademark grey suit - with a few extra pockets for good measure - but skips the socks and shoes. His band dress likewise, blending together, though they are otherwise richly diverse in gender, age and ethnicity.
It’s a surreal experience, and difficult to adequately describe. You just have to see it to understand.
With nothing on the stage to hide behind, and no fancy light show or video feed to distract the audience, he’s exposed; he only has his music to entertain you. Luckily his music is pretty darn good! But there’s something else that’s hard to put into words. It’s just an indescribable joy that flows from everyone on stage. I’ve never been to a show where everyone on stage - in this case, twelve performers - seems to genuinely be having the absolute best time of their life for an hour and a half straight. And somehow, they did this for more than a hundred shows spread across the globe!
One of my favorite shots from that show wasn’t of David, but one of his six (!) percussionists, Stephane San Juan. Between verses of the Talking Heads classic “I Zimbra” the percussionists would turn and form a little drum circle, and the expressions of joy on their face as they faced one another was so genuine. It was if they all became kids again, reminding each other why they loved making music in the first place. I couldn’t help but take a quick picture of them.
That show’s infectious joy reminded me in a big way why I love going to shows, and getting up close to capture artists in still images like this. As I alluded to before, sometimes the industry has a way of beating you down, making you feel pretty small. It can make you question why you bother racking up the expenses and putting in the late hours. I had my fair share of that those feelings this year, and at times I questioned if I shouldn’t walk away for a bit.
But artists like David Byrne reminded me that there are reasons to be cheerful.
Here’s to a great year, and hopefully an even more cheerful 2019.
I think if you ask most music photographers, and really most photographers in general, whether or not they’re any good at what they do, you’ll probably hear a common sort of response. “I don’t know, maybe?” “Not really.” “I’m just okay, I still have a lot to learn…” Sure, there are exceptions to the rule - some of us might be gifted with more self-confidence than others, I suppose - but for most of us it only takes one bad night in the pit where the lighting isn’t quite what you hoped for, or you’re convinced the artist is avoiding your camera on purpose, to remind you that you’re not quite Jim Marshall yet. Music photography is one of those disciplines where you don’t have control over your subject or environment, sometimes even when shooting portraits off-stage, so it has a way of keeping you very, very humble.
Still, I think you’ll find most music photographers are optimists who want to make the best art they possibly can. I suspect that every concert photographer in the pit goes in thinking that tonight could be the night where they nail that once-in-a-lifetime shot, the one that’ll be on the cover of their coffee table book someday. We’re all chasing after perfection, otherwise we wouldn’t keep at it.
I often find myself reflecting on this tension between my ambition and my self-assessment. I think I’ve come a long way over the years, improving my technique with every show I shoot and diligently working to better master the technical nuances of photography in general, but I still don’t feel like I’m near to being an “expert” music photographer. There are days it can feel like I’ll never quite get there.
My bookshelf is full of books by the legends of the industry: Neal Preston, Anton Corbijn, Danny Clinch, Terry O’Neill and Jim Marshall, just to name a few. I’m frequently in awe of the quality of those photographers’ works. It’s easy to wonder at times, can I get to their level? How do I make my photography stand out like theirs? How can I see the way they see, and capture artists and performances in a unique way such as they do?
I’ve come to believe that the answer isn’t what might seem like the obvious one - just shooting more and more shows - but instead can be found in something the famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma calls “the edge effect”.
The Edge Effect
Recently on my drive home from a day at the office I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, NPR’s Hidden Brain. It’s a fun podcast full of insights into the biology and psychology of why we do the things we do, and how we can understand each other and (hopefully) better ourselves as a result. I love nerding out on it.
Recently they had an episode titled “The Edge Effect” that looked at the nature of creativity, and how exposure to diversity of all sorts can have a dramatic effect on how creative we ultimately are. One portion of the episode focused on a contemporary Galician bagpiper named Cristina Pato who unwittingly ended up in the company of a diverse group of master musicians known as the “Silk Road Ensemble.” The Silk Road was organized by Yo-Yo Ma specifically to spark creativity by fostering the sharing of unique and unusual musical backgrounds. He called the work of this ensemble “the edge effect”. According to Christina, the edge effect is “the point in which two ecosystems meet, like the forest and the savannah. And apparently, in ecology, this edge effect is where the most new life-forms are created. And somehow, Silk Road is some sort of his recreation of this edge effect.” Christina looked at her own path in music, as both a classically trained pianist and a green-haired, rule-breaking bagpiper, and saw the benefits:
All of a sudden, working with Silk Road, I found the connections between the two worlds I've been living all my life that were not even connected in my hometown. And you have to understand, also, that in Ourense, where I come from, the bagpiper school and the conservatory for classical music were two buildings next to each other. This bagpiper school had, in a city of 100,000 people - had more than 10,000 somehow involved with the bagpiper school. And I could count with the fingers of my hands the people that would actually go to both - got trained in classical music but also got trained as a bagpiper.
- Cristina Pato
She was benefiting creatively from pursuing two very different musical disciplines, while so many others didn’t bother. Christina was living on the edge.
Christie Goodwin’s Path to The Royal Albert Hall
With the edge effect firmly tucked into the back of my mind, I went back to a few of my favorite music and photography-related podcasts in recent weeks (yeah, I listen to a lot of podcasts. My commute is… something.) And soon I found this concept showing up all over the place.
Just the other day I was listening to the excellent Behind The Shot podcast with Steve Brazill. If Steve’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably because this isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about one of his episodes. (Do yourself a favor and subscribe now, it’s one of the best photography podcasts around.) Steve had a recent episode where he interviewed the wonderful music photographer Christie Goodwin, who aside from being the house photographer for The Royal Albert Hall in London is also a long-time personal photographer of Ed Sheeran. Christie has just published a brilliant photographic retrospective of Ed’s career to date, which I have immediately added to my Christmas wish-list.
I won’t spoil the episode for you, but Steve selected one of Christie’s excellent photos of Ed performing at Wembley Stadium on which to go in depth, and it was tremendously insightful. It’s worth watching if you want to see how an accomplished music photographer approaches a major assignment. And something that kept being hinted at throughout the episode sounded to me like the edge effect.
Christie noted, as she described the iconic image, how her photography training influenced her choice of aperture to preserve a key shadow in the image, and how her love of lines and negative space came from her art school experience. She explained how she prefers using motion when shooting portraits to get a more natural and unguarded look from her subject. She spoke of how her training serves as her “backbone”, and gives her something to fall back on when things don’t go as planned.
But here’s the part that really stood out to me: Christie is relatively late to music photography. She’s only been shooting music since 2005, after spending the first two decades of her career shooting fashion, fine art and editorial news. Her background, first with art school and then with a long and established career shooting wildly diverse subjects, now helps her to see differently, plan her compositions, and nail some pretty incredible shots on and off-stage with the biggest names in music. Her diverse experience has given her an edge when shooting music.
Rick Rubin and Boundary Crossing
Finally, there’s Rick Rubin. Rick is not a photographer, but rather a renowned music producer who famously founded Def Jam Recordings and brought hip-hop to the masses in the 80’s. Rick recently started a podcast with author Malcom Gladwell called Broken Record, where the two talk about music and interview great artists. And the first episode was focused on Rick himself.
What makes Rick immediately interesting isn’t just his role in the hip-hop world, but that he had a role at all. Rick grew up in New York City with a passion for punk music, and even played in a punk band for some time. But Rick was drawn to hip-hop culture, with its parallels to punk culture, and although he was very much an outsider as a white man in what was at the time a niche black culture, he established himself in the community and worked to bring a truer hip-hop club experience to hip-hop recordings. Rick crossed boundaries, and we’re all better off for it.
This notion of Rick crossing boundaries comes back repeatedly in that first episode. After bringing hip-hop to the suburbs with acts like the Beastie Boys and the landmark mashup of Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith on “Walk This Way”, Rick changed directions and produced heavy metal legends Slayer, and many other rock and metal artists. In the 90’s, he famously revitalized Johnny Cash’s career with a series of albums heavy on cover songs by a surprising list of contemporary artists such as Nine Inch Nails.
Near the end of the interview, Rick touched on the importance of challenging himself with these new forms of music:
Rick: Any time I tried to do something different from what I did before, there was always great resistance, every step of the way. Whoever I was in business with, major label wise, or… they just wanted more of the thing that happened before that was successful. And every step of the way it was, uh, just a struggle. And I was told often that I, you know, couldn’t do what I was doing. Whether it was Slayer, or Johnny Cash, or whatever it was. It was just like, the idea of working on different kinds of music was really frowned upon…for some reason, I don’t know why.
Malcom: But what’s so weird of course is that the very reason you were so good at working in the hip-hop world is that you were already crossing a boundary.
Rick: 100%. And I think most people who make the best music, I think that’s the case. It’s like, people who grow up listening to electronic dance music, and then making electronic dance music, tend to make more mediocre dance music. Whereas people who come from some other form of music, and cross into dance music, make much more interesting dance music. It’s just the… it’s just a wider perspective.
What made Rick Rubin successful was that he didn’t stick to his roots in the punk world. What made him successful was his desire to seek out new expressions of his art form, and not become pigeonholed to a single genre. Interesting art happens when artists cross boundaries. Boring, mediocre art happens otherwise.
Oh, and as if to further his point, the next two episodes of Broken Record cover how the legendary Nile Rodgers of Chic was heavily influenced by jazz, and Rufus Wainwright (whom Sir Elton John once called “the greatest songwriter on the planet”) talks about how the “tricks” and structure of opera were his own secret treasure trove to draw inspiration from when creating his pop music. The edge effect is everywhere!
Am I Living On The Edge?
I think the takeaway is clear. Creativity, growth - dare I say life? - can be found along the wild, untamed edges. The greatest artists understand this well. They combine varied experiences, talents and influences to create something new and greater than what’s been created before.
So what does this mean for you and I as humble music photographers trying to improve our craft and stand out in a crowded field?
Thanks to rapidly improving camera technology and the advent of the Internet, there is no shortage of music photographers today, most whom don’t have a background in fine art, and many of whom don’t shoot anything besides concerts. But what I’m learning is that when you become too focused on a single artistic expression - and let’s be honest, for some of us music photography can be an obsession - you miss out on a rich set of influences that can help you make better art.
I think many of us could benefit from moving closer to the edge.
Maybe that means shooting more than just shows, taking up landscape photography or shooting some wedding engagement or portrait sessions. Maybe you’re daring enough to take on wedding photography (that’s a little too close to the edge for me...) Or maybe it means picking up another visual art form to practice that isn’t photography at all, but helps you to see in new ways. The important thing is that you challenge yourself to try capturing something visual that’s new. Find a new subject that isn’t music related. Something outside your comfort zone that requires a different skill set. Soon, maybe you’ll find your music photography elevated to new creative heights.
Live on the edge.