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.