(Not) Photographing Neutral Milk Hotel

“At the request of the band: NO PHOTOGRAPHY OR VIDEO RECORDING ALLOWED. This includes cell phones.”

The request was clear. The band had asked that no photograph be taken during the concert – understandable: Nothing more irritating than hundreds of phones and cameras held up high above our heads. And yet… I took some photographs of Neutral Milk Hotel playing at the De La Warr Pavilion, thus committing an offence. Why?

let me hold it close and keep it here”… that moment – but I’m getting ahead of myself.

‘Photography is a gesture’ (Mangolte, 2006) and mine was that of a malfeasant. The act itself was quick, very quick: camera out of the bag, aim, shoot, camera back in the bag. I did this probably three times during the concert. No preparations of any kind. I didn’t know where I’d be standing – how far from the stage – or what the light would be. The only things I knew were the songs… and the story of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea as written by Kim Cooper; and The Diary of Anne Frank; and the pain; and the tears; and my own fabricated image of Anne dying alone at the gates of hell; and the lyrics; “and one day we will die”; “and our ashes will fly from the aeroplane over the sea”.

It was a big deal for me seeing Neutral Milk Hotel. I never, ever, thought I’d see them live. As the concert progressed I had a sense that the band was reopening Cooper’s book and adding one further chapter in which I featured alongside Jeff Mangum, his acolytes and Anne Frank. As the emotions built up in me, song after song, strangely, the necessity to take photographs diminished. For once, it felt that I might just as well obey. For once the act of photographing felt artificial and useless as the music, the drumming and the raucousness of Mangum’s voice were projecting in the auditorium. I felt powerless yet elated. After the concert, I lay on the bed and thought for a fleeting moment: Now would be a good time to die. I remember it as if it were yesterday, mouthing the words in the small room of that Bed and Breakfast in Bexhill-on-Sea. I remember it fondly because I thought now would be my chance to die happy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“I know they buried her body with others – her sister and mother and 500 families – and will she remember me 50 years later? I wish I could save her in some sort of time machine”.

As clichéd as it sounds, I felt it. I felt in my heart as Mangum was shrieking ‘know your enemies’, I felt it, the sorrow of Anne Frank whilst writing at her desk, in her small room. I also felt it, the connectedness with the artist and I felt no need to pick up my camera. Neutral Milk Hotel had become an authority and I was submitting myself, obeying, not out of some dutiful respect or fear of the security officer confiscating my camera. No, none of that. I simply did not feel the need to reach out for something else, for something to complement the experience – because I was part of it. The emotional response to the concert had cemented my place in the group. I was part of the project. I belonged. Later on, during Two Headed Boy Part 2 I felt immense pain in my heart for what our lives had become, tears rolling down my cheeks and my shoulders uncontrollably shaking as my friend put her arm around my shoulder to console me. I felt lonely but I had forgotten about the everyday routine, I had forgotten about myself, absorbed in the moment, immersed in the common project of remembering and not forgetting, and motivated by the promise of tenderness and brotherly love.

So, did I encapsulate all of this in a photograph? Did I capture it, whatever it was that was pure and intangible – whatever it was that reached my soul? No – but I took a lovely photograph of Dungerness…

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And in all seriousness, although this photograph was taken on the morning of the concert, it represents well how I feel now – after the concert – which is a sense of loss and melancholy. It shows a transient place, in which the individual and the collective, it seems, have forgotten about human and social projects for the common good. Yes, it reminds me of the forgotten and the feared – I took this photograph with the nuclear plant behind my back. It shows that despite all our efforts to want to build a better world and sing about a more loving world, we know deep down that the world will fail us.

“What a beautiful dream
 that could flash on the screen
 in a blink of an eye and be gone from me
 soft and sweet
 – let me hold it close and keep it here with me”

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