Photographing The Felice Brothers

Thursday night I went to see and photograph The Felice Brothers at London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire. I had photographed them before on two occasions: In 2010 at the End Of The Road festival and in 2012 at The Haunt in Brighton. In 2012, I was lucky enough to speak to the Brothers before the concert. They all signed my photo of Jimmy resting on his accordion which I had taken in 2010. It was a wonderful moment. I told them how much I love their music – that all too rare and magical contact between a fan and their favourite artists will remain as vivid in my memory as if it had happened last night. Sadly on the night the Brother’s glow was under serious threat. As mysterious and extraordinary as a firefly, the Brothers’ glow survived, probably because I believed in its mysterious powers. Yet, all conspired to take the magic away.

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As I tried to make my way into the auditorium, I was told that I had to use the side entrance because I had a photo-pass. And because I had a photo-pass I could not return to my husband for the rest of the concert unless I left my camera bag with the security team backstage: A system that photographers have been used to for the last 15 years, at least, apparently. Each concert hall has its own silly rules. I would bridge that one when I get there. I waved good-bye to my husband and was marched outside back onto the street. Having entered by the side entrance I was led to the photographer’s pit through the meandering corridors of the Shepherd’s Bush grotty backstage.

I photographed Willy Mason who was opening the show. After the first three songs I retreated to the side of the stage. At which point the security guard told me I could not stay there; and rushed me backstage. If I wanted to see Willy Mason, I had to hand in my camera and go back on the street to be checked by more security guards, in order to get back into the auditorium. It felt as if security had gone crazy for the sake of it. Determined not to leave my camera in the company of strangers I sat down in a grotty corridor. Another photographer was sitting there checking out stuff on her phone. I engaged in a conversation. What she said captivated me, and it saddened me. Her words were fascinating in a derisory sort of way, and my immediate reaction was as laughable as her young and innocent approach to live music photographic practice.

I would resume our conversation to those few questions: Why take photos of a band you do not particularly like?  Why come to a gig, take photos and go home without experiencing the concert? Is photographing concerts such an egotistical and utilitarian practice? Oh boy! In the underbelly of the magnificent Shepherd’s Bush Empire, at the heart of capitalistic London there was no firefly, no magic, and no brotherhood to be found. Only ticket sales, punters, security guards, and one tiny photography student keen to build her portfolio and CV.

With the arrogance of my twenty-two year experience as a live music photographer, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. She was not here to take photos of the Felice Brothers to post for all to enjoy. It was purely for the promise of an elusive job in a cool and hip magazine. I sensed my speech had become condescendingly slow as I was addressing her. It was totally unfair and most probably underserved. After all, as a photography student, she was only doing what she felt was right. And if that was good enough for her, then who was I to judge her?

As she was sitting there in front of me, half talking to me, half tapping on her phone, she unknowingly helped me see more clearly what had been on my mind for a while: the authenticity of motivation of the photographer, and with it the notion of pleasure in the act of photographing.

Early on, my voice may have betrayed my shameful judgment of her taking photographs for utilitarian purposes. So I made casual conversation about her ‘uni course’ and while Willy Mason was working his magic behind those walls, I sat there wondering whether there was a place for pure aesthetic ambition in photographing bands whose survival is conditional on some form of commercial success? What is the value of those kinds of photographs beyond commerce? I snapped out of my wondering state as it was time to make my way back to the main hall to photograph The Felice Brothers.

I did as I was told: First three songs, no flash, escorted to the side of the stage, exited the photographer’s pit by the door next to the stage, anxiously left my camera bag with the security officer, received my ticket to collect my bag after the show, exited the venue by the side entrance, back on-street, then into the venue by the main entrance, security checked, and finally walked my way back into the auditorium. Luckily I had a ticket, if not, I wouldn’t have been allowed back inside! I didn’t enjoy the concert at first because I was worried about leaving my camera bag unattended. What if? But then the magic of the Brothers that had been enveloping the hall on the night reached me. I was particularly overwhelmed by Ian Felice’s voice once again. It hit me at the throat and my eyes started watering as he sang:

powder your nose, pull on your panty hoes, let me love you from behind, my darlin’

Despite the rush, the bother, the terrible stage lighting and the self-doubt (would I be able to take some good enough shots for a third time?), I managed to take photographs that I am happy with.

For some reason, I seem to have again taken some particularly nice shots of bass player Christmas Clapton. Is it something about him, like the way he moves, his face, or where he stands on the right of the stage with lighting being particularly auspicious there?

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My photographs of Ian Felice show him engrossed in his craft.

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I would add that they also show him enjoying himself. Although this could be reminiscence of the concert talking here. On the other hand, the close-up shots are the result of the priviledged position of the photographer by the foot of the stage. I was using an 85mm prime lens, only a few meters away from the microphone stand. Each photograph shows something about Ian Felice: the guitar playing of course, but also the shyness and the fragility of the man.

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Yet, is it what they show or what I see in them? Or is it about what I do not want to see in them? I can see the fragility, for sure, but I refuse to see the emotional bruises and scars I sensed during my very brief encounter with Ian a couple of years ago. It makes me uncomfortable.

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The last two photographs are interesting on many levels: they obliterate the surroundings, the boisterous crowd and the musical virtuosity onstage. They were taken, clearly, in between songs. And I realise now that they may be trying to show Ian Felice cast in the role of the romantic troubled artist. Thus, am I privileging certain moments over others? If I have the power to highlight particular moments of a band’s concert through my choice of photographs, then am I constructing my own story of the concert at London Shepherd’s Bush and, my own image of The Felice Brothers in general, with these photographs?

Let’s face it, key moments of the concert for each member of the audience will probably vary. So, why should I worry about my emphasising certain moments over others? Because my photographs are (whether I want it or not) an interpretation of an ephemeral moment. We’ve all been there before: looking at a photograph and not remembering that half of what it shows existed! My photographs are the mechanical product of a well rehearsed activity. On that night the conditions were particularly difficult. Yet, it is often that you have to take photographs in haste, in a tiny photographer’s pit just about one metre-wide shared with other photographers, and under the watchful eye of a security guard. In such a contrived environment, as soon the band comes onstage you get in an automatic pilot and you shoot. You don’t think. You shoot, and sometimes you watch out for your own life. I remember laying low while broken guitars and drum toms were flying onstage at the end of a Nirvana concert. Twenty-two years of experience (and probably common sense) have taught me only a few tips:

-       do not use flash (not only are they forbidden but they kill the mood)

-       a song is repetitive, and so is the performance. So stay put as the artist or the lighting will get back to that spot

-       keep that shutter button pressed down and let the camera take as many frames as it technically can in one second, then move on

-       if all fails, they’ll be tuning that guitar at some point and then you can hope for a decent shot (i.e. not blurred!)

Back to my question: Why should I worry about my emphasising certain moments over others during the selection/editing process? Because, by publishing these photographs on my website, I become one of those involved in the writing of popular music history. I may have positioned myself as an outsider, and a fan at the margins. But ‘my’ margins inevitably became mainstream leaving my whole practice to be reconsidered. Those little moments I experienced and photographed twenty years ago in the making of grunge have been appropriated by the mainstream and the younger generations.

More photographs of The Felice Brothers: May 2013, August 2012 and September 2010.

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