‘Something’s Happening Here’

Cut a (not so) long story short; my name ended up on the guest list to photograph the band It’s A Beautiful Day. ‘Who?’ I heard me say. An hour before making my way to the venue I googled the name and read that they were part of the San Francisco music scene, i.e. think… 1960s, Jefferson Airplane, psychedelia and progressive rock. Personally I can’t think along those lines and I felt it was far too late to investigate further. I would turn up, have a drink with the lovely acquaintance who had put my name on the list and see what happens. I thought that it would be an interesting experience to take photos of a band I had never heard of, and a band that plays music I don’t know much about – psychedelia and acid trips have never been part of my musical landscape.

So, I went to a concert with the primary function of taking photographs but not really expecting to enjoy the music, a very unusual setting for me. The band had played major international festivals and the Royal Albert Hall in their heyday and I worried my photographs would not suit their age or their style

I kept on repeating to myself: ‘Tonight, I am a photographer’. So I looked around the venue: small – with tables arranged cabaret style, stage rather low and the lighting typical of a small venue, with most spotlights at the back of the stage. I looked around me, a handful of people sat at their table drinking beer. Would this be worth a shot? I didn’t think so. I would concentrate on the stage. I wondered: would a pro photographer have seen more than I did?

When the concert started I stood up and went toward the stage to take photos. I was as discreet as possible, moving from one side of the stage to the other, yet I felt that my every move was conspicuous. I didn’t want to stand in front of the stage and ruin the show for the audience who had come to enjoy a good trip down memory lane.

My photographs were bad. They showed a couple of elderly people playing instruments as if it’d been our grand-pa’ playing down the social club. But then again, you can’t play and sing a 43 year-old song and expect to look in the prime of your youth! I was probably more image-conscious than the band themselves.

As the concert progressed I caught myself thinking about various photographers and some of their words which I was still processing. I remembered Ronis saying that he would wait as long as it needed, and often come back to the same spot to photograph what he really wanted to capture. Clearly this was impossible to achieve in a concert setting, especially in such an intimate venue. I remembered the film ‘Inside Out’ on photographer Anton Corbijn. Within the first five minutes of the film, someone (probably a gallery owner or curator) says about (and in front of) Corbjin: “They’ve all surrendered to you, great musicians and artists”. And the next few minutes show various celebrities doing just this: they do as they’re told by Corbijn during photo-shoots. I remembered Don McCullin talking about the only shot in which he had intervened: gathering together the belongings of a dead North Vietnamese soldier so that it all fitted in the frame, especially the photograph of a young girl in the wallet.

The band took a break after playing for 45 minutes. By then I had warmed to the softly spoken front man, David LaFlamme. As self-effaced as a front man can be, he talked about his father, a French man, who could not easily communicate with others due to the language barrier. I felt an immediate connection. I loved how LaFlamme decided to recall some very touching stories about his childhood. Only a dim red light remained on stage; enough for LaFlamme to sort out his violin and exchange a few words with band mates, but certainly not great to take photos. So, I pushed my ISO to 3200 to photograph the band during their break.

This is where I took most of the photographs that I have put on my website. While most punters took advantage of the break to go to the bar, I stayed firmly on my seat, taking photographs with my 105 lens – a very enjoyable moment. Then I walked toward the stage, wishing to take closer shots of LaFlamme’s violin. As I was trying to get my camera to focus on the instrument I heard a voice to my right. It was LaFlamme’s wife and co-singer asking if I wanted her to bring the violin closer, for me to photograph it. In a split second I saw McCullin’s photo and my imaginary image of LaFlamme’s violin – completely incongruous juxtaposition. I replied ‘no thank you’, unsettled by the serendipity of the situation rather than thankful for the kind suggestion. This is perhaps where a pro-photographer would have jumped on the occasion and taken the shot I didn’t take. I don’t regret rejecting the offer as I know the result would have probably been poor. Yet, I wish I’d said yes, out of curiosity for what would have happened.

The band came back onstage and played for another 45 minutes. I cannot say that I enjoyed the music per se but I appreciated the musical virtuosity on top of the serenity and modesty that emanated from the stage. LaFlamme and his band mates were a delight to watch play: so brilliant that it looks effortless. Yet not knowing any of the songs I could not help but slip back to my wondering state.

This time I remembered Arcade Fire front man saying that Corbijn had a very ‘specific vision for what he wants to get’. Visual perception is a concept I am still wrestling with. Corbijn is able to see what he needs to see in the dimmest of light. And if you’re brave enough to get through the insipid comments of some of the world’s most famous artists and wait until the end of the movie you get a glance of what Corbijn might just about see or feel as he prepares for his photo-shoots. My interpretation of the last five minutes of the movie is that the essence of Corbijn’s photography comes down to human condition – our relationship with ourselves and others and our sense of isolation from others. Photography helps us to make the link between us and others – to reach out to them. Corbijn’s inability to establish deep connections with others may be seen as hindrance in an everyday situation but in his photographic practice it is what makes him so special and enables him to create what the man at the beginning of the movies describes as ‘intelligent and gentle images’. Corbjin’s journey as portrayed in ‘Inside Out’ offers a first hand and exclusive insider’s take on what goes on in Corbijn’s head. How the journey translates into the photography is at the heart of his practice and, it comes as no surprise, our practice as photographers.

Vision or visual perception can be quite technical, encompassing depth of field, light and shadow, colours, textures… Being a self-taught photographer I have not received formal training in composition or other photographic techniques. Yet, I feel that even if I were an expert in perspective and composition there is simply not enough time during a song for me to achieve any vision. In a concert setting, all I can hope for is that every so often something (whatever it might be) comes up and I’ll be quick enough to capture it. One of those moments did happen on the night. LaFlamme and wife Linda were on stage talking to each other. You could see the complicity between them. I was too busy seeing it – I didn’t reach for the camera quickly enough and the moment passed. I didn’t record the moment, but I felt it. I expect a good photographer (pro or amateur) would have recorded ‘the feeling’ to share with others.

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References

Ewart, N. (2010), SF Museum of Performance and Design: Something’s Happening Here. [Online]. Available at: http://www.examiner.com/article/sf-museum-of-performance-and-design-something-s-happening-here [last accessed: 11 August 2013].

McCullin, D. (2010), Shaped by war. London: Jonathan Cape in association with the Imperial War Museum.

Quirins, K. (2012), Anton Corbijn: inside out. Benelux A-Film Distribution.

Ronis, W. (2007), Derrière l’objectif: photos et propos. Paris: Editions Hoëbeke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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