‘The force that marks the routine’: positioning my photographic practice

The notion of truth in photography can be examined according to three photographic functions (Short, 2011: 11-19): recording of truth (literal depiction to create a sense of personal history or identity), telling a story (documentary), constructing altered realities (decontextualized and re-presented reality). I had always convinced myself that my photography fell into the first two categories; I’m not so sure now… Here is a first attempt at positioning my photographic practice among my contemporaries.

At the time I took photographs of the band Nirvana in 1991 and 1994, I felt sure that I was recording the visual appearance of a band performing live. I was also convinced that by the mere act of interviewing and photographing bands who had a political and social conscience, like Nirvana or Fugazi (albeit manifested in contrasting ways), I was dabbling in a bit of reportage. For example, my friends and I published in our fanzine an interview we had conducted with Dave Grohl (Nirvana’s drummer) which mentioned the social condition of Native Americans. I also discussed poverty in the US with Guy Picciotto from Fugazi, the political situation in Northern Ireland with Andy Cairns from Therapy?, and the economic situation in Latin America with French band Noir Desir. The interview done, I would write my articles for the fanzine – my photographs serving a merely illustrative function and acting as evidence that I had indeed talked to those people. In all fairness, I didn’t really know what I was doing – I just did it. My friends and I had seen it done like this (text + photos) and we were replicating a well-trodden do-it-yourself formula.

Twenty years later, thanks to the relentless and long-serving dedication of Nirvana fans, one of the photographs of Dave Grohl that I took during that interview is being seen by a much larger audience than the one intended in the first place (the fanzine was paper-based and each issue printed to a maximum of 250 copies). Claiming over 10 million hits, the website Live Nirvana (LN) offers an impressive collection of information (interviews, set-lists, discography, equipment used, photographs, etc…), dutifully archived and indexed. The ‘Live Nirvana Photo Archive’ section offers photographs of Nirvana from 1987 to 1994. These are referenced by date, location, and photographer for every year. My photograph of Dave Grohl is catalogued under:

Photographer: Aline Giordano
Shoot Date: 02/16/94
Shoot Location: Rennes, FR
Commissioned by: Uzine

Knowing that the photograph was taken by Aline Giordano in Rennes (France) for Uzine doesn’t say much in all fairness. Having been involved in all the steps that led to the taking of this photo, I think that Nirvana fans are owed a little more context than a few key words. The interview with Grohl was published in the fanzine and, while the photos were there only for illustrative purposes, I realise that the interview could have been published without the photos. Indeed, it would not have affected the way we reported Grohl’s opinions. However the image without the corresponding interview seems purposeless to me. Yet, some background information, as follows, would be helpful:

At the height of Nirvana’s fame, Dave Grohl took the time after their concert in Rennes to give an interview to two students for a small French fanzine. He spent over 30 minutes talking about the band, the Seattle music scene, his parents, his love for Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burrough, and the ‘dreamachine’. We also discussed wider social issues such as abortion and the Native Americans. My friend was conducting the interview. I was sitting there looking at both of them, listening and thinking how nice and friendly Grohl was. He was very forthcoming with his answers and kindly let himself be photographed.

This photo was never published in the paper fanzine, only online a few good years later. I am to some extent also guilty of not providing context for the Nirvana fans . However, I situate it within the history of the fanzine Uzine. This is where this photo also tells a different story: mine, as a fan, zinester and photographer. I was there – part of the interview – I took the picture – I met a rock ‘n’ roll star.  But this photo also ended up contributing to the history of the band.

In the early 1990s, I was convinced that the distortion of reality was happening before my eyes, thus it was external to me. The artist was indeed putting on a show and in so doing distorting the truth. The person becoming the persona was the distortion and my camera was recording that very spectacle – it was recording the ‘truth’. What I did then was take photographs with a modest Canon EOS equipped with a basic lens. The negative films would be developed and paper prints done in a commercial lab. I would then develop extra copies for the fanzine using my own enlarger in my student flat’s attic. There was only little correction involved: at a push I would frantically wave my hand between the light and the paper to redress a particularly dark area, nothing more than that, and the use of a dot screen to improve the quality of the black and white photocopies.

I now realise that I may be constructing altered realities, although I have no intention of drawing a constructed identity out of artists onstage and I certainly do not have the pretence to be able to do so in three songs, in a concert situation with extremely low light conditions. No. The constructed altered realities are the realities of the fan that I am. Perhaps the change in perception stems from a deeper understanding of my own fandom.

The Fiskian’s semiotically productive category, whereby the fan creates their own meaning out of what their object of fandom produces (Fisk, 1992: 37), applies to all fans. For example, in my case, it is through the music of The Cure that I developed a sense of identity and empowerment. It is through their music that I mourned the death of my brother. Yet, for some fans there is more to constructing meaning out of my favourite band’s music. Indeed some, like me, have a need to go beyond this interior monologue with their favourite artist’s music and engage in textual productivity (Fisk, 1992: 39) to become cultural agents themselves.

As a teenager I surrounded myself with photos of The Cure on my bedroom walls. I was making photo montages of various people’s images, one in particular featured Robert Smith of The Cure. This must have been 1987. I was at college. The leafy context fitted well with the imagery of The Cure at the time. The band’s French fan club must have thought the same as they printed my image in their newsletter.

A good few years later, in 1992, thanks to the work we were doing with the fanzine, my friend and I were given guest tickets to see The Cure live in Rennes (France) to write a review. However, we were not allowed a photo-pass. So I smuggled in a disposable camera tucked in my pants. Just the thought of taking photographs was thrilling. What chance would I have to take any decent shot? None. Yet, just the possibility was exciting. I came as close to the stage as I possibly could and took the 24 shots available in one go, probably over a couple of minutes. Only seven photos turned out to be printable, yet, bad of course, very bad. I didn’t want to admit to having hopes, but I did secretly. I put away those photographs and tried to forget about them. I look at them regularly now, perhaps in an attempt to re-live the hope?

Robert Smith 1992_medium size

Another good few years later, in 2008, I saw The Cure at London’s Wembley. Within one hour, I ended up in in the first aid room (another long story short!) for a couple of hours. I knew the concert was drawing to a close and as I started to feel better, I made my way back to the concert. The security guard must have taken pity as he let me take a seat to the right of the stage. I watched the last two songs from there and as the band was waving goodbye I switched my Canon Cybershot on, and took a few photos.

smith at wembley_aline giordano

And then came the highlight of my life as a Cure fan: I was given a photo-pass to take photographs at Bestival  in 2011 when The Cure headlined on the Saturday night. I took as many photos as was possible within the time allocated.  Is my photograph of Robert Smith representative of The Cure’s set at Bestival? Of course it isn’t.

R_Smith_bestival aline giordano

Yet, this photo is for me the only one and the one that I wish to slowly carve in my memory as a way to remember the concert. Forget all the professional shots published in the national press. I didn’t like any of them .

A photo of Robert Smith or Nick Cave is coherent straight away in my mind, the mind of the fan. I will link the photograph to something that makes sense to me. For example, I always link a photograph of Robert Smith with an album. Smith’s hair cut is a very good pointer. Show me any photograph of Smith taken between 1979 and 1989 and I will tell you which year it was taken (so is my reality as a fan…). I don’t need to be told a story or shown a photographic narrative. As a fan, I slot in the photographs of The Cure among their discography. The whole endeavour becomes my monologue, my story. This is how I have always related photos and music in my head. In all fairness I never considered any photograph of my favourite artists from an aesthetic perspective. Focusing solely on the person, the background was just there, part of the photograph, but secondary, always: Joy Division, the snow, and the bridge in Manchester (1979), Ian Curtis resting on an amplifier having a cigarette (1979), Siouxsie wearing a black tee-shirt with a Star of David, symbol used for the record sleeve of their single Israel (1981), Kurt Cobain slouching on a sofa playing guitar (1993). These photos still excite me when I see them, but then, it was about the artist – not the actual image.

Of course, in those days I didn’t know and couldn’t care less about who had taken the photographs. As my interest in photography grew over the years, I stumbled across some names: Anton Corbijn was the first one, then it was Steve Gullick and Kevin Cummings. It dawned on me that I never knew any of the names of the different photographers who took all those hundreds of shots of Robert Smith which I have loved over the many years.

Recently I discovered that my favourite photos of Smith were taken by professional photographer Derek Ridgers. I am now looking at those photos taken to promote the Disintegration album and tour (1989) with a renewed interest. Ridgers’ images are captivating. They show Smith in a way that speaks to me. I wondered whether it was that particular year which I remember fondly. In 1989 I saw The Cure for the first time; I had just passed my Baccalaureat and this meant going to university with all the exciting things that come with it. But I also love the series Ridgers took in 1985 and 1991 (I came across these only recently). I realise that there are a lot of similarities between the 1989 and 1991 shots: black and white, the darkness, the prominent eye black shadows, but most importantly there is something in Smith’s gaze that I am particularly drawn to, something that only Ridgers seems to have captured that other photographers haven’t. I would find it fascinating to find out Ridgers’ recollection on the photo-shoots.

A quick look on Ridgers’ website and I am discovering and enjoying other photos of artists/bands I love: Michael Stipe (REM), Nick Cave, Tom Waits, and The Jesus And Mary Chain.  I’m looking at these images and I’m doing it again: My first gaze is for the artist in the photo, their face is the dominant point – my gaze looking at theirs, a sense of connection. I am enjoying these photos for what they are: photos of my favourite artists. The excitement for the fan stopped there, delighted to have come across new images of my favourite artists. But now, the photographer in me gets interested by the details: Camden Market by night; a disused swimming pool with a complex maze of metal beams supporting the roof contrasting the four straight parallel lines at the bottom of a pool. I’m now convinced that there is something about Ridgers’ photography that really gets me excited.

Something similar happens with the photographs of Washington DC based band Fugazi by Glen E. Friedman as published in the book ‘Keep your eyes open: FUGAZI’ (Friedman, 2007). I love the photos! The angles are amazing: wide and low. It seems that every photo displays an aspect of the Fugazi concert. Every image has a purpose – no gratuitous shot (toward a photographic ecology?). Friedman’s photos show the band’s dedication to the live performance. So much movement, blur and grain! It’s a delight to look at. Most shots show the band members either laying on the stage, running, squatting, bending, dancing, singing their back on the return PA, or jumping up. I have spent many moments looking at some of those photos wondering how co-singer Guy Picciotto ended up tangled in all those cables and in the weirdest of positions! And every so often, Friedman would also capture band mates Guy, Ian, Joe or Brendan resting, lost in their own thoughts. The contrast between the two types of photographs makes each shot even more powerful.

I now realise why I love these images so much. Not only for their remarkable aesthetics but because Friedman had unlimited access to the band on stage. Some of the photos were taken only a few centimetres away from the action, at ground level, onstage. Those shots give Fugazi the stature that they deserve in a subtle and intelligent manner.

‘I like to be as close to the action and the intensity as possible, but still show some of the background or environment. And if you’re using a tight lens, you don’t see that. So, I like to be close but also show the peripheral vision of what a wide-angle lens does. I use wide-angle lenses most often because that’s the way I see’.

(Friedman in Rolnik, 2010)

I saw Fugazi live twice, in Paris in 1992 and Brighton in 1995. Strangely enough seeing Friedman’s photos of Fugazi doesn’t take me back to those amazing concerts. Most probably because Friedman’s photographs of Fugazi live are showing the real Fugazi live. I don’t need to be ‘transported’ back to the shows because the strong aesthetics and the ‘peripheral vision’ pull me in the photograph, rather than draw me out of it.

I regularly visit the website of the label Dischord (home of Fugazi) and look at the various photographs published online. There is a photograph of Picciotto taken in Brighton and displayed with the caption ‘Photographer unknown’. I have seen it there several times over the last couple of years. Yet, I had never realised that it was me, who took that shot. I only figured this out today. The fan in me has been looking at this image on numerous occasions, reminiscing of the time I interviewed Picciotto in Brighton. Yet, seeing it displayed in a professional environment, I had assumed it had been taken by someone else.

I photographed Fugazi in Paris and Brighton from the pit. I photographed what was before my eyes.

But, what is before my eyes in a concert hall? A concert happening? Of course. The fan in me watches the concert. But what the photographer captures is a series of moments out of the photographic event. Concert and photographic event are morphed into one when I am in the venue, but in truth they are two distinct entities. The concert ceases to exist when I leave the venue, but the photographic event remains in my camera after the concert, albeit truncated. The photographic text, or narrative, is then constructed after the concert based on the photographic event.

I cannot represent the concert in all its glory because it is much more than what is in front of my eyes. A camera has no sense of smell, it doesn’t feel my neighbour’s sweat touching my skin, it doesn’t get frustrated by the crap that some drunken ‘prick’ or poseur is yelling. At best, a photo can remind me of a particular moment in a concert and it does it with resonance when taken by Friedman, equalled by the emotional affinity I have with the artist’s performance and the artists themselves.

I am photographing my own experience of a concert, thus my interpretation of it and not the concert itself. I would argue that one photo could never encapsulate the full experience. A series of photographs perhaps could. Apart from Friedman photographing Fugazi and Gullick, Nirvana (Gullick and Sweet, 2001), I cannot think of many photographers who have captured bands performing live so engagingly.

My experience when I, the fan, am holding a camera, is different to that of the fan who gets to see their favourite artist without the peripheral frustrations that I, as photographer, have become accustomed to deal with: arranging a photo-pass before the concert is rarely straightforward and requires perseverance; the rare but nonetheless perceptible animosity and condescendence of some professional photographers in the pit is not only tragic but a sour reminder of the highly commercial aspect of the profession. These niggling details sometimes get the better of me.

I realise that most of my photographs do not contain much detail. Having acquired lenses that produce exciting bokeh in the last few years, my images now possess a more aesthetically pleasing look as opposed to those I took twenty years ago. Don’t think for a second that I play with depth of field while I take photographs, because I don’t. I simply don’t have the time. My camera setting is always on shutter priority, usually between 1/80 s and 1/125 s; this means that my DSLR manages the rest. My photographs of Fugazi taken in the 1990s with my basic EOS don’t show much apart from the band members. Lacking peripheral vision is the main constant in my photography. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. I think that this particular image of Picciotto I took in Paris  (SLR on full automatic mode) works.

GyuPiccottio Paris aline giordano

Yet this one taken in Brighton four years later doesn’t.

Guypicciotto_Brighton 1995 aline giordano

Concert photography is a curious environment. The amps, the different types of microphones, the leads and cables running through the stage, the pedal effects, they all are secondary, yet without them the band wouldn’t be able to perform its concert. I found that only Friedman makes these peripherals an integral part of the photograph – never accessories. To me Friedman is the photographer who has best represented the ‘truth’ emanating from a Fugazi concert. I put this down to his ability, flair and approach to photography and music of course, but also to his personal acquaintance with Fugazi, as well as the calibre of the band members themselves. The words of Friedman at the end of his book encapsulate what the band means to its fans, thus to me as a fan of Fugazi:

‘Fugazi … a band … who would come to personify ethics, individuality and integrity. … They questioned everything, thought their own thoughts and spread idealism like a virus through their words, music, energy and activism. … Fugazi’s earliest shows were in small, peculiar venues – spaces that complemented the ethical standards and non-commercial attitude … Fugazi never felt obliged to compromise with anything out of step with their ethics. Some thought it was crazy.’

(Friedman, 2007: argument)

In these words, I also see my own aspirations as a person, music lover, zinester and photographer.

A few more words for now: I don’t quite understand the concept of the photographer ‘translating ideas into images’ (Short, 2011: 68). Is it because I have no idea or because I have too many, or even because it simply isn’t possible to translate anything within the restrictions that come with concert photography? A quick answer would be that I’d rather respect the live performance and the intention of the artist than imposing my ideas onto others. Yet, the budding theorist in me would like to know more. ‘The force that marks the routine’ (Canty et al, 2001) is still to be fully explored.

References

Fiske, J. (1992), ‘The Cultural Economy of Fandom’. In L. Lewis, A (ed.), The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media (pp. 30-49). London: Routledge.

Friedman, G., E. (2007), Keep Your Eyes Open: FUGAZI. New York: Burning Flags Press.

Canty, B., Lally, J., Mackaye, I. and Picciotto, G. (2001) Strangelight. Washington D.C.: Dischord.

Gullick, S. and Sweet, S. (2001), NIRVANA. London: Vision on publishing.

Rolnik, D. (2010), Interview with Glen E. Friedman. [Online]. Available at: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2010/11/interview-interview-with-glen-e.html (last accessed 17 August 2013).

Short, M. (2011), Context and Narrative. Lausanne: AVA Academia.

 

 

 

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