I’ve been asked to write about some of my images on display in the Rock Hall’s ACL exhibit. It is a pleasure to do so; photographing performing musicians, it appears, has become my life’s work, and I have a lot to say. This is my 32nd year as ACL’s official staff photographer, and the performers I’ve seen are many, the types of music various and varied.
But always, to my way of seeing, the task is the same: to convey the spirit that motivates the performing artist; to slice away the extraneous and come up with an image that conveys as much as possible of what the experience was like, who the performer was, and what the energy and essence were like, on our stage, during the performance. All of this with one final image, rendered into two dimensions of height and breadth, and unlike video, without the benefit of time and moving images. Oh, and most importantly, to come up with a good likeness that the artist and his management will approve of.
This is how I approach my job: first, Music is the sound the Muses make. My belief is that there’s more to a performance, and a performing artist, than a person standing onstage singing songs he’s written. There’s something almost divine about a beautifully performed and delivered song. The ancient Greeks, in fact, believed that something very close to supernatural took place during performance; their belief was that performers summoned a creative spirit known as a daimon, and that the performer himself was a conduit, or channel, from that spirit to the audience. I think there’s some truth to that. I’ve seen performers who seem to be perfectly ordinary people take everyone and everything in the room, weld them all together on some level, and bring everyone to the same inspired place. Music can dissolve the separation between beings, and even between bodies as they dance together. Great music is the sound of spirit made manifest, in the individual, and in the group.
Enough cosmic philosophy, let’s talk about specific images.
Here’s a shot of the Dave Matthews Band, in performance at ACL in 2009. It works as an example of a two-dimensional image conveying an experience, which is my goal. I’m using a technique of laying down components of the image in layers, to convey an illusion of depth. Let’s count the layers: in the foreground are the black outlines of video cameras, angling in, setting the context of a video-taped performance. Next is the stage itself, with its parallel lines drawing lines of perspective from front to back, the stage is a large receding diagonal plane, compositionally, drawing the viewer in. Then comes the energetic shadow of the main figure, literally grounding Dave Matthews. Next comes our point of focus, in action, singing and framed by his band members, who are the next layer of depth. Finally, in the background comes the drum riser, drums, and the Austin skyline set itself, washed in deep hazy beams of light. As an added bonus, we get the yellow light explosion on the extreme left of the photograph surrounding the hand-held cameraman, further defining context. The image has depth, action, and you can almost actually hear the music.
This image of Ray Charles from 1983 illustrates the importance of The Decisive Moment in performance portraiture. Ray was a very energetic performer, sometimes mugging and self-hugging, like he didn’t know what he looked like. He used the idea that he didn’t know what he looked like to get very exaggerated with his body as he danced to make the spirit moving through him visible to everyone. Crazy like a fox, that Ray Charles. I remember being very impressed with the agility, power, and dance skill he displayed all while playing and singing simultaneously. Then, while I was out of position, I saw him briefly arch his back and stomp his foot, singing triumphantly, and do what you see, visually encapsulating all that he was and what he was doing. I got in position and waited for him to do it again. I still remember that click as if it were today.
This image of REM illustrates what I try to do when shooting a band, as opposed to photographing an individual. When I’m crafting a band-shot I try to see all the members as one organic whole, connected by invisible strings of music. As photographer, you have to be aware of everyone, and it helps if you can feel the beat they’re moving to so you can anticipate exactly when that decisive moment will come…. There’s an art to it. I try to take occasional breaks and do little dances to get in synch, but that’s me…
The best portrait will give you a glimpse into who that performer is and what her performance was like, even if she’s not singing. This beautiful between-songs candid of Bonnie Raitt gives one a lot to chew on. Her bliss is obvious; after all, the audience loves her and her song. The moment is in-between, fleeting, unposed and revealing. She looks fragile and immortal, all at the same time.
John Fogerty is a ball of energy and fire. To me, it’s like his spirit is just too big for his body when he’s performing. The music is amazing, and then he starts bounding up and down while belting it out. So, I looked for a moment where he was literally coming out of the top of the frame and, click, there he is, pushing the edge of the envelope.
These are just 5 examples of the photographs on display at the Rock Hall in the ACL Exhibit. Come look at the rest!