Images of the Big E 2018 - Concert and Performance Photography
|The Beach Boys play for a packed house on closing night, Sept 30, 2018|
While you can crop a photo in editing, you can't reposition the spotlights behind a performer's head. You can't remove an unsightly contrasty background, and you are going to be stuck with fragments of people and junk like cups and bottles on stage. You have to constantly compose around all those things. That's why I end up moving as much as the performers; it's that dance for me to get the lens lined up and they move constantly on stage and the lights move and change too.
You can photograph an audience from within the audience, which is how the audience sees it. Many concertgoers have seen this in real life:
Or you can photograph the performer with the audience in the background, as in this shot of Noah Cyrus. Invariably it's the "from the stage" perspective the viewers connect with, even as it's not what they saw. Somehow image like the one below convey a more powerful message.
|Close up with Noah Cyrus, The Big E, West Springfield, MA (c) John Robison|
This is another example of proximity and what it means. For the photo below I stood three feet from funk drummer Jellybean Johnson, and shot this from a perspective few people see firsthand. Yet people say looks real to them, and what they remember. That shows how our imagination often means more to memory than what we actually saw, when it comes to emotional things like music. Many in the audience are lucky to see the drummer at all, though everyone hears him (or her.)
|Jellybean Johnson, drumming with Morris Day (c) John Robison|
I thank everyone in these shots for welcoming me onto their stages and into their performances, and the promoters and managers for bringing me onto the grounds. In every case they know I’m there and I sometimes feel we are in a dance – performer and I – looking at each other, looking away, both of us moving, waiting for that perfect moment. Sometimes people ask me how the music was, and the answer is . . . I don’t know. When I concentrate to take the photos I don’t really hear the music. I feel it, but I can’t recall it to you later. Others ask what kind of music is my favorite, and the truth is, I love turning all of it into imagery. I don’t really care what they play; it’s magic when it works.
Alyssa and Ruby of Sisterhood
Raelynn, famous for That's Why God Made Girls
Noah Cyrus, sister of Miley and daughter of Billy Ray and Tish.
There views of the Mardi Gras Parade
Eliot Sloan of Blessid Union of Souls, singing his 1995 hit I Believe
Sometimes people ask how they can get a gig like this, writing stories and taking pictures. The surest path is to write stories people want to read, and take pictures that evoke strong reactions, and cast them out into the world. There are millions of photos taken on cell phones every day, and 99.9% are throwaways, for all practical purposes. The photos we remember take more than a casual snap.
It's very hard to make any kind of living as a photographer. It's much easier to be a storyteller, with words and pictures. If you succeed, your income is likely to be in the form of royalty, based on how many times something is read or downloaded. Or, if you are so lucky, how many books people buy.
I've been very fortunate that my books, articles, and photos have all been embraced by the public, to enough of an extent to keep going. With any luck, you can have the same success.
Flutes are not too common on rock and roll stages.
Matthew Ramsey of Old Dominion
Melody DeVevo of Casting Crowns. This Christian group drew a huge crowd at the Fair.
Morris Day of M.D. and the Time
The Beatles Tribute
The photos above were all taken with long-lens SLR cameras, which are now the tools of choice for professional sports and performance photography. In earlier days photographers used manual focus cameras with shorter lenses. That was exemplified by the Leica which dominated news and documentary photography into the 1960s. I always shoot some images with rangefinder cameras for that "retro" look. Here are a few shots from a Leica M10 with 50 1.4 lens. No automation in this camera; every picture is focused in advance with preset aperture and exposure. Leica photography is much more deliberate, and tends to show a wider field of view. See the difference below:
Without tracking autofocus the Leica could not capture sharp closeups with any degree of reliability. Back in the day, Leica photographers would preset their cameras for a certain subject position, and shoot when the subjects moved into place. That limits what you can do, unless you are really fast on the manual focus. It would be possible to photograph stage performances with a Leica-style rangefinder (the Fuji X-Pro is another example) but the images would have a very different "wider angle" character as you see. Some would prefer that, but the closeup shots returned by the SLRs and long lenses seem to be most viewer's choice.
In the final analysis, the best camera is the one you have in your hand when that moment comes along. The better a tool you have, the better you can capture it. But beyond that, a great deal depends on you. Cameras will not compose images. They will not choose what to focus on, or what depth of field will look best. On a concert stage the lighting will overwhelm the metering, and overdrive the sensors. Exposures must be set by experience. To do those things well there is no substitute for long practice.
I can't say how many pictures I took while developing this style, but my techniques continue to evolve 20-some years later.
Your thoughts and comments are welcome.
John Elder Robison is an autistic adult and advocate for people with neurological differences. He's the author of Look Me in the Eye, Be Different, Raising Cubby, and Switched On. He serves on the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee of the US Dept of Health and Human Services and many other autism-related boards. He's co-founder of the TCS Auto Program (A school for teens with developmental challenges) and he’s the Neurodiversity Scholar in Residence at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia and an advisor to the Neurodiversity Institute at Landmark College in Putney, Vermont.