Music Photographers: in the pit, hanging off the balcony, vilified by tour managers. A key part of the industry.
Photographers, for the most part, tread a delicate line. They may be have been invited to document the gig. They may be there to further their own careers. But sometimes they just need to go where they really shouldn’t, just to get that special shot. It calls for tact, diplomacy and sometimes a lot of brass neck.
Leominster-based Richard Shakespeare runs the wonderfully named Shakeypix, and has long and generously let me grab his work for this blog. I’ve watched him at work for the last two years or so. No spring chicken, he, but a great snapper. At gigs, he's everywhere - turning himself into a pretzel in the pit, upstage, downstage, in the balcony... smiling, deep in concentration, watching everyone and everything. I talked to him about the job.
"I’ve always had a love of image and form. I tend to see everything through a frame. My parents gave me a box brownie for Christmas. I was 8. Then I had a Prinz 110 from Dixons, bought with paper round money. It was nice and compact, but the quality was rather poor. At 15 I went on a course, one afternoon a week, at the local photography college. I picked up a 35mm SLR for the first time. I loved the old darkroom developing process. It went on from there."
|George Barnett and The Ninth Wave at the Yardbird, February 2012|
You don't make yourself invisible. Others do. What's your approach?
"I see no point in being invisible. My clients tend to respond well to this. With a name like mine it's very hard not to be noticed. If a client wanted it otherwise I’d adapt."When you went full-time, what kit did you buy?
"It was in 2007. I decided to go with Canon or Nikon digital. The final decision was based on a pro snapper who used Nikon, but told me he wished he’d gone with Canon. So I soon found myself armed with 4 pro Canon DSLR's and a large selection of L lenses. For live work I travel light, packing all I need into a small sling style bag. A full blown shoot requires a serious number of bags, lenses, lights etc. This is where assistants come in – there’s always someone willing to give me a hand."
|Mendi Singh with Alternative Dubstep Orchestra, Mostly Jazz 2011|
"I don't have a studio. It’s too tame. And too costly. I’ve got all the kit I need to set up a studio anywhere, and locations are so much more interesting. Many bands send me their rough ideas and backdrops. I then go out and source locations to suit. Birmingham bands like to come here (Herefordshire) as it’s so different to the usual Digbeth/urban backdrop. Plus we all enjoy a meal and great banter in my kitchen afterwards."You shoot lots of stuff for the love of it. How can you make it pay?
"Good question, it's not all about the money for me. I can work my prices to fit budgets. I used to do some live work for free to find new clients. That’s how I built up long term relationships. Being trusted is everything to me – that’s how you get the money shots that others miss.
|Paul Murphy, Songwriters Cafe, Summer 2011|
"! always look for the real person, not someone who’s aware of a camera in their space. I’ve been known to pull faces at someone onstage or dish out the odd insult when face to face in order to get a reaction. But I always follow it with a smile and a thank you."It’s a crowded field. Is there a sense of community or a sense of competition?
"It’s competitive, but I try not to enter that game. Each photographer will have their own style. Most UK music photographers have a lot of respect for each other. We share space and time: we’ll all chat before entering a pit, then whoever has the best spot will get their shots and move to give others a chance. I find that just a few London based snappers let the side down and fail to understand that mentality."
|Mark Magoo Robinson, Leftfoot 10th Anniversary Special|
"There are many bands I’ve built up an understanding with. I’m rather lucky to have made so many musical friends.
"Goodnight Lenin came to me about 3 years ago. I was recommended by a mutual promoter friend. They were in the planning stages. The budget was tiny. I drove to Edgbaston and did an all-day shoot for the cost that just about covered the petrol. We all got on like a house on fire. About 3 months later they had their first live show, and I was invited along. At this point I had no idea what kind of sound they had. I loved the music and the rest is history. I have now become the band archivist and been at their sides for nearly every gig."
What about big contracts?
"The snapper role was then combined with that of tour manager last year, which sadly has had to go. I love those boys like the sons I never had - I have two daughters. The deal is all about budget. As a band’s kitty grows then my fee will reflect their situation. This way we can grow and reach our goals together. To be taken on tour by a band opens lots of great opportunities to get exclusive one off’s. These days I would rather do that than shoot the actual show, although I do both."
Goodnight Lenin on tour, March 2012
"I’m not sure that I want large contracts. They can end up being a chain around your neck. I worked with Florence And The Machine, shooting a number of the early shows while they were on the rise. They have always been good to me, and I love them dearly, but now for me the machine is the industry, not the band, which saddens me."
"To be honest, when you’ve got to jump through hoops to get a photo pass, I just can’t be bothered. I’d rather just move on. But I have picked up some interesting work off the back of the music work. Last Summer I did a shoot for Echo Falls the wine company, who wanted product placement at the Isle Of Wight Festival. Life is never dull!"Can we talk about your health? Say no and I won't. But to me it's part of the story.
"Sure. I have always been healthy. Last summer, with 16 festivals covered and two still to go, I got a life-changing shock. My age must have kicked in and sent my body a warning message. I had a stroke, which left me on a hospital ward for a week, followed by months of recovery and reflection. Many of my industry friends like Goodnight Lenin, The Misers, Jo Hamilton with Jon Cotton and fellow photographer Wayne Fox with Sara paid me regular hospital and home visits. My dear friend Tiffy B (she's worked with Lady Gaga and CeeLo Green) even dropped in after coming off tour with Tricky. So many people sent cards and Facebook messages. But it was clear that I’d have to change my working life."But you’re back. Now tell me why you decided to go manage a band. At your age and all.
"As I recovered from my illness, I was weak and rusty - I’d gone a month without picking up a camera. I couldn’t drive for 6 weeks. I was not well enough to travel far from Herefordshire; Birmingham was too far. I looked around for a local artist and offered a free shoot to keep my hand in.
"The artist I found was the then 17 year old George Barnett, a former Young Drummer Of The Year. George invited me to a gig at The Bull in Ludlow, not far from my home - my first gig in ages. Yes, it was a pub gig; yes, it was not the best venue, and, yes, there were not hundreds people there, but WOW … he blew me away."
"A big talent, right under my nose. A week or so later we arranged a photo shoot with George and his band The Ninth Wave. The first set of photos were in the bag. After a few more meetings George asked me if I would consider being his manager. A couple of days of days later, I decided to take him up on his offer. Since that time my world has moved to its next phase. I still take photographs, and recently went around the UK with Goodnight Lenin with Beth Jeans Houghton as support. My tour managing is on hold, whilst I concentrate on my new role of developing a very special talent, and I’m sure in years to come he will be a National treasure. The debut George Barnett album 17 Days (here's the bandcamp link) was released on 12th March 2012."What about favourite shots and subjects?
"So many! My most well known shot is a live one of Florence taken at Shepherds Bush Empire. The London tog’s were all squashed into the pit with not even room to pass each other.
I had snapped most of the tour and had sorted out with the lighting guy to give me more light in the first song, as we were only able to shoot the first 3 songs. Lighting on Flo had been very dark. Not wanting to enter the pit scrum I decided to sit on the side of the stage, and so took my shots from a different angle to the others. It wasn’t until I got home I realised that the money shot was in the bag. So that was a bit special.
"I have a lovely one of Carl Barat (Libertines/Dirty Pretty Things) taken in the green room after a London showcase that hangs in my home. Carl said he couldn’t see it being a good shot, but after looking at the result he soon changed his mind."
"An early Tinie Tempah taken in his Rainbow dressing room is another favourite."
"I also love an unusual snap of Robert Plant (see this at the top of this post), taken backstage at the Mostly Jazz festival last summer.
"Robert had just flown in from the USA and was very tired, but he still had enough fun left in him to pick up a jug of flowers and hold it up whilst gesturing with one finger that there is only one Plant."
"Roisin Murphy (ex Moloko) will always have wallspace in my home, but my favourite shot of her was taken on Moloko’s final tour, by my daughter Laura with a happy snaps camera and shows Roisin jumping on my back."Links:
George Barnett website