concert photography & the "decompressing" moment

there are many changes that digital photography is bringing to photography genres, and a very noticeable one is concert photography. the high ISO performance of modern sensor, the compactness of cameras, and the aspiration of many to get "the shot" at a concert has drastically changed the experience to those attending concerts — with, or without, cameras.

I never took concert photos with film, so I am in that group of people polluting the concert venues, and definitely started looking for "the shot" — whatever that means. the first self-inflicted disturbance of my concert-going experience was the idea of audio recording. after a while, getting annoyed at the "talkers" really impacted my enjoyment of the concert experience. however, taking photos seem to be much less intrusive.

Judge Smith, London, 2005 by Kodiak Xyza

in having an allergy towards big venues, then it also became a challenge of how to take photos (starting in about 2005, at a Judge Smith concert in London) in such dimly lit clubs. this technical challenge, plus the increase in "concert photographers" disturbing others, began to inform my approach. at the time, I was not taking portraits of any note — still avoiding people in my photos, actually. 

Bill Callahan, San Francisco, Oct 2007 by Kodiak Xyza

Matt Berninger (The National) at The Troubadour, Los Angeles, 2006 Oct by Kodiak Xyza

by 2007, things started to come together. a set of aesthetics, and "principles" began to develop, and the first pleasing result came at a Bill Callahan (Smog) concert. in October of that year, he played The Independent in San Francisco, and there was a clear "callahan" moment. although taken before the Bill Callahan photo, at a concert at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, there were similar moments by Matt Berninger of The National that I could not recognize at the time, but did in revisiting the photos years after. in both instances, there was something about a pause between songs, and at times, a pause within the song. in some ways, these moments were more like a portrait, rather than what I call a Kerrrang! moment.

there were "problems" if I wanted to promote the concert photos: I took my time to process the photos — namely a delay before I looked at them — and the photos that I liked were not like what I saw elsewhere in style. the style being developed by the use of digital cameras was that of overly bright, overly saturated, long depth of field, and overly sharpened wide-angle crotch/face shots. 

perhaps the missing link between what I saw in online concert photos, and what was happening with my camera, is the photo by Pennie Smith of Paul Simonon that made the cover of the The Clash's seminal London Calling. a definite Kerrrang! moment, coupled to all the effects transmitted by a performer which belies an impression of the music being played. it is with some humour that, like much of the commentary in today's comments about photos, she considered the photo not to be good enough for the album cover because it was out of focus.

Paul Simonon  by  Pennie Smith  at the New York Palladium in 1979

Paul Simonon by Pennie Smith at the New York Palladium in 1979

Winfred E. Eye at El Rio, San Francisco 2009 by Kodiak Xyza

in the ensuing years, I was able to attend a few concerts by Oakland's Winfred E. Eye. they played at small venues in San Francisco, and the lighting situation was rather poor. the lens had to be used wide open (ƒ1.4, or ƒ1.2), the shutter speed struggled to be above 1/30s, and I had to be close to the stage due wider-than-usual lenses to be used. the aesthetics got further changed because I began to notice that I could not track the focus with the performer. the solution? focus on the microphone that was stationary, since the bands' singers also played the guitar.

in 2011, I was fortunate enough to attend a rare reunion concert by Sad Lovers and Giants. during some correspondence with singer Garçe Allard about the photos I took, there was a question about what I sought with my concert photos. for me, even to this day, the best concert photo I have taken was of Garçe, at some swanky small Berlin venue. I finally managed to express what was it that I sought in a concert photograph in a mail to him:

« this photograph is what I strive for in concert photography, and I am so glad to have caught it. while I enjoy the "energetic" concert photo as anyone else, I like that "decompression" moment of a performer, which happens ever so rarely, and few performers can express it as well as the moment of energy. wonderful that you wear your emotions while performing in such a full range.  »

Garçe Allard (Sad Lovers and Giants), Berlin, 2011 by Kodiak Xyza

while it is hardly rot work, concert photography is the search for the Decompression Moment, and to keep the camera focused on the microphone. the good thing is that, when it actually happens, it is typically in-between songs, and that is when it least disturbs the audience to wield out the camera. 

another element in my concert photography is to pick a spot and stay put. beyond the use of flash, and all the arms raised throughout a concert, the worst thing is to keep moving through the concert, and on the front row, to make way for "the concert photographer". 

• [ linkSad Lovers and Giants: they are featured in a retrospective on The Big Takeover issues #73 and #74. the photo above may be included.