Get Featured: Stephen Dowling
Stephen has been on the site a number of times before, so it is really nice to see his work on here too. Stephen shares with us his gig photography, taking in some very famous names from all over the world. Check it out.
It all began in Zagreb in 2004, in the dark calm of the Croatian capital’s opera house.
I’d spent much of my journalistic career as a music writer, moving from New Zealand to London in the mid-1990s to chase the dream of writing about rock ‘n’ roll in one of the world’s biggest cities. Along the way the photography bug bit; along with the gigging and the interview bands, I learned the basic of photography on an old Praktica and shoot-from-the-hip spontanaiety with a Lomo LC-A.
By 2004, I was working as a entertainment reporter for the BBC, spending less time out at gigs and more in front of a computer cracking out stories for the ever-hungry BBC News website. One of the bands I had met in my music writing days was the fantastic Lambchop, a multi-member country-soul collective from Nashville, Tennessee. I’d seen them a half-a-dozen times at gigs in London and got to know some of the band, including their frontman Kurt Wagner. Lambchop had had a surprisingly big album in 2000 – the strings-laden country opera ‘Nixon’ – and on the back of it had begun to tour off the beaten track. I’d looked at the forthcoming tour dates on their 2004 tour and wondered if I might make a project of their concerts, following them to certain cities and capturing some of the mood of life on tour.
So I turned up in Zagreb, and shot a handful of films of Lambchop’s set; some backstage moments, the soundcheck, the night’s gig. I chopped and changed between a Bessaflex and an old Pentax Spotmatic and a giant Kiev 60 6×6 camera, using all manner of colour and black and white films. Back in London, combing through the prints, the ones that seemed the most intriguing were those at soundcheck. They were performance pictures, but ones without the normal lighting or body language. There was something more intimate and interesting about them.
I followed Lambchop on several more dates – to Moscow in Russia, to New York, to Istanbul, as well as several London shows. But as time progressed the project became something else. Shooting the soundchecks allowed me to be on stage, capturing the band from angles that could be achieved during a concert. The light was less dramatic. No flash, just film pushed to make it more sensitive to the available light.
I began to shoot other artists, starting with some of the bands I’d made friends with along the way. The Nashville singer-songwriter Josh Rouse. Tucson, Arizona’s peerless Calexico. Boston power trio Buffalo Tom. And Crowded House’s Neil Finn, whose music has been a constant since my childhood in New Zealand.
I read a sage piece of advice about shooting a project on film (I wish I could remember the source), that pictures work better if there’s uniformity. I ditched the mix-and-match approach and shot only on a pair of Nikon cameras, and a 50mm and an 85mm lens. Until recently, everything was shot on the same film stock, too – Fuji Neopan, pushed to 6400. Fuji very helpfully discontinued Neopan, so now I need to find a different film stock for the next stage of the project. I’ll either go with Kodak Tri-X or Ilford HP5.
There’s a definite different mood to these pictures than you usually find at concerts. I’m not restricted to the first three songs, to trying to frame a lead singer’s face and cropping out distracting elements in the background. Sometimes the nicest details are the tangles of cords or guitars catching light in the racks; moments of concentration and silhouettes against bright light. The musicians are so wrapped up in the soundcheck that they don’t even notice I’m there. And that’s what I want. Not staged performance shots, but something different, more reportage or documentary in style. I’ve looked at a lot of jazz photography from the 1950s, and that’s a real touchstone, as if the work of Pennie Smith, who did the most fantastic work touring with The Clash in the 1970s (check out the cover of their 1980 album ‘London Calling’).
I’ve shot around 25 bands now – The National, Portishead, Manic Street Preachers, The Maccabees, British Sea Power, The Clean and Bon Iver, to name a few – and my long-term aim is to shoot 50 and produce a book. While many of them have been shot in London, I’ve also used it as an excuse to travel. I shot the National in Luxembourg at a tiny club as they were well on their well to becoming a stadium band, and a reformed Crowded House playing their first-ever Russian gig in Moscow. And where possible, I’ve joined a few tours. Whenever Buffalo Tom are in Europe I’ll try and join them for a few days on the road. On tour I’ll shoot the gigs as well, but usually on colour film and on my old Pentax ESIIs; if it’s good enough for Pennie Smith then it’s good enough for me.
This isn’t about capturing rock ‘n’ roll excess or glamour. Towards the end of my music journalism career I became massively disillusioned about how music was being covered in mainstream media, how it seemed to be morphing into just one facet of the celebrity culture. There’s a lot more time and effort spent discussing artists spilling out of clubs and parties than on the albums that are supposed to be the reason we’re interested in them in the first place. Music was the thing that drew me to this part of the world 20 years ago; it’s fantastic to combine that with film photography, which has become an important part if my life in the years since.
• The Soundcheck Sessions project was being exhibited at the Lomography Soho Gallery Store in Newburgh Street, London WC2 until in July.
• All prints seen here, and more, are available to buy as limited-edition 16×12 prints. Contact [email protected] for more details.
Thanks for sharing your work with us, Stephen. I would have been in heaven doing that job. You have shot a lot of bands that I love.
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