The Changing Face Of Music Photography

A post from Alamy’s Alexandra Bortkiewicz

Alexandra Bortkiewicz, Director of Photography at Alamy has been in the image industry for over 30 years. According to her music photography has changed dramatically in that time, it’s no longer rock and roll.

Jimi Hendrix kneeling in front of a burning guitar; The Clash’s Paul Simonon smashing his Fender bass on stage; Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain on one knee and staring straight into camera: pop and rock history is full of iconic images, but can today’s music photographers hope to shoot similar striking images? Or will developments like tighter restrictions for concert photographers, and artists wanting greater image control, mean that today’s music stars will leave a legacy of bland, boring images for future generations?

While I was creating the Pop and Rock showcase from the Alamy collection, I was struck by how the images of the latest bands didn’t quite have the resonance and iconic status of the documentary coverage of bands and pop stars from the 50s to the 90s. Back then, photographers were able to tap into the theatre, magnetism, proclivities and eccentricities of pop and rock stars, who often enthralled audiences with their antics, charisma, rampant exhibitionism and on-stage posturing.  Those photographers were implicit in creating the legend.

Does the fact that we now live in more politically correct times subdue this form of expression? Would we now, for example, be denied the shot of the Clash behaving badly and shooting pigeons from their hotel?  Smoking bans in public places mean that those atmospheric shots of jazz artists performing in smoke-filled clubs are now just a distant memory.

But are my views tinged with nostalgia? I decided to contact some music photographers for their perspective of shooting from the pit today, compared with yesteryear. One factor that regularly cropped up was the more stringent rules around shooting bands at concerts, combined with the intrusion of the PR machine. Tony Gale, from Pictorial Press, noted that, rock artists used to be flattered by the attention they received and were more relaxed about their public image,  “their image was very fluid, someone like Jeff Beck would happily give you his personal phone number,” recalls Gale, “now access is vetted by a PR guy and the record company.”

The words ‘control’ and ‘access’ came up regularly.  Music photographer Marc Marnie says, “What began as a symbiotic creative relationship between musician and photographer is being reduced a paparazzi-inspired scramble known as the ‘First Three – NO Flash’”.  James Allsworth, who has shot bands at the Zodiac (now part of Academy venue empire), confirms the rules, “I’m often only allowed to shoot during the first three songs from one area of the stage, with no flash.” He adds that once, while shooting a warm up act, he was sternly told off by security for shooting from the ‘wrong’ side of the stage, and threatened with having his camera confiscated. Allsworth sees these tactics as, “Having an impact on the quality we see coming through from live gig photography.”

Photographer Julie Edwards says access can even be limited to, “Shooting from the sound desk rather than the pit, using 400mm or 600mm lenses.” The justification for this is that, photographers can still photograph the stage show, but without distracting press or public. These factors, along with the trend for major concerts to be covered by photographers with little or no experience of shooting live music, often results in the technically perfect, but bland images seen in the press.

Another thorny issue is contracts. Edwards notes that some contracts limit the image life to 60 days (not easy for a freelance photographer to manage) or to a single publication (very hard to make a profit from). Others want image approval before publication (going against basic news photography principles) or bands will try to grab the image rights (going against all basic rights, and also resulting in the photographer unable to legally store the images).

Allsworth also noted how photographers are increasingly asked to sign away their rights, “I’m not sure how prevalent it was in the past,” he says, “but now, you are often told that, if you shoot a particular artist, the copyright goes to the label or the artist.” This, along with a general reduction in fees and commissions makes it harder for professional concert photographers to make a decent living.” Allsworth adds that, “Shooting gigs is seen as a dream job for music-loving photographers, and with decent equipment now so affordable, it means there is always someone willing to shoot for free and sign away rights, just to get a foot in.”

But Allsworth says it’s not all gloom, “I still think there is some fantastic stuff out there, and if you’re creative you can get some truly iconic shots, especially with the way cameras can now perform in low light. Just have a look through some of the Flickr groups for live music photography – it’s amazing! And thankfully, there are still plenty of indie venues which are not so restrictive. Putting in the hours at these types of venues can pay dividends – there is nothing like getting intimate shots of an unknown band that becomes a Glastonbury headliner.”

However, Edwards is less upbeat “If you look back through the past few decades of music, it’s documented by great images of momentous performances that may not have been taken during the first 3 songs. I worry that all we will have to look back on with today’s acts is a collection of carefully controlled, stage-managed images.”

That observation made me think about a photographic retrospective I saw last year, which captured Mick Jagger through the decades – the room was alive with a range of styles and perspectives. It revealed so much about the iconic Rolling Stone – and the creativity and ingenuity of the individual photographers.  It made me doubt whether the visual documentary of current and future music stars and bands will ever match the amazing images from past decades. It also led me to conclude that the close bond between subject and photographer is hard to replicate in current times.  Even Rankin’s polished images of Adele, with their veneer of celebrity, reflect little about her.

Marc Marnie has noticed the impact of concert restrictions on his productivity, “We now photograph the first three songs and then trudge home to our computers and deadlines, leaving the audience to photograph the rest of the show. Once, I’d shoot two or three rolls of film throughout a concert – now, I might shoot the equivalent during those first three songs.”   Marnie compared the situation today with 1978, when he smuggled his father’s old Practika into the legendary Glasgow Apollo and took his first photos – three frames of Muddy Waters supporting Eric Clapton. “There was no ‘First Three – No Flash’ rule and when Clapton opened his set with a full-on ‘Layla’, the crowd surged forward and the bouncers struck back. A well directed blow from one broke my nose. Later on – covered in blood and still in pain – I processed the film and found some useable images. The quality was rough, but I still exhibit that first frame of Muddy, as it resonates with those times.”

The challenges facing today’s music photographers were highlighted by reports that The Stone Roses wanted to pay photographers covering their Manchester reunion gigs £1 for all image rights, including using images across all merchandising, without crediting photographers. The result was a call for a boycott by photographers, who objected to having to surrender copyright.

In stark contrast, consider this homage from Tom Hanley, recalling his experiences of working with The Beatles. Hanley’s intimate portraits of the most famous band in pop history are a delight to view.  It’s interesting to note that The Beatles were the biggest band in the world, and yet its members availed themselves to the probing scrutiny of the photographer’s lens. Today’s stars are often obscured through a veil of PR and carefully constructed images. “The Beatles were great fun to be with and whatever troubles they may have had, they never let it show through,” recalls Hanley, “the bond that held them together was stronger than superglue. They were terrific.”

Marco | Editor

Editor at large and founder of a bunch of stockphoto businesses

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