I have moaned at length on this blog on more than one occasion about the problems I have with stage lights at gigs; specifically ones that are pointing out at the crowd, and hence right into my camera. These things play havok with long exposures and I’ve missed out on getting photographs of many bands over the last year because of this. I had thought of talking to the lighting engineers about it, to try and get them to tone it down, but I was reluctant to do so mostly because I don’t like the idea of trying to tell them how they should be doing their jobs. I also felt that doing this might change the nature of these pictures in a subtle but still significant way – I wouldn’t be simply capturing what happens anymore, I would be to some extent directly influencing what happens, and therefore veering somewhat into the realms of constructed photographs.
A couple of week ago however I started chatting to the lighting guy in the Button Factory, and he turned out not only to be really interested in what I was doing, but also willing to help out. I quickly jettisoned my misgivings and asked him to knock off the front facing lighting for a few songs at least. This worked out really well and when I was in there last week photographing Meat Puppets we went a step further, and for the first song of their set, he not only kept the front facing lights away from my camera, but also lit up the crowd for me.
The picture above is the result. This was the first song of the set and people were drifting up to the front of the stage while the band were playing, so there’s a lot of movement in the crowd taking place over the length of the exposure (which for the record was 3 minutes and 40 seconds at f22). There were also one or two photographers with flashes at the front, so you can see multiple freeze-frames of guitarist Kurt Kirkwood on the right. The strangest thing about this shot though is the guy peering out from backstage on the left-hand side. Was he caught in a flash as well, or was he standing there absolutely still for 3 minutes and 40 seconds?
The Meat Puppets are a very strange band. I’m not sure there is anyone else out there who plays punk rock mixed with country and with extended psychedelic guitar solos thrown in for good measure. To say they have been around the block a bit is understatement of the century. Veterans of the US underground scene of the 1980s, they released a whole bunch of influential albums before hooking up with Kurt Cobain for the Nirvana Unplugged thing. Then, when on the cusp of commercial success, they disappeared from view, with bass player Cris going on a dark, decade-long bender involving heroin, crack cocaine, guns and prison sentences. Somehow he survived, got himself clean, and now they’re back.
They were never really on my radar that much until I read about them in Micheal Azerrad’s book Our Band Could Be Your Life, which brilliantly documents the post-punk American independent music scene that consisted of bands such as Minor Threat, Black Flag, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr and so on. Or at least I thought I did. When I looked it up just now, I saw that there is in fact no chapter on Meat Puppets. Speaking of Azerrad’s book, there was recently a gig held in New York to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its publication. Many current luminaries such as Dirty Projectors, St Vincent, Tune-Yards and Dan Deacon got up and did covers of the acts documented in Our Band … It’s a testament to the lasting influence of that music, and the book, that they would do so, but still – a tribute gig to a book? That has to be a first ….
Here is my friend Conor’s video of Meat Puppets playing I’m A Mindless Idiot in the Button Factory. This is the first song they played and therefore the same one as in my photograph. I’ve been looking out for the guy peering out from backstage but can’t see him unfortunately. Big thanks to D Reilly, master of the lights at the Button Factory, for helping me make the photograph.