This is four minutes and forty four seconds of Jello Biafra And The Guantanamo School Of Medicine playing in the Button Factory a few weeks ago. I don’t know where to start with this. It’s easily one of the most satisfying results, on all sorts of levels, that I have gotten yet from this project, and it represents something I have been trying to achieve for some time now.
A few years ago I was at a Melvins gig in The Village and sneaked upstairs to watch them from the balcony. Looking down, watching the crowd surfers and the stage divers, was the first time I had ever regretted not bringing a camera to a gig. While the whole long exposure gig photography idea had not occurred to me back then, it did plant the seed of figuring out some way of photographing the live music experience in a way that was different to traditional music photography.
Speaking of which, I gave a talk recently at the Centre For Creative Practices, as part of an evening dedicated to music photography, and I used the following photo of Jello Biafra by Glen E. Friedman as an example of what I mean by traditional live music photography. I love Friedman’s work: he documented a whole era of American punk rock and hardcore, and in particular, brilliantly captured the excitement and intensity of the crowd at those shows.
I see this kind of photography as part of a tradition that encompasses documentary photography, street photography, and even war photography. It’s all about the photographer being there, right place at the right time, camera ready, capturing the moment; and damn any discomfort, difficulty or even danger that that might entail. As Robert Capa famously said, if your pictures are not good enough, it’s because you are not getting close enough.
However, there is another photographic tradition that favours a slower more contemplative way of working, that uses large cameras fixed on tripods rather than handhelds, and that is more likely to employ extended time exposures rather than super fast shutter speeds. This tradition encompasses many things from 19th century portraiture to much of today’s contemporary art photography. I like the idea of seeing how this slow tradition can be employed in contexts that are normally the preserve of the fast handheld documentary one. Can it be used in this context at all? If so, does it reveal something different?
So, to get back to Jello Biafra and the photograph at the top of this page: this is the first time I have managed to do an extended time exposure photograph in a context where there was a mass outbreak of stage diving and crowd surfing. The gig itself was phenomenal. Biafra now has a fantastic band in tow, who hammer out Dead Kennedy’s classics and his later work with equal ease. He hasn’t dispensed with the confrontational and highly politically charged rhetoric but now it comes wrapped in a completely stunning show that is equal parts righteous anger, surreal humour, and loud punk rock. Seriously one of the best things I have been at in ages.
The crowd lapped it up and, prompted no doubt by Biafra himself leaping into the crowd, it wasn’t long before people were clambering up on stage and diving off, crowd-surfing back and forth, and slam dancing down the front. At some points, complete mayhem broke out, particularly when the band dipped into the DK back catalogue and pulled out songs like California Uber Alles and Holidays in Cambodia.
The photograph above was taken when they were doing California… and as usual, it was created by opening the shutter at the start of the song and closing it at the end, which entailed an exposure of 4 minutes and 44 seconds. There was a rant from Jello in the middle about something, I can’t remember what, during which the three guitarists stood in a line on the right of the stage. You can just about see this in the photo, or one of them anyway. Jello was out in the crowd at one point, which is probably the outstretched arms veering towards the centre of the pit that can be seen in the shot. If you look really closely you can also see the microphone stand being twirled in the air above his head. The guy at the back on the left was working the stage for them, moving in and pushing people off if they didn’t seen inclined to go themselves, and pulling Jello back out of the crowd if necessary as well. But really what I like best about this shot is the swirl of people to the left and right of the stage, stretching back in two lines of light. It really captures something of the energy of the crowd.
I’ve got a bunch more successful shots from the night, including one that is truly bizarre, and I will probably post some more in due course. Big thanks for this are due by the way to lighting engineer Ryan, who kept the lights simple and steady for the whole show. Respect is also due to the Button Factory security staff, who didn’t freak out at what was going on, and let things take their natural course. I’m really interested in doing more gigs like this, so hopefully some more will turn up in the near future. In the meantime here is a trailer for a documentary called Into The Pit, which explores the history and conventions of the mosh pit – looks good.