Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Access is music to my ears

B.B. King in Savannah, 2002.
"I can look at a fine art photograph and sometimes I can hear music."
– Ansel Adams
I'm a music lover. And I have to admit that music moves me more emotionally than the finest photograph. If I could scratch out a living making music, I'd do it. But alas, that takes a certain amount of talent which I just don't possess. I believe I've been blessed with a discerning ear, but the sounds that come out of my mouth and my guitar don't qualify as something that, well, someone with a discerning ear would be particularly pleased with. I think your mind has to be wired a certain way to be a good musician. My mind is wired for something else.

Instead, when I have the opportunity, I try to combine something I'm good at (photography) with something else I love (live musical performances). While music is primarily an aural experience, there is a strong visual element to musicians plying their craft. Great music, like great photographs, is something you can feel. And you can actually see when musicians pour their heart and soul into their performances. The challenge is to make a visual document that somehow communicates what you hear and feel.

    Virtuoso violinist Isaac Stern rehearses with the Savannah Symphony.
What does any of this have to do with access? Well, over the years, I've come to prefer photographing lesser known and local musicians in small venues such as clubs or bars instead of famous acts in huge venues like arenas and stadiums. Why? At one time, I wanted to be like iconic photographer Jim Marshall. His images documented rock and roll in its heyday – in the 1960s and early '70s. Images that were wrought with the same attitude as the music. Raw. Edgy. Primal. Not always flattering, but real. And memorable. His photographs were historic, visual records of revolutionary musicians. Photos that depicted human beings who were often as tragic and flawed as they were brilliant. And it was all possible because he got access.

Jazz musician Doug Carn on break at his club Adagio.
Marshall persuaded famous people to let him into their lives and photograph whatever he wanted. Not a one of them complained after the pictures were published, either. Can you imagine that in today's entertainment climate? Today, it's all business. It's all about control of image and merchandise. On one hand, I can't blame the artists. Piracy and misappropriation run rampant in a society where many view the internet as a free-for-all. On the other hand, it's frustrating as a photojournalist who's interested in making honest, revealing pictures of the people behind the public image.

By photographing lesser known musicians in smaller venues, it's easy to get the kind of access that creates more interesting, revealing pictures. The in-your-face action. The behind-the-scenes stuff. You don't get herded like cattle into roped-off areas and get forced to shoot the same stuff twenty other photographers are shooting.

Statesboro's own Chris Mitchell in 1999.

Recently, country music star (and now actor!) Tim McGraw came to town and played the football stadium at Georgia Southern University. There was a buzz because big name artists rarely stray from their big-city, big-venue tours and make a stop in Statesboro.

View from the soundboard
I get progressively more jaded every time I have to shoot a big concert. Acts get more restrictive all the time. Typically, you get to shoot during the first three songs, then you get escorted out of the venue. That's it. And it usually take more than three songs for the atmosphere to warm up. Musicians get in a groove. They connect more and more with the audience as they go along.  If the artist doesn't perform a signature song in the first three, you're out of luck.

As close as I could get
A group of local news media arrived at the stadium and we were led in by university staff. They laid down all the rules and then apologized for the strictness, saying those were the rules from McGraw's management. Usually, there is a roped-off area between the stage and the audience where photographers and videographers shoot from. This time, instead, we were led to an area just in front of the sound board – a good 30 or 40 yards from the stage!

"You must be kidding!" we all griped. There weren't even any risers for a sightline above the hundreds of fans between us and the stage. My longest telephoto lens could barely reach the action. The opening act came on, and I made a few frames of the musicians on stage - images that were probably inferior to those made by fans' phone cameras next to the stage. I was disgusted and couldn't wait for the event to be over. I spent most of the opening act making pictures of fans in the audience, which were much more interesting that the ones I made of teeny tiny figures on stage.

Tim McGraw fans Greg and Carolyn Taylor

After the opening act was over, someone came to the area that was part of McGraw's immediate management. There seemed to be some confusion and she was herding us together again. I couldn't hear exactly what she was saying at first, but it seems that we were not shooting from an "approved" area. She was concerned about us interfering with the sound crew and special guests. Great. So now we were going to be moved further away?

Well, I griped too hastily. Apparently, we were supposed to be up next to the stage, but someone forgot to make accommodations. Eventually, we were given the option of staying where we were, or we could be escorted through the crowd to the stage. "Lead the way," I said. Event staff led some of us through the crowd. I got slimed with sweat, hollered at by drunk fans, and pinched in the derrière, but I found my way to the T-shaped runway extending from the stage. I quickly made friends with a couple of very excited fans and a security worker, who very much looked the part but was quite friendly. I was one with the crowd when McGraw hit the stage, and I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

Lisa Peavy, left, and Rachel Jackson in the front row.
My photos weren't anything terribly special. But they were infinitely better than if I had continued shooting from the sound board. I still couldn't name a single Tim McGraw song if you pointed a gun to my head. But I think was able to give Herald readers just a little sense of the excitement. To know what it was like to be in the front row.

Fans next to the stage reach out to country music star Tim McGraw at Paulson Stadium in Statesboro.

Amazing what just a little access can do for my psyche.

It's like music to my ears.


  1. Great blog, Scott! Man, that photo of me is when I had more brown hair than grey. My friend Rob said something very interesting to me tonight. He said "A movie can take two hours to get you to an emotional high. A song can do it in 20 seconds". Funny thing is, he's a movie buff-not a musician.

  2. I always find it ironic when I'm being led away after the three song limit and see dozens of hands in the air holding cell phones, taking pictures.

  3. I've noted the same irony. Check out this pic of Brad Paisley when he was here in 2007. Note the flash next to the stage and see if you can count the number of glowing cell phones:

    2007 Brad Paisley concert


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