This post is about the difficult environments I sometimes have to work in. Those who want to read more about Viktoria Modesta may want to check out my earlier article instead. A member of the audience has also posted a video - you can see my hand and hair encroaching on the bottom left of the frame!
Shoreditch House may be an exquisitely designed private members club catering to the beautiful and the fashionable, but photographically it is a nightmare.
Being the headline act, Viktoria Modesta was on last that evening, hitting the stage around 11pm. Two hours earlier I had arrived to discover a lounge area already packed with people and cameras. Sometimes one has to be selfish, so I elbowed my way to the front and claimed the right edge of the sofa nearest the stage. Other photographers buzzed around me waiting for their chance to swoop in and steal my prime spot. They never got the chance. For two whole hours I jealously guarded my position, ignoring those who tried to peer over my shoulders. I was thirsty, I wanted the toilet. But I had a job to do, I wasn't going to ruin my chances by acquiescing.
The stage was lit by two old fresnels from either side, like those seen on the sets of old Hollywood films. The illumination was so dim that the whole room was practically black to my camera. I had no option but to rely on flash. This introduced many tricky problems of its own. First, the flash was mounted on my camera - the resulting light would be harsh, relatively flat and the source of ugly shadows. Secondly the ceiling was very low and painted white - the light would wash everywhere.
Many people would probably give up at this point and write off the evening. But there were three things I could do. One, bounce the flash of the ceiling directly above my head. I experimented with different bounce angles and found straight-up to be the most flattering. I was effectively using the white ceiling as a gigantic bounce board. Secondly, I could exploit the way light naturally falls off with distance. By making sure I was close to my subject the flash unit would not need to throw so much light onto the background. Third, I could use a long lens and carefully aim my camera in a way that would isolate my subject and fill the background with brick wall. I had to avoid that ugly white ceiling at all cost.
Together these constraints narrowed down my options significantly. In fact, there was only one angle and one position I could shoot from. I just had to hope that Viktoria would stand in the right position and alternate either side of the microphone stand. Fortunately she did, and I managed to get some adequate photos of her performance. Not perfect, but they were the best I could do given the difficult circumstances.
I have thought a lot about what I could do to improve my chances in similar situations. The first is to take the flash off camera and properly light the scene with key, fill and back sources. This can be tricky in a public environment, but if the flash units are discrete enough it can work. One can even gel the lights to create additional contrast between foreground and background. Secondly I should use a proper long zoom lens, say 70-200mm. At the moment my longest lens is a 135mm prime.
So usually, given the resources, one can wrestle back a certain amount of control. However there can be no denying that some environments are fundamentally more difficult to shoot in, and all one can do is try their very best. Even then, it may not be enough.
Disco Damage are Kristin Neely and Laura Fares. A few weeks back I was invited onto their EP photo shoot and took along my camera...
There were a few more pictures of the ever-expressive Laura Fares, but I'm sure she would prefer they weren't posted here!
Also thanks to: Eric Mouroux (Featured Photographer), Irene Brandt (Designer/Styling) and Matthew Francis (Makeup).
The first thing that strikes you about "singer/songwriter iconic model/muse & creative designer" Viktoria Modesta is the air of inevitability.
At the age of 23, the Latvian model has graced the covers of Bizarre and SkinTwo, featured in numerous advertising campaigns, and overcome personal challenges that would test even the strongest wills. She has been crowned winner of the Channel4 Evo Music Rooms, and has now completed her first album. Many recognise her as a cult figure, proof that one can challenge conventional notions of beauty and actually succeed.
It is perhaps difficult to separate the girl from the exquisitely styled persona that appears on stage and in fashion magazines. One cannot help but sense that something larger is at work behind the scenes, an informal network of musicians, image makers, opinion formers and connectors. Viktoria may well be the lightning rod that channels all their talents.
To blow up across a million screens requires the creation of something larger than any individual human being. At this scale, the idea takes front stage. Ideas, after all, are not bound by skin and bone. Is that really Stephanie Germanotta on YouTube, or is it Lady Gaga and her quixotic brand of fashion? Whether it be the music production, the costume design, the filming or the marketing, the combined result is the work of dozens if not hundreds of people. It takes rare talent to line them all up and march them in the same direction.
Which brings us back to Viktoria Modesta. All the elements are there: The image, the brand, the people, the music... It's as though we are caught in a slow-motion film, waiting for gravity to act and let the dominoes fall.
That much, at least, seems inevitable.
I wanted to try something a little off-kilter. Usually it so dark that you either have to use flash or dial in a slow shutter. Flash is great for freezing moments but you lose the atmosphere. If rock'n'roll is about throwing your crotch with enough swagger to make mistakes and get away with it, then the clinical illumination of flash is as un-rock'n'roll as you can get. It's too safe. And although long exposures may faithfully recreate the effect of downing too much tequila, tripping down the stairs and bashing your head against the toilet bowl, you ideally want some momento of the night that is not a blurry mess.
So what did I do?
I did both, at the same time.
The slow-sync effect - AKA "dragging the shutter" - is unpredictable, chaotic, and just plain wrong. But hey, that's rock'n'roll, right?
Viktoria Modesta's pictures to follow soon...
Imagine you are thirteen years old again. Summer holidays still last forever, the burden of unfinished homework shades Sunday evenings... Grown ups keep on telling you these are the happiest days of your life, yet your mind is trapped in the dull grind of school and the bus journey home.
One blue skied morning the phone rings. The school has been shut. Suddenly, a whole day of adventure extends before you. The world seems different: Sun strikes the buildings at unfamiliar angles, people flow differently in the street outside. You should be stuck in the classroom, yet instead you are now standing on the doorstep, privy to another world - the world that has always existed outside the school gates on a weekday.
If this is a matinee film, then Gabby Young and her band are the colourful characters sent to rescue you. You can hear them gently tapping on your bedroom window, beckoning you to join them. A dusty flat bed truck is parked just round the corner, stacked with trumpets, guitars, mandolins and countless other wonderful instruments... Minutes later, your parents discover a curiously empty bedroom and an open window. Nearby, a pair of curtains waft gently in the breeze...
Countless miles away, the road runs long and unfamiliar. The soil is dust, the sky warm. Songs with resplendent, towering choruses rise above the din of the engine: "Horatio" dramatizes the story of a doomed man to epic proportions, and "Whose House" sounds like an entire township joining forces to exorcise a haunted home.
The afternoon is waning, but there is one last stop. "We are all off to the zoo!" announces the band. Only this a zoo unlike any other. You hand the attendant your ticket and step through the turnstile... An orchestra of animals greet you. Foxes paw their accordions, bears blow their clarinets. Pandas, lions and other creatures join the parade. The entire zoo is alive with the sound of folk and jazz.
Inevitably it comes time to leave and head on home. The light on the horizon has narrowed like a sleepy eye lid. You wave goodbye to the animals and slump into the back of the truck. "We Are All in This Together" a voice laments. The strings of a guitar sound delicately nearby. The adventure is over.
You return just in time for the nine o'clock news and supper. Once again you pack your school bag, and attempt to ignore the underlying dread of handing in half-finished homework. The room is now a little cold, so you shut the window.
The ticket stub from the zoo is still in your back pocket. You fish it out, pause, and place the scuffed remains beneath your pillow... hoping it will still be there come morning.
Featured in these pictures:
The garment and headpiece are from the Salon Gabrielle collection, designed especially for Gabby Young by the Miss Kiki Salon Presents artists collective. © Sofia Kalaitzidi, Kundalini Arts and Robert Burton. The headpiece was produced by Ugly Lovely.
Stage design and illuminated necklace by Jeffrey Michael.
Live lighting design and programming by Marie Sanders.
Barden's Boudoir is buried somewhere on Stoke Newington Road, near a couple of Turkish kebab shops and down a flight of stairs. Girls vastly outnumber boys; they huddle in alcoves and around small tables. Many sport short, boyish hair cuts. The androgyny grows more apparent the closer one looks, and soon little doubt is left as to why I'm the only guy here.
Johnny Lazer finally hits the stage around midnight. The crowd crush in around the platform and suddenly I can feel my camera bashing against someone's leg. I'm now wedged between two floor speakers, right at the front. Nearby a plastic pint sits flat and forgotten - I carefully eye it's position and make a mental note not to spill it.
Johnny Lazer's tunes are defiantly pop, an unflinching challenge to those who believe the genre is still owned by twelve year old girls. "Kaleidoscope" is a colourful tale of fractured love that dips and peaks like a sinister fairground ride. One can almost catch sight of the cracked mirrors and crying clowns as we are whisked by. Meanwhile, "Weekend Waster" is a swaggering panorama of the end times, where the rivers flow with JD and the four horsemen of the apocalypse can be heard galloping across the dance floor.
Credible pop for those old enough to have loved, lost, and who really should know better.
In these photos: Johnny Lazer and Laura Fares (drums).
Saturday night, I raced over to Barfly to catch The Mars Patrol.
If there was a board game in which every square represented a legendary rock venue, which every aspiring band had to play on the road to glory, then Barfly would be one of the most prestigious. Last night, after countless rolls of the dice, The Mars Patrol landed on the square that really mattered.
Unlike the Water Rats just down the road, the upstairs stage in The Lexington had very minimal lighting. I had to get creative. I began by dragging the shutter, mixing the motion blur with crisp flash photography. The photos though were pretty gaudy, due in no small part to the mixture of different colour temperatures; motion blur was bright orange, whereas sharp detail was pale.
Black and white can lend an image a whole different atmosphere if used wisely. Colour casts are neutralised, cluttered stages are homogenized, and tired skin is rejuvenated. That's why a lot of music photography is still rendered black and white. The fastest films are monochrome too, essential in the low-light environment of a music gig.