At The 13th Floor, we are immensely proud of our talented team of photographers who work relentlessly to capture moments of music history. Here is a new feature to allow readers a glimpse behind the scenes into the world of music photography. Our guest photographer today is none other than Michael Flynn from Michael Flynn Photography.
I’m Reuben Raj and I am mega excited to kick off a new segment at The 13th Floor which will focus on music photography.
Hello Michael, I am truly happy to start a new chapter at The 13th Floor about music photography with you!
Can I please invite you to introduce a bit about yourself? When and how did you get into music photography?
I feel that I grew up listening to music. My Father worked in a theatre and was a big fan of British dance bands of the 30’s. His sister, my aunt, was a dancer and the pair of them loved musicals. They would often tap dance on the titled floor of the kitchen. I seem to have been baptized by the music and dancing of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. My Mother loved those popular singers of the 50’s and 60’s. Sinatra etc. It was there all around me.
I was fortunate to have grown up at a magical time in popular music. The Beatles, Kinks, Dylan, The Rolling Stones. Fabulous fabulous music was being created almost daily and the charts were filled with what is now referred to as the classics. There was something very special in the air at that time. And right there on my doorstep was the City of Liverpool, a city that buzzed with wonderful bands, poets and musicians. And concerts too of course. So many amazing concerts.
When I was 16 I started going to folk clubs and gigs. Music was like a drug and I was sucked right into this incredible scene. I’d bought a small 35mm camera. A Pentax Spotmatic F. And around this time, in pursuing my interest in photography, I got a job working in a photographic lab. My desire to learn about photography seemed parallel to my interest in music so it was probably really no surprise that I started taking my camera to concerts as the years went on.
Could you share with us some of the gigs that you photographed then? Is there anything that stands out? Any fun stories from those early years.
Well, at that time there was no one preventing you from shooting a gig as far as I can remember. I would just walk down to the front and take some shots, or, ask my girlfriend at that time, to queue up for concerts tickets on the first day of sale. I was unable to get them myself for I was working in the photo lab. And so, armed with precise instructions she would book seats that were slightly off centre so as to avoid having microphones stuck in the face of the artists I wanted to shoot.
Looking back now it seems incredible but there were very few concerts that I attended where any other photographers were around. In fact I can only recall one gig where I shared a pit with someone. And that was a real orchestra pit of all things. I simply left my seat and walked down into this pit and remained there for the entire show. There was a photographer already in there and he asked me who I was shooting for. I didn’t know how to answer him because at that time I was just shooting for myself and the sheer pleasure of it all.
I photographed David Bowie right at the start of his Ziggy Stardust tour in 1972. It was at Liverpool Stadium, an old boxing stadium, and he and the band played there in the boxing ring. It was a really incredible show. Once again I just left my seat and walked to the front and fired away.
This memory is bitter sweet for I remember the photographs I took were really good. Bowie and the Spiders from Mars all dressed in those wonderful suits of theirs. Years later all of the prints and negatives went missing. I think I had upset an old girlfriend and she took them. All I have left are about rubbishy 4 prints. I guess the moral of the story is always be nice to your girlfriend.
I just wish I’d had a camera in those very early years though for I had attended some fantastic concerts back then and I would loved to have had a record of those. I saw Bowie when he was a mime artist and bottom of the bill at a Tyrannosaurus Rex Concert. I saw Cream’s farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall, Dylan at the Isle of Wight, and I was at the Rolling Stones original Hyde Park Concert in London in 1969 and again when they played there in 2013. I went to the 2013 concert with three old friends of mine and while we were sat there we reminisced about the original concert. I mentioned that I was sat with another friend from my home town to which they said that they were sat with him also. But none of us could recall each other being there. So there you have it. Proof that if you can remember the 60’s you were never there!
There were so many great artists whose concerts I had attended back then but never photographed. Nick Drake being just one of them. Oh how I wish I has photographed that concert.
At the start of the 70’s though I started taking my camera to the concerts on a regular basis and I was able to photograph many memorable shows. One that stands out was Lynyrd Skynyd at the Liverpool Empire, February 1972. When I got my film back from the lab it had been damaged. Whoever developed it hadnt fixed it properly and so these partly exposed negatives were returned to me with an apology. The band looked like they were playing surrounded by flames. In October later that year the band’s plane crashed and some of the band members were killed. I still have those prints and I always feel uncomfortable whenever I look at them.
In 1976 I was managing a record shop and there was a great change in the music scene. Punk and New Wave swept across Britain and many new bands started up in Liverpool and elsewhere. I was a regular at the legendary club Erics in Matthew Street in Liverpool. It stood right across from where the Cavern had once been. (The original Cavern was demolished in 1973. Talk about short sightedness). It was an amazingly exciting time. I saw so many great bands there. Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, The Stranglers, XTC, Siouxsue and the Banshees, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Buzzcocks…..the list is never ending.
Anyway, I managed to photograph many of the bands that played there at that time. I’ve still got my membership card too. It’s one of my most cherished pieces of memorabilia.
Did photography differ greatly at that time? Technically that is ? And how does it compare with today?
Well remember, I was shooting photographs just for the sheer enjoyment of it at that time. I was there to see the bands more than anything but I felt impelled to take my camera more and more as time went on. Film was very restrictive. 200 iso was the max. Unless you shot Black and white. In which case you could buy 400 iso. But I loved trying to capture the colours and the excitement of a concert back then so I rarely used black and white. I shot on colour transparencies with my camera set on 200 iso. Amazing when you come to think of it!
And film wasnt cheap either. Today I can take 300 or more photographs in the first three songs of a show. Back then I had usually had just one roll of film. 36 shots. My big regret though is I wish I had a camera in those very early years though for saw some fantastic concerts back then and I would loved to been able to record those concerts in the same way I do today.
If you had to pick one music event in 2017 that was truly special for you, which would it be and why?
Nick Cave at the Vector Arena. It was Cave’s first tour since the tragic death of his teenage son and he was performing songs from his recent album, Skeleton Tree. From a photographic perspective this was probably one of the worst concerts to shoot. Cave famously loathes media photographers at his shows so it was not really a surprise to find that photography had to be taken from the far side of the stage. We had been shown a piece of gaffer tape on the floor and was given strict instructions not to cross it. We were allowed to shoot just the first song and then leave.
The lights were extremely low and Cave was sat on a chair with a music stand between him and the cameras thereby all chances getting of a reasonable photograph was basically zilch. The light was so low that I never even managed to get any of the band members.
But after that one song I was able to take my seat and I saw what I felt was going to be the best concert that year. And it was…and still only January.
2017 was a year full of great concerts but for me this one was the finest. I felt it was akin to an evangelist on his pulpit preaching to his congregation. There was a lot of exorcism taking place that night. It was glorious to witness. I was taken upwards to a higher place on more than one occasion that evening.
Generally speaking, which would be your ‘go-to’ camera and lens if you had to just pick one of each?
Oh my goodness…what a question? This is such a difficult one to answer. I have a couple of theoretical ‘go-to’ cameras if money was no object. I would love to try the new Nikon D850 and the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV but to invest in a new camera would also mean that I would also have to acquire new lenses too and so my ‘go-to’ camera would be one of my trusty steeds. The Nikon D300s and for my pick of a lens, depending on where I was shooting from the pit, I would choose my Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8.
Can you please share more about your selection of camera body and lens above? Is it the ability to capture wide angle shots, ready for low light conditions, fast shutter speeds etc. that influenced your choice?
Well, as I have previous mentioned, the camera I use these days is actually quite retro when compared to technology today. I was working with a Nikon D200s and I loved the spot meter button on the rear of the camera. Focussing with my index finger and holding the exposure with my thumb was easy to adapt to and these days it has become almost instinctive. When the D300s came out it’s ability to shoot in lower light had improved immensely. My lenses would work on both bodies and so that quickly became my camera of choice. That plus the D200s allowed me to shoot without stopping to change lenses. The buttons on the rear were exactly as well and so I was able to work the spot meter/focus just as before allowing me to concentrate on capture and composition.
When the opportunity to obtain another D300s came my way, (it was a real bargain too), I jumped at it. I now take the two D300s to gigs with a Nikkor 17-55mm f2.8 on one body and a Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 on the other body. This allows me to cover most situations. I sometimes use a Nikkor 12-24 2.8 where I have to capture a big production or getting in super close where the action is. And I have a 50mm prime lens too for really low light situations.
Technology has advanced enormously these past few years and so the ability to shoot in extremely low light conditions without noise had improved also. To change now to a later model would be really good but it would also mean I would need to update all of my lenses also. And without the help of sponsorship or a winning lotto ticket I can’t see that happening sadly. Concert photography is a work of passion. There is no money in this at all. We all do it for love and the satisfaction of seeing some great shots at the end of the day. So, if there is anyone from Nikon (or Canon) out there looking to sponsor someone….you know where to find me 😉
In music photography, what would you regard as the biggest challenge and what advice can you share to overcome it?
For me it’s the dreaded red light. Low light is hard enough to work with but when it’s red it basically kills your shots dead.
You can convert to black and white of course using Lightroom or one of the other image manipulation systems that are available today but I started out trying to capture concerts and all of the colourful excitement to be found there on a stage and so I am reluctant to convert to black and white if its at all possible. Having said that though, I think performance photography B&W is stunning and it can be extremely evocative. I love to convert my images at a later date for the sheer pleasure of trying to create a beautiful image, but after a late night gig and then downloading my memory card in the wee small hours, I just want to make my selection and then get some sleep.
Any advice should really be aimed at the guys at the desk and the artists management, not other photographers.
Give us some good lighting for those first three songs. Good lights allow us to get great shots and surely that is beneficial to those bands on tour in need of good reviews and ticket sales. The amount of times Ive had to shoot in poor light and then seen the stage come awash with beautiful light on the fourth song is unbelievable. Arghhhh!
Who have been your ‘heroes’ in photography and how have they inspired your work?
All of my heroes in photography are all from very different genres. Documentary photographers and photojournalists such as Mary Ellen Mark, Sebastiao Salgado, Philip Jones Griffiths, Cartier Bresson, Dorothea Lange, Hiroji Kubota, Pieter Hugo and Steve McCurry always pushed my buttons for me. There are way to many to list.
Check out the work of Corey Arnold for example. I see stuff like this and just want to be there and see these things myself. I have very few heroes in the world of concert photography funnily enough. The only person I wanted to be when I was growing up was Joel Bernstein. He’s the guy that took the cover for Neil Young’s After The Gold Rush. He would always hang with CSNY, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Dylan and Springsteen. I would always check out his work on album covers and wish I could do stuff like that.
I look at photographs all the time especially the work of my younger contemporaries here in New Zealand. We have many great concert photographers here in this country and I am inspired by their work. They keep me on my toes by keeping that bar so high.
Lastly, what are some of the songs on your playlist today?
Phew…don’t get me started. I really don’t know where to begin. I’m a music nut and in the age of digital downloads I am still going out there and buying albums. Ive got thousands of them. After being away from my vinyl collection in the UK for 30 years I finally brought them out here last year and so I am enjoying rediscovering lots of stuff from my formative years as well as doing my best to keep up with latest releases as well.
So, right now my playlist is peppered with things both new and old.
Im currently enjoying a new album by Robert Ellis and Courtney Hartman – Dear John. It’s a tribute to the late great John Hartman. Paul Kelly’s latest album, Life is Fine, hasn’t left my turntable for the past few months. The new album by Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile is a killer. And Kamasi Washington’s Harmony of Difference (in particular the track Truth) is whetting my appetite for WOMAD this year. I can’t wait to see him performing.
Thank you so much Michael for taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences with me today.
Here are some of Michael Flynn’s photographs from past music events: