July talk by David McDonald

In the pit

DAVID MCDONALD

Everyone who attends a concert spends a portion of the show watching it through their phone, rather than enjoying the experience—we’re all guilty, even if it’s only a few minutes. Most of us are simply looking to capture a  personal memento to take home (and likely never look at again), but there are people out there whose sole purpose at a concert is to capture those mementos for us. 

The history of rock and roll has been documented since day one. We have all seen many of the iconic photos in magazines, on album covers or printed on t-shirts but most of us are unaware who actually clicked the shutter to freeze that moment in time for us to enjoy—Johnny Cash sending a message to the warden at San Quentin State Prison via his middle finger  [Jim Marshall, 1969]; Iggy walking on fans in Cincinnati [Tom Copi, 1970]; Bowie going down on Mick Ronson’s guitar [Mick Rock, 1972]—memories of concerts we never attended but we can identify in a second. 

David McDonald has been taking pics for a very long time and he comes by it naturally—his father loved photography and took slides of the family on special occasions. Although he loved the images and memories on those slides, he swore he’d never make his family wait for an hour to open Christmas presents just so he could get the right shot. Setting up lights, fiddling with the camera and posing wasn’t his bag—if he ever got into photography, he didn’t want it to be invasive. There would be no delayed events because of him.

In college David studied advertising and business, where imaging and graphics courses were part of the curriculum. He really enjoyed manipulating images, and combined with dad’s slides, the bug was set. When his first daughter was born, David wanted to capture her spark, her smiles and the stages of her growth. He bought a film camera and started to learn.

Having played in bands since the age of 15, the camera made its way into that world as well. He started experimenting with his bands, and with other bands at concerts in bars [when cameras were allowed… naturally]. After taking some pretty amazing shots during a family vacation to Australia, he asked his [now ex] wife for a DSLR for his birthday, and to his surprise, she bought it! He used that camera everywhere [practice makes perfect kids], and after showing those pics to some decision makers at the radio station where his wife worked, he got access to shoot their shows. Those shots got him a gig shooting for an entertainment blog. It’s been 13 years since his hobby turned professional, and in any other context, spending 13 years in the pit would be a bad thing, but not for David.

 


Typically, most photographers only have three songs at the beginning of the set… do you find there are a lot of missed opportunities 

Absolutely, not to mention that some bands schedule bad lighting for the first couple of songs so that their photographer can deliver the best imagery. Then, so many things happen throughout a show after the first three songs that would be interesting to capture. There are countless changes to what happens onstage including different lighting, some sets morph and evolve throughout the show, sometimes there are guest artists, costume changes, tickets holders invited to the stage to sing or perform to name a few. As a musician I also like to capture the different instruments used and that can’t happen when limited to the first three songs.

Pre being privy to media passes, did you ever sneak your camera into a show? Assuming the answer is yes—who was playing and how did you sneak it in?

I sure did. Growing up in Windsor I went to a lot of concerts in Detroit. I think that the first concert I snuck a camera into was the first show ever at what was then the new Joe Louis Arena—a Rush / Max Webster double bill. I had a camera body and a couple of lenses separated between myself, my girlfriend and another friend. We wore baggy clothes and stuffed them down our pants or strapped them to our bodies, under our clothes with one of my father’s ties. It worked and we got everything into the venue. Too bad our seats were the furthest from the stage and without really understanding what I was doing, I didn’t have the appropriate zoom lens so I got a lot of useless shots. But hey, it was a learning experience. With the invention of decent recording Walkmans I discovered that it was far easier to sneak that and a microphone into a show, so after a couple of experiences with the camera, I changed to recording audio.

I ask because the majority of my concert photography experience has been under the table—some lens in the pants action with the DSLR in bag. 100% success rate—just saying…

Exactly what we did and I’m sure a ton of other fans have done. Smart phones have certainly changed that where anyone can now record high def audio and video.

When you’ve taken the time to go through legal channels in order to shoot a show, what are your thoughts on the person who’s sneaking in equipment to shoot.

Having done it myself I say kudos to them, but it’s a lot harder now with metal detectors, pat downs and more because of increased security. Fans want something special and relatable to their own experience. They just need to understand that if they’re caught they risk being shown the door. If they’re OK with that then game on. I think bands forget that fans want something special and they try to soak money out of them for that special something. Not everyone can afford a $750 USD signed, limited edition, vinyl album, like what Tool is selling on their current tour. Sneaking in a camera gains that fan something rare, elusive and exclusive.

In today’s age, everyone is armed with a high quality camera on their iPhone, they can take 200 photos and one is bound to be good. How has this affected the professional photographer? How will it affect the future of concert photography?

It certainly makes it easier to get a great image because rather than waiting for your moment to grab something on a 36 frame roll of film, you can let the clicks fly and then just select the best of the best. That alone has raised the quality of images that you see because rather than choosing the best of 36 or 72 frames, you can choose from literally hundreds or even thousands if you’re shooting the entire show. That alone has made it easier for people without experience to produce decent images. That however doesn’t mean that they understand how to best use their device or how to best frame an image, they’re pointing and clicking and hoping for the best. It’s made the point of entry easier for anyone if they can obtain access. But photographers with experience are still able to stand out because of their ability to “get the shot” and then edit them to make them visually appealing. This new technology may inspire more people because now it’s in their very hands.

Does the world now have more great photographers, or has Instagram lowered everyone’s standards to the point that every pic gets a “like”.

I think great photographers will always stand out. Cell phones and digital DSLRs have flooded the market and there are images everywhere. People are used to seeing images of everything, almost everywhere and anyone with a good smart phone can now call themselves a photographer. But great work stands out, and that takes experience across multiple disciplines including obtaining access, knowing how to manoeuvre in the pit, how to frame an image and how to edit and “finish” that image. It will take an instagrammer time to develop those skills and it doesn’t happen quickly. So professional work is instantly recognizable. 

Being in the pit, how much luck is involved in getting the perfect shot. For example, Pennie Smith’s photo for the cover of London Calling when she accidentally pushed the trigger of her camera backing away from Paul Simonon’s swinging bass. The photo is out of focus, she hated it and today it’s considered one of the most iconic images in music history.

I love that shot! There’s luck in anything that you do in a live concert setting. You have to develop an ability to both focus on what you’re shooting as well as be able to scan the stage for what’s interesting or lit best. You could be focusing on the lead guitar player soloing but the singer reaches out into the audience to interact with fans and shake some hands. There’s going to be a solo in almost every song, but the singer may do that just once. And if you don’t notice it, it’s a missed opportunity. You may love the shot of the solo but still kick yourself for missing the singer leaning over the audience with all of those hands in the air. I think every concert photographer is a little jealous of shots from the other photogs in the same pit because we’ll always see something that they’ve captured that we wish we’d caught too.

In the pit, all the photographers are standing in the same area, looking at the stage from the same angle—how hard is it to compete with the others and make your photos stand out?

That’s not necessarily true, most of the time the pit crosses the entire length of the stage so there is often a fair amount of room to catch everyone on stage and change your angles, it’s rare that we’re marshalled into a small space. There’s also an in-pit etiquette that seasoned photographers understand. You give way, you’re polite to each other by gesturing, touching their shoulder and making them aware if you’re going to step around them. You never step in front of someone taking a shot or shove your camera in front of another one. Newbies need to learn that but I find that most of the people with pit access know each other, are friendly and respect each other’s space and shooting space.

We’re living in an age where digital technology is perfected and film photography is very much in vogue this makes it an exciting time to be a photographer

I certainly agree. I generally don’t get into the film vs. digital argument where some people only swear by one format. I don’t find it much different than the vinyl vs. CD argument. It all comes down to personal choice and which platform you like to use to get the results that you want. They both have their advantages and disadvantages.

What first sparked your interest in photography? 

I was trying to get something rare from an event that I attended, something that nobody else would have. Something that I could potentially trade to another fan to increase my stable of rarities. Yeah, I started off as a music collector and it built from there, morphing through various phases to where I am now.

Do you think there’s anything “overrated” with the photography industry today?

Not really, no. Although I think that with the quality of the technology available, too many people are calling themselves a “photographer” simply because they’ve invested in good gear or because their smart phone can shoot in the RAW format. I think a lot of their claims about their abilities or their professionalism is overrated, not necessarily the industry itself.

Are there bands that you like shooting over others?

I tend to categorize the bands that I shoot. The categories consist of bands of which I’m a fan, bands that are visually interesting to shoot, my bucket list of bands that I want to shoot but haven’t yet, bands that I’m told to shoot by someone else and then those that I know personally. And some bands can fit into more than one category. For some clarity, I’ve never shot U2 but I’ve loved them for years and would kill to be able to shoot them. There’s a band that I work with a lot called The Lazys, they’ve become some of my closest friends so I’ll jump through hoops for them. There are a number of metal or hard core bands where I’ve never put on a CD to listen to their music but their shows are so visually interesting that the shots produced end up being stunning. Honestly, any shoot is a great opportunity but the ones that I love the most are with the bands with which I have a personal connection or relationship.

How do you feel about people posting your photos without permission or credit?

I don’t mind reposts or sharing because it’s still referencing my work. Outside of that, theft hasn’t happened a lot but that’s the reason that I use a watermark. There’s an image I took of Zack Wylde from Ozzy’s band with his own band, Black Label Society, that was ripped off and turned into posters that have been sold out of both China and Thailand. I can’t do much about that other than learn from it and claim it as my own wherever I can so that I then become associated with it. I’m different from some of the other photographers that charge for any use. If I’m approached by a band that wants to use an image I generally tell them that they’re welcome to use it in their social media or on their website at no charge in return for a photo credit. However, if they’re ever going to use it for something that generates revenue like on merchandise, on a CD or vinyl, for press or PR, for advertising or marketing, in an EPK, etc. then we’d have to come to a more formalized arrangement and they’ve all been very respectful of that approach. I’ve gotten so much more work from doing that because they’re promoting me to their fan base, their management and their record labels. That all helps with raising my profile and generating new work. The only thing that I think would really bother me would be if someone claimed that my imagery was their own and that hasn’t happened yet. 

When you started out, how much did you know about photography?

Not much. I haven’t taken any courses other than with some of the editing software. With my first good camera I started taking everything on the “automatic” setting where the camera made all of the decisions for me. As I saw that my images weren’t up to par with those taken by others at the same event I started asking around as to how they operated and if they had any advice. Most of them told me to get out of automatic and learn about shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Some were very helpful and gave me their favourite settings, others well, not so much. I kept at it, learning how to avoid blur, how to vary depth of field and how to avoid grain. It was trial and error and lots and lots of shooting.

Usually, concert photographers represent media. Over the years have you built relationships with artists? Do any of them request you personally?

Yes and “it depends”. Having a family and a day job make it hard for me to travel or go on tour. I’ve had to turn down some very cool opportunities but I’m lucky in that I get to make up for it with the volume of local opportunities I receive here in Toronto. I now have very good relationships with a lot of Canadian bands or their management and do get called regularly when they’re in town. Or, if a promoter hasn’t provided access, a quick call to the management company or PR agency can obtain access via that complementary channel. Unfortunately, I don’t have my own studio so I don’t do a lot of the promotional work, that’s an area I’d like to build upon. Thankfully the work I’m offered does keep me pretty busy. I also find that working with other people around the music and film industries helps generate work. For example, I work a lot with a video director who hires me to do stills on his video sets and that leads to more work from the bands or the studios where we’ve been shooting. I find that outside of the media outlet work it’s those personal relationships and referrals that really help expand the scope of work, it pays to play nice with other people.

Backstage/behind the scenes cameos are always fun to look at… I’m sure there is a trust issue for anyone holding a camera in these scenarios. Is this something you’ve had the opportunity to shoot?

Yes, particularly with the bands where there’s a personal relationship. In a lot of cases it’s a very different vibe than what happens on stage. You have to be careful before a performance with some bands because they’re involved in their personal routines prepping for the show so you tend to stay out of their way, not invade their space and shoot from a distance. Unless they’re seeing fans that have won access or bought a VIP package and are interacting at a meet and greet. After the show tends to be more fun and less intense as the show is over, they’re a little spent from performing and are far more open to interacting and having some fun. That said every band is different and has their own routines but it’s always interesting and often unpredictable as to how the after show could go. But to answer what I think is at the core of your question…. Yes, there are images that I’ve taken that will never see the light of day, they’re reserved exclusively for the band’s own use.

You’ve photographed thousands of shows. Are there any that stand out? 

I grew up as a Rush superfan. I had every album, collected the rare stuff and more. The first time I got to shoot them in 2013 was like winning the lottery, I had to try and stay professional while not geeking out and looking like a fanboy, I’m pretty sure I pulled that off. I had some goth leaning tendencies when I was younger so I was always into the Bauhaus and their singer Peter Murphy. Peter has one of the most amazing solo albums titled Cascade, it’s incredibly lush and atmospheric, nothing like Bauhaus but I loved both. I shot a show in Hamilton in 2010 that featured him with his solo band, Squeeze, Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip with his side project and Coney Hatch. It was my first time shooting a massive show and I was wowed by the experience…. “You mean I get to wander around backstage, talk to the bands that are going to hit the stage, take photos of some of my favourite bands and hang in the photo pit in the best location in the house?” At that point it was mind blowing.

Is there an artist that you would love to shoot?

I have a bucket list. I was able to scratch one name off of it in 2019 when I shot Tool. The others still on it include Nick Cave, U2, The Cure, AC/DC, Paul Westerberg with or without The Replacements, The Sisters of Mercy [there goes the goth leanings again], Rage Against The Machine, The Stray Cats and The Dead Weather [ft. Jack White and Alison Mosshart of The Kills]. Those are all big-name, hard to get access to shoot bands or they tour relatively rarely. If I had to suggest something more current I’d have to say Blackberry Smoke or Goodbye June, they’re quite interesting to me right now. The reason there aren’t a lot of more recent bands on the list is because I’ve likely already shot them as obtaining access or accreditation is easier.

Thoughts on artists making photographers sign rights-grab contracts before concert shoots

I think it’s often selfish and too one-sided. I understand why they’re asking though… Too many bands have had their images or music stolen, used and abused, or used out of context, often to line someone else’s pockets. I get that most of them are just trying to protect their own brands. However, to others, it’s just a cash grab—demanding to own your copyright and artistic interpretation, and obtaining experienced work at no charge. I’m happy to sign one if the media outlet I’m shooting for wants the images, but only if I don’t have to give up copyright, if that’s a condition I won’t sign that release. If they’re simply asking for approval for what’s going to be posted I’m OK with that because they usually just want to ensure that positive images are released. However, if they’re asking me to take my time, use my experience and hand over everything so that they can own it and do with it as they please, I’ll run in the other direction because those are patently abusive practices akin to stealing from the photographer. That said, if they want to own everything and they’re paying me through the nose or I’m getting a royalty on every use or sale then that’s something I might consider, if and only if I retain the right to use selected images in a gallery or exhibition.

@davidmcdphotos

 

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WORDS & INTERVIEW: DAVID GANHÃO
PHOTOS: David McDonald

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