I love rock music. And I love shooting rock shows. Let me get that out of the way first.
I’ve been a gig-goer for twenty years but have only been photographing gigs since around 2009, and as a rock music fan I mostly went to rock and guitar-band shows. But I always like to think I have an open mind and a broad sense of adventure, particularly when it comes to music. I would say I have at least one favourite track or piece in most music genres with a soft spot for cheesy pop music, having grown up in the 1980s.
Now onto photography. Speaking very generally here, the majority of rock and guitar-band shows do not come with spectacular bright lighting, colourful backdrops, multiple costume changes and a variety of themes. Some of the large arena and stadium acts of today do bring a handful of those aspects along with them but I was finding that there wasn’t huge diversity in the photographs I was producing at rock shows. I mean, they’re rock shows! You rock out to kicking tunes and if you can actually see the band, it’s a bonus. Now of course things change drastically should you be lucky enough to make it to a Kiss or a Queen show, but shows like those are the outliers.
In 2013 I was lucky enough to make it to see The Rolling Stones. Now there’s a rock band that knows how to put on a bright, colourful and spectacular show even when the average age of the band members is 70! But it got me thinking, if I love photographing live music events so much, why don’t I put myself in positions where I might be able to produce really great live music imagery, regardless of the music?
My mind went straight to pop. Here we have tours where the large-scale productions and theatrics are as much a part of the show as the artists on stage. They’re known for being well lit, so that even those sat at the very back of vast arenas can see something and they don’t generally attract large groups of sweaty, moshing men looking to create a pit circle right in front of the stage; all major considerations when evaluating shows that are good to shoot.
So in February 2014, I decided to pop along to my local arena, London’s O2 Arena in North Greenwich, and shoot arguably the biggest pop act in the world today – Taylor Swift.
And boy did that show deliver on all of my expectations! The lights were bright, the sets were large and the crowd were a really great and courteous bunch of concert-goers. Importantly the lights were white and very bright and the colours just popped, a photographer’s dream.
There were moving platforms which flew the night’s heroine around the vast arena, taking her closer to fans further away from the main stage, multiple theme and costume changes including one costume change on stage during a song, raining confetti and (just for me I’m sure) even a track where the young starlet pulled out a customised rhinestone encrusted red Gibson Les Paul and rocked her little heart out mere feet from me and my lens.
I entered the arena that night a pop-sceptic but came out a convert, a Taylor Swift fan and hungry for more pop shows. I returned to the venue one week later for the final night of Swift’s five-night stint there and caught an alternative angle of the show, which was just as grand the second time around.
I continued to keep my eyes peeled for pop shows that might be interesting to shoot. First up was Lily Allen playing a comeback show in support of her third studio album Sheezus. I didn’t believe that the show being held at West London’s 2000-capacity Shepherd’s Bush Empire rather than an arena with ten times the capacity would have made a huge difference to the type of event being put on. But it did.
The lighting was poor throughout and there was merely one costume change. This wasn’t at all what I was after and, moreover, I was never really ever going to enjoy the music (like ever!).
I thought things couldn’t go too much further downhill. But I was wrong. Next up for me was Miley Cyrus’ solo London stop in support of here fourth post-Hannah Montana album Bangerz.
Now this one was my own fault. I’d heard it would be slightly controversial but might make for good photos. What I ended up with was, ummmmm, I’ll go with interesting.
Suffice it to say, I was appalled by both the ex-Disneyite’s behaviour and the “music”. But at the end of the day it was still a bright, colourful pop show, exactly what I was looking to photograph, even if not in quite the graphic detail I did!
So I began to reconsider my adventure into pop. I’d made it to some great rock shows in-between these pop excursions, some even featuring alluring front women and bright lights. But the photos were all much the same as one another and in the case of Taylor Momsen, who fronts rockers The Pretty Reckless, someone needs to teach that girl how to come out from behind that microphone already.
If I was going to continue my pop adventure I’d need to be a little more discerning with my show selections, ensure that the music wouldn’t be completely atrocious and that there would be some great photo opportunities along the way.
Another of the world’s big pop acts was heading to the O2 Arena in May, so I did my research, listened to a couple of her albums and booked myself a ticket to see Katy Perry. What research do you need to do before a gig you may ask? Well, as much as possible is my suggestion if you intend to both enjoy the music and get some great vantage points for photos.
Ahead of my first arena pop show, I found some fan video footage of Taylor Swift’s Red tour and looked at some arena layout maps to find that the best spot for me would be in one of two standing areas just in front of the stage and on either side of a runway which led out into the crowd. Similarly for the Miley Cyrus show, I learnt that while there was a cross-shaped catwalk with multiple points to be close, she spent a significant amount of time at the point of the cross about halfway into the arena floor, and so that would be a good vantage point.
So back to Katy Perry. Perry’s Prismatic tour, in support of her fourth studio album Prism, featured a triangular prism-shaped runway stage with the floor space in the middle of the catwalk – dubbed the “Reflection Section” – offering a unique vantage point but also the freedom to move around as it was never sold to bursting capacity. This allowed fans to move as Perry shifted where she performed from.
I learnt the set, as I have done for most gigs for years now, by finding recent set lists on setlist.fm and then got chatting to fans while waiting in the Reflection Section, one of whom was able to tell me where Perry would be situated for each song in the set after having followed the tour across multiple countries. Very useful information.
The show featured an array of theatrics including raised platforms, neon-lit costumes, Miss Perry floating around the arena suspended by balloons, a-la Disney film Up, and pyrotechnics to close the show. All in all, a feast for the lens, one worth a return visit.
I left that Katy Perry show not quite on the high I felt after Taylor Swift’s effort at the same venue earlier in the year but with a renewed sense of pop-purpose and, yes, a Katy Perry fan.
Australian pop-princess Kylie Minogue was next at the East London arena in support of her latest effort Kiss Me Once. There were press rumblings around budget cuts to the show’s production following a lukewarm reception to the album and slow sales. This resulted in a far less spectacular show that those I’d become used to but it was a fun night nonetheless.
My final foray into large-scale arena rock for the year was to see arguably one of the most eccentric and flamboyant pop stars to emerge in the last decade – Lady Gaga. Much had been made of her previous tours – The Monster Ball and Born This Way Ball – as well as their associated records, which had propelled Gaga to superstardom. However, her third studio album Artpop seemed to miss the mark with critics and fans alike so it was with some trepidation that I entered the O2 Arena for my final arena pop show of 2014.
No expense seemed to have been spared for Gaga’s ArtRave: The Artpop Ball which included a spectacular translucent multiple catwalk stage, allowing fans a range of spots to get close to their idol and move around the arena. Bright lights and multiple costume changes were a given for this one but what wasn’t quite so expected were the lengthy monologue speeches which dragged the show out past the venue’s curfew.
One thing was certain though, while she may have been missing a beat with this effort, she was fully committed to following it through and communicating her art and message and as a photographer, I couldn’t have been more pleased with the opportunities I was presented with. First off the bat we had an outfit that featured a Jeff Koons-designed blue reflective hemisphere.
Other costumes worn throughout the night included a seashell bikini, a Dalmatian-inspired latex octopus outfit, a 1980’s-era Cher reproduction and a “Rave Girl” ensemble featuring bright neon colours and a multicoloured dreadlocked wig.
This show alone gave me a wider variety of shots than twenty rock shows, so while I quickly removed her music from my iPod shortly after the show, I’m glad that I went and am happy with the photographic results of my adventure.
My last show of the year took me away from the large arenas and back to my favourite smaller West London venue – the Shepherd’s Bush Empire – for a night of pop for charity. Popstress Ellie Goulding put on a night of acoustic music featuring a number of smaller acts on the scene, such as Birdy, Years & Years and Jess Glynne, which made for a fun night of music as well as a changing line-up for great concert photography. A perfect way to end my year in pop.
While I most certainly continue to frequent rock shows, I don’t hesitate to jump at an interesting sounding pop show these days either. Highlights since my adventures in 2014 have been English popstress bent on world domination Charli XCX, the queen of pop herself Madonna, British pop starlet Jess Glynne and the increasingly pop-focused Coldplay, all of which haven’t disappointed with colourful, brightly-lit shows.
While I will always jump at rock shows (yes, literally), I will now also dip my toes into those large scale pop shows knowing that I’ll cross that threshold where the photography opportunities outweigh my interest in the music on offer that night.
Every now and then, however, I might just be surprised at how much I can enjoy a good pop show and why these tours attract the crowds they do. My one regret is that I never made it to see Michael Jackson in my lifetime even though I held a ticket (or 3) to the King of Pop’s ill-fated O2 Arena shows back in 2009.
Feature write-up and live concert photography by Kalpesh Patel.
Kalpesh has more music photography up on his flickr stream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/somethingforkate