Sense the music
Maclay Heriot & Ruth Medjber in Conversation
Ruth, 24 February
Helloooooo! So, I thought I’d get the ball rolling and try to figure out how best to action our upcoming show. It’s just rambles for now! It’s kind of difficult researching someone else’s work and planning a whole exhibition like this, when we’re on opposites side of the world. Our work though is far from opposite. Considering we both shoot in the same industry surely; we have some common occurrences?
I’ve been shooting gigs my entire life, but professionally since I was about 18. I’ve always looked at other photographer’s work and admired their style. I love that you can tell
someone’s shot just by the look of it. You’ve defo got your own style going on Maclay. Obviously, the filmic quality, but there’s a certain intimacy to your shots that’s really gorgeous. You could be standing with thousands of people, but it feels like it’s just me (the audience) and the artist. That’s something that my shots don’t do. I guess this is where the opposites pop back in.
My shoots are loud and aggressive. They’re full of noise and panic. (Well, that’s what I see anyways). I tend to use colour as a crucial element that plays a role in heightening the performance. I also use the crowd an awful lot too. I think I got bored of stage work about 6 or 7 years ago and decided to just turn around and shoot the crowd instead. The crowd fascinate me. The barrier fans are always the best. They totally lose themselves in the gig. It kinda brings me back to me being a Barrier Kid when I was 14/15, losing myself at the Kid A tour and Placebo gigs.
What do you see when you try and suss out your own style? Do you keep your style in mind when you shoot, or does it come naturally?
Go raibh mile maith agat.
Maclay, 25 February
Thanks for kicking this off I’ve been brewing how to start in my head over the weekend, whilst shooting. It was nice to wake up to your message as I was getting ready to email you. I’ve always struggled with words. I guess that’s why I like to let the pictures do the talking. Maybe that plays into my style, leaning more toward narrative documentation and trying to capture a bit more than just that ‘hero’ shot, which I feel I can fall into when in a festival environment, right?
I’ve shot on festivals like Lollapalooza and understand that machine aspect so I can relate. Do you find yourself just getting what you need and moving on because you have to? Compared to maybe being on tour and having the whole show to really dive into the experience? Like enjoying the crowds experience.
Footnote* (Aw have you seen Ryan McGinly’s work he did on film when on tour with Morrissey? He got sick of shooting him performing so just spent the whole tour shooting the audience! The shots are all drenched in colour and film burns with double exposures there some of my favourite!)
Ryan’s style was something that inspired me to take risks at shows. Using film keeps me interested and excited to shoot each night. I’m also shooting digital and understand the needs but, by the sounds, I have a little more freedom. Shooting film and different formats really breaks up a tour for me if I find myself feeling a bit same, same. I’ll leave the digital camera on the bus and just limit myself to one camera, one lens and push my eye to try capture something fresh, even if it is the 50th show of tour.
It’s really nice to hear you feel an intimacy in my shots. I feel it but sometimes think I just feel it because I lived it, ha ha! That you feel it makes me happy. I do try to capture that, but I’m not hung up on it. I’m really just trying to be in the moment. It helps when you have a relationship with the artist and really love their music.
Do you find your style jumps out or sings more with certain artists, or if you are given more time and freedom to control creative direction? Not so directed by the label or management? I love the colour in your images and defiantly get that shout of the performance. I really feel your shots selling the performance, capturing the shine and glory, they really highlight the artist, show and everything going on around you. It’s pretty amazing and to be honest something I struggle with.
I guess I’m more looking for the Ian Tilton photograph of Kurt Cobain huddled in the corner with his ‘head in his hands’ moment, something a bit darker. Maybe that’s the freedom I get with not having those tight quick turn arounds. I like to shoot my roll of film then bury it in my bag and wait to see what I got a few weeks later, ha ha! Kinda goes back to that similar feeling of writing – in that no one can judge me if they don’t see it straight away. If I shoot film no one can see it for a few weeks, so the pressure is lessened and I’m not so worried. I can continue doing it my way without opinion or input.
Ruth, 24 February
I’d love to know a bit more about you and your work though, so I can better understand your process and what’s important for you to present in the exhibition!
I shoot digital when I work professionally. My job is super-fast paced. When I work for BBC at festivals, my images need to be filed with HQ, approved by the TMs and uploaded BEFORE the artist has come off stage. Usually they play for 25 mins, so I need to get the shot within the first song, run back to my desk, select and edit, and send. It’s bananas. And not all too enjoyable. But it’s what needs to be done for the machine to keep running.
Same applies for when I tour with bands. Usually I have to shoot the whole show (2 hours) and then run back to the bus and get editing ASAP. Usually the act will want about 10 images to file with local press before midnight and then the rest of the set before sunrise for their socials. So, I usually pull nightshifts on tour.
Am I right in thinking that your process would be very different? Especially since you use film? How do you process rolls on the road? Do you travel with chemicals and a scanner? How many rolls would you shoot per show?
Maclay, 25 February
I’ll shoot film and hold onto it. Depending on the day I could shoot three rolls or shoot half a roll. I’m always shooting if we go grab a coffee in the morning straight off the bus, or go for a walk around town, I will have my camera. I might not take a shot but will be ready if something inspires me, or I get that feeling like ‘this is a photo’, I’ll be ready.
I’ll keep my film safe ‘til I find a good time to post it out to my lab in LA. When we were in Europe, I gathered maybe 25 rolls and then first day back in the US, on the east coast, I posted it ahead to get the scans the following week.
I’m shooting digital at the shows, alongside the film, so I do a turnaround usually the following day and get that over to the band or label who will feed out where needed. My digital photos seem like my disposable throw-away images because I know I would probably never show them printed. Whereas I’m just waiting for my film to come back as that’s what I hold onto as my ‘cream’. It’s really all I’m waiting for to see if I f****d it up or not, ha ha!
Do you take a film camera on the road with you these days?
Did you every sneak cameras into gigs before you were shooting officially like back in those Radiohead and Placebo days?
Ruth, 3 March
So sorry for not getting back to you sooner….work has just gone a bit bananas here of late. Plus, the corona is freaking everyone out and people are cancelling gigs so there’s a scramble for work among music folk!
I love the attitude you have towards your rolls of film on tour. It sounds extremely freeing to be able to just shoot and not really rely on what you got. Like bonus reels. I defo need more of that in my life. My holiday camera is a bit like that, still digital but small. It’s a Fuji XT -something. I use it during the day on tour as It just gets flung around my neck and I don’t have to care about it too much. It actually makes shooting enjoyable again.
I don’t really shoot a lot of film any more coz I’ve been shooting so much professionally. My bathroom turns into a darkroom though, and I have a nice Hasselblad that I use. What I do really love though is instant cameras – Polaroids and Fujis. Portraits on those are just so giddy. But, not really anything I’d consider showing.
YES! to answer your Q! I used to sneak an old 35mm SLR into gigs back in the day. I’d take the lens off, put it up one sleeve, and the body up the other. Then camp in the front row trying to focus!! I have some very dodgy photos of Placebo I took when I was a teenager this way. Horrific!!!
Lately, I’ve been kind of obsessed with how the fans perceive the shows and the bands themselves. How each band has a group of super loyal followers who spend all of their free time focused on the members. These ‘barrier fans’ are such a major part of each tour. I’d like to see if I can pull together something that includes them. While also the godlike status of our awesome musicians.
Maclay, 4 March
Hello, good morning / evening
No worries, it has been crazy down here also. After this weekend I’ve finally got a few free weeks I’m actually looking forward to them so I can really get my head into this exhibition mode, I struggle juggling all the balls need a few days to focus just on this. I also just got confirmation last week that I’ll be heading to Coachella with ‘The Chats’, so will be US from the 9 April and land back in Australia on the 26.
I feel I’m leaning a lot on the Black & White side of selects, the light and the dark. I’m thinking of shooting the portrait Mates In music series on my Hasselblad, so they are all going to be square prints. I also love heavily saturated colour. I cross process my film a fair bit and find it turns the film grain almost into paint when printed on nice heavy cotton rag paper its so beautiful. What paper stock do usually like to print on? Besides the vinyl. Also, I love your crowd focused idea idolising the artist.
Ruth, 11 May
I was in my own little world there for a while. Maclay, how are you holding up? It’s such an intense time and can be overwhelming. Someone pointed out that what we’re going through is almost like a grieving process. We’re dealing with the loss of our industry, our livelihoods, of everything we built ourselves on. We’re also grieving the loss of so many opportunities. Coachella, Glastonbury and even this exhibition in a way. I doubt there’s anyone else in the world who really understands what I’ve lost better than you do.
For me it comes in waves. There are waves of productivity where I kind of go into “fight or flight” mode. That’s when I shoot the windows and do all that, or create a merch range, or do a sale on my store. And then other days all I can do is sit and wallow. It’s all exhausting.
You shouldn’t feel pressured to create at this time. You should just do what feels natural. You’re processing an enormous amount of emotions and trauma. So, if you want to dig through archives, or bake banana bread in your PJs, so be it. It’s going to be a much different world when we come out of it, and it’s important that you have your head in the right space above all else. So just do whatever it is you need to do.
Allison, 12 May
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Ruth. In the past I have written on the impact of melancholia and other trauma on creative practice. More specifically the Triple disaster at Tohoku (Fukushima), Japan. It is a different kind of trauma, but the psychological processing of a global pandemic could follow a similar path, especially on an individual level. In our case ‘homelessness’ has been replaced by ‘homeliness’ – something so poignantly captured in your Window project Ruth.
Sense the music I feel is even more pertinent in this ‘quiet’. It is the resonance of sound on your skin, an afterglow of energy that your mind is able to conjure. A memory or perhaps a mirage that is multi-sensory. Present and yet not.
I watched some excerpts from Grayson Perry’s Art Club (Channel 4, UK). In one episode, Perry talks about the grief and surreal experience of empty streets, his craving for an audience and the vivacity of people as they go about their life. He said it has taken him to revisit his childhood and stimulated new works.
Maclay, 13 May
I’m doing good Ruth thanks, how are you going? From the sounds you are all still really in the thick of it! You have made the most of your time and situation. The Window project has really blossomed, it’s amazing the scope you have captured.
I have been tinkering away it’s actually amazing how much unpaid work you can find yourself falling into. Emails from old shoots, finding my inbox with requests for more images, alternate edits, filling my days with dikky jobs for other people. So, I am 100% ready to dive fully head on into this exhibition with you. It’s all I’m really worried about now. This unique opportunity we have to make something that is a reflection of what we’ve created in the past. As well as the struggles we now face with continuing our professional and artistic careers in a time when our whole industry is literally locked down, or locked in.
Australia seems to have got some control on the situation largely thanks to our unique isolation (island-nation) and monitoring our borders. Hopefully freeing up some business to get going again, good for some. Unfortunately, I don’t really see any hope in international touring artists justifying heading down under, or Australian acts getting to push ahead with tours abroad anytime soon. I’m thinking years! That damage is massive! The huge financial layouts needed to tour I’m afraid don’t exist and even though everyone is thirsty for new content there are no budgets, or opportunities, to push that yet.
Speaking with friends who have been working hard on new albums, and have large investments with their labels and management, are pushing back release dates. This is due to the fear of not having the chance to go out and tour, so no chance to recoup all they have put in. All the work will fall flat and be left behind in our digital audio graveyard.
There has been talk that Falls Festival, a national touring fest that falls over NYE, will be looking at an all Australian line up. A massive first and great chance for a handful of otherwise overlooked acts to get a chance on the main stage. Hopefully those international artist budgets get passed on to the homegrown talent… I just don’t see any mass gatherings like festivals happening anytime soon and totally feel for your position in Ireland.
I grow so nostalgic looking at my own tour shots and what I would give for that chance to create images again with my friends, whilst my ears ring and skin sweats. I vow to never complain about the tour grind again.
I’d love to show you some of the Mates in music series I’m playing with this week. I feel it has gained a deeper meaning through us being torn apart, away from our work, friends and industry. Whilst I was shooting, I asked everyone to go over into the corner where I set up a pen and paper with a question “You all know each other. What keeps you from hating each other?”. I love how they are all individual and handwritten.
Stay well chat soon, La brea! 🙂
Ruth, 11 May
Do you have your Mates series ready to go? Could you share it with me? I’d love to see it! Are you going to run text with it? I think that might be a nice insight, so we know who these people are and what they mean to you. It might be a nice undertone to the whole show actually, if we write what we love and could have lost about the whole music industry. An exhibition about music photography during a time when the whole world is quiet, it’s kind of poignant and epic, right?
Your Tumblr diary is great. You should keep it going. I started something similar in that each day I’d ask my followers for a theme/topic/word for inspiration, and then I’d go and shoot that. It lasted about 5 days! HA! But what it did do was get my brain ticking over again and get a camera back in my hand. Not sure if that type of process would suit you at all? I’d be happy to share some of the topics! Might be cool to see if what you’d shoot with the same words!
Also, your La Brea shot really struck me as interesting. Did you know ‘La brea’ means ‘Lovely day’ in Irish?
Maclay, 25 February
Back to the exhibition and three stories of works:
– Proof sheets showing process, the act of shooting a roll of film the beginning and the end, so selecting a few rolls that represent a day on tour Specifically around my time on the road with Portugal. The Man. I’m thinking a grid 7×7 kind on representing a week, a proof a day a show a day with a day off. Seven proofs and then selects from the proofs printed on their own to make a grid.
– A collection of live / backstage / and portraits but focusing of different formats, so cameras gear and or film, 35mm 120mm polaroid, Hasselblad 6×6, 645, and panoramic XPan.
– Working on a group of portraits of close friends and not so close but that play into my local Sydney music scene web and how there linked, I want to shoot them all 6×6 Hasselblad on black and white film. One person in each image is also in the frame next to it with another person but there is a link between them. I’m just trying to best work out how to get everyone together right now to avoid double sittings. I kind of need everyone at once like at a party. Maybe I need to hire a studio for a day and set it up like a party and shoot everyone in pairs there.
What were you thinking of showing? Did you have some little story ideas maybe one of our ideas could overlap and with both do our own spin on it…
Maclay, 3 April
Friday 3rd April “Lockdown Week Three”
Hi, Well what wild times we find ourselves living in.
How are you going Ruth? Are you all still in isolation or has it eased up a little bit?
Are you finding ways to create still? I think the first week for me felt surreal. I was still wrapping up jobs the second week, I fully zoned out and embraced my inner laziness of not doing anything. This week I’ve returned back to my own work, starting to dive in filing sleeving negatives from years of abandonment, ha ha!
It has been super nice to have a lot of photography colleagues reaching out and checking in, setting up new blogs and websites. I also jumped on a live stream, which was a nice way to talk about my work.
It feels strange to share but I was lucky to get one of my portrait sessions in the week before we were told to isolate, I unfortunately had 12 other Sydney musicians set up to shoot the following Monday and had to pull the pin. I’m glad I have something to show from the first session and picked a few selects to share with you. The concept its Mates in music and the community it breeds. The cliques it generates.
Hope your well and your family are doing ok, stay safe out there and maybe let’s all jump on a Zoom chat soon. I feel this whole situation could play well into our dialogue, how much we need community and collaboration for our work and what it means to be a global citizen.
Allison, 3 April
Ruth, how are you?
I hope you are surviving the lockdown and virus in Dublin.
You may not be aware, but NSW is in 90-day lockdown, so nothing happening for a while. Please let me know your concerns or otherwise joy at progressing the project. I must admit it is hard to focus on things atm. Each day I am surprised at how the pandemic crashes in on me psychologically and emotionally despite being physically at low risk in isolation. I am happy to chat anytime. Let us know what suits you Ruth.
Ruth, 5 April
Hello from Ireland!
Great to hear from you guys. So, we’re on week 5, 2 of those weeks has been government-controlled lockdown. It now means we can only leave our homes for brief exercise or food. There’s no sign of it ending here any time soon.
The creative mind block is very real here too. It’s so hard to focus on anything. It does get a little easier and I’m now accepting the “new norm”.
I think the laziness is crucial to self-recovery. We’re all processing such trauma, so if you need to just chill out and not be productive, do it. There’s so much pressure on here from ad agencies and journos, looking for me to put out content and I’m just telling them to shag off. Can’t cope with it all.
I’ve been keeping busy in the house, shooting weird lil’ projects. Every day my Insta followers suggest themes/topics and I shoot them for fun. It’s so random but it’s keeping me entertained. I really regret not owning a TV!!!
Your Mates session looks class Maclay. There’s a real sense of intimacy in it. You can tell it’s a personal relationship. I’m sure you’ll get back to shooting it soon. And maybe it will be even more significant. They’ll be mates that you’ll have been away from for so long. I’m desperate to get back shooting and also just hang out with folk again!
Stay Safe folks, mind yourself!
Maclay, 22 April
Yeah, I think we are still on track to be locked down or more like you said locked in! till the 23rd of May. Saying that, I have taken myself offline with the over saturation of screen time and the same re hashed opinions and miss information it was spinning me out. So, thanks to the help of my dying phone now only works when plugged in! I’ve put it down and been spending more time in books and online blogs, ha ha! I think I’m going to start up my Tumblr again and run it like an online diary of ideas and inspirations.
Riding this ever-changing wave of feelings and motivation week to week has been an interesting journey. Not having the usual output as an excuse to take images has been the biggest struggle creatively. Feeling like I’m just rehashing ideas and thoughts that don’t get done so stay up in my head.
Ruth, that’s news to me about tours and festivals being on hold till 2021! Blows my mind and that freaks me out! So much of what we do is about being out there on the road. Fostering relationships and grabbing opportunities as they literally happen in front of you to spring you onto the next job.
Have you been deep diving in your own photos? It’s amazing that feeling of nostalgia and sadness knowing these moments we have captured are on hold, we are all on hold. Hung in Purgatory. ‘You don’t know what you have till it’s gone’ keeps ringing in my head. It’s not even ‘what you have got’, it’s the idea of what you could get or have. The basic privilege of years of hard work and to dream big has been taken away. I’m happy we have this dialogue now and a place to create within the ACP, I believe magical things can happen in times like these.
I’ve also been listening to lot of music. What’s been getting you by? Would love some new suggestions. I have been spinning Waxahatchee’s new album Saint Cloud. It is beautiful and I love the image on the cover. Katie Crutchfield sits atop the roof of an old Ford F100 in a blue satin dress, the back tray full of roses on a classic Californian feeling sunset. Been picking the vibes up 🙂
Maclay, 18 May
Hey me again it is 18 May. Just a little something I wanted to share.
I’m a big fan of Magnum photographer Alec Soth. He doesn’t sit in the music world, but his portraits of people are something I really admire – working on long running projects and finding stories that connect them.
I was thinking in the contrast to your chroma, I love the idea of monochrome or achromatic. To expand more on proof sheets and film, emulsions and silver gelatin. I was thinking on how silver is a non-tonal colour, reflecting its surroundings adapting. Also, that silver halide crystals are the base of black and white film. My proof sheets also hold the idea of mini stories you can see the flow of a day. The process of getting ‘the’ shot and also physically the film has a beginning and an end.
Ruth, 10 June
Sometimes I find that if I’m just talking the ideas will come and then I have to stick with them. I’ve gone with the idea [for the selection of images] that we are missing gigs, the whole format of concert photography and being in a sweaty, sticky crowd. I wanted to give the viewers of this exhibition the overall experience of being at a gig, hence why there are a few photographs in large [wallpaper] format. Then peppered on top of them are [smaller framed images] the moments of the crowd’s interaction between the artists. The show wouldn’t exist without the crowd. I think it’s quite true that you can’t really play a show without anyone being there. You need fans so it’s really a nod to all the punters who are missing gigs, like myself.
As an overall piece, its colourful and dramatic and crazy, which is pretty much my style. A lot of crowd shots, Flaming Lips, everyone going mad, people dancing in the crowd, Jay Z surrounded by people, Jehnny Beth from Savages been held up. Also, I am aware that the framed images go up and down, which is fine. I didn’t really want them in a straight line, as if it’s a bit of a Mexican wave. Basically, I wanted a full immersive experience where people feel the power of the crowd, the adoration of the crowd, the kind of obsessiveness and the pure roar of energy that you feel when you’re in that crowd.
Maclay, 14 June
I’m super into it! It’s going to feel like you are actually standing in the pit looking at the crowd on that scale. Impressive. I can already feel that in your wallpaper images, and I’m excited to see the smaller pics up close! It also gives me butterflies. Being a music photographer, I think we are privileged to witness the excitement, the buzz right before stage. In that moment I can imagine what the performing artist feels, and that’s what I’ve been missing. That adrenaline of the show, having only just over an hour to get the shot and then you are done, with reprise the next night. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that same buzz in other areas of shooting. I mean, nerves on big shoots are normal but the buzz of the performance, the anticipation shared with the whole venue to hear the first cord struck or the drum count in. I can’t wait for that.