Before I picked up a camera and discovered the potential for documentation, I had (still have) a first love: being a bass player. For those not in the know, the bass is the instrument that isn’t the guitar, isn’t the drum kit, and isn’t the vocals.
It’s the one that makes you dance, and rattles your teeth when it’s just right. Sir Paul McCartney is probably one of the most famous bass players of all time, but another guy I’d recommend checking out is James Jamerson. He rewrote the rulebook for bass. Seriously, check him out now after reading this article, maybe even during.
Anyway, one of the ways I’ve enjoyed combining my two passions is to carry my camera with me at all times, even when playing gigs.
This led me to my first personal long-term project, my yet-to-be-titled documentation of the London Blues scene. As a member of this scene, I have unrivaled access to all kinds of venues, both on and off of the stage. I am known to the regulars and have the level of trust and access some journalists spend a lifetime working to achieve. This allows me to photograph the stories brought by the patrons, players, staff, and any onlookers or contextual characters.
So far I have found it immensely refreshing – to gaze with new eyes on something so familiar to me, examining the perhaps misunderstood genre of music I hold so dear. My residency as house bassist at “Ain’t Nothin’ But” in London’s Carnaby area allowed me as much time as I needed, and the access to make images of fellow players and close friends from a perspective only being on stage gives; a window into my world while I play music for others to enjoy.
For most of this, I was reliant on two cameras: my Olympus XA (sometimes with the flash) as it is quick, discreet, and fits in my pocket making getting to the gig a lot easier rather than juggling my Leica M4-P which is also a quick and discreet camera, but is more familiar in hand in the crowd while not on the stage.
Currently, with the UK in lockdown, my access to these situations has been restricted. My main haunt, and every other live venue, has closed. I did what I could between the Spring lockdown and this one to spend time at the bar while it was open.
I want to curate my work down into a zine, but realized I don’t have nearly enough content, despite the hours and rolls I spent working on this idea. I don’t have enough images I am happy with, nor do I have enough to actually tell the story of my life as a bass player playing blues in London’s West End, let alone anyone else’s.
Another project I had been working on before the pandemic was “Adele: The Journey So Far”. This is a tribute band to Adele that tours theatres nationally as part of a much bigger band. To compare the size and differences I need to adapt to for these, the stage at my beloved bar in Carnaby that I share with 4 or five other guys (including amps and drums) is roughly the size of my personal riser I was working with in the theatres. Due to the level of performance discipline required, and how the space between songs is more limited, photographing on stage and between songs is not possible.
During the first set, however, there are the songs that are just Stacey (our Adele) and Dave on piano. This presents a chance for me to photograph from the wings looking out onto the stage. I also work on snapping pics of the band backstage; the tool for this being my iPhone as a camera could easily be misplaced – once I finish a collaborative project using color in my XA I can return to HP5+ and stow that in my pocket as an option I can carry on stage. Being in this band added advantages that I get to see many beautiful old theatres and travel to parts of the UK I would never have otherwise visited.
In February I got the opportunity to photograph bands for an online magazine where I had to include digital images for a faster turnaround. All the other work I have mentioned and shown has been on film which is my preferred medium.
The images shown here are from a gig at the O2 Kentish Town Forum, a venue I had been to many times to see many bands. I decided to use two cameras for this: my digital Fuji body with adapted M mount lenses and also my M4-P so I have some for personal projects and as mementos of photographing bands.
Photographing bands and musicians on stage has some severe technical hurdles to jump. Light is limited to whatever the technicians have set up – no relying on fast shutter speeds and/or narrow apertures here.
For the show at the O2 Kentish Town Forum, I was pushing HP5+ to 3200, a three-stop push, and it handled it beautifully as seen above. On my Fuji, I decided to stay consistent and set the ISO to 3200 and kept a shutter speed of 1/125th and aperture of f4/5.6 as I would rather have motion blur over fall off in any of my images.
One of the other pitfalls of photographing bands from the pit in between the audience and the stage is proximity and making sure there aren’t any microphones or microphone stands erroneously included in compositions. They are always a sure-fire way to ruin a photograph unless you’re specifically working them into the composition.
As an added benefit too, I get a great view of the audience on the front row; a chance to capture the emotion as the music from their heroes just feet away hits them square on. I particularly enjoyed shooting this gig as I had never heard of the band before, but I very much enjoyed their music and show – photography has always been a fantastic tool to introduce me to new things.
Looking back on my relatively short time working in these situations, I feel a great melancholy for the possibility that these may be my last. The industry as a whole is suffering a trauma from which it may never recover. The absence of live music and events from our lives is evident not just from the silence but the absence of those photographs of the life and soul that goes along with such events.
The impact this absence has is greatly felt by myself and others in the industry, but the ripples reach out and affect many others – all intertwined. The bar staff, the light and sound engineers, the stage set-up, promoters, of course the photographers, and even the bouncers. I dearly miss having these in my life and value the time I spent with it all.
A few weeks ago I was able to gain access to my regular in Carnaby while a band performed via a live stream. It was surreal and almost reverential – just me, the band, and their “live” audience. I was able to photograph, but it wasn’t the same. It was definitely valuable content for my project, but also potentially some of the last.
If things don’t improve, or a workaround isn’t found then the industry, the entire photographic genre may soon be gone.
If anyone reading this is part of a blues scene, please let me know and when music can come back I’d love to come and document your scene. Let me know via a DM on Instagram!
P.S. Over the summer I had to fill my time photographing for a different project, one which has been published as a collaborative zine, which you can read about here. If you’ve enjoyed my images here, please consider following me on Instagram, and the rest of the work on The Menzingers can be found here.
If the suffering of the live events industry I’ve spoken about here is something you’re concerned about, consider donating to a live music venue or charity of your choice.
About the author: Andrew Blowers is a 35mm film photographer, and bassist. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can see more of his work on his Instagram and Twitter.