A recent blog post from a very well-known and very successful Chicago-based rock photographer has caught my attention. Paul Natkin is complaining about people taking photographs at shows. This is a subject where I too have some very definite opinions, and perhaps some valuable perspective to offer as someone who has shot concerts on both sides of the photo pit.

I’ve actually met Paul Natkin. By “met,” I mean that I’ve been in the same photo pit as Paul Natkin a couple times where he gave me the stinkeye for absolutely no reason I could discern other than that I was there. Yet, this was a very long time ago, no hard feelings bro, and what I discuss now has nothing directly to do with that, although the attitude Mr. Natkin sports now seems to be similar to what I felt 30 years ago.  I will take on his “Everybody has a camera!” posted on September 26th, 2010 point-by-point.

“We, professional photographers, are continually restricted in what we can shoot. It seems that if we shoot more than the little bit that we are allowed to, the world will end!”

I understand well what Natkin is saying here. When he began shooting rock shows in the ‘70s, like I did, you could walk into any venue with whatever camera gear you had and shoot to your heart’s content, pro or amateur. The funny thing is, not many people did. Carrying around clunky big SLR cameras with multiple lenses and having to change film rolls throughout a show was a drag, but that’s what you needed to do if you wanted decent shots. Kodak Instamatics and Polaroids wouldn’t cut it at all. So most people came to shows then with a five-dollar ticket, a lighter to hold up for encores, and maybe some pot to make the lighter do double-duty. At the first show I brought a “real” camera to, there was only one other person with a SLR that I saw – the guy working for the Milwaukee Journal.

But all that changed. As rock n’ roll became more and more of a really big business, everything tightened up, and everything that could be controlled and monetized, was. Artists and management and record companies began restricting photography access to only the top established concert photo pros like Natkin and local photojournalists/reviewers. If you, regular Joe or Joette, brought a camera into a show, you were told to take it right back to your car or it would be confiscated, and they meant it. Then after that, the pros were restricted to generally only the first two or three songs of the act’s set, then hustled away from the pit, done for the night. These restrictions are generally still the norm for the pros, and it’s perhaps the main reason I soured on taking concert photos for a long time.

Can you get good shots in the first three songs? Of course you can. It’s a lot of pressure, but with experience and determination and a bit of good luck, photogs do it all the time. However, it is rare that the very best shots of the night will ever be from those first three songs, and that is the bummer part of it. Artist nerves are always high at the start of any show, and often the expressions, the actions, and even the lighting will just not be as good as they will be later on as everyone relaxes and the band and the audience start to interact. It’s a chemistry thing, unique every time, and that is why if I am shooting a show, I want to shoot until Elvis has left the building. I know that photo restrictions will prevent me from doing the best job I can do of capturing the artist and the event.  I wish more artists would take a minute to understand that POV. Some do, and do not limit photography. I show my gratitude there by not being an ass when taking pictures. It’s not my right or intent to ever inconvenience anyone else who also paid to see the show, so I am always hyper-aware of containing what I do to my personal space. If I could be invisible, I would be.

“Meanwhile, everyone that pays to get in to the show has a camera! And they seem to use them throughout the show. It seems that the main byproduct of buying a ticket and going to the show is to have a picture of the band on one’s cell phone camera to take to work the next day and show to the world.”

Welcome to the new digital reality, Mr. Natkin! You are absolutely right: everyone does have a camera, whether it’s a crappy cell phone or a 14-megapixel prosumer point n’ shoot with full manual control. And yes, because they have them, they want to use them. Whether or not the images they capture are any “good” in anyone’s estimation is not the point.

“Recently, I photographed Iggy Pop. Halfway through the show, he invited audience members to jump on stage with him and dance. That should have been enough- except for one guy, who had to take a self portrait with Iggy!”

Now that’s a bold move, but I bet it made a lot of people laugh. Moreover, it was spontaneous and stupid and fun and bold, much like Mr. Pop and his wonderful music. I’m sure it took no more than a few seconds of anyone’s time, hmm? If Iggy were pissed off, I think he would’ve had no particular problem booting Mr. Self-Portrait right off the stage and back into the crowd. Why did it bother you so much? There’s ruder drunk folks without a camera in any rock concert audience.

“At a recent Dave Matthews concert, I turned around during the show and saw this scene…” (ed. Natkin’s photo of many DMB fans with cell phones and point n’ shoot cameras up in the air is shown…which I’m not going to embed here but you can look at it on his site, and please do.) “Does anyone just go to a show to see and hear the band? Does everyone in America have a camera? And finally, why is it OK for 5000 people to take bad photos at a show, and not OK for 10 people to take good pictures?”

The blue-white glow from a hundred little digital screens held up from the crowd is now part of modern-day concertgoing. I don’t earn my living as a photographer and don’t have to worry about the little digital screens and changing trends in media and the music business cutting into my ability to earn a living, so I don’t have any bitter feelings towards this at all, but I wouldn’t anyway. Should only approved, reliable, slick musicians be allowed onstage? If that were the case, maybe Iggy Pop wouldn’t be around, eh?

Don’t you see it? Look at the faces of the fans taking their “bad” pictures! They are seeing, they are hearing…and they are HAPPY. So here’s where I am going to stand up for every idiot waving his iPhone in the air, yelling and singing along, taking a band photo that will be nothing but a blurry mess, and here is the point: it may be a lousy photograph, but it’s HIS photograph. It’s HIS moment in time, from his perspective and not yours, and not mine. What it means to HIM to have that photograph in his possession isn’t up to you or me to assess, but it’s pretty likely that whether it’s technically lousy or pretty damn good, he’ll like it more than a full set of perfect pictures from the pro taking shots 10 feet away from him. It is his way of interacting with the musicians past lighting his lighter and going, “WOOO! WOOOO! ALRIGHT!”

And you never know…maybe…if that shot was pretty damn good, that person might think, heyyyyyyy, maybe I can, like, really DO this and he takes the time and makes the effort to buy better equipment and learn about photography, and concert photography becomes a great source of pleasure for him and maybe a lot of other people might enjoy his work, too. I’m glad to imagine that possibility, and I hope that the Journal photographer who looked back at me that night when I was 16 years old, when I was all fumbly and fresh-faced and so excited to be there with my rented SLR, was generous enough to imagine the same.

Ray Davies, Uihlein Hall, Performing Arts Center, Milwaukee, WI., June 12, 1978