marg, the photoist
A few years back I found myself travelling to Stoke to catch some great gigs run by the now much missed Music Room, good shows with some great bands – every evening different from all the others. At a lot of these I’d notice a girl with camera who would appear suddenly amongst the throng, everyone seemed to know her and would say “hello” but she always remained slightly apart from (whilst still being part of) the crowd at these gatherings. She’d lean against a wall for a while sizing up the band on-stage at that particular time, her head askew with concentration - seemingly trying to work out how she would approach this subject. Then she’d move straight in decisively, crouching on the floor in front of the stage with her lens turned upward or standing on a table for the desired elevation. Looking for that perfect shot perhaps, the one that would capture their essence in her lens; and it wasn’t just “big name” bands either – the most ramshackle obscure outfits got as much attention and respect as any star could ask for. So it seemed to me anyway.
I found this mystery woman a little intriguing and discovered that she was called Marg and that she had a web-site, I checked it out (as you must) and was quite captivated by what I saw (as you will be). So we just had to have a chat with this unsung heroine, here’s how it went.
Hello Marg, how long have you been taking pictures of bands and gigs?
Well it’s not a recent hobby and in fact all started a very long time ago in the days when digital cameras were not a known entity (I’m sure someone must have had one somewhere but it was probably the size of a house and cost as much as one too). For some reason, and I know not why, I decided to ignore the fact that cameras just weren’t allowed at most of the venues I frequented in those days. They were quite big venues and fairly mainstream bands so you can understand them not allowing 35mmm SLRs but even small cameras could attract the wrath of the eagle-eyed sprung-heeled bouncers (the plethora of digital cameras and camera phones nowadays would have flung them into a overheated frenzy back then). But I had a passion for photographing and a greater passion for live music so it was only a matter of time before the two got married.
Even the frequent confiscating of the equipment (the black shadow of a larger than life pseudo-hardman slithering into the corner of my eye, the severe tap on the shoulder and the grunting of “you got a photopass???”) didn’t seem to deter me – in fact maybe the sense of slight wrongdoing and having to duck and dive was part of the drive. I’d just waddle on in with a chunky Eastern-European 35mm SLR and usually a variety of lenses secreted about my person (I got pretty good at smuggling back then) and hoped I could grab a few shots before I got nabbed. One venue got so used to me doing what I did, could see I wasn’t doing any harm and that I was polite even when they challenged me, that they eventually turned a blind eye to my shenanigans.
Then I kind of completely stopped going to gigs for quite a number of years because I ran out of bands to inspire me.
It took a while before I was jolted into realising that good bands did still exist (I think Mark & Lard can take most of the credit for that) so back I went to those gig things and the camera followed soon after. By this time I’d moved to Stoke which had a good smallish venue (The Sugarmill) that attracted a portion of the sort of touring bands I was into and a whole heap of decent local bands. And only on a very few occasions did some over-zealous tour manager raise an objection to me photographing his people.
The cost of film and processing really was restrictive and it was only when my dad died and I got left a few bob (I know that sounds really mercenary but the money was appreciated even though tainted with sadness) that I was able to go buy a PC and a digital camera (not a SLR at that time though I have one now but it was a fairly good camera all the same). He would definitely have approved of what the money went towards since it was he who encouraged my interest in photography in the first place, being himself an avid amateur photographer and 16mm & 8mm cine filmmaker.
Having the PC meant I could get me the internet and learn properly how to make a website. I’d already sussed out that there were very few gig photo websites (and I mean really few like barely a handful) and no one seemed to be really concentrating on the lesser-known bands so that seemed the natural way to go what with me having more interest in that type of band anyway
I was finally getting to do something creative (which was never going to happen in my real and necessary paid work) and the bands would get some exposure - as would Stoke which seemed to be being ignored even though it had (and has) a good quality and very diverse music scene and some decent venues. It was good news all round.
Getting back to the original question….How long have I been doing this…erm well I kind of started in the 80s so it’s well over 20 years minus about a decade’s break in between.
The collection of pictures on your website is most impressive, do you have any particular favourites (bands or gigs)?
I have loads of favourites (gigs and photos). Sometimes I like a photo just because it reminds me of a great gig even if the image is fairly ordinary but it might spark up some welcome memories of excellent music for me. In fact that’s quite a big part of why I like taking photos because I have a really poor memory so I love to have these pictorial prompts to open the vaults of memories of some fantastic and very moving and truly inspirational events.
There are too many photos on the site though. I get a bit carried away with it all sometimes and especially in the early days so the site’s grown into such a gigantic unfathomable monster that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to cut it down to size. As long as I can afford the webspace I’ll just leave it be and allow room for it to grow as it pleases.
I can’t cite a favourite gig – there are always a few every year which are perfect and sublime and most of the rest are pretty excellent.
If I had to choose one absolute favourite photo then it’s from one of John O’s Music Room events (you mentioned the Music Room before and it deserves to be mentioned as it was an education to me and added a further dimension to my appreciation of live music). The band was Kill Yourself and the photo is of the bass player playing while wearing a chicken mask.. The gig was in 2003 but it was only recently I really decided I liked that one above all the others when I was going through the photos for a myspace slideshow and that one just appealed to me a whole lot. Quality-wise it’s not great and was done on my first digicam set at a low resolution which is a bit of a shame but it still looks ok. It’s the chicken mask and the pose that does it for me and it’s not really anything that I did that makes it good. I loved Kill Yourself and the effort they made to do something a bit bizarre but without it looking contrived.
Looking at this collection you’ve accumulated, it seems to very much be a labour of love and the obvious question – why photograph all these bands?
I love musical talent. I don’t think I have any so maybe that’s why I strive to be in its presence as often as possible. It feeds my soul when all else fails. Music is so accessible and can move every cell in my very being to joy and tears and an overly full spectrum of the deepest emotions. If I can help in even the tiniest smidgen of a way to promote those that create this wondrous thing then I will go all out to do so. My dedication pales into insignificance compared to the dedication of those who do the actual music. The photos aren’t really that important in the grand scheme of things but sometimes people seldom get to see their favourite bands play live especially if they live in a different country or out in the sticks so loads of them seem to appreciate these small visual tasters of those live events. And as I mentioned before I have a really bad memory so the photographs help me overcome the inadequacies of my brain.
Your pictures are of a very high quality, did you teach yourself?
Well some of them look a’right I suppose (some of them are a bit ropey though – especially the early ones). I guess I looked at my dad and realised he learned on his own and he had his proper job to finance his photography therefore he could pick and choose his subject matter and that seemed like a good road to go down.
I wasn’t really interested in photography enough to learn all the boring bits at college or anything and didn’t want to end up doing studio photography or, God forbid, weddings so I just did what he did and learned from my mistakes and by experimenting a bit. I know there are loads of much better gig photographers out there but I do an ok job and as long as I’m still enjoying doing what I do then I should keep doing it.
So it was “in the blood” perhaps, what sort of photography did your Dad do?
Yeah I suppose in the blood or just because I had a lot of respect for him and he seemed to get a lot out of his hobby so it was natural to try and attain that same sense of satisfaction and achievement.
Anything in particular you’re looking for when you have your camera and there’s a band on-stage?
I usually always miss the commercial moment while I’m faffing about with lenses and stuff but I’m not interested in what will get me noticed anyway and instead just try to capture something that illustrates what I see in a band. Sometimes that means that the photos are far removed from how a band sees itself and there have been occasions where some bands have not been that impressed with the results. Most of them are open to suggestion so they’re eventually ok with different visual opinions as long as the respect is evident which I think it usually is. If they really hate a particular photo or more then that’s ok and I am happy to remove the offending items from the site but there have been one or two bands for whom I was nowhere near the right photo person for them. One in particular no longer has any of their photos on my site which is a bit sad.
There’s no agenda for what I do – sometimes it’s just people’s faces and the souls within that grab me and sometimes it’s the pantomime spectacle of the whole scene that’s the grabber and sometimes there’s nothing but I’ll still try to make something from nothing. I’m not really an action photographer – I think I’m more of a portrait type person though I can do whatever type of photo suits the occasion. In fact I’m not really a photographer. I take photos and, more often than not, manipulate the images in some brand or other of photo software (my electronic darkrooms). The end products are photographs but I’m definitely not a photographer in the purest sense. I never process film so that really sets me apart from the purists. I usually refer to myself as a photoist which doesn’t really mean anything but is more accurate than calling myself a photographer.
Your website allows bands the free use of your pictures, I take it that you’re not doing what you do to get fabulously wealthy – do you sometimes do paid photography assignments or publicity work for bands or promoters?
No I don’t usually get paid though payment is occasionally offered. I got paid once by Mojo which I didn’t object to as it’s a well-financed mag and the photo was of Pete Doherty from when I got absolutely bruised and mangled trying to photograph Babyshambles. That was one of the least inspiring gigs I have ever been to. It was relatively expensive for the ticket and in hindsight I wouldn’t have gone unless I’d been paid to do so therefore the money I got for a thumbnail pic in the magazine made up for that hope-to-never-be-repeated experience. That gig had zero to do with music and was an abomination.
This photo thing was never to do with money. I knew I would never be able to make a living out of it. I am quite able to endure a very mundane and not particularly enjoyable fulltime admin job which pays me enough money to live on therefore there is no need to go asking bands for money. I usually even pay to get in to a gig even if I know I could probably ask for a guest pass but I feel it’s more for real if you pay to get in and it keeps money in the live music scene which can’t be a bad thing. It’s a good way of judging a gig properly too like if you’ve paid a quarter or half a day’s wages to go see someone and they’re a bit rubbish then you’re more likely to have an honest opinion about them than if you’d got in for free and had nothing to lose if it was a bit crap.
Most of the bands I photograph get paid very little (sometimes nothing) for gigging and more often than not by the time they pay for bus/van/petrol/food/beer etc they are out of pocket and even if that is not the case then I’d rather they had money in abundance to keep doing what they do. I love what these people do for me on stage and through their recorded material and I can never repay most of them for what I get out of it so I’d rather do what I do for free if possible.
I do struggle to buy new or replace old equipment but that only makes me appreciate the value of it more when I do finally acquire it. And I will probably never need more than the lowest spec of digital SLR camera so, much as it would be real nice to have a top spec cam, it’s never going to be a necessity. I have a certain freedom doing things the way I do them and I’ve always been reluctant to give that up in search of a few extra coins.
Do you always carry a camera with you, just in case?
Nah I’m not a real photographer when it comes down to it but I have to admit that when I don’t bring a camera to a gig I really miss being able to do photos and I get all fidgety like some addict in need of a fix (but I still manage enjoy the gig loads even so). I am very much addicted to gig photography but I can take or leave other types of photography. Nowadays if I don’t have a photopass (and I rarely do) and it’s a venue with a strict photo policy then I’d rather leave the camera at home even if it does mean I’ll occasionally be distracted by nerdy thoughts of cameras and potentially good shots.
I stupidly assumed getting involved with doing photos for The Fly magazine would mean I’d find photopasses a bit easier to obtain but it didn’t work out that way. The photos I did have published were mostly ones I’d done on my own steam and which they decided they could use in hindsight. I’ve pretty much lost the will to submit anything to them now and haven’t done so for many months. It seems unlikely that I will try other magazines now either.
I believe you also do other photographic work, is that right?
I’ve done a few events and some band promo work. but nothing much else. Photographing non-music events doesn’t really excite me so I would probably give them a miss now. Band promo photo work I do like but I feel I have very limited inspiration in that line of ‘work’ so I’m reluctant to offer the service to too many bands as I may in the end do them a disservice. Mostly I’ll just be concentrating on local band Alfa 9 who seem to have adopted me though they are by no means tied to me as their exclusive photoist.
They’ve been really good for me as I was at a point of being a bit bored with there being so many photographers around and of seeing loads of similar shots on too many websites so I was looking for something else to do but still within the remit of helping to promote bands/a band and they stepped in just at the right time. I didn’t know any of them to talk to or anything but had really liked their sound and had done some pics at a couple of their gigs. They seemed pleased with the results and invited me to go along with them to photograph a gig they were doing in Manchester about 3 years ago. It worked really well and we seemed to get on with one another so they asked me to the next one and since then I’ve travelled with them up and down the UK to almost all of their gigs, and to their Radio 2 & 6Music sessions. It’s been really great to be involved in that side of things. I help out as much as I can from lugging equipment to flyering and doing the merch stand if the usual person isn’t able to go along to do it and of course I’ll grab a good few pics while I’m there. I do their website and myspace and other bits and bobs too. They used my pics for their album which was a nice gesture (oh yeah I got paid for that too).
So perhaps photographers/photoists can become part of a band, giving them an extra dimension perhaps?
Well the extra dimension works both ways in that the band can be seen to be more than just this sterile untouchable clique that stands above the audience for a relatively brief moment in time and disappears into the ether before the last vestige of applause has rung out. And the photographer moves away from just being this sterile anybody behind a concoction of lenses and shutter and electronic wizardry. The human and more involved relationship is apparent in those more relaxed and leisurely off-stage shots that you see of many bands. Generally mucking in with the whole gig experience is something I didn’t expect to be part of but I’m so pleased that my path moved in that direction even if it is at the expense of my previously prolific photoing.
There have always been these relationships between photographers and musicians. Musicians have something about them that’s like a magnet to a lens but it’s difficult (and not necessary) to find a partnership that works and will last. Most bands wouldn’t really bother making an effort to find what might end up being just another hanger-on. This thing between me and Alfa 9 was only intended to be for that one gig in Manchester but it’s lasted till now. When they start touring again and if they keep touring and recording they’ll eventually have to use other photographers for variety’s sake (and I am all for that) but I’d like to think I’d still be able to hop on the bus with them as often as possible.
I’m dismayed to hear that you’re curtailing your gig photography due to time/work constraints – please say it’s not true!
As I mentioned before, I got to a point where I was noticing many more photographers at almost every gig so my enthusiasm started to splutter out a bit as it became much more of an ordinary thing to be doing compared to the unusual and exciting pursuit it had been before. I had no drive to keep doing it to the same degree as before and as I started to do more non-photography pursuits with Alfa 9 I got more enthusiastic about those things (it was still all about live music anyway) so I just didn’t have the time and energy to keep photoing. Burning the candle at both ends for such a long time definitely started to take its toll so I thought it best to slow down a bit.
I haven’t given it up but I don’t have as much time to get to gigs or for getting the photos on the site. I can’t give it up though. I still love to photograph good bands and they continue to be born and if I can catch them at a level where they’re still playing small venues and don’t mind an unknown photo person grabbing some shots then I’m most definitely going to be doing that very thing.
I suspect that you haven’t been fully appreciated by the bands and artists you’ve photographed – would I be wrong in saying this?
A lot of them do seem genuinely very appreciative but some are most definitely just looking for some free pics from whoever (and it doesn’t really matter who the whoever is). But just as I never did this for money I equally didn’t do it for thanks or glory. I wasn’t naïve enough to ignore the fact that I was easy to use therefore I would be used and that often not even a murmur of thanks would pass my way. That was ok with me as long as I enjoyed what I was doing.
Loads of bands though supported me as much as I supported them. I felt a bit bad for them when I had to start saying no to their requests but I wasn’t daft enough to think there wouldn’t be someone else willing and able to photograph them as there is definitely no shortage of gig photographers in most places with a healthy music scene.
Three cheers for Marg, the world would be a poorer place without people like her – we must cherish her sort. Check out her website: www.peripheralanomaly.co.uk and marvel! (Laurence)
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