a portrait of a band (an ode to soul)

Though I have done a couple of significant photo shoots with Saskwatch, the band didn't ask me to shoot these images. In fact, I asked the band if they would allow me to take them.

This is an important distinction, and let me explain why: when I am asked to take publicity shots for a band, they usually come to me with some pretty strong ideas and we work together to achieve a visual representation of how they see the band, and how they want others to see the band. It's a really wonderful collaborative process. In this case, on the other hand, I had an extremely strong idea for a portrait of the band – my interpretation of the band, quite separate from (and perhaps even contradictory to) how they see themselves.

There's a slight danger here that people may take my interpretation of the band as the band's interpretation of the band. Image is so important in the music industry, so I was reluctant to even post these photos in case they were misinterpreted. But I figure that if I explain it really clearly in this accompanying text then it is probably OK. Plus the band is happy for me to post them, even though they are not images they would ever choose to publicise. And besides – how many people really read this? Hmm?

Why did I want to take these photos? No money changed hands. The band won't use them. The preparation took a lot of time, effort and expense (the letters are handmade using hand-cut A3-sized foam board, a lot of glue, and LED lights covered with cellophane. This was not an easy task). What's in it for me?

Perhaps it's my stubborn nature; I had this idea in my head a long time ago and, unlike many ideas that develop in my mind, this one wouldn't weaken. The more I thought about it, the more determined I was to do it. I suppose I also wanted to undertake a project where I was composing a portrait of a band instead of a person (or group of people). This band has no shortage of unique personalities within it. But this is not a portrait of Olaf, Ed, Tom, Liam, Nkechi, Rob, Nic, Sam and Will. This is a portrait of Saskwatch. I was excited to realise a vision that had become so clear in my head. And despite the extreme effort required and the limited actual usefulness of these shots, I am so thrilled that I followed it through.

So, what is my interpretation of the band?

Seeing Saskwatch play live floors me every time – and I've seen them play a lot – because the sounds that these nine people make are so consistently powerful. It is music the way I think it should be: when they drop back and allow Nkechi's vocals to gently break hearts, it's exquisite, and when the band slowly builds to (or hits the crowd straight up with) its full power the adrenaline in the room is palpable. The songs are composed and performed in a way that inescapably captivates people – at times it feels as though your pulse is responding directly to the sounds – and they make me fall in love with music again each time I hear them.

This is not mere hyperbole; I want to convey the power of the music as a means to explaining the visual approach I took. I wanted the band's name in lights because the music presents such an assault on the emotions: just like a blinding neon sign, the music's power is unavoidable and undeniable. It's no coincidence that soul music has been traditionally associated with vibrant, knock-your-socks-off aesthetics. The lights, the sequins, the matching suits, the impeccable make-up, the irresistible album art: these consistent visuals that accompanied the soul of the sixties and beyond did so because they visually communicated the impact of the music. Soul unapologetically manipulates your emotions in the most glorious way. Who can listen to Otis Redding's voice and not share his exquisite pain or infectious happiness? Who can hear Aretha Franklin lament being in an abusive relationship and not immediately understand what it might be like to never love a man (the way I love you)? And anyone who witnessed Charles Bradley at Golden Plains earlier this year and wasn't immediately moved by his heartbreaking voice, even if they had never heard of him before, might actually have no soul.

Having said that, there is a difference between the approach to visuals that classic soul bands took and the approach that Saskwatch takes. Where the former announced themselves as a very specific genre, Saskwatch lets the music speak for itself. A recent review of a live Saskwatch show applauded the music wholeheartedly but criticised the members' appearance and onstage presence, suggesting that they should incorporate more synchronised moves and more impressive (perhaps matching?) clothes. I think this is an ignorant and uninspired opinion. I don't think the band is a revivalist band. While soul was arguably most prominent several decades ago, that doesn't automatically tie today's soul to the superficial elements (such as costume and band art) of those older artists. Though it's a route many bands today seem to take – from skivvy-wearing sixties-sounding rock-n-rollers to long-haired seventies-loving dirty garage rockers – it is absolutely not essential, and to assume otherwise is narrow-minded at best. Regardless of music style, each band should form its own unique identity.

It is for this reason that I absolutely didn't want the focus to be on the band members. The juxtaposition between the powerhouse letters, which represent the music this band puts out, and the modesty, obscurity or total absence of the band members is what I was trying to achieve. I shot them in their casual clothes instead of the slightly less casual clothes they wear when they perform. I shot them during soundcheck and told them to pretend I wasn't there: no poses, no orchestration, no focus on their 'performance'. I used long exposures to reduce the clarity of the people, and intensify the strength of the lights.

In many ways I think the photo at the top of this post achieves my aims most successfully. While the letters represent the incredible music, there are no people. But there are instruments – because if nothing else, the people in this band are nine extraordinary musicians whose instruments represent their finely honed craft. Combined, these musicians (represented by the instruments) make this music (letters).

Like most of these images, the shot at the top features the iconic red curtain of Melbourne's Cherry Bar, which is where Saskwatch has played countless residencies over almost three years. These photos were taken during the band's last ever Cherry residency, so I'm really pleased to be essentially capturing a significant point in the life of Saskwatch: acknowledging and farewelling what some have referred to as the band's 'home'.

While the top image most successfully meets my thematic aims, from an aesthetic standpoint I think those with the band members on stage are equally successful. The lack of visual performance is a really gorgeous contrast to the letters: a group of (mostly) modest musicians at work – getting on with making excellent music, not buying into the hype that this kind of music can bring about.

And from a purely aesthetic point, this image is very close to my favourite. I absolutely adore the fact that every band member is blurred – except Nkechi, whose gorgeous stillness captures what her performance is often capable of: quieting chaos; bringing the freneticism of a bustling gig to a complete standstill with her restrained power.

So these are my portraits of a band. There was no collaboration, just a group of musicians who were willing to allow me to shoot them for my own purposes. It was such a worthwhile exercise for me – a chance to really construct something from scratch (literally and figuratively) in order to communicate a very specific perception. It also helps me to define the important difference between creating a visual representation of a band's self-imposed image, and creating a very subjective interpretation. This is certainly the most significant photographic project I have worked on this year, and it provides encouragement for me to pursue other ideas that are not designed to serve other people. Whether this kind of project will have any worth beyond that remains to be seen. But that's OK with me.

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