all aboard the soul train

If you know me at all, or even if you have read about the photography project I did with Saskwatch, then you would probably know that I love soul music. What I love about soul music is, in a broad sense, similar to what I strive for in my own work: raw emotion, honest beauty. And is there anything more beautiful and passionate than someone taking their innermost emotions - from the darkest lows to the ecstatic highs - and screaming them to the world, all the while backed by overwhelming music that is written to do exactly the same thing? In visual arts as in music, while I care very much about technical skill, I have always prioritised emotion over pure aesthetics; if something doesn't make me feel, then no matter how technically good it is it will never truly captivate and impress me. And that, in a nutshell, is why I am so drawn to soul. (This is not to say soul artists are technically lacking; on the contrary, the extraordinary bands boast some of the best musicians in the business.)

While most people associate soul music with the greats of eras past, there is a thriving modern soul scene at home and abroad. We're super lucky here in Melbourne to have the likes of Clairy Browne and the Bangin' Rackettes and Saskwatch, among many others, to call our own. We have Cherry's weekly soul night; like an old friend, it's comforting to know that you always have somewhere to go when you get the urge to dance until your feet blister. We have many fine record stores specialising in soul, perhaps none more prominent than Northside Records, whose commitment to funk and soul and has surely played a part in our city's love affair with the music.

January has been a big month for fans of soul music in Melbourne, for a few reasons. But for my money, one reason outweighs all others: SHARON JONES AND THE DAP-KINGS. The First Lady of modern soul brought her Kings to our shores for a few really special shows. While Sydney was lucky enough to get the extended Daptone family in what must have been one mind-blowingly phenomenal show - several bands on the Daptone label opening the Sydney Festival with a free (!) musical extravaganza known as The Daptone Super Soul Revue - Melbourne got some love too. Sharon and the Kings played an incredible show down south, near where I come from, at an outdoor amphitheatre in a large park in the middle of the country. Saskwatch and Clairy Browne also played, and I went along with my whole family.

The following week, the Corner Hotel played host to Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings over three sold-out nights, only this time, she brought her Dap-tastic friends the Menahan Street Band and Charles Bradley, who supported the main act on all three nights. I went along to the third night, and it was a phenomenal show. I was so thrilled to witness Charles Bradley, the Menahan Street Band and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform on the same night.

And then came the after-party.

I headed to Cherry with a few of my Saskwatch pals, which is great in itself because did I mention I love Cherry's soul night? There were whispers that a few of the Dap-Kings would make an appearance but I wasn't holding my breath, especially when a couple of hours passed without any royalty in sight. But even aside from the potential appearance of the Kings, it was definitely a gathering of various Melbourne soul people: a few of the guys from Clairy Browne, Northside chief Chris Gill, the now-institutional Cherry soul DJs, the Saskwatch lunatics, a whole lot of soul fans.

It got to about 1:30 or 2:00 when someone asked me how my night was. 'It would be better if I saw a bloody Dap-King!' I joked. 'Like that one there?' he replied as he pointed towards the door.

And then I kind of lost my shit.

Now let me explain. When I say I lost my shit, I don't mean I ran around screaming like a crazed groupie. I lost my shit on the inside, not because these people have some kind of perceived fame, but because I was quietly overwhelmed to be in the presence of artists whose work I admire and respect so completely. They were all very courteous and polite, and happy to have their photos taken, which is always lovely. They were down to earth and content to shoot the breeze with anyone who approached them.

What an incredible night, a wonderful thing to be a part of, and a very special thing to be able to capture on film. It was an honour to meet these guys, and to see them play twice in one week. The visual record of the night that you see above captures it pretty nicely I think.

But I have to finish with just one more photo.

Yep. That's me and Sharon. Her songs have meant more to me in the past year than most other music I know. You can hear her strength and feel her pain when she sings about all the triumphs and hardships she's been through in her life. I was relatively calm when I approached her because I was confident that she would want to hear how she has made a positive difference in someone else's life. I expected a brief exchange characterised by courtesy, friendliness and maybe even some gratitude. But in fact, she gave me so much more. I won't go into the details of our conversation, but suffice to say she offered some very personal advice about my life that I will absolutely heed.

She is an inspiration - proof that you can go as far as you want to as long as you have passion, ambition and dedication. And those are things I am going have to remember as I pursue my own creative endeavours. I know there will be times in the future, as in the past, when inspiration like that will be one of the few things that will keep me going. And while I will never lose the memory of getting that advice and inspiration firsthand, or the memory of the feelings that came with it, it certainly doesn't hurt to have these glorious images to keep those memories extra fresh.


push it (push it good)

So I've been trying my hand at live photography lately, as you would have gathered if you read my last post, and it's been quite the challenge. This is largely because when shooting dark environments like those on a stage, it can be very difficult to get enough light through the lens; if you don't, you can end up with a black mass rather than an actual image.

There are several ways to do this, all of which I am still exploring. There are long exposures, which lets a lot more light in, but unless you have a very motionless subject you'll get little more than a blurry mess. That can sometimes be a good thing, but it's not a viable solution across the board, especially when performers tend to move. A lot. There's fast lenses (that allow you to shoot at really wide apertures), which are fantastic but, unfortunately, lenses are damn expensive so I don't have a never-ending supply. Besides which, a fast lens will only get you so far.

The final option (at least, as far as I understand) is the film. Fast films are much more forgiving in dark conditions. But if you find you still can't make it work with a fast film, you can always push it.

Pushing film is something I always meant to experiment with but for some reason never got around to until recently. It involves simply 'tricking' your camera by telling it that the film you're using is faster than it actually is, then processing the negatives according to the faster speed. The result is more grain, higher contrast and more light on the film. When I began looking at live photography, this seemed the perfect time to try it out. And the fact that I love high contrast and big grain was a bonus. The first time I tried it was when I shot Saskwatch live for the first time, but I'll post those photos separately another time. The results were mixed, but promising, with some gorgeous, exciting results. The same could be said for the above shots, which I took when Boomgates launched their album at the John Curtin Hotel late last year. I used two different types of film, which you can probably tell from the shots, and pushed both of them. While there were a lot of shots that didn't work so well, I think the above images are pretty interesting. They capture various aspects of the performance, and they look different to most live photography.

A friend of mine asked me to shoot his new band, Farrow, at The Workers Club a couple of weeks ago, so I took along a roll of colour film and, again, pushed it to make sure I could capture enough light. The lighting at the Workers is evidently pretty good (only a few dark corners), so the results were for the most part successful. While they are perhaps less unusual than the Boomgates shots thanks to the venues' respective lighting demands, they are still quite unique, with that glorious grain and contrast.

This is one of my favourite films to shoot with, and it's perfect for live stuff because it's super fast. Despite being extraordinarily tired after the night of my life at (and with) Sharon Jones the night before (more on that in an upcoming post), I took my camera along to New Gods' first Melbourne headline show at the Northcote Social Club. Again, there were some less successful results, but among them were some really interesting shots, such as those above. I particularly like those of Sam, the drummer, as the dramatic lighting on his profile is extremely evocative. I also adore the way this film makes any direct lighting glow.

And there you have it - my adventures in live photography and pushing film thus far. There are some misses, for sure, but there are also plenty of hits - or at least the promise of many more hits to come.