Five years ago, I bumped into a legend. I was shooting the Manic Street Preachers – one of the bands responsible for my career as a music journalist – for a personal project documenting bands during sound check. Having been given a photo pass for the show to shoot the first three songs, I decided to hang around. That’s when I met Pennie Smith.
You might not know her name, but if you’re in any way a fan of rock music, you’ll know her most famous shot. Snapped from the side of the stage when The Clash were playing at the Hammersmith Ballroom in New York in September 1979, it showed frustrated bassist Paul Simonon about to smash his guitar to bits. The image – personally chosen by frontman Joe Strummer off the contact sheets – went on to be the cover of the band’s seminal 1980 ‘London Calling’ and one of the most famous pictures in rock history.
Smith stood next to me in the pit, snapping away on a battered looking old Pentax which had clearly seen better days. Talking to her in between snapping the action onstage, it turned out the Pentax – an old ESII from the mid-1970s – was the same one she had used to shoot that famous Clash gig.
Good enough for Pennie Smith, good enough for me. Within a few months I had tracked down a pair that still worked, and used them as often as I could.
The ESII was the last of Pentax’s cameras to take the M42 lens mount, and it was superseded by cameras taking bayonet-mount lenses (much quicker to change). But the ESII has a certain retro charm (coming from the decade when manual SLRs reached their peak), and it’s tough and simple to use.
My friend Billy is a passionate Clash fan too – and has a band of his own, a hard rocking, Socialist soul outfit called Thee Faction, who pepper their songs with revolutionary left-wing ideology. It’s a fair guess that David Cameron and Mitt Romney are not fans.
In June, Thee Faction held a gig in London’s Half Moon in Putney – a venue which has played host to the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Who, Elvis Costello and U2 since the 1960s. It was partly to mark Billy’s birthday. As a birthday present, I said I’d shoot him on the same kind of camera and film (Kodak Tri-X) that Pennie Smith had shot his beloved Clash on.
Not that I’m saying I’m as good a music photographer as Pennie Smith, but Tri-X and Takumar lenses Pentax made since the 1960s are a match made in heaven. Why not bring that partnership back to the pit in 2012?
Shooting bands on film is not for the faint-hearted, especially for those who’ve only ever done it on digital cameras that allow any mistakes in settings to be quickly fixed. There are really only two rules to bear in mind – meter for the highlights (there’s a lot of dark space in the background) and make sure your shutter speed is fast enough to freeze the action.
Venues like the Half Moon are where great rock photographers of yesteryear cut their teeth, taking shots an arm’s length away from the performers, jostled by the crowd and without auto-focus and a review screen to help.
Thee Faction’s short-but-sharp gig was an energetic affair, allowing me plenty of practice to get Billy’s gesticulating and audience-baiting in sharp(ish) focus. Tri-X, a film which many rock and jazz photographers made their living from, gives deep black and bright highlights. One of my music-making friends described it as “chalk and charcoal”.
With the film rated at 3200 (pushed three stops) there was more than enough light to freeze Billy in the spotlight’s’ glare, eyes blazing and hands pointing out the crowd. Tri-X is a very pushable film – photographers used to rate at it at 12,800 and get beautiful results.
Being able to shoot the entire set rather than the first “first three songs, no flash” most music photographers find themselves saddled with, I was able to rattle off two films during the band’s set. A couple of them, I think, show just what a cool combination the ESII and Tri-X can be – the pic of Billy pointing his finger in a punk rock pose, and his rock ‘n’ roll preacher stance. I hope Pennie would be proud.