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Sam Beam from Iron & Wine, caught during soundcheck back in 2006

Since 2004, I’ve been working on a personal photography project, shooting bands at soundcheck. It’s a project which has seen me shoot in music venues all around London, aswell as some far-flung cities around the world – everywhere from Boston to Moscow, Istanbul to Napier in New Zealand.

I spent a lot of my journalistic career in my 20s and 30s writing about music, seeing countless gigs and interviewing all sorts of bands. And as I got more and more into photography, I decided to start a long-term project – shooting bands at soundcheck, showing a different side to rock performance.

It’s coming up to 10 years since I took the first pictures in this project – shooting Nashville’s brilliant Lambchop in the Croatian capital Zagreb – and in 2014 I’m working towards my first exhibition of the shots I’ve taken so far.

And it’s this shot, taken of Iron & Wine frontman Sam Beam back during a London soundcheck in 2006, may just be the best pic from the project.

This was taken at London’s Kentish Town Forum, one of the capital’s most popular mid-level venues. Over the years it’s played host to everyone from Chase and Status to Coldplay, Pixies to PJ Harvey. The 2,100-capacity venue was built in the 1930s and was originally a cinema – after a brief life as an Irish dance hall, it became a music venue, known at first as The Town & Country Club. I’ve lost count of the gigs I’ve been do here, but some of the highlights must include Radiohead just as their 1995 masterpiece The Bends was released, a riotous Super Furry Animals gig in 1997 and the Manic Street Preachers return to live performances back in 1996. The Forum’s walls drip with history.

Bright bongos

Iron and Wine were in town with Calexico, the Arizona band I’ve shot several times over the last few years, most recently in Brighton. With them were Iron & Wine, the collective based around the talents of US singer-songwriter Sam Beam, who shared some of Calexico’s sensibilities – the two bands were touring to help promote an EP they’d made together in 2005, called Lays in the Reins. The stage was full of equipment – two drumkits for the two band drummers, and a plethora of instruments and microphones. Behind the band, on a massive black curtain set back from the stage, massive projections were being tested, the projector light shining through the darkened, empty venue from the sound-desk.

I was hanging around the back of the stage, taking pics of Calexico’s drummer John Convertino, when Beam, talking to one of the technical crew, crossed the stage to stand directly in the way of the projector light. Suddenly, he was silhouetted by blinding rays of unearthly light, his outline picked out in brilliant white. I knew I’d only have a few seconds to shoot, and that I’d need to expose for the light spilling around him in order to make the most of the shot. After metering for the projector light, I only had enough time to click the shutter three or four times – but was rewarded with this, a grainy, chalk and charcoal vision. I can still remember seeing it on the contact sheet.

I’d been shooting for a while before reading a very sage piece of advice for photographic projects on film; decide on no more than a couple of lenses, and one kind of film, so that your pictures have a uniform look. Nowadays, I shoot on a pair of Nikons and on Fuji Neopan pushed to 6400. This shot, taken on one of my screw-mount Bessaflex SLRs, was on Kodak Tri-X, a much more contrasty film, pushed from 400 to 3200.

Now that Fuji have helpfully decided to discontinue Neopan, it might be time to return to Tri-X for the next 10 years….

More shots from this soundcheck can be seen in my Flickr set – and if you’re interested in buying a print of this shot, drop me an email (my address can be found here).

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Stephen Dowling
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9 years ago

That picture!! Spectacular.

9 years ago

Wow, awesome!!