The ON STAGE teaching unit was first introduced in the 2010 summer semester as a pilot project for the technically-oriented Photography Workflow courses 2 and 3 at the University of Art and Design Offenbach. A scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic BLOW UP triggered the project.
Disillusioned by the vain attempt to analyze a murder he happened to have photographed in a park that morning, photographer Thomas wanders through London by night. He happens upon a surreal situation in the Ricky-Tick Club, where the Yardbirds are on stage performing: While the band headed by Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck play the wild Rock track Stroll On, the audience remains still and expressionless—as in a photograph. It is only after Jeff Beck smashes his guitar on the amplifier and throws the severed neck into the crowd that they awaken from their trance. Thomas manages to wrest the object, which has taken on fetish status, from the now revved-up crowd and bursts onto the street with the piece of guitar. Here, however, after looking at it again he throws the fragment away, because it has no real meaning for him.
Michelangelo Antonioni invented this spectacle in 1966 for his film BLOW UP, which I generally show to new students of photography at the start of their course, because it dismantles blind trust in the visual fidelity of photographs on a number of levels. When I was looking for a topic for a photography course I recalled this film scene and decided to use the stage as an unusual image space for the course. This marked the birth of ON STAGE and that same year students were able to photograph, at the legendary Burg Herzberg Festival, a performance by Jeff Beck.
ON STAGE was initially about intuitively learning camera settings and image compositions, as well as working at speed in a photographic process under extremely difficult conditions, because rock concerts deliver exactly that: quickly changing on-stage lighting and camera settings that have to be made in the dark. It is only possible to compose an image if you can anticipate the band members’ movements and those of the lighting. There is little leeway. Anyone who succeeds in having the rock & roll stage firmly in his control will be able to master other photographic situations with ease.
After the first few concerts students photographed, it quickly became clear that the course had to be about more than merely being in control of the camera. Indeed, it became clear that on the one hand the artist's body language had to play a considerable role in the development of technical and creative strategies, as gestures, facial expressions, and habits are a deciding influence on visual reception, and on the other that the conditions need to be questioned under which nowadays photographs can be taken at all at concerts, as the stipulations imposed by groups’ managers and agencies are strict. As a rule, photographs can only be taken during the first three songs of a concert, which places enormous restrictions on the photographers, because good creative concert photos are only possible if the person taking them has enough time to differentiate between rehearsed poses and natural human movements.
Spontaneity is, however, indispensable for this type of photo, as the light show, performance, the state of the band and the general sentiment among the audience can only rarely be anticipated. However, all these factors determine the leeway photographers have at a concert and force them into acclimatizing quickly to the mood and gauging when it is appropriate to take photographs, and when restraint is called for. The closer the photographer gets to the human being on stage, the more intense the experience when viewing the image later on.
The photographic interpretation of a real situation on stage played a major role even during the actual shot itself. The desire for a true representation of reality was in any case unfulfillable, for the reality of the show consists in the spectacle. The stage photographer, who himself is also always physically and emotionally part of the intoxicating situation of a concert, must learn to recognize that — only then will he produce meaningful pictures.
Alongside teaching the theoretical and technical fundamentals of digital photography and how to process it in Photoshop and Lightroom, the course aims to promote a sense of responsibility and develop team spirit in artistic training that is otherwise very much focused on the individual.
Yet what actually makes for a good rock photograph if a lack of focus, coarse grain, disharmony, blurring, bodies that extend beyond the image, and overexposure have long since become the standard repertoire of rock photography? Alongside technically perfect images, all these photographic errors are familiar as creative means not only here but in content-defined and image artistic photography as well.