Best Concert Photos of 2008: Q & A with Photographer Colleen Catania

One of the hardest things about covering live music is picking the photos. Sure it’s labor intensive going through photos, but it’s also difficult because you’re forced to pick 2-3 pictures to sum up the entire visual significances of a live show. We started the year covering bluegrass quintet Uncle Earl at Schubas and ended the year with the Smashing Pumpkins at the Auditorium Theatre. In between was George Clinton, Vampire Weekend, Dave Matthews Band, Saul Williams, Fleet Foxes, The Secret Machines, Atmosphere, and many others.

So asking my wife, Colleen, to come up with a list of pictures to sum up her favorite concert photos of 2008 was no easy task either.

When we cover live shows, Colleen and I have two different experiences. Not only because we’re two different people but also because we experience the live show from two different perspectives. She sees the first several songs through the lens of her camera, while I spend most of the show soaking up the scene with my own eyes.

We usually spend the car ride home talking about the show and what we liked and didn’t, but I often wonder what goes on in her mind during the show while she’s taking the picture.

What makes her choose one photo over another? Is she trying to capture her favorite moments subconsciously or is she going for the picture that best captures the whole feeling of the show?

We often argue about what picture to choose to represent the show visually, mainly because we experience the show in two entirely different ways. Sometimes we meet in the middle and she has a photo that matches what I’ve written. Other times her photos speak to a part of the show that I couldn’t with words. Or she captures a part of the show that I completely missed because I was caught up in something else about the performance.

Earlier this week we sat down to talk about her favorite photos of 2008, her craft, how she approaches live concert photography, why she chose certain photos over others and what she felt while shooting them. You can view a complete slideshow gallery here.

You’re always buzzing around the room while I’m interviewing. What were you trying to capture with the Shugo Tokumaru, and Secret Machines interview photos?

There’s always a million angles within a room when there’s an interview going on. I like to find ways to get the artist to pose without posing. I’m curious about the backstage area and how to portray that to the fans through the picture. Secret Machines were very relaxed which doesn’t always happen. I tend to get really distracted when there’s artwork on the wall, like there was at the Empty Bottle for Shugo Tokumaru’s photos. Sometimes I try to I pretend to take a shot to bring their guard down. It doesn’t bother me if it happens, but I don’t want to repeat a pose they already done for someone else. Sometimes they are open to posing and other times they’re not. I never try to force them because that just makes for a really boring shot. Sometimes I listen to what you guys are talking about to get ideas on how to shoot them. I love having the opportunity to go behind the barrier between fan and artist and bring back shots that fans would love.


You have a Snoop Dogg and a Jeff Tweedy photo. How difficult is it to shoot two completely opposite artists?

I love that Snoop photo because I like smoke shots. Concert photography is so much about catching the artist in a certain moment. I actually bent the rules to get that shot. They told us to get out of the pit but I stayed to grab a few more frames.

I made the Tweedy photo b/w because there was a lot of light during the show, but also because I wanted to enhance and capture the dreamlike state that Tweedy was in. That concert at the Riveria had a huge amount of energy coming from the fans. It was powerful moment and I wanted that picture to instantly transport the fan back to that moment.

We often disagree on how much to cut from or crop a picture but I know you have a method to your madness with this.

Yes,I do. Dave Matthews at Rothbury is an example of me trimming the shot. I like to cut the edges off so that you can imagine the rest of the picture in your mind. If you were at the show then you can create the rest of the picture even more. I loved the natural color of that shot, too. His eyes are the key to the photo, they show him connecting with his band and they also make you wonder where and what he is looking at. It’s mysterious. It’s Dave Matthews.

M. Ward at Pitchfork is another example of cropping to create an imagination element by limiting the field of view. I like shooting close and leaving a lot to the imagination. He had a full band which was different than when I shot him last year but still I wanted to capture him and the dreamlike energy he gives off.

Same for John Mayer at Rothbury. I left a lot of space because he’s the kind of performer who would play the same way whether there were 5 or 500 fans in the audience. The shot took itself because he really trumped the band with his own energy. It was an easy shot.

What do you mean easy?

I didn’t have to “fight” the audience to get the shot.

Do you prefer to fight the audience or not?

It depends. I don’t like to fight the audience but if the audience isn’t giving off any energy taking the photos isn’t as fun and the photos themselves don’t turn out as good. The distance between the artist and the fan really has an impact on how I shoot the performance.

How so?

A huge pit or barrier seems to take away from the performance. And in a festival like Rothbury that main stage that was really high. It made it even harder to shoot and the energy between the band and the fans wasn’t as strong.

Then let’s talk about the Monotonix show at the Hideout Block Party. There was no barrier between the band and the fans. How was that for you?

It was a rowdy crowd. I was afraid that the lead singer was going to step on my camera. Several times during the show I had to wipe off my lens from beer and spit and sweat. The audience don’t care. I didn’t think I got any good shots. Most of my shoots had the crowd in them. I didn’t have much control over the shots. It was pretty scary.

Was it fun?

It would have been more fun as an audience member, but as a photographer it was fun sort of challenging mixed with fear.

Do you feel you sacrifice the fun aspect of live music when you shooting?

I really enjoy photographing a band or an artist who is really into their music. them. If they’re not really enjoying playing then I’m not having fun shooting them.

Did you have any moments this year where you wished you could have just been a fan and not a photographer?

Justice at the Riveria was a show that I wish I could have put my equipment down and just danced with the crowd. But many times you can’t just leave and go put your equipment somewhere. You have to carry your gear around with you.

What was it like looking through the camera at Saul Williams during his show at Martyrs?

I was pretty afraid that he was going to step on my gear or fall of the stage. There was so much energy coming from him. And you have to follow him constantly in order to get him standing still. The light was tough too, so I had to use my flash. The crowd was nuts. They were pushing up against me. So again, I had to capture all those elements in the shot. Before the show, you told me a little about what to expect so I knew what I had to do going in. So much of photography is planning ahead and knowing your subject.

What do you do to prepare for a show?

Sometimes I watch YouTube videos or look at previous photos of the band. I also try to know the venue.

Why did you pick a picture of the Fleet Foxes guitarist Skyler Skjelset holding his face in his palm?

He kept looking at the audience in a weird way. He seemed as if he was amazed that all the people where there to see them, and he was trying to soak it all up. I felt the same way about Vampire Weekend’s performance.

A lot of times only certain band members are the focus of photographers and I get bored with that so I watch for the little things. If I can catch a drummer or another player doing something else that is a key part of the show that goes unnoticed, then I really feel I captured a unique nuance the show.

Why don’t most pictures like this get featured?

I guess fans and publications think that everyone wants to see the same kind of shots but I like to push the boundaries and blend some standard action photos with photos that are a little more complete and emotionally telling of the whole performance. My picture of drummer ?uestlove from The Roots was another example of capturing a key member of band in a different way that you normally don’t see expressed.

Hip hop folk artist Tim Fite had many sides during his performance at the Hideout Block Party. He was quirky, angry and happy all at different moments during the show. Was it hard to present a complete picture of him as an artist?

It was bizarre show. With Tim Fite I was both afraid and unsure of getting a watermelon tossed at me. It reminded me of shooting Wu-Tang Clan last year. I felt other photographers were afraid to get close for fear of getting their camera busted up by a watermelon.

I didn’t really think he would hit me but it was a chance I took that could’ve turned out bad. I tried to take many pictures to get a wide array of expressions. If a band is unhappy with the picture I took then they can contact me. I think the artist will get their due after several photographers have captured their many sides. My job is not to make the artist look good. I’m not out to destroy an artist reputation but I am there to capture the truth of the show as best I can.

You picked one of my personal favorites with Chicago emcee FM Supreme’s show at the Decibelle festival.

She was really fun to photograph. She’s a young hip hop DIY artist with tons of energy. She’s really trying to get noticed so she loved being photographed. I could really sense the honesty, sincerity and purity of her performance, too. Like singer-songwriter Andrew Bird at the Priztker Pavilion, she had a hometown crowd to feed off of. Her show was all about promoting women in music so the feel of her performance poured right into the camera.

If you have any questions for Colleen about her photos or anything she’s mentioned in this interview leave a comment or send an email. Visit www.drywatermedia.com to see more of her photography.

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