Caught In The Act: Band Photography

by
The Skull Kids - Simon Edward Johns
Nickie Shobeiry meditates on the iconography of band photography with input from Simon Edward Johns.

In the words of band photographer Simon Edward Johns, “our very desire to identify with the ephemera of rock ‘n’ roll reveals our underlying innocence.” And what better way to go about identifying with gritty old ephemera than by wearing your dad’s 1981 Rolling Stones t-shirt, while refusing to flip your Mick Jagger calendar to this month?

Fret not friends, this has happened to all of us. We’ve all seen the photos and wished we were there. We’ve seen the pictures of Bob Dylan, guitar to his chest, brows furrowed. Or Janis Joplin, chin resting in her palm, one half-smoked cigarette perched between ringed fingers. Or Jim Morrison, beaded necklace on his bare chest, hair tousled as he stares directly into your soul.

The list, as ever, goes on.

There are many reasons we love these photos, tacking them to our childhood walls and later framing them in some sort of misguided attempt at being adult. We cherish their music, their faces, and also the way the photographer seems to have caught their entire essence. But, how does one go about such a task? To save myself learning about aberration and ambient light, I asked Simon Edward Johns.

“Sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time,” he began, “and also with the right lens for your camera – and of course, you know what to do with it. It’s the same happen-chance way that a musician might strike that perfect chord, and the band look at each other, and all of a sudden they’re playing an old song in a new way, and they’ve broken into some sort of strange, new energy. It’s that, timed with the photographer feeling what’s happening on stage, and capturing it visually.”

Simon’s most recent adventure took him to The Cavern Club in Liverpool – birthplace of The Beatles, no less – to photograph The Skull Kids* as part of the International Pop Overthrow Music Festival. Simon has been taking pictures of musicians for years, spending his teens swinging through gigs, studio parties, festivals, and other free-wheeling events with his camera by his side. His skills sharpened with time and, soon enough, his unique take on what the “rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle” is – and, importantly, how to honestly represent it – evolved.

“Someone, somewhere, is successfully expressing the emotions you have that, perhaps, you don’t feel you’re able to express in your current lifestyle. That’s the fearless “rock star” image. People who enjoy that sort of music enjoy the pictures; you project both what the band did, and what you did, and what the audience did. Everyone has an influence. When I take a picture at a gig, I’ve had a perspective that others have had, but just not photographically. People will relate to such pictures, and think it’s an atmosphere that’s refreshing and familiar and beautiful, and that they can immediately be a part of. No one is excluded.”

Since its beginnings in the USA in the 1950s – music historians out there, feel free to debate me – rock music has been expressing both the sorrows and joys of life that, arguably, polite society likes to ignore. Whether it’s through lyrics that claw at you, or an outpour of emotion in one single, long-held howl (Yoko Ono-style, if that’s your thing), this is a genre with a philosophy that won’t hold back. And so, it’s not surprising that the photography – the “ephemera of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle” – produces the same feelings within us. Thank you for the music, yes – but also for the pictures.

*Staying in Exeter over the summer? Of course you are. Keep a wandering eye out for The Skull Kids.

Photo credit: Simon Edward Johns