the changing world of music photography

Print is in decline, the net is on the rise and the visual world of your favourite artists might never be the same again.

by Hannah Ewens
17 July 2015, 2:04am

Ewen Spencer, Twice as Nice, Ayia Napa, Cyprus, 2001. From the series UKG, 1999-2001 © Ewen Spencer Courtesy of the artist

We're living in a post-internet era in which the production and distribution of images are open to anyone. Questions surrounding what counts as "real" photography have been batted around for the past decade, but the genre going through the most radical change is music photography.

The visual iconography of music enticed and documented a generation in the NME and Rolling Stone, but where are we now, with print circulation declining?It's an intriguing question that We Want More: Image Making and Music in the 21st Century running next week at The Photographer's Gallery, London poses. The exhibition looks at the expanded role that photography has in defining music culture today by featuring a range of works from Ewen Spencer's photo series UKG (1999-2000) depicting crowds at UK garage nights to William Coutts' Trash Talk (2013) focusing on the violence of mosh pits, to Ryan McGinley's You and My Friends 6 (2013) depicting close-up shots of festival goers. Both the music and photography industries have seen a mass shake-up after digitalisation and these images are the evidence of this.

Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin Lady Gaga / Dope - Artpop, 2013 © Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin Courtesy of the artists

The internet has enabled a sharing economy that has completely changed ideas of ownership and curation. You can scroll through Instagram after a gig and see dozens of live shots taken by fans; is their value any less than those taken by professional? Even magazines that would once have commissioned a photographer to take shots are now handing over their social media to bands for takeovers, cutting out the middle-man entirely.

Music photography is in flux. Everyone is now a contributor and the boundaries of what can be done at each level - fan, artist and photographer - are constantly being moved and renegotiated.A key player in this game is the artist. In a world in which fans and paparazzi take and distribute images globally, it's the artists themselves who've stepped up and claimed ownership of their image. The most significant way they've done this is through recognising the power of IG. Take an artist like Rihanna. She has 22.1 million followers who she shares a directed and curated vision of herself with. She presents her body in the way she wants you to see it - half nude by the pool or on a boat or adorned with more crystals than a chandelier - and it's intimate and perfect. She and other artists, particularly female, have grabbed personal branding by its balls and one-upped the invasion of pap shots. As London-based photographer Dan Wilton says of artists' IG accounts: "They're the ultimate insider photoshoot".

Roger Ballen. Gooi Rooi, 2012 © Roger Ballen Courtesy of the artist 

As technology moves on, artists across all genres are utilising it instantly. DJs and dance musicians are among those who have fully embraced Snapchat. You just have to befriend Calvin Harris, Diplo or Dillon Francis to see their extravagant champagne-fuelled party lifestyle.

With artists giving fans an insider's view of their lives and touring, who knows how much this will impact the role of professional music photography? Dan Wilton's own work has already changed to some degree. "I'm less and less being approached to do tour photography with bands now. I don't know whether that's because bands now can just do their own thing," he says. "I shoot a lot of stuff in film which probably doesn't make a lot of sense to bands. They want the product now." Immediacy is the very minimum a young fan knows and expects.

Ryan McGinley You and My Friends 6, 2013 © Ryan McGinley Courtesy of the artist and team Gallery 

Far from making a music photographer redundant, however, photographers have just had to adapt and evolve too. "Less and less are music photographers reliant on commissions," said Diane Smyth, curator of the We Want More exhibition and deputy editor of the British Journal of Photography. "There are so many more small book publishers now and it's easy to publish yourself so it's simpler to do a personal project and circulate the images afterwards."

While collecting work she discovered firstly that photographers are getting to do more exciting work than ever. Artists with strong creative visions are collaborating with photographers to create worlds that transcend a basic idea of "music photography" while at the same time commandeering their image. These are the types of work she chose to include.

Dan Wilton. Mikaiha Cannot Swim. From the series STOB EHT, 2012 © Dan Wilton Courtesy of the artist 

And then whether it's Die Antwoord collaborating with Roger Ballen, or Lady Gaga with Inez and Vinoodh; fine art photography is becoming ever more important for an artist to set themselves apart from other musicians in a world saturated with both average music and average images.

Another reason photographers are increasingly inclined to embark on their own personal projects is to get away from the restrictions of the industry framework and create a real relationship with an artist. This was the case during the shooting of Dan Wilton's zine, STOP EHT, in which he follows The Bots around during a ten-day tour of Europe. "I was really looking for a band to do this kind of thing with," he said. "I wanted to go on tour and do something personal where you don't have a PR looking over your shoulder saying that's too silly or a label wanting to push it in a certain direction. That's why this was so enjoyable to do." Access to artists is still what keeps professional music photography alive. It's what will forever distinguish between fan photography and a photographer's work.

But changing attitudes to music photography as an art form are opening up a whole world for photographers. The fact The Photographer's Gallery are holding a music photography exhibition for eight weeks is telling. "Art galleries are far more accepting of photography and popular culture where they weren't before," said Diane. "It's very interesting that an institution like MoMA would open their doors to the Bjork exhibition and a popular culture star rather than restricting themselves to high culture."

Ultimately, however music photography evolves, fans, artists and photographers will all have their place. Technology will move on, artists will find new ways to play with and distribute their image, the relationship between fandom and image will evolve and photographers' work will be forced to become more fearless and innovative.


Text Hannah Ewens

Music photography
hannah ewens
ewen spencer
the photographers’ gallery