You’ll have to forgive me if I’m a little starstruck during this edition of our Five Questions series. This week’s subject, Andrew Catlin, is a rock star photographer – as in he both photographs rock stars and he’s really, really good at it. He started working at UK music magazines like Melody Maker and NME in the ’80s, and has since directed music videos and created iconic portraits of Thom Yorke, Nick Cave, Bryan Adams, Bjork, Jarvis Cocker, Curt Cobain, Ian McCulloch, Michael Stipe, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. In fact, he’s just used Blurb to publish a comprehensive photo book of The Jesus and Mary Chain with words by the band’s lead singer, Jim Reid, as well as Reid’s wife, Julie.
Blurb: Can you describe those early Jesus and Mary Chain shows, particularly from a photographer’s perspective?
Catlin: The first time I saw The Jesus and Mary Chain at the Ambulance Station in Old Kent Road, I could tell before they even started playing that they were going to be great. Things were chaotic from the start. I climbed on top of the speakers and spent the gig there. A little unstable, but good bass, good view – close up, and in the big scheme of things, everything else in the room was pretty unstable anyway. I saw gigs that ended in riots; gigs that were stopped by the police, gigs where they had the whole audience in the palm of their hands and didn’t even know it. It always seemed like they just played for themselves and for the music – perhaps the music played them. The audience were just there as witnesses. No pretence of showmanship or crowd-pleasing. More often than not they would find a way to piss someone off, and that would turn into a confrontation, but it was always an amazing spectacle. An overwhelming sound that cut through anything – stage invasions, fights, collapsed drum kits, shit P.A.s or venues. It didn’t matter. Apart from really enjoying the music, as a photographer, there was always an infinity of things to see. (Usually very little light, but we like a challenge. I’ve always been fond of long exposures!) It was very real – something visceral rather than just a “performance.”
Blurb: What kind of camera did you use to shoot those shows (and was it ever damaged in the line of duty)?
Catlin: I used Canon F1 and Canon T90 35mm film cameras mostly. Some of the earlier shows would have been a Canon AE1 Programme. Those are tough cameras, but they did get damaged quite regularly. They didn’t usually get smashed, but they would get lots of hits and too much humidity. T90′s would die a slow lingering death rather than going out in a blaze of glory. The Canon F1N AE is a camera that just won’t lay down and die! If the electrics fail you can throw away the battery and it still works completely mechanically. It’s a metal body so it changes shape but it keeps working!
Catlin: Truthfully, the same way as anyone else. If you enjoy people, it’s a very comfortable thing to do. I feel very at ease with a camera. I don’t really perceive the people I photograph as celebrities. People constantly fascinate me and amaze me, whoever they are. Working with musicians you never know what to expect, so you have to be ready to roll with whatever happens. They can move the location to a sauna at the last moment, change continents, turn up 2 days late, arrive horizontal, interrupt the session to seduce someone. They might stop for an hour for a philosophical discussion, or divert to a bar in a part of town that taxi drivers won’t even stop at. A sense of humour helps…
Blurb: You’ve photographed some big names. Who has been the most surprising musical performer you’ve photographed?
Catlin: They are all surprising. There’s always a lot more than the public image. I’ve been constantly surprised, moved and impressed by the people I’ve worked with. I find I am most surprised by small, unexpected things that reveal an important aspect of their character.
Blurb: How has digital technology changed music photography for albums and music journalism?
Catlin: In one way, digital has speeded everything up a lot. In many ways this is a negative; people expect results immediately. Everyone wants to see every picture as soon as you’ve shot it. This really changes the dynamics of the situation.
If someone looks at the first picture and doesn’t immediately like it, it can be very disruptive. In another sense that also slows things down – photographers now tend to want everything to be perfect before they take the first picture instead of keeping things moving – this tends to result in more static pictures and less expressive faces. I notice too that a lot of digital photographers end up spending more time looking at what they have shot on the back of the camera than at their subject. They end up missing a lot.
Shooting film, you concentrate all the time on the subject. To produce great work you need time to shoot. You need your subject to trust you, to have faith. You need to keep things moving, both physically and in your subject’s head, to work through ideas to find the right aspect and expression of a person. Sometimes you press the shutter when there is no picture, as a form of punctuation to move things on. To explore and experiment. You need time to reflect. To talk.
Afterwards, the process of editing can take longer than the shoot.
On the other hand, digital technology makes some amazing things possible. Like being able to publish a hardback book about a great band, without having to make any compromises, without having to have any meetings, without having to listen to any opinions, and without having to agree budgets – and getting worldwide distribution on day one. How cool is that?