Nay McArdle talks to Hugh McCabe about Traces Of The Real, his exhibition of song exposure photography which opens this week.
Most gig photographers never go further than the front of a stage. However, Hugh McCabe’s fifteen years as a musician shaped a different perspective, one that saw him descend from the stage to a higher vantage point, up with the gods and a large format camera in the balcony. Nay McArdle spoke to Hugh about the journey from sound to light.
As a member of Large Mound and Voided By Ponces, Hugh McCabe is no stranger to Dublin’s music venues. However, recent times have seen him carrying a tripod in and out instead of a bass, patiently compiling the images seen on his blog Traces Of The Real. Inspired by innovative styles of renowned indivuduals, Hugh has experimented with classical photographic principles to craft a new strain of music photography. This Thursday 14 April at the Fumbally Exchange marks the opening night of Song Exposure, an exhbition of concert photographs made by exposing film for the duration of a song. The results capture the progression of movement as a particular piece of music is made with the stationary details etched out sharply as performers are reduced to a mere swathes of light.
A lecturer in creative digital media at the Institute of Technology in Blandchardstown, Hugh’s interest in photography was piqued eight years ago.
“My own background is quite technical: I teach sound engineering, web tools, graphics and so on. I had no real interest in photography at first, it all started with travelling; I had a lot of free time and because we didn’t have the recession then, I had some money. I’d go travelling, bring a camera and come back with a load of crap photographs. So I thought I should learn about photography and went for the Introduction to Photography course at the Academy of Photography in Temple Bar. I thought I would learn about composition and how to use a camera, all that stuff…it was actually how to use a darkroom and develop film. I wanted to buy a digital camera and take a load of great photos so at the time I thought ‘this is fucking stupid, I don’t want do this, it’s not what I signed up for’. But because my work was mostly with computers, I ended up being fascinated by the whole chemical thing, I thought it was really fun to make photographs by pouring poisonous chemicals into a tank and processing film on to paper. I got really interested in the whole thing and decided to study it formally. I did a year-long course at NCAD at night, they had a certficiate in digital imaging at my course that was quite cool. Through doing that, I got to be like many artists, just wandering around, pursuing the idea of photographing images and bringing them to a conclusion of doing something with them. That course was a lot about the contemporary art of photography and it introduced me to that world of weird, interesting stuff.”
The Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto was the main inspiration for the photographs Hugh takes. While Hugh’s exposures generally last the length of a song, the former allowed a far greater time to elapse.
“Sugimoto did a whole series of photos called ‘Theatres’ taken at cinemas in New York and other American cities. He’d bring in one of those big movie stills cameras, set it up on the back of the balcony and essentially make an exposure that was the length of the show, opening the shutter at the start and closing it at the end. Because there’s no light in the cinema except for the screen, the screen becomes the light source which illuminates the whole inside of the movie theatre. Then the screen becomes white in itself. I think he did all these photographs in the Seventies and Eighties. I suppose those was more of interest about the buildings than the actual films. The film that was playing just became a white light source. I saw some of Sugimoto’s pictures and found them fascinating, and thought ‘what if you apply the same concept to a gig? What it would look like?’ That’s how it happened for me: kind of an exploration in a ten minute or half-hour exposure of a music concert and what that would look like on film.
I know I’m kind of ripping off Sugimoto a little. At the start I was nervous that they were just going to turn out like Sugimoto’s pictures where the stage would be completely white and the picture would be about what’s around it. I could do pictures like that and sometimes I do if I leave the shutter open too long but I quickly realised that everything is so much more interesting if you can see what’s happening on the stage as well cos it’s like static.The amps and instruments tend to be really sharp but the performers themselves are moving through the course of the song and look like ghosts. They’re fleeting. So they’re quite different.”
What constitutes the ideal picture? “When a band or performer are completely steady and not moving at all, like a singer whose mouth is right up on the microphone and they stay steady for a while, the head will come out really sharp and the body will be a blur. There are certain things that are kind of static and certain things that aren’t, I like seeing things with that clarity. To be honest, things that are more important than the actual physiology of the stage are the type of lights that they’re using and the particular direction they’re pointing in. If they’re pointing towards the stage, the picture’s good but if they’re pointing towards the camera the picture is fucked! It’s cool when the lights are more or less the same, but when there are different kind of lights pointing towards the stage, swirling patterns kind of paint out pictures.”
Do you have a favourite photograph amongst those at the exhbition? “I try not to let my own opinions enter into the project. I find that the bands I like more, their pictures turn out better. I don’t know why that is but maybe it’s just because I like their music. So my favourite is probably the one of Silver Mt Zion in the Button Factory because as a big fan I loved the gig. I was a big fan of GodSpeed You Black Emperor ten years ago but I kinda lost interest in them while paying attention to their substitute project. I went to their gig to have the opportunity to take a photo and the picture came out really well because it got the audience, you can see that they’re there. The lighting is beautiful and they had two violin players who were brought into the centre. Both of them were a complete blur but they were both beautifully composed and symmetrical. But yeah, I still don’t have one picture that is *the* victory shot.”
How many pictures do you take per show? “Usually about twelve as there are normally about twelve songs and each one lasts roughly four minutes. But for reasons of the lighting visibility, only two or three of those twelve will turn out well. At Whelans, I’ll usually take four because the lighting is so regular, I’ll always know how the picture is going to look. Other times I might just take four because some bands just always do the same thing. One interesting thing that happens a lot, if there are photographers with SLRs taking photos with the flash, It’s happened a few times in Whelans, the light bang off the flash might sometimes get into my photos. I’ve taken pictures and somebody in the band will be flashed out, it makes a sharp outline while still being very faint, a very ghostly kind of image. And there might be multiple flashes and you get multiple images of that person. When I did Adebisi Shank at Whelans…and I was dying to do them…they move so much you’re not really going to see anything. But there was a point where the two lads stopped and turned around to look at the drummer, someone banged off the flash and you can see the two of them quite clearly.”
How have you found working in bigger venues? “I’ve found that the bigger the venue, the bigger the light show which is more problematic for me because they have big flashing lights shooting out into the crowd. It ruins the picture because it over-exposes it. So generally the higher you go up into the higher end venue, it doesn’t work so well. Here (Vicar Street) is great, depending on the band and light. Whelans is great, but because the balcony is much closer to the stage all you get in a Whelans picture is the stage. It’s not really possible to get the venue in because of the physical layout. Button Factory is great, Tripod is pretty good as well. The Village is great but beyond that I’ve never done it in the Olympia. It took ages to get into the Academy and when I finally did it, in the middle of the balcony there’s a lighting desk, and that’s where I have to be. In the Olympia, I’d have to be in ront of the first row of the circle and there’s always going to be someone sitting there.”
What about underground gigs with a close-proximity crowd and stage? “The thing is that I need some kind of elevating point, there has to be a balcony at the back that I can get up on, otherwise the camera’s just going to be pointing at the back of people’s heads. I was in the Workman’s Club a little while ago and was thinking of doing one there but would have had to stand on a ladder and there’d be people walking by. Crawdaddy didn’t work well either even though it has a balcony. I always want these photos to look symmetrical but in Crawdaddy there are too many funny angles.”
Has there been any criticism of the project? People have a very clear definition of music photography and expect it to be about the musicians. Perhaps there have been some who dismiss your work as blurry nonsense? “I’ve never wanted it to be about bands, any photo of a certain band. I see it as a more about the spaces and audience. I always try to get the audience into the shot which is hard to do because the stage is always lighter than the audience. Exposure is hard because the stage is completely exposed but the audience isn’t. To expose the audience, the stage wouldn’t look right. It’s a hard process. Gigs are as much about the audience as the bands, I think a good gig is always made by a good crowd.”
You mentioned the audience: I wonder what crowd-surfers would look like? The Jesus Lizard gig at the Button Factory in 2009 would have been great for a long exposure picture like that…. “Yeah I like David Yow. I remember I went to see The Melvins at The Village a couple of years ago and was up on the balcony, there were crowd surfers down below us. My wife and I were just sitting there drinking beer, watching people crowd surfing. It did occur to me that a picture of the crowd surfers at the Melvins would be great. There was a bit of crowd surfing at the Therapy? gig in Vicar Street and you can kinda see it in the photograph. Instead of looking like a load of heads, it looks like this swirly stuff.”
There’s a definite transformation process that goes on with figures and light in your work. “There were these Italian guys called the Bragaglia brothers in the 1920s and they did exactly the same thing I’m doing now but with photos of people doing tasks, playing instruments and performing competitively. They took all these of people and it’s almost like analysing people’s movements. There was a guy in the 1880s, Muybridge was his name, who took photos of horses galloping and because of his photos people were able to determine that at one point in its gait, all of a horse’s feet are off the ground. Before that no one really knew that as you can look really closely at a horse while it’s running but the human eye can never see that. It’s like they’re painting with their bodies. In other words, they’re carving out repetitive movements and the replication in a photograph is a representation of movement. It’s like they’re inadvertently creating a photo even if they don’t know it.”
Have you ever experimented with other forms of movement such as theatre or ballet? “No but someone suggested trying it at mass. I have thought of it but I don’t know in a way, I like this photography because it’s just the same thing repeating itself. So no I don’t think I will, but I think the mass is a brilliant idea…but I don’t go to mass. I’d have to go to mass!”
Have you tried this replicating the long exposure technique with other cameras? “No. On the day that I decided to do this project, I was on the train to Cork to buy this camera from a woman. I was thinking of a project to do with the camera because I was studying photography at NCAD, thinking about photographers that used large format cameras and what they do with them and I thought of Sugimoto. The first time I tried to use the camera I was scrambling around in the dark of the balcony at Tripod for fecking ages. At the beginning I used to bring a digital camera with me. I’d set the digital camera up like an SLR and make a few exposures with the intention of taking a few light readings to figure out how long the exposure and aperture would need to be to make it work. Then I’d set up the large format. But the few times I brought the digital camera it always said the same thing, f32, so I thought feck it, there’s no point being precise about it. The concept is to open the shutter at the start of the song and close it at the end. It’s really not a precise form of photography because you don’t need light meters and you don’t need to measure things. I just turn up and hope for the best.”
Is there a specific use of specialist equipment and style that makes this so appealling to you? “A couple of things. I like the idea of photographs; if I take a picture of that table, I know what it’s going to look like but I also know what I want it to look like. It’s like reproducing what I can see. I like the idea of photography being a way of exploring things you don’t know so well and taking a photograph that I don’t know what it’s going to look like until a few weeks afterwards when I get around to processing the film, I like that element…the mystery of it, how it’s going to come out. It’s just applying it to music and I’ve been going to gigs. So it’s a way of documenting that, and I’m not normally a fan of music photography. I’m trying to do something different to the other gig photographers out there.”
What do you think makes a photographer? “Literally speaking, anyone with a camera is a photographer but I don’t know, I was thinking about it a while ago in a blogpost. Technically anyone can do what I’m doing, all they have to do is learn how to assemble the camera, open it at the start of a song and close it at the end. But I guess if I was a down-the-front photographer I’d be trying to get the right angle, looking for the shot all the time, so in a way this is kind of easier. Once the idea’s there it’s a lot easier. Yeah I don’t know if it makes me a photographer or not. Hey, I don’t even know what a photographer is, what is a photographer? There are terrible kinds of snobbiness in photography. Camera clubs are the worst for this. They have competitions everybody enters and they judge photographs by certain criteria. It’s like you can tell what a good photograph is by applying certain rules, that they’re properly composed and all this stuff and I think that’s rubbish. The interesting ones are the ones that don’t apply rules that a lot of people are always trying to emulate. They’re trying to make photographs like photographs they like, and of course I’m guilty of that to an extent because I’m ripping off Sugimoto but applying it to a completely different context. There are great types of photography like gig and landscape photography, kind of a code for how photos should be taken. Lots of people are striving to get photographs that fit into these categories. i don’t think it’s interesting to do that.They should get out taking more interesting photographs instead of taking a scattery approach of taking millions of pictures in the hope one will come out right. But I don’t have a lot of technical expertise, if I had to do something that required it i’d just go and find out how to do it properly.”
What drove you to take this to an exhibition? “Just my ego and amazingness…! But also, belief in it, if you’re doing something like this you should bring it to a conclusion. If you write a load of songs for an album you should produce them instead of sticking around in a rehearsal room. If you do a photography project like this you should bring it to a conclusion and do something with it. Only a few people have seen the actual prints. The framed prints are only little ones but the actual full versions are around 30 inches. I’ve kind of always thought of these things as destined to hang on someone’s wall as opposed to staying on the web. It would be nice if people wanted to pay me loads of money for the art but I don’t think that’s gonna happen.”
What about a book? They would make a lovely coffee table book…. “You need to read a lot to write a book!”
Has blogging made an impact on your approach to documenting the pictures? Was there fulfilment as you saw the site fill up? “Yeah I think so. That course at NCAD was very documentative. It’s like the proccess was more important than the end result. If you’re doing some kind of art project you should document it by notebooks or whatever means. In terms of opening doors for access, if I email people and say ‘this is what I am doing’, I can point them to the blog and show them what I do. I took photographs for years but it’s better for them to be seen than just sitting in my attic. So I think that’s why having a blog is great, you get people interested in it as well. “
It would be really nice if someone wanted to use your pictures on their album artwork. “The bands tend to see them and say ‘yeah, yeah that’s great’ and then I think they realise there are forty pictures of other bands almost exactly the same, which kinda makes them less unique and attractive. I like them, which is ultimately the main thing. There’s a quote from a photographer Gary Winogrand, he was a great street photographer:
“Photography is not about the thing photographed. It is about how that thing looks photographed.“
So in a way…this kind of follows that.”
‘Traces Of The Real’ runs from 15 April to 21 April at the Fumbally Exchange in Dublin 8. The photos will then hang in the Workman’s Club for a limited period.