I’m happy to contribute my first post to Playtonic Dialogues, and hopefully not my last.
Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Bonnaroo Music Festival in Manchester, TN as an official photographer. How did I land this gig? Well last summer I interned in NYC with C. Taylor Crothers, one of Bonnaroo’s official photographers since its debut. He called me up a couple months ago and asked me to be part of his Roo Crew for 2010. I had no idea what I was about to get myself into…
I arrived in the Nashville airport on Wednesday afternoon and got picked up by the staff shuttle service. The van was full, but the air was nearly silent as I rode with a whole crew of PR people doing last-minute pre-festival work on their iPhones and CrackBerries. (Note to self: never work in a field that requires such unnatural addiction to technology). During the ride I learned that one of their artists was Kings of Leon, who would be headlining Friday night. I admired their candor as we exchanged a couple sellout jokes, then they went back to texting and I tried to mentally prepare myself for the epic weekend.
And epic it was. I had originally planned to write a day-by-day “review” of the festival, but as soon as I arrived I realized I was going to be doing one thing and one thing only: taking photos. See, when Jared and I reviewed shows together in Copenhagen and NYC, he’d do the writing and I’d do the photos. I’d show up with my camera and let the music and the overall atmosphere sink in until I felt it was right to snap some photos. I’d leave with some great shots and (hopefully) a memorable, meaningful concert experience shared with a good friend. But Bonnaroo was different. We photographers were employed by Bonnaroo for the sole purpose of documenting as much of the festival as humanly possible, and there was simply no time to relax and take it all in as a festival-goer would. We had a job to do, and damnit it was going to get done.
To take you through a sample day:
We arrive at the site at 11:30AM after a luxurious 5-6 hours of sleep in America’s Best Value Inn (so great a value that soap and shampoo are not included with the room), just enough time to wolf down some lunch in Artist Catering. This is probably the best food I’ve eaten all year; I’m sad I don’t have more time to enjoy it! The sweat is already pouring out as we make our game plan for coverage areas amidst 95 degree heat & 90% humidity–Taylor does most of the main stage stuff & Rolling Stone portraits, Adam (Taylor’s assistant) covers “That Tent” and general atmosphere, and I cover “The Other Tent” and any other random stuff that comes along. I zip over to the Other Tent in my photo golf cart, walk through back stage, and start snapping away from the photo pit, on stage, wherever will give me a good shot. If a security guard questions me I just flash him my “That Pass” with two staff photo “fuck-you” stickers as we call them, and I’m good to go. (This is, of course, totally dependent each tour manager’s relative level of douchiness. At She and Him, for example, a fellow photographer and I got yelled at for shooting past the first 3 songs. We responded “but we’re not media; we work for the festival.” To which he replied: “Yeah, everyone works for the festival; now get the hell out of here!”)
After 20 minutes in “The Other Tent” it’s time to head over to the Sonic Cafe to catch an artist in a smaller more intimate setting. Then I run to the photo trailer to drop off my memory card so Kathleen (Taylor’s Fiancee and our sole editor for the weekend) can upload my photos to bonnaroo.com. The afternoon continues like this until I get a text from Taylor telling me to make sure I cover the Comedy Tent. I zip over there and am blasted by a wave of refreshing air conditioning. I can live with this! After catching routines by Doug Benson, Greg Giraldo, and Bo Burnham, it’s back out into the Wookie Wonderland, where the sun’s finally beginning to set. I hit my last few shows before the headliner (Kings of Leon), and stumble mentally and physically exhausted into Artist Catering to gorge myself on prime rib while reflecting on the day’s events. When the headliners play, no other stages are active, so I skip Kings of Leon and enjoy my only break of the day. I have mixed feelings about this because I loved everything they did until Only by the Night, but in the end my mind and body thank me for the much needed rest. By 11PM or so it’s back out on the scene, stepping around wookies passed out in the mud on my way over to the stage. I keep shooting bands at a frantic pace until about 4AM, then it’s back to the trailer to do the final upload of the day while sippin’ on ice cold PBRs and trading stories with the rest of the photo crew. When we finally get back to the motel around 5 I shower off the grime accumulated through the day and pass out almost instantly.
Needless to say, after four days of this routine, my mind was swirling with so much sensory excitement it was hard to make sense of it all. It was such a strange feeling to have experienced so much yet have so little of it affect me in the way that music normally does. By necessarily devoting the utmost attention to the aesthetic qualities of every moment, I was essentially skimming along the surface, dipping in to capture definitive festival moments in which I wasn’t fully immersed. (Though those times when I stumbled upon a great shot were the times I felt most holistically involved). I was on stage next to some of my favorite bands and I can’t even tell you my favorite song of their set. But I can look back through my photos and re-live the experience in my own terms, at my own pace, and maybe get something more out of it that I didn’t get the first time through, along with the satisfaction of having provided a glimpse into the essence of Bonnaroo for those who weren’t fortunate enough to be there.
Please check out my Flickr slideshow . If you’d like to see more photos of any band, or want prints (up to 20×30″) of anything, just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.