There was something strange in the air since before the starting of Regina Spektor last concert of her tour.
Small signs that I would have filed as coincidences if she didn’t explain everything at the end of the gig. But let’s go in order.
Rumours about Chris Isaak supporting where a bit of everywhere and sounded strange. In fact there was no Chris Isaak and I am happy about that, despite Nicole Atkins supporting set wasn’t that brilliant either.
Getting a photopass was the usual struggle among major label press offices but in the end was sorted with the “plus of a plus one” so I cannot complain in such a meagre summer of live music.
I indeed complained when I got to the Cambridge Corn Exchange and was told that Regina Spektor would let photographers shot only second and third song, which is Ok-ish, and doesn’t allow photographers in the pit, which is not OK. I mean, let me know in advance so I can check pitchify.com to see what’s new to listen to on spotify and make my choice of staying at home. Easy.
My sixth sense, call it experience if sounds cooler to you, slipped my heavy telephoto in the camera bag. I fought the rain (and the rain won) and headed to the gig.
I know the place, so I know there are a couple of boxes on the top right of the venue reserved for disabled people, I ask and manage to get access there for at least those 2 songs, better than nothing. Well, probably better nothing in my disillusioned phase towards concert photography, but when I am shooting I forgot everything else and still have much fun.
A look at the stage still has some intangible hints of something going wrong but I still miss getting to the point.
Regina Spektor grand piano is on the centre, a keyboard and a guitar on the left seemed abandoned, drummer on the far right, which will be impossible to shoot from my box, and a platform with two chairs and only one violinist on. Bizarre.
The concert starts, Regina Spektor arrives, she looks sad and melancholic, I always imagined her full of life and energy, not tonight. She doesn’t say hello to the crowd, very concentrated on the piano she starts singing and playing in a black dress and red hair.
The amazing voice and brilliant technique make me forget my doubts. Without hiding her classical studies, throughout the show, with or without the 2 members of her trio, her songs flow flawless. In the mixed experience which her music is, a minimalist piano songwriting infused by a sort of eastern Europe cabaret soundtrack, the crowd gets excited.
American but born in Moscow, Regina Spektor never denied her origins but thanks to her humour she worked them to her advantage. Soviet Kitsch, six years old now, still is her best album and best way to define her music.
Countless influences has been cited to describe her approach, New York East Village, Antifolk scene, Radiohead and Dylan, Beatles and Chopin.
Why the most obvious reference isn’t spotted is a mistery to me. I see Regina Spektor music being the exact artist I missed since Tori Amos went weird, breast-feeding pig in her Cornwall cottage.
Tori Amos in the nineties she was a superstar. If you play in sequence those two masterpieces that are Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink and then you play Soviet Kitsch and Begin To Hope the two landmark albums of Spektor, everything sounds so linear.
What Tori Amos did in the 90s, adapting female songwriting to the overwhelming grunge era, her version of Smell Like Teen Spirit is still better than Nirvana‘s original, Regina Spektor did in the noughties (I hate this word does an alternative exist?). She transposes the freshness of the emerging New York City coolness, at those times kindly offered by the Strokes and very few more, to female piano singing.
Not surprising it is thanks to the Strokes, big fans of Regina Spektor, that she managed to break through. First opening for their shows then starting to headline her world tours.
About ten year after she is still here, melancholic but brilliant, the Strokes are struggling to convince they still have something to say in this decade to come.
So, while I listen to the songs from the Corn Exchange mezzanine and keep snapping some pictures, (just in case, it is called addiction for a reason) Regina shift to the keyboards to start a solo slot. She picks up her cyan guitar to play a couple of songs, the second of which is a brilliant combination of minimalist playing, essentially on one bass string and her crystalline voice. Don’t know the title (help me if you can) but it was one of my highs of the entire night.
Back to the piano for more hits, mostly concentrated towards the end for the excitement of the surprisingly warm Cambridge cloud, then the band rejoins and the gig closes with her landmark song, Fidelity.
It is at this moment that all my questions and doubts are answered.
On saying hello to Cambridge and thanking everyone for the support she explains the very sad reason of the melancholic mood, the no-photographer allowed, the tiredness and the desire to give it a break immediately make sense.
Just few weeks ago the band lost a member, that’s the answer to the empty chair on stage. Her cello player drowned and passed away just before their appearance at Montreaux jazz festival. I googled it soon after the gig and found out he was swimming with a friend, that brings my memory back to one of the saddest pages of the nineties: Jeff Buckley identical death.
Everything made more sense by now, which goes with the non sense it makes to die leaving a baby and a wife while relaxing and having fun swimming in a lake.
Regina and the band left in tears. These post is dedicated to him, Daniel Cho, which I haven’t had the luck to see playing live, or I did without knowing if he was still in the Katy Perry crew when I shot her. Who knows. You can help his family donating through this memorial fund.
There is a picture that I loved since I saw it. It is by the Australian Magnum photographer Trent Parke, a master of manipulating extreme lights to his advantage. That photo is one of my references, those references that work in the subconscious. An inverted silhouette where a strong light make the main subject to shine out in brilliant white. Parke himself confessed he tried to reproduce a similar effect, which was somewhat lucky (but there is no luck in photography, you need to have the eye anyway) without the same success.
So while I was frustrated by shooting Regina Spektor gig from the balcony, after the 2 songs performed in thet still frustrating just slightly closer theatre box, I noticed that the light on her was much stronger than the lights on the stage. Subconsciously that Parke photo must have worked on my mind.
While I was trying different tricks to expose her correctly which is no easy from such a distance. Spot metering and matrix metering with a -3 EV compensation delivered decent images but nothing different or too exciting. I don’t like telephoto shots, it’s clear from my portfolio.
At a certain point I decided “to challenge the challenging situation” and did quite the opposite.
I both spot metered on black curtain or overexposed the matrix shutter/aperture.
It did work. Once again is the proof that to take different pictures all you have to do is putting your creativity and make use of any situation that happens in front of you. Go beyond the manual’s rules once you read the manual and know the rules.
So if classic black silhouettes are common in concert photography, as my recent Yeasayer set (and many more) show, inverted silhouettes, where the subject is all white shining of its own light as a deity emerging from the darker background, are less frequent.
The tip is easy, if you are at a gig where the main act is in bright lights and the rest of the stage is darker, try this:
Overexpose generously the average measure or spot meter a dark area. Check what happens, on digital is easy to adjust the setting in due course. On film you have to try several shooting times hoping one achieves the result. With some attempts and a bit of luck you can come out with quite striking images.
Apologize and advertising
I have to apologize for the sporadic posting on this site recently.
Many of you are writing to me to not give up, to keep shooting and writing about music. Thank You!!!
I won’t give up, promise. Despite I am very bored to fight for photopasses and to zigzag around ridiculous grab release forms pretending I give every of my photos for free to some artists, I still love concert photography.
I also do a lot of other things, though, including working for a living outside photography. Grab release means, very simply, pictures don’t pay bills, easy.
One of this many things is documentary and travel photography.
So one of the reasons of my silence is a recent journey to India for some reportage I dreamt for a while. One is Kashmir, which will come later on this year, the one I am showing you today is the Kumbh Mela, which is “The largest human gathering in the world”.
Quite more than the biggest gig you will ever attend, several millions of Hindus gathered in Haridwar on the banks of the River Ganges to take a purifying dip in its holy waters. I went there, challenging 43 celsius degrees, the police prohibiting and banning non official photographers, the huge mass and the risk of ending up into the water with all my gear.
I survived and this book is the chronicle of the event.
You can preview it on its entirety, clicking on the cover below. You can also buy the hard copy in high quality lustre paper if you are rich. Just saying ;-)
Enjoy and see you soon