We spoke to one of our favourite photographers, Holly Whitaker, about how she’s documented the rising south London punk scene, and what makes a good music photographer, ahead of the MPAs
From Pennie Smith’s shot of Paul Simonon smashing his bass on the cover of London Calling to 1990s Madonna in Jean Paul Gaultier, the history of modern music is made up of almost as many iconic images as it is songs. And yet, unbelievably, there has never been a photography awards that specifically recognises the art of music photography and its importance in telling the stories of the artists we love – from stoic posed cover sleeves to mosh pit dives, to back-of-the-bus snapshots. Nothing.
Abbey Road Studios have decided to do something about that as they launch the inaugural Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards – or MPAs – in association with Hennessy. The studio is, after all, the subject and location of one of the most iconic music photographs of all time, involving a zebra crossing and a band from Liverpool.
Predictably, the MPAs are not messing around, with a hugely impressive judging panel that includes HUNGER founder Rankin, legendary music photographer Jill Furmanovsky (who documented the rise of Oasis almost single handed and certainly with the most style and candour), contemporary artists Moses Sumney and Shygirl (for my money, the most exciting musician in London right now), and the incredible American photographer Dana Scruggs.
Photography is something we think about a lot here at L&Q, having always strived to arrange original shoots with the new artists we feature whenever it’s remotely possible. We were like that even in the beginning, before anyone had picked up a copy of what was then a photocopied fanzine printed in a spare bedroom. And one of the categories at the MPAs particularly fits our bill – partly because it’s open for anyone to enter (enter here by March 21), and also because it so squarely covers what we’ve always covered in our pages. The Championing Scenes category, supported by Hennessy, celebrates the vibrancy of global subcultures and those who are currently documenting them through photography. A fitting guest judge will be parachuted in for this award – grime photographer Simon Wheatley, who combined 12 years of cultural photos into the book Don’t Call Me Urban! The Time of Grime in 2021.
For this award, any scene or genre goes, in any territory, from Japanese drill to Danish hardcore. So if you’ve been shooting an emerging scene over the last year or so, and whether photography is your full time job or a weekend passion, you can enter the Championing Scenes category here for a chance to work on an international project with Hennessy in 2023 and to host your own UK exhibition, and to win a trip to Cognac, France with a guided tour around the home of Hennessy.
But what makes a good documentary music photographer, and how do you even get started in the game of shooting anything, let alone an emerging scene?
Over the past 15 years, we’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of incredible photographers and write about exciting artists and their worlds as they’ve materialised and grown. In recent years, one that we’ve followed closely is local to us – the south London punk scene, which sprang from Brixton DIY venue the Windmill around 2014 and continues to provide us with some of the city’s most exciting new bands and artists – already we’ve had the likes of Goat Girl, Shame, Black Midi, PVA, Black Country, New Road and many more.
Shooting all of this from day one has been Holly Whitaker – very much the scene’s Pennie Smith, who’s developed a candid style of her own and since photographed album sleeves for some of the bands involved. I wanted to ask her the secret to forging a path as a DIY photographer, from someone who started off shooting friends at parties and today is so trusted by the bands she works with that she often accompanies them on tours around the world.
Hi Holly. Tell me how you first got involved in photography?
I never actually studied it – the only reason I ended up owning a camera was because I inherited one as a hand-me-down. It was looking a bit sad not getting used to I ended up taking it to school with me, and to parties with friends when I was around 14/15. I was the only person with a camera so I became the official Facebook profile photo photographer. That was all the training I got, and I’ve been learning as I go ever since.
How did you go from shooting friends at parties to shooting musicians?
I went to Pimlico [School], where a huge amount of actors and musicians went, and people always needed photos. A some of them I’m still working with. I was around music quite a lot, so that was what I started photographing. I think it helped that I was their friend already, as it made them feel comfortable. I didn’t want to be a photographer at all – I actually wanted to act.
So at what point did you start documenting the south London music scene, and what made you decide to do that?
I was dating someone who was in a band back in the day, who were playing at the Windmill quite a lot. That’s where it started. My boyfriend knew Goat Girl from school, so that brought them into it. Someone would meet someone else at a gig and say, “come down to south London and we’ll put on a gig”, and that would become Shame, Sorry and Dead Pretties. And then somehow HMLTD came into it. So the bands would put on all of these gigs together as friends and I met everyone through that. I was just a fan, and I’d ask, really embarrassingly, “I’m a big fan, can I take your picture?”
Did you find that world welcoming from the beginning?
Completely. We were all the same age and we all became friends. We were just helping each other out, and bands always need pictures. And at that time there weren’t as many people coming to the Windmill as do now, so I had a real opportunity there to take these bands’ pictures. I didn’t think it would go anywhere, but I feel very lucky now that I was there.
I remember going up to Lottie [from Goat Girl], and saying I really like your music… I was so intimidated. Absolutely terrified. And she was instantly like, “yes please, I would absolutely love that!” I was quite nervous about asking bands, but everyone was so nice.
How important is building trust with an artist in terms of getting an extra special photo?
There’s definitely a different vibe. If someone came in cold I’m sure they could definitely take a better picture than I could on a certain night, but I guess because I’ve built up a relationship with these bands, over time I’ve managed to get some really beautiful pictures that other photographers wouldn’t have been able to get.
Is there something you’re trying to achieve with your documentary photography?
I’m learning as I go, and I’ve learnt that it’s about taking your time. You get the best out of people when you pick your moment, and maybe that’s why going to tour is my favourite. You get more candid stuff and get to know them over time. I can see as the tour is progressing how more comfortable I am, and how more relaxed they are as well. And I guess my main goal is to make people as comfortable as possible in order to get a great shot out of it.
What photographers do you admire?
It was definitely after I started that I got more excited by photography. I really like Red Saunders. I watched a documentary on him the other day – White Riot. He was part of the Rock Against Racism group in the late ’70s. He’s got these incredible pictures of Northern Soul and mods and rockers; fans of these subcultures. And he takes the photos in the most beautiful way. There’s also Nadia Lee Cohen and Holly Fernando, who I’m a massive fan of. Theirs is so different to my work, which I think it why I like them.
What advice would you give to anyone who likes the idea of documenting their local scene but doesn’t know where to start?
It is just taking a camera everywhere. And not being afraid to ask people. Everyone wants to be asked to have their picture taken – it’s a really nice thing to hear, if a photographer loves your work and wants to take a picture of you. And take your camera everywhere because there are so many venues that don’t have photo pits, which means anyone with a camera can go and photograph the band they’re seeing, which is really exciting. That’s what helped me – going to a gig having bought a ticket, and also getting some amazing pictures out of being there. The music industry can seem a bit un-nurturing and a bit rude, but people are actually very nice.
Follow Holly at @hollyemmw
Enter the Championing Scenes category supported by Hennessy at Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards. Closing date: 21 March 2022.
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