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Rock art

by Andrew Mayo, 30 August 2016

Andrew Mayo talks to three of Australia’s most prominent and prolific music photographers — Martin Philbey, Kane Hibberd and Daniel Boud — about the challenges and inspiration behind their craft.

Daniel Johns, Silverchair Melbourne 2007 by Martin Philbey
Daniel Johns, Silverchair Melbourne 2007 by Martin Philbey

To the casual observer, music photographers Martin Philbey, Kane Hibberd and Daniel Boud live a dream existence. The trio have been photographing the biggest national and international acts for more than a decade — close to twenty-five years in Philbey’s case — for record labels, festival promoters, magazines and the artists themselves. They regularly enjoy the best view in the house from the photographers’ ‘pit’ at the base of the stage, while their portrait work provides unique access to an extraordinary range of artists, from Nick Cave and Paul Kelly to the Foo Fighters and Kylie Minogue. 

However, the romantic notion of a photographer going to shows of an evening and spending afternoons in the studio with celebrities ignores the tough reality of their work — the long days and late nights spent editing images, the relentless deadlines, and the never-ending quest for new ideas that all creatives face. That said, despite the challenges, the sweat and the grind, Philbey, Hibberd and Boud love what they do. 

Unsurprisingly, their contrasting back stories and career paths are intriguing, not least because none of the three set out to become music photographers. 

Kiss – Melbourne 2013 by Martin Philbey

Based in Melbourne, Martin Philbey started his photography career in the police force in the late ’80s as a crime scene photographer, where he learnt the technical fundamentals while shooting the absurd, the obscene and the grizzly. An avid sport and live music fan, Philbey began photographing live events in his spare time and contributing images to picture agencies.

‘I started to work my leave around sporting events, but it reached a point where I wasn’t getting a day off’, Philbey, fifty, laughs. ‘My part-time job started to overtake my real job, so I took the plunge and became a full-time sport and music photographer.’ That was in 1996. 

Since then, Philbey’s work has appeared in countless newspapers, magazines and album sleeves, and his images are held in collections at the National Portrait Gallery and National Library of Australia. In 2012, Philbey’s striking portrait of musician Dan Sultan earned him a finals berth in the National Photographic Portrait Prize. 

Stevie Williams – Poison City Weekender 2014 by Kane Hibberd

The genesis of thirty-nine year-old Kane Hibberd’s music photography career was markedly different. Also from Melbourne, Hibberd worked as a sound engineer and ran a small record label in the early 2000s, before starting work with a technology company. At around the same time, he began taking photos at gigs he was attending. On a whim, Hibberd quit his job and enrolled in a photography degree at RMIT University. While he never intended to shoot music professionally, Hibberd often found himself photographing friends’ bands for uni’ assignments.

‘My mates would say, “Hey, can we use that [picture] for our press photo?”’, recalls Hibberd. ‘That’s where the whole music photography thing started. I didn’t actually set out to do it — it just sort of happened.’

A turning point came in Hibberd’s second year of university, when a lecturer spotted some of his live music pictures and encouraged him to pursue it further. Momentum built, and Hibberd began applying high-end commercial photography techniques and production values to his music imaging. 

‘I started doing things that you couldn’t really do when shooting on film — like digital montages and more conceptual stuff. And it really made my work stand out.’

By 2010, Hibberd was recognised as one of the leading rock photographers in the world by British music magazine NME, and in 2013, after five years as the official photographer for the Soundwave Festival, Hibberd published a lavish, 450-page coffee table book documenting the iconic heavy metal event. In the same year, he was a finalist in the Moran Photographic Prize.

Sydneysider Daniel Boud, thirty-six, had a different starting point again. A passionate live music fan, Boud was seeing several bands a week at small, inner-city venues in the early 2000s when he started taking photos. 

DJ Tigerlily 2015 by Dan Boud

‘I bought a little digital camera and put it in my pocket and, like people do now with phones, I shot pictures at all the concerts I was going to.’

A web-designer at the time, Boud established a blog to publish his pictures, but he notes there wasn’t yet any grand plan afoot. ‘At that stage, I had no intention of making a career out of music photography or photography; I was just doing it because I loved it. It was just a really fun hobby.’

The blog, which continues today, rapidly gathered a large following and provided the springboard for Boud’s photographic career, as did a trip to Austin, Texas, in 2005, where he photographed the famous South by Southwest Festival. Upon returning home, Rolling Stone magazine published a number of Boud’s pictures, opening more doors for the photographer.

Since 2007, Boud has been Chief Photographer for Time Out Sydney magazine, and shoots a diverse range of images, including celebrity portraits and live music. In addition, he’s regularly commissioned by artists, magazines and record labels for promotional and editorial work. Like Philbey, Boud was also a finalist in the 2012 National Photographic Portrait Prize.    

While all three photographers are technically proficient, you can’t manufacture the passion, inspiration and creativity that underpins their most compelling images. It’s those traits, plus a keen eye for detail and composition, which Philbey, Hibberd and Boud have in common. Perhaps more importantly, though, they have an ability to deliver results in the most demanding situations, both in a live concert setting and a portrait context. 

Live music, in particular, presents a number of challenges. Photographers usually have limited access — typically the first three songs of an artist’s set, sometimes less, and are generally restricted to shooting from the pit. The lighting is constantly changing and often poor, especially in small pubs, clubs and university refectories. It can get crowded, too. Depending on the size of the artist or show, there could be twenty or thirty photographers jockeying for the best angles. Throw in a few crowd surfers tumbling into the pit, sweat and water showering expensive camera gear and the occasional crowd-borne projectile, and it suddenly becomes difficult to capture quality images. 

So how do Philbey, Hibberd and Boud do it?

‘I shoot live music like I do sport’, says Philbey. ‘I follow the action and try and anticipate. If you know an artist well enough, you get to know some of their moves and what they do … so you can anticipate those moments and, hopefully, be in the right position.’

Being able to capture the big moments, the theatre and the frenzy, inevitably comes down to experience — time spent in the pit, learning from mistakes and selecting appropriate equipment. Philbey, for example, emphasises the importance of always having a wide-angle lens on a second camera, in addition to a longer lens on his primary body: ‘It’s happened to me a couple of times … when an artist comes too close and you don’t have a wide enough lens; I never get caught in that situation now.’

That second camera and ultra-wide lens has saved the day on countless occasions for Philbey, including at a U2 concert a few years ago: ‘It was typical U2 — a huge stage with a big horseshoe catwalk, and we were a long way away. Everyone was waiting for the band to come out and had their long lenses on, but I had a wide-angle ready. And then Bono popped up out of a trapdoor right in front of us with an Australian flag wrapped around him! He was literally four or five feet away; I got a sweet frame out of it while everyone else was scrambling.’

Techniques and tactics aside, access certainly makes it easier to produce strong, diverse live images. Fortunately, most of the limitations and restrictions imposed on photographers are removed when shooting directly for an artist, venue or festival organiser. As Hibberd points out, ‘When you’re working closely with a band, you have all the access you need … and you can capture a lot more. That’s when you get photos that you don’t see anywhere else.’ 

The Amity Affliction – Palace Theatre 2013 by Kane Hibberd

In particular, it opens up opportunities to explore different angles — from side stage, behind the stage and even directly above it. Hibberd has been experimenting with attaching a camera and wide-angle lens to lighting rigs in the ceiling, pointed down and triggered remotely, to capture a unique aerial perspective of shows. He’s also been using a camera and ultra-wide angle lens mounted on a monopod, which he holds above his head at the back of the stage, directing the lens’ gaze over the drummer’s shoulder out into the crowd.

The Living End – Palace Theatre 2011 by Kane Hibberd

‘It’s about capturing a unique or different point of view’, Hibberd explains. ‘You always want to get that shot that makes people go, “Wow, that’s such a great photo! How did he do that?”’

Often the most dynamic and captivating live images provide some form of context for the event, by including the venue or location, or perhaps the stage show, in addition to the artist. But almost always it’s the crowd that completes the story.  

‘Whenever I’m shooting a festival or a gig, I’m always thinking, “What one frame will sum this up?”’ Boud enthuses, ‘and if I can get the artist and the crowd in the same frame … I think that’s pretty magic.’

Hibberd agrees: ‘When you’re just shooting a band onstage, it could be anywhere. You have no idea of the venue. You don’t know how many people were there — they could be playing to 100 people or they could be playing to 1000 people. Having the crowd in the shot is a big part of the story.’

Jared Leto, 30 seconds to Mars Sydney 2011 by Martin Philbey

As exciting and captivating as their live images are, arguably it’s the trio’s portrait work that has made each of them so highly sought after in the music industry. However, while Philbey, Hibberd and Boud enjoy the creative process of making a portrait, they all agree that it’s significantly more testing than shooting a live show.

‘It’s a completely different ball game’, says Boud. ‘With live work, it’s presented to you; it’s staged for you; it’s lit for you. You don’t have to give the artist any direction; you just rock up and shoot what happens. But portrait work is a blank canvas. It puts the burden back onto the photographer.’ 

That burden grows a little heavier when you consider that many artists don’t like having their photo taken – they’re musicians, not models, after all – and photographers are often given limited time, particularly when shooting bigger acts. Of course, there are inevitably a few horror stories.

‘Plenty of things can go wrong’, Philbey laughs. ‘I’ve had situations where bands have been up all night and they’re not in a great frame of mind. Or you’ve been told you’ll have twenty minutes and then you only get two minutes. I’ve even had sets built and then had artists walk in and say, “Nah, I’m not doing that!”’ 

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for photographers lies in developing new ideas and concepts for portraits. ‘It’s the thing that stresses me out the most,’ Hibberd confesses, ‘especially because I seem to do jobs in blocks. It’s hard to come up with ideas when everything comes in at once.’ 

To put that in perspective, Hibberd was several weeks into solid, back-to-back shooting when I spoke to him in early 2016. That run of work included eight magazine cover shoots in six days. Moreover, Hibberd does fifty or sixty band sessions each year, and many of those shoots require multiple ideas and concepts. Then there’s the time spent editing images, a commonly overlooked aspect of a professional photographer’s workload, which far exceeds any time spent behind a camera. It’s not easy keeping the creative juices flowing at the best of times, and it’s even harder when the work starts piling up. Boud and Philbey find concept development challenging, too. 

So where do the three photographers draw their ideas from?

‘I take a lot of inspiration from movies and TV – how things are shot and framed, and how things are lit’, says Philbey. 

‘I steal a lot of ideas from my wife’, laughs Boud, referring to his photographer spouse, Cybele Malinowski, who specialises in fashion and artist portraiture. ‘We both draw a lot of inspiration from the classics like Annie Leibovitz – when she [Leibovitz] does a great shoot, there’s no-one better.’

Like Philbey, Hibberd loves cinematography and film. Interestingly, comic books fuel Hibberd’s creativity as well. ‘I love illustrators because they’re not limited by angles’, he explains. ‘They can create whatever perspective they like; they’re only limited by their imagination. I’ll see a drawing and think, “I wonder if I can shoot from that angle or get that composition?”’ However, wherever possible, Hibberd tries to take something from the band’s album and link it to an idea or concept. ‘It’s about giving their voice an image; trying to create something that sums up that band and their music.’

And that, essentially, is what these photographers do through their image-making — they provide a visual interpretation and representation of musicians and their craft. By doing so, they also capture a unique snapshot of culture and society, and the musicians that shape and define so many lives. 

But Philbey, Hibberd and Boud do it in such a thoughtful, clever way that their work transcends the simple documentation of a time and a place, featuring famous faces — it stands alone as art. Rock art.