In 2001, photoographer Ewen Spencer went up to The White Stripes in a Bristol bar and introduced himself – what followed was a rock n roll fairy story which saw him work with the band for four years, documenting their meteoric rise to fame with unprecedented access. To mark the release of Three’s A Crowd Volume 2, Ewen’s second collection of photographs from his extraordinary time with one of the world’s biggest bands, and his new show at KK Outlet in January, we caught up with him to find out more about the the project and an utterly bonkers night in Brazil…
What you did with The White Stripes is so many people’s dream – was it as amazing as we would imagine?
Of course – it was an incredible time for the band and all associated with them. Wherever they went there was a sense of excitement and occasionally that excitement became hysteria. If you were at a music festival other bands would be keen to meet them. Jack was great at holding court, full of confidence, a great musician. I feel very fortunate to have been friends with them at such an exciting time.
I never wanted to make pictures of a rock n roll band – I was interested in looking for a journey and I think I might have been fortunate in guessing that Jack and Meg were embarking upon a great trip.
What was the most rock n roll thing that happened to you when you were with the band?
The most rock n roll moment was at a gig in Manaus, Brazil, which is a small city in the heart of the Amazon forest. The band were playing at the small Opera house in the old part of the city (the building of this Opera House was the genesis for the Herzog film
The last artist to play at the venue was Willie Nelson around 10 years prior. I think any kid who had a guitar or had listened to a record in a 500 mile radius was at that concert. They erected video screens in the square in front of this majestic venue – it was quite a sight.
The venue was stunning built by European rubber barons a hundred or more years earlier to tempt the great singers and conductors of Europe across the Atlantic to perform.
The band did the setting justice, the best I’ve seen them play. They came off stage, Jack turns to Meg and suggests going outside to play to the crowd in the square. So they walk back out on stage and leap into the audience. The audience parts and they walk out of the venue onto this vast terrace that overlooks the square – cue a small riot.
Jack sat with Meg, their feet hanging over the ledge looking down into the square and begin to play We’re going to be friends . 500 people do themselves credit by going silent. The band complete the song whilst venue security and police restrain hundreds of bodies, hands etc trying to get a piece of Jack and Meg. We make a dash back into the venue and the mini riot becomes full blown, cops laying out hysterical teenagers as we try and make the 50 metre sprint across the terrace back into this beautiful building that is still full of an adoring audience. It was bedlam.
At last we ended up in the dressing room each taking separate routes through the venue. Champagne shenanigans ensued, then we have to leave the venue – everyone outside knows this of course. We leave by the rear, good start, jump into the vans and take off as kids are hurling themselves at the vans. That was the scariest moment, the thumping on the windows, people on the roof, that’s the only time I’ve seen Jack looking a little concerned.
Very early the next morning I received a call from Jon the road manager asking: “Are you awake?” “Yes.” “Jack’s coming to get you" Ok – knock on the door, open the door (not yet dressed) and there is Jack with Dave Swanson pointing a video camera at me.
“Quick put some clothes on, I’m getting married. Will you take some pictures?" So we spent the day at the confluence of the Negro and Solimões rivers on a beautiful old wooden, two tiered boat as jack married Karen Elson.
Does the second book follow chronologically from the first? On what criteria did you select the pictures?
It is chronological but the first volume has dictated to a degree what we can use in the current book. With Volume 1 we used early images showing a build up to the band’s popularity, in only eight images. This volume has around 50+ images so it is a lot more comprehensive. I was toying with the idea of producing three volumes to correlate with the band’s love of the number but I have to concede that self publishing is a labour of love, there is little fiscal reward and it is purely a form of communicating your work. If you believe in it publish it – let the viewer decided its validity. A new photographic democracy.
What’s next for you?
More and more self publishing. We have recently collaborated with a distribution company in London called Antenne so were looking forward to working with them.
I have began compiling a data base of street cast, young folk from around London to be viewed on my online archive. We have an assistant who goes out around the streets every Thursday and makes straight-ups and quick videos of likely candidates. We compile them and then edit the images here in the studio. I will then be collaborating with a guest stylist each month choosing one person from the database and producing a photographic biography with that individual.
Step into their world for a day or two and see what it provides. Just as the images for Three’s a Crowd can sometimes show the banality of life on the road with a rock n roll band. I enjoy making sense or at least capturing something interesting in the everyday life of ordinary people therefore making them less ordinary!
I don’t believe in making pictures through broken windows or going to war. I’m still very enthused by youth culture/sub culture – I like to think it’s at the heart of everything I do.