Pooneh Ghana: Fucked Up
You know that bit in Almost Famous where the whole gang are lolling about in the tour bus hungover as shit, and then Tiny Dancer comes on the radio and they all begin to sing together? That’s what I imagine going on tour is like; one long, hazy parade punctuated with fascinating people, sell-out gigs, and anecdotes that would upset your mum. But that film was set in the 1970s and I can’t imagine the antics in the carpark of Bestival 2009 would be as romantic and colourful as a sex-fuelled Stillwater tour. Things can still be wild, I’m sure, but times have certainly changed.
The one thing that doesn’t seem to have altered is the way bands are documented via photography, on and off stage. Music photographers have been employed since cameras were invented, but photographers only really started tagging along on world tours when The Beatles travelled around the US in 1964. Their role hasn’t changed that much in the 50 or so years since then; the brief is still pretty much “document this stuff, because we’re making history.”
In the 1960s, bands were taken on extensive tours of far-off countries with their managers in order to play as many gigs as possible and spread their sound to live audiences to eventually sell records. For a period of time, so many bands would be touring at the same time that they would have to share gigs in cinemas. “Pop package tours were based on the old ‘variety act’ set up,” says Martin Creasy, an author and expert on bands of that era. “There’d be seven acts in one night all plugging their singles. You’d have something like The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck and the Jimi Hendrix Experience all on one bill. Mad!”
At that time, when most bands were crammed into little vans, there wasn’t really enough room (or cash) for a photographer. “They were so busy,” Martin says. “The tours were so expensive. As well as doing radio interviews, gigs, travelling and TV shows, the bands also had to work out the time to actually make music and records.” In terms of having their photo taken, the local press – or if you were lucky someone from the NME – would turn up before the gig and doing a quick couple of snaps.
In 1965, a 19-year-old Gered Mankowitz (now regarded as one of the most legendary music photographers of all time) was asked to follow and photograph The Rolling Stones on a 48 city, nine-week-long tour of the USA. He said yes, and got on the bus. “I had been photographing The Stones all that year. I shot two or three sessions with them including a record cover and various other things, and we all seemed to get on very well.”
Andrew Loog Oldham, the band’s manager at the time, was something of a visionary. He was the one who coined the slogan “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” in order to give the band a bad boy edge to counteract The Beatles. It was Andrew who decided The Stones would need a photographer on their upcoming tour of the US. “Obviously I jumped at the opportunity,” Gered says, “but it wasn’t the norm. There was no real rationale or commercial viability behind it other than a feeling that they wanted aspects of the event to be recorded. The process was so antiquated in those days, there was no way you could supply the American media because by the time you developed your film, the concert you were talking about had been over for five or six days.”
While Gered had a blast on tour, it wasn’t something he enjoyed creatively. He estimates that 98% of the photographs he took in those ten weeks weren’t seen by anybody until interest in his work started springing up in the past decade or so. (After that tour The Stones didn’t take another photographer with them for three years – it was just too expensive). “I didn’t think it was particularly rewarding or fulfilling photographically or creatively. I didn’t really consider myself to be a reportage photographer and because there were very little media requirements for the material it seemed to be a waste of time. So although the experience was fabulous, and I loved being with the band and being on stage with them was one of the most exciting things that I’ve ever done, the actual photographic experience was rather frustrating. It wasn’t something I was keen to repeat.”
Cara Robbins is a 25-year-old photographer from Los Angeles who photographs some of the world’s most exciting new bands like Foxygen, White Fence, The Allah-Las and Connan Mockasin. She shoots with a beautiful, friendly vibe reminiscent of the great photographers of the 1960s and 70s. The way Cara sees it, she’d rather be photographing bands and artists using her creative vision, as opposed to just snapping them drunk backstage, or eating breakfast in a roadside cafe. For her the tour is not where the magic happens. “From my experience, you get up really early and you sit in a van – it could be a bus but most people will be trying to save money so it’s a van – and then you get to the venue and unload everything and whatever and by the time that’s all done it’s about six o’clock, and you can’t even go explore the city. It’s one of those things where everyone goes, ‘Oh we’re gonna go on tour and get to see all these different places,’ and the main thing you see is the inside of the venue and maybe the one place you have dinner at. In my experience it’s very boring and not that cool.”
Ruvan Wijesooriya published LCD back in 2012, a book about his time touring with LCD Soundsystem and even though at that stage the band was super successful, Ruvan’s memories of the road mirrored Gered and Cara’s. “Being on tour with a band – even a good, headlining band – is unglamorous and a pain in the ass. I felt it my first time being on tour, and I realised that it was not at all what it was cracked up to be,” says Ruvan. “You don’t need to be there at the shitty empty shows in the sleepy town, or for sound check.
“The first band I went on tour with was also my ride from NYC to the UK. I slept on couches in the band’s hotel rooms and was paid like $30 a day for food. It was awesome for back then! But after ten days of the sweaty van, tired guys and waking up early every morning I was ready to get the fuck out of there.
“LCD is one of the more different bands I’ve met,” say Ruvan. “Musician’s musicians who guard their integrity in a similar way I do. They gave me so much creative freedom because they believed in me and trusted me. There was no publicist or marketing team, or really anybody telling me what to do, and you can see that in the pictures.”
That passionate respect for the artists is also something that drives Cara’s photography. She told me that many bands hate the photos taken of them, and often those are the ones used in their promotional campaigns, record sleeves or posters – which drives them nuts! “Back in the day there were a handful of great photographers who knew how to shoot film and rock concerts and now anyone creative can just figure out how to take a photo and do it on a digital camera,” she says. “There’s such a wealth of images around now that it seems more than ever we have to be critical about who is taking the photos and what they are doing with them. On my side of things I definitely check with the band and their management before I send them to anyone. I really try to keep everyone in control of their own image.”
One photographer who can’t get enough of touring is San Antonio’s Pooneh Ghana. Pooneh’s 25 and her first tour was with Jeff the Brotherhood back in 2012, when she was only 22. Her online portfolio is an endless stream of the most fun, action-packed gigs and parties that betray her true passion for these bands. Pooneh can go on tour for months at a time, shooting bands at shows and festivals with a trusty film camera and her trademark Polaroid. So who looks after her on tour, who pays for her lunch? “It’s usually the record label or management that cover my costs,” Pooneh says. “I don’t go into a tour with any high demands, I’m there to have the true experience of what it’s like to be in or work with that particular band on the road. It can vary from sleeping in a fancy 16-person tour bus and nice hotels every night, to being crammed with seven other dudes in a sprinter and sleeping in punk houses. But that’s why I love it, either way.”
Unlike Cara, Pooneh is hunting for the off-the-cuff moments, when the band doesn’t even notice she’s around. “Capturing the band goofing around offstage, being themselves and doing normal things gives them a closer connection to the fans. They never really see the other side of it but – at least with most superfans – they’re dying to. I’m a fan of every band I’ve gone on tour with, so I am kind of in that mindset as well.” That’s what so great about Pooneh; you can tell she’s just a fan with a camera who’s wandering around backstage looking cool, but inside is wigging out about being among the musicians she adores.
Being a doting fan allows her to capture the moments she knows people want to see. “I’m there as a photographer doing a job, but also think of the photos that would excite me or make me smile if I was looking through a tour diary of my favourite band. I don’t really go in trying to capture a specific image, I go in to capture what’s really going on and tell a story, and to create that intimacy between the band and the people looking through the photos.”
Back in the 1980s, Janette Beckman was a freelance photographer working for Melody Maker and The Face. She managed to hop on the tour bus with some of the greatest bands of the day, travelling to Milan with The Clash, Liverpool with Echo and the Bunnymen and “on the Seaside Tour with the Specials.” Like Pooneh, Janette lived for being on tour with the band. “To my mind there is no substitute for being on the road,” she says. “Being part of the entourage, being able to shoot ‘fly on the wall’ photos, getting those backstage moments, or hanging out in some strange town taking photos of the band in unfamiliar places. It is like being part of a family and having that access cannot be reproduced by the endless, self-conscious stream of Facebook and social media images that are produced nowadays.”
But there are also photographers who’ve tried and failed to join bands on the road. Amy Muir, a successful music photojournalist from Scotland, found that she couldn’t go on the road because she was female. “As much as I would have loved to have gone on tour, a lot of bands don’t allow female photographers to tour with all male bands,” Amy told me. “Being a female music photographer is hard; I found that out when I started and no one took me seriously – but I was also 16 at the time. I gave up on trying to get involved with tours and followed the bands myself.”
Likewise, Manchester-born Victoria Schofield has tried and failed to get on the bus for similar reasons. Victoria was told by a guy she did press photos for that they would like to have her on board the bus, but couldn’t in case people thought she was, “sleeping with one of the band members.” Another excuse was that if a girl came along the band might have to “behave.” Victoria assumed her age suggested naivety (she is only 21) and got on with her life, photographing bands without having to get on the bus.
So how does the actual band feel about having someone on tour with them, documenting things they may not want to be seen, or getting in the way of the creative process? In LCD, James Murphy describes his frustration at constantly being asked to contextualise what they were doing, and to be recorded every step of the way. In the intro to the book he says: “When I look at these photos I wonder if I’m seeing it like I would have seen photos of another band when I was young…Somehow I think that total jerk Ruvan, who has blinded me with flashes and drunkenly berated me, who has tried to get me to go out way after I’ve gone to bed, who has spilled drinks in my house and hugged me while yelling, has managed to get too many pictures of that show, that feeling.” He signs off: “I hope you have friends like that and I hope one of them is taking pictures.”