Close encounters of the festival kind

Eavis: Outstanding in his field.

The working day

Having had a lot of my Glastonbury festival shots on the Boston Globe’s “Big Picture” site, I wasn’t sure how to put this blog together as I didn’t want to just repeat shots that a lot of people have already seen.  In the end, I’ve decided to go for a mix of some of my personal faves, some that I’ve had good feedback on and one particular shot that even I can’t stop giggling at whenever I see or even think about.  More on that one later..

The weekend started on Wednesday and after setting up Camp Tabasco, it was out and about to see what’s new since last year and to catch some weather pics while the sun was still out.

With previous experiences of virtual trench foot and apocalyptic devastation, I always try to catch the blue sky when it’s there.  There does seem to be something about Worthy Farm that causes a unique weather system to hover over the area whenever an amp is plugged in.

The evening drifted on and the floating candle lights were soon appearing up at the stone circle and fading off into the clear night sky.  For anyone who’s never been before, one of my snippets of advice is to head up to the stone circle on your first night without looking back.  When you reach the top, turn round and remember that every light that you can see is part of the festival, not some nearby city.  Incredible.

One of the many reasons that I love Glastonbury so much is the feeling that whenever you go out for a wander, you are guaranteed to come back with a set of pictures of the most unusual and bizarre people such as the woman pushing around a stuffed dead dog wearing a sombrero in a pram. Class. The only downside to this is that it’s so hard to actually “sign-off” for the day.  I find that I shoot all day and when the music’s finished, I carry on shooting but in “shooting for me” mode.  It’s a fine (if not entirely non-existent) line.

The first act this year was Maximo Park on the Thursday night at the Queen’s Head bar.  This in itself was unusual as normally the music only runs from Friday to Sunday.  As you can imagine, 60,000 on site by this point and one average-sized marquee playing music.  Cue chaos.  The show was delayed by 20 minutes after a few people were trampled during the dash to get to the front when they finally opened the doors.

The media area is still backstage (between the Pyramid and Other stages) but the hospitality camping is now on the old cinema field which was a bit of a pain but it did make sure that you got to actually get away from the backstage area and see the festival.  When I last worked at Glasto, the media camping was in the same field as the press area and a lot of the photographers never left the field.  When Kate Moss and Peter Doherty are wandering around, a lot of the celebrity guys hardly had to leave their tents to get a picture!

This year started off beautifully on the Wednesday but then “the fear” started to spread when thunder and lightning skimmed the site on the Thursday night.  My first attempts at trying to shoot lightning failed miserably but thankfully not as badly as a photographer from Getty who killed two Canon 5dmk2 bodies in the downpour.  Ouch.

With the mud came the traditional japes and blitz mentality including the guy above who was carrying four litres of lager around one ankle, in what I can only guess was an attempt to free up his hands and keep it cool in the puddles and mud he walked through.  Why he put it all on one leg is beyond me though.  By today, he must have a left leg like a bodybuilder and will be having to constantly stop himself walking in circles.

As the evening wore on, the first signs of the big story of the weekend started to appear. I received a text news alert saying that Michael Jackson had been rushed to hospital.  Soon, as fellow photographer Ian Gavan and myself walked along the old railway line, we were passing more and more groups saying that he was dead.  Among these we heard “Janet Jackson’s dead” and “Jackson Lane’s (?) dead”. At first we put it off as a rumour but when it got to a certain point, we realised we should check it out.  Cue a call from me to Ms. Mavric and one from him to his Mrs. to check the headlines.  Blimey.  I can say I was at the gates of Shangri-la when I heard that the King of Pop was officially dead.

By the next morning, the panic was on to get some sort of picture that could connect the massive news to the Glastonbury festival.  After an early wake-up call from the picture desk, I headed out for a quick scout and only managed to find a couple of pieces of graffiti but then hit onto the idea of checking out the t-shirt stalls.  Having noticed a sign on the first day offering “print your own shirts”, I headed back there and after convincing the owner that he wouldn’t get into copyright trouble if I took pictures of him at work, he allowed me into the back of his van where he was just about to print the first “MICHAEL JACKSON IS DEAD” shirt.  After getting the pictures out, I headed past again to find that he’d branched out a little and strayed across the copyright line this time but by this point he was happy to be photographed.

Back to the music. As photographers know, the deal at concerts is “first three songs, no flash” but this time, the Health and Safety had sunk their teeth in and we all had to wear ear-plugs. No-one really questioned it but its a bit odd when you block your ears for 12 minutes of music while the festival-goers two metres behind you have been stood at the front for 7 hours without them.  A friend of mine got a shot of Lily Allen carrying a little girl backstage and when editing the shots, found the kid had a mouthful of them so they had some use after all..

Of the sets I shot, the most photogenic was probably Lady Gaga although I can’t say I’m particularly impressed by the music.  It all sounds a bit too much like a more commercial version of Peaches to me.  However, there’s no denying her stage presence and the three songs we got to shoot saw rotating plinths, reflective cocoons and all sorts of randomness.

After shooting and wiring the music from the main stage, I love to go and wander around as many fields as I can cover with my Nikon D3 and the new 50mm f1.4G lens. I took two flashes to Glastonbury with me and never used them once in the end.  Shooting at 3200 is perfectly usable for the night shots. I’d love to get hold of a 24mm f1.4 too but can’t afford it at the moment. *Hopes random generous Nikon salesperson is reading*  ;)

As soon as the music finishes on the main stage, the green fields and Trash City area get rammed as 100,000 of the 150,000 revellers head to the narrow alleyways and paths, looking for after-hours entertainment. With the old rail line at a standstill, the back routes always prove to be quicker and, again, will present you with the most beautiful sights.

The glowing pathway (above) was spotted by fellow photographer Mark Large as we wandered up to the Stone Circle (below).

With morning comes the hunt for more features and random beauties to grace the Nation’s pages.  As I previously said, it’s always easy enough to find the unusual here with today being no exception.

I never quite managed to work out what the score was with the “bride” below as she was there with her bridesmaids but I’m sure she said her bloke was at home so I can only guess it was deemed to be a good choice of clothing for Glastonbury’s famous mud-baths!

The evening ended with Bruce Springsteen headlining the main stage and, after a few problems with restricted numbers into the pit, the fantastic press team in the media tent got me in.  Unfortunately, we had the choice of stage right or stage left.  Having opted for right, I then discovered that this was where the camera boom arm was positioned and spent the whole of the three tracks running up and down my stepladders in an attempt to shoot under or over the damned thing.  Grrr..

After seeing some stunning shots by Guardian photographer Martin Godwin of enthusiastic dancers in the dance village, I decided to head down there in the evening.  Aside from missing the climax of the “2 Many DJs” set by seconds (including the ticker tape, streamers, strobes and assorted photogenic bounty), I managed to stumble across a few frames including what I can only describe as an extra from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre stood, stationary, in the corner. Sober or not, I still wouldn’t particularly like to bump into him on a darkened dancefloor.

Every year, the festival has a “guilty pleasure” style slot on the main “Pyramid” stage with acts such as Rolf Harris, Shirley Bassey and Tony Bennett playing previous events.  This year the honour went to Status Quo and I have to say that despite the crowds turning out en masse, the band looked unimpressed.  Having read an interview with them before where they’d said that they didn’t like Glastonbury and wouldn’t be staying to watch anyone else, it came across very much as a case of take the money and run.  Boo hiss..

With Sunday afternoon came my personal musical highlight of the weekend with British ska band Madness. Having grown up on them (even to the point of taking an album cover into the hairdressers when I was 10 to get my hair cut like the drummer), it was a real pleasure to shoot them but even more fun when I went out into the crowd with another photographer and could enjoy the incredible atmosphere out there.  It’s great to have a band that play top songs with such a strong back catalogue that everyone can sing along to.  Bravo, chaps.

With newspaper deadlines looming, the next mission was to try to get some pre-emptive scenes of the devastation that would be left for the clean-up crews to deal with in the morning.  With headliners Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen out of the way and only a handful of bands left, some were starting to gather their gear and head for the exits.  Every year, it amazes me how much stuff is left behind. Arriving with brand new tents and chairs and sleeping bags, a certain percentage of the people seem to just up-sticks and go. It’s a real shame as the festival is the largest green fields festival in the world and it’s only through respecting the farm that it will be able to continue in the future.

On a completely different subject and going back to the picture I was talking about in the opening paragraph, I’d had an idea in my head for the last few years of going on how to shoot the toilets.  In no other job does the picture desk ring you and specifically ask for shots of the latrines but Glasto is different.  The long-drops are the stuff of legend.  With myths of seat collapses combined with the very probable chance of dropping your phone down them, it really is a sight to behold.  The usual picture that’s been done to death is the rows of wellington boots under the doors.  Pish to that, thinks I so I shot the picture below.  After loading it onto my screen and realising that I’d actually caught two people “in action” as it were, I decided that it probably wasn’t likely to be printed in a national paper so kept it for this blog.  Before you ask how I got it, don’t.

Sunday’s headline act on the Pyramid was recently reformed British pop group Blur who apparently went on to play a blinding set.  Unfortunately, the festival rumour mill was in full effect with word being whispered around all day that Justin Timberlake was on site and would be appearing as a special guest with The Black Eyed Peas.  As the BEP were onstage shortly after Blur, there was a mass exodus of photographers across the site to the jazz stage to catch what would surely be in every paper the following day.

You can pretty much guess where this is leading, I’m sure.  In the end, we came, we saw, we saw some more, then they left the stage.  No special appearance.  No JT.  Bah..

With the bands all in the bag, all that was left to get was the last few minutes of the festival before Monday morning’s carnage on the roads began.  The stalls began their half-price sales and the food kiosks began to pack up shop. People walked slowly across the main field with their heads down, looking for lost treasure and mobile phones. Fire crews wandered across the site, putting out the remains of camp fires as they smouldered.

To some people, this place will probably sound like hell but I can honestly say, it’s one of my favourite places on earth.  Bring on next year.

July 1st, 2009