Christopher Nelson has photographed Seattle concerts for over a decade. His new show at the Paramount documents his last two years of show-going, with a very specific subject: the crowd. "Fans--A Look At The People Who Make A Show Great" features 15 large-scale, canvas-printed photos taken mostly from the Gorge, the Paramount, and Redmond's Marymoor Park. The show officially opens Thursday at 5 pm with a free reception at the Paramount lobby bar.
City Arts: This is your first solo show. How did it come about?
Christopher Nelson: You touched on it in your recent article. We have this amazing community right now, and with that comes the opportunity for people's dreams to become reality. I've found Seattle to be this goldmine of people that encourages people to do what they're good at. That's the only reason I've been able to do what I do. We're really in a special time, not just with the music community but the artistic community in general. It's not, "Look what I did," it's "Look what we did."
This is our pastime: We go to shows for fun. That’s what people do here. We're lucky to live in a place with so many music lovers and supporters.
And these are all crowd shots. How'd you decide on that angle?
It's so often overlooked, how important the audience is in making a good show. The performers are paid to be there, but the audience is there by choice. The audience is the most authentic gauge of the success and energy of the show.
I didn’t set myself on becoming a concert photographer. It fell into my lap. So I've always taken a different perspective than the people I'm around. A lot of them, their business is music, but I've always had an outside perspective. For me to find this inspiration through the audience goes a bit with being an outsider. The shots that inspire me are the ones that convey an emotion and tell some sort of story. The crowd shots do that.
A couple years ago I clued in on the fact that I spent more time photographing the audience and less time photographing the performers. I've been more satisified, more moved with those shots. I felt like they told the story better. When this opportunity arose it was a no-brainer. I could show some photos at the Paramount? Like, are you shitting me?? The next question was, what do I show? I didn't have to think about it--[the crowd shots were] the only thing I felt strongly enough about.
Up front in the pit, you have one of the best seats in the house.
Music is powerful. Something about bringing these people together that have the same passion over music or a band or a concert is really intense. It's such a treat to be up front at the barricade, turning around and seeing that I get a view of what the performer sees. I'm sure it's a drug for the performer, and you can tell the audience is high, not just on drugs or whatever but on energy. That raw emotion. People go crazy. It's something a lot of people don’t get to see. For me, it’s the same perspective as the performers, depending on how high the stage is. Sometimes I'm even onstage so you can see what they see and feel.
More photos and interview after the jump...
Have you ever been kicked or bullied or injured getting a shot?
Japandroids from last year's Sasquatch was a really cool shot. It has the security guards holding the gate and the concertgoers are reaching out... The crowd just wanted to come through. It was intense. There were a couple moments that I feared if the barricades came down I'd be trampled. I got a shot and got out of harm's way to look at the photos, and I knew I didn’t get what I wanted, so I went back three times for it. It was too good a photo not to take, but I was terrified. I'd stand there and take a couple frames and see if I got what I wanted and went back again and again until I did. I was really afraid, but that was a defining moment of the concert and I knew it. If you look ten-deep in the crowd, you can see people yelling and pushing and the photo does an alright job of showing it. But it was more intense than the photo can show.
Sometimes you look at the camera as a filter, like a television, and it removes you from the situation, like it's not reality, and that can be very dangerous.
What's it like to be so close to the hardcore fans in the front row? You ever see anything weird go on?
The more I do this, the more I think it's important to create a dialog between me and the fans. We're allowed in the pit five minutes before the show starts and I base where I shoot the performers by who's behind me. I look for the audience I want first, and then I stand in front of them. And if there's an opportunity to create conversation I will. I like to get their personalities, and that relaxes them so they can be themselves and they're not so questionable about why there's a guy sticking a camera in front of them. It's worth the time and energy to get to know these people a little bit.
The shows been up a week now, and I've already gotten emails where it's either them in the photo or a family member, and they were thrilled. It's cool because a lot of times the audience wasn’t expecting to be documented as part of the experience. I think there's an element of people wanna be famous, in print. Sometimes people even work the camera a little bit. I love to look at the crowd shots and see all the different energies there, how people represent themselves in front of the camera. I look for a perfect shot where the whole audience has the same message, where there's one vibe coming from them. I find it fascinating to see how people interact with the camera in that situation.
[With these photos], you have time to sit there and analyze each and every face. I'm intrigued by people. That’s why I love photography. I don’t know the right words, I'm but super-entertained, super-fascinated by looking at these crowd shots. It's really important to sit and look at each person. They're each part of the story. I just want people to feel something when they look at these, to create conversation and inspire them to go see music. A concert is a haven for people to express themselves. It's almost like an alternate reality.
I was going around showing my friends some of the photos, and I was thinking, You can almost hear the crowd in the photos. Like a seashell--you hold it up to your ear and hear the ocean. I want people to look at these photos and hear the crowd roar.