Notes on Photographing the Coachella Music Festival

This past weekend I took the opportunity to attend and photograph the three day Coachella Music Festival in the desert near Palm Springs. I’d wanted to go for the past couple of years to photograph it as part of a book project that I’m working on. Unfortunately, like at many such events, Coachella does not allow the presence of any professional cameras, those being any camera with a detachable lens. That, as you can imagine, presented a bit of a problem.

But I’m nothing if not resourceful. With the blessing of an old magazine art director friend, I applied for a media pass and listed his employer’s magazine as the client in my application. Three weeks ago, much to my elation, I received notice that I’d been approved for a coveted Photo Pass. So off to Coachella I drove my trusty camper van, presumably covering the event for a fairly prestigious magazine. (They’re actually happy to run the photos so it all works out.)

Girl Sprays Water on Dancing Crowd at Coachella Music Festival

The Do Lab at Coachella

Having a photo pass is no blank check nor all access pass however. It allows the bearer to bring in photo equipment, rest their weary feet in the small but welcome press area and enter the photo pit for the first three songs of every performance. Three songs and out is the rule. No backstage nor VIP.

Now most of the press there was working for either news services or music blogs – of which there are no shortage. You could usually tell the music blog photographers since they were the ones with a digital Rebel and a kit lens. The newspaper and wires service pros tended to be weighed down by way too much gear in the form of multiple bodies, various bags strapped to their waists and, for the hard core music photographers, a small stepping stool clipped to a bag with a carabiner. These folks worked hard because, unlike me, they actually had clients to please and tight deadlines to meet.

Press pit at the Coachella Music Festival

I, on the other hand, had no specific responsibilities – other than to myself. My self-assignment was to tell the story of the event. Who are the people, what are they doing, what does it look like and where does it all take place. I wanted to capture the tastes, the smells and the sounds of attending this yearly touchstone of youth culture – no easy task using a tool that that only records what the eyes see – and only a small portion of that at best. Where most of the other pros were focused on getting a great shot of whomever was performing, my camera was primarily focused on the people behind me – on the crowd pushed up against the security barrier.

One of the biggest challenges for me, and one that I’m not sure I overcame, was to avoid the cliche shots of the eager crowds. Yes, I desired to show the excited masses, but I also looked for something more. Something that tells a story that’s both real and unexpected.

Man dancing to electronic music at Coachella 2013

Part of the challenge is the Uncertainty Principle as applied to photography. As quantum physicists have discovered, an observer can never actually know the exact speed and position of a subatomic particle because the very act of observation changes either the speed or position of the particle being observed. So too is it with photography. The very attempt to document something changes it. The closer and more immediate my presence, the greater the impact that I have on the unfolding reality. This is a real problem for a documentarian like me who is constantly in search of real moments.

One solution, and the solution leaned upon by most photographers, is to use a long lens to pull the action in to the photographer and allow him or her to work without imposing themselves upon the scene. I however don’t even own a long lens much less have much desire to use one. Instead, my optical tool of choice is the moderately wide 28mm f1.8 lens. I like it because it gives me more angle of view than the 35mm but without overly wide look of the 24mm. One other benefit of this lens over the 24mm f1.4 (also in my camera bag) is that the tiny AF camera motors aren’t pushing as much glass so it focuses faster – which is super important when working in a dynamic, unpredictable environment where moments come and go often faster than this photographer can document.

Ultimately though, I’m a wide angle photographer through and through. I love the immediacy that it conveys. The perspective of being three feet from a raging crowd of moshers can’t be conveyed with a long lens from the fringes of the crowd. The flip side is that being in close to a testosterone-high ring of buffed young men is not without its risks. As I tracked backward in the mosh pit, camera to my nose, I was sure that a fast moving elbow was going to whack my camera and bust my nose. I took special care to make sure that my nose wasn’t actually pressed against the camera body so that when the blow came, the supraorbital ridge of my skull would take the smack. Fortunately, that never came to pass.

Mosh pit at the Coachella Music Festival

Mosh pit during the Social Distortion set

Though my forehead never took a beating, the rest of my body did. Three days of being on my feet marching from venue to venue left my back in spasms, and the soles of my feet sore to the point that I was limping by the end of the second day. Though I might participate in the culture of youth, I am far from one myself.

In the end, I feel like I got what I came for – to a point, though a point not entirely under my control. Actually, it’s control that is the problem. Coachella is incredibly tightly controlled. Access is restricted. Security is everywhere. There is alcohol but good luck getting to it. The alcohol fueled madness of other events that I’ve covered just isn’t there, for better or worse. Though the smell of pot often wafted through the air, it’s not a drug that lends itself to out of control behavior and the ensuing photos. (For a sample of what out-of-control looks like, check out my Lake Havasu slide show.)

Then there’s the event itself. Music, pounding, blasting, thumping, energy inducing music is everywhere. Being able to see and hear bands ranging from Modest Mouse to Vampire Weekend was a real treat.

More than anyone else though, I looked forward to seeing Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform. Even the cynical LA music industry guys I met agreed that Nick Cave a bad ass. To photograph him from the photo pit, you had to be approved by his publicist. Somehow, I made that list. I was positively giddy when he walked on stage, his intensity preceding him like a fuzzy spotlight. The music thundered and his voice boomed. Watching Nick Cave deliver all of his energy and focus to a performance is like watching an earthquake unfold.

Nick Cave performing at the Coachella Music Festival

Nick Cave

We were only allowed to photograph one song instead of the usual three. As we were shooed off by security, Cave said, “Goodbye.” No other band even acknowledged us photographers so, surprised, I turned to look at him. He was looking at me. I waved. Gave him the thumbs up and a “you rock.” He just followed my gaze.

Afterward I pushed my way into the crowd and just took in wall of sound created by his band. The clad in black group of backup singers, violinists, cellos, guitar, organ, guitar and drum was by far the loudest all weekend. I soon saw why he only allowed the press for one song. Once we were out of the way, he leaped down from the stage, went to the crowd and began walking on top of the fans as he sang. Yeah, Nick Cave has been and always will be a bad ass.

Nick Cave at Coachella

Nick Cave

The Red Hot Chili Peppers closed out the final night. Back when I was in college, I’d seen them perform in the small downstairs pub at the university. The venue held maybe 100 people amidst the chairs, tables and pitchers of beer. The band was still knee deep in their punk rock roots; socks over their penises were their only clothing. Their performance and the crowd’s drunken dancing made for a raucous night, though we chalked up the next morning’s newspaper reports of rioting at the show to ignorance of the fact that a mosh pit is not in and of itself a civil disturbance. (Back then the term “mosh pit” didn’t even exist since the whole concept was so new.)

Since then, the Chili Peppers have gone mainstream and bores me to tears. I stuck around for one song and then bid my farewell to Coachella. I’d ridden my bike from one of the far lots – nearly a mile away. Getting to it was a long enough walk for my weary feet so, when I saw that both of my bike’s tires were flat,  only a resigned “aw fuck” passed through my lips. Walking quickly to stay in front of the ever increasing flow of departing festival goers, I pushed my bike along the dirt roads and dead grassy fields back to my waiting van.

Here’s my slide show of images from the weekend. For best results, open it full screen as I posted it in high-res. Enjoy!

About johnmireles

Photographer, writer, thinker, climber, outrigger canoeist, bad guitar player and even worse singer.
This entry was posted in Art and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Notes on Photographing the Coachella Music Festival

  1. Mark the Snark says:

    Great article – here’s the Nick Cave performance you were at :

  2. Dan Speicher says:

    Great work. Love the crowd shots from the side in the beautiful evening lights.

  3. Brenda Harper says:

    Hi John, I was there!! Fun had by all!! Can’t wait for next year!!!

  4. Phil Steele says:

    John, excellent Coachella set. Great work as always catching the mood and feel of an event. Wondering: Do you get any releases from subjects at these crazy youth events that you cover, or are you just claiming the documentarian’s right to show people doing what they do in public? And if the latter, does it greatly limit the way you can use the images later? Thanks as always for your site.

    • johnmireles says:

      Hi Phil: I don’t bother with getting releases. That takes way too much time and is too intrusive for my tastes. If I had to stop everyone and explain what I’m doing, I’d never get anything done. Not having a model release means that I can’t use the images commercially. If Coca Cola wanted to use one of my images for an ad campaign, that would not fly. I can use the images for fine art and editorial purposes however. That’s really the only uses I need so it works out for me.

  5. Alex MacAulay says:

    Awesome John! Wasn’t there but sure felt like it!

  6. Diana Miller says:

    Love the slideshow – great images! You totally captured the festival. Thanks for sharing!

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