Not Your Typical Concert Shots

A Q&A; with photographer James Mollison about his new collection of concert portraits.

Not-Your-Typical-Concert-Shots
Not-Your-Typical-Concert-Shots

James Mollison makes his living shooting fashion and advertising imagery for Benetton -- but his personal work springs largely from the whims of his overactive mind. The Venice-based Brit has traveled the world following those whims. He has spent years obsessively researching them and turning them into compelling images, many of which are on view through August 16 at Hasted Hunt Gallery in New York City.

Around 2002 Mollison was watching a British nature show David Attenborough, and he began wondering if it would be interesting to shoot passport pictures of apes. The result was a book called James and Other Apes (Chris Boot, 2004), which featured 50 gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees all photographed at precisely the same distance. Shooting in zoos and animal preserves, Mollison used a Contax 645 with a 120mm lens and a ring flash. He set a fixed focal length and moved around the animals until they appeared in focus -- each at exactly 70 centimeters.

Not long after completing that project, Mollison was visiting Colombia when he became fascinating by the history, culture, and mythology surrounding the notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. That interest led, eventually, to another book, The Memory of Pablo Escobar (Chris Boot, 2007), in which Mollison used his own images and never-before-seen pictures from Escobar archives to trace a history of the man's life and violent death.

Mollison's latest project, called Disciples, is debuting at Hasted Hunt (along with work from James and Other Apes) and marks a return to portraiture for the photographer. Over the past few years he has been photographing concert-goers in the United States and Europe, then constructing panoramic composites that display the "tribal behavior" of the fans. A book with the work will be published by Chris Boot in October.

Just before the exhibition's opening, Mollison dropped by the American Photo office to talk about the new project and the ties that bind his seemingly disparate projects. "I suppose I like to use pictures that make people compare and contrast things," he noted. "All my work can be seen as evidence, in one way or another."

American Photo: The images from "Disciples" are amazingly funny. How did you get the idea to do this project?

&copy, james Mollison
Click photo to see more images (James and Other Apes)

James Mollison: It came about because I was in Los Angeles, and I noticed that so many people looked like Britney Spears. I thought it might be interesting to shoot some of them. So I set up a website called "Do You Look Like Britney?" But I didn't get any responses. So I thought, maybe I should go to a Britney Spears concert. But she wasn't touring. So then I thought, well, I'll go to a Marilyn Manson concert instead. And I was just amazed at how many people there were dressed like Marilyn Manson. So I set up a studio with a bit of seamless and shot a bunch of them.

AP: Did you envision then that you would combine the individual portraits into these long composite images?

JM: When I got the film back and saw the portraits, they just didn't work as singles. They didn't say anything. Then I thought, hang on, as a group these individuals are much more interesting. So after that I went to concerts and started shooting people in ones, twos, and threes, then put them together in these long composites.

AP: You photographed people as they were waiting to go into the concerts?

JM: Yes. The project was a nightmare, because I couldn't get permission from the venues unless the promoters signed off, and the promoters usually won't sign off unless the band managers give permission, and the band managers, if you can get through to them at all, would respond two hours before the show. And they would usually decline because they wouldn't be controlling the image.

AP: How did you manage?

JM: We learned to work quickly. We developed a background that my assistant would hold behind the people I was shooting. When I shot a Madonna concert at the Los Angeles coliseum, we hired a rental truck, drove it into the parking lot, then we smuggled people into the back of the truck, where I would photograph them. The only thing I would tell them was, "Look, you are going to be labeled as a Madonna fan, is that okay?" Almost everyone would say yes, because they were there dressed like Madonna to declare their allegiance to her.

AP: Is this a fair representation of the audience?

JM: I would say these pictures represent part of the truth, but not the whole truth. Obviously I was choosing portrait subjects selectively. But I never asked anyone to pose in a particular way. All I would say is, "Stand there." If people asked me for direction, I'd say, "Just think of the band."

AP: The show that opens this summer at the Hasted Hunt Gallery features these and your portraits of apes. How do you see the connection between these two bodies of work?

JM: With the apes, I wanted people to look at these animals and see that they were really individuals with unique personalities. With the rock-concert images, I want people to see the individuals as parts of groups.

AP: By dressing like their idols, and like each other, these people are in a sense eliminating their own personalities . . .

JM: Exactly. Originally, we were going to show just the Disciples images at the exhibition. Then I thought, you know, the apes would be brilliant with the rock fans. Plus, I've never really shown the ape images much in America. When I did that work, I signed a contract with the British Natural History Museum to show the work -- and I'm glad I did it, because so many people were able to view the images. I think in London something like 250,000 people viewed the images the first day they went up. But the problem was that the fine-art world can be kind of snobby, and a lot of art people dismissed the work as wildlife pictures. People want to categorize you in photography. Hopefully, with this new work, and the Pablo Escobar book, I'll be seen for what I am.

Not-Your-Typical-Concert-Shots-From-James-Molliso
Not-Your-Typical-Concert-Shots-From-James-Molliso
Not Your Typical Concert ShotsFrom James Mollison's James and Other Apes projectJames Mollison
Not-Your-Typical-Concert-Shots-From-James-Molliso
Not-Your-Typical-Concert-Shots-From-James-Molliso
Not Your Typical Concert ShotsFrom James Mollison's James and Other Apes projectJames Mollison
Not-Your-Typical-Concert-Shots-From-James-Molliso
Not-Your-Typical-Concert-Shots-From-James-Molliso
Not Your Typical Concert ShotsFrom James Mollison's James and Other Apes projectJames Mollison
Not-Your-Typical-Concert-Shots-From-James-Molliso
Not-Your-Typical-Concert-Shots-From-James-Molliso
Not Your Typical Concert ShotsFrom James Mollison's James and Other Apes projectJames Mollison
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