There’s nothing better than spending your days photographing moments of pleasure, excitement and the atmosphere of a music festival. We spoke to Ty Johnson; photographer, film producer and art director of second echo about his experiences photographing festivals, films and his favourite photos of all time.
What is it that you enjoy most about photographing a gig/festival?
I’ll go for festivals over gigs usually. In this setting, I tend not to focus as much on the stage, but rather the moments and the people around the grounds.
That seems more genuine and interesting to me.
People are often their most uninhibited at a good camping festival.
Maybe not on day 1, but by day 2 they have spent good time philosophising with friends, having a laugh and getting amongst the vibe.
When you photograph people in their most relaxed disposition they open up more than usual.
I’m really into the documentary side of photography and festivals always provide ample opportunities to capture those fun moments.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be one of the staff photographers at Meredith and Golden Plains for the past 4 years. It’s certainly one of the best festivals in the world.
How did you come to creating Sideshow Alley?
It kicked off in 2010 when Dave Budge and I starting working with Melbourne band The Tiger and Me. We were chatting with them about music video concepts and decided to film an intimate live recording in a laneway to ease into our collaboration.
It came together so well that we decided to continue the format and extend the invitation to other great local and international talent. The environment really embraces the spontaneity for musicians and crew alike, and it takes some of the pressure off the performance allowing it to remain honest without the build up of expectation. Our team of contributors in both Melbourne and New York are all really talented filmmakers!
We’ve been really blessed to film episodes with Kimbra, First Aid Kit, Laura Marling, Passenger, Mumford & Sons and many more.
We’re just about to release our first feature film music documentary “Austin to Boston” which I co-produced with Ben Lovett (Mumford & Sons/Communion Music) and co-edited with Kitty Green (Ukraine Is Not A Brothel). James Marcus Haney directed it with post-production duties all handled by the Sideshow Alley team in Melbourne. It follows Ben Howard, The Staves, Nathaniel Rateliff & Bear’s Den driving across the USA in 5 VW campers. The film has recently screened at 15 film festivals around the world including BFI London Film Festival and IDFA in Amsterdam.
What do you love about creating musician portraiture?
I think it just extends from your own interests. If you were a real foodie then you’d probably make a great food photographer. I’ve always been a music enthusiast and have worked around music and musicians for a long time. Most of the promo music shots I’ve done to date have been of friends or friends of friends.
It’s fun to band together with like minds, at least that’s how it has panned out for me.
How did you come up with the photos/inspiration for Bear Den’s Islands cover art?
I’ve been working with these bearded lads since the inception of the Austin to Boston film back in 2012. They are just lovely dudes and we get along really well. I also really love their music.
When they asked me to work on their debut album artwork I pitched around 4 or 5 concepts. Tonally and lyrically the songs always created imagery in my head from when I first heard them.
The idea we all landed on stemmed from a few specific lyrics, with a particular line referenced from their song Stubborn Beast (“And as you wander your islands, unborn and unloved”). I researched the imagery of desolated islands and inner isolation and ended up selecting a series of arctic type patterns that seem to resonate and emphasis this feeling in an abstract way.
Each of the EPs all took shape from this same approach with added line work illustrations incorporated by my fantastic artist friend Mathew Dodos.
What was your first camera you ever purchased?
I had a few automatic film cameras lying around when I was younger, but nothing too special. I remember my Dad buying me this Japanese miniature underwater camera with its own propriety film. You couldn’t buy it anywhere in Australia so that was really handy (thanks, Dad!). My first digital camera was this super chunky Kodak thing that I left in a cab after a gig. I then had a Canon G3 digital camera when I started travelling overseas.
Later on, when I actually studied photography I started messing around with different digital and film SLR’s. More recently I picked up a beautiful old Rolleiflex, which I really love toying around with.
What was your favourite artist/music event you’ve photographed?
Standing on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury in 2013 has to rate pretty highly. That was one of those bucket list items I had noted years earlier when I first went to the festival as a punter in 2005. Mumford & Sons headlined the Sunday night. James Marcus Haney and I captured their set in front of that enormous crowd. It was also right after Ted from the band had just recovered from a pretty serious operation so everyone was in really good spirits.
For the finale, the band were joined onstage by The Vaccines, Vampire Weekend, The Staves and First Aid Kit to sing “A Little Help For My Friends”. Pretty special moment.
What would you say your photography style is?
Music lifestyle documentary.
What band/musician would you love to photograph?
There are certain artists we’d love to capture for Sideshow Alley. Acts like The War On Drugs and Ryan Adams spring to mind. Let’s add Motley Crue or Journey too just for good measure. As far as portraits are concerned I haven’t really thought too much of it. Documenting tours and events is my first love, but I’m looking forward to expanding on my collaborations with artists for their artwork and promotional works too.
Do you have a photography bucket list?
I’ll be ticking off Bonnaroo in July. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few fantastic opportunities fall in my lap over the last couple of years. I think I’ll continue to maintain this approach and just see what happens. Let’s see where the next adventures leads! Through Sideshow Alley we will be continuing our new path of creating films alongside our episodic content.
What made you want to become a photographer?
It was taking photos on the road that first developed my interest. Firstly on a 6 month camper van tour around Australia with my Mum in my late teens, then later when I travelled a lot while living in London for a period of time. A camera often gives you a purpose to explore, or an excuse depending on how you look at it. Initially it seemed to help justify all of my expenses on travel and music festivals. I worked in a web design capacity for various music venues and festivals in the UK, which also cemented another level of passion for what I do.
Aside from the gigs you have to shoot, what is your own personal music taste?
It’s somewhat eclectic but there is definitely a folk/Americana slant to my regular favourites. Story teller types. The War On Drugs, Beck, Sharon Van Etten, Ryan Adams and Steve Smyth were all high on my list of favourite albums from last year. I’m a big BBC 6 Music and Double J listener.
What’s it like being a curator for live music for Communion Melbourne?
Even before I began collaborating with the Communion Music team on artistic projects I was always a fan of the records they put out. The club night in London has a strong reputation of supporting a long list of amazing artists. In 2012 I worked directly with HQ in London to set up the Melbourne night. It followed the same international format of presenting a different lineup each month offering a creative platform for emerging, developing and established artists to perform in an environment that embraces collaboration and mutual support.
Over the last few years we’ve curated over 50 local and international acts including Vance Joy, Meg Mac, Matt Corby, Willy Mason, Bear’s Den, The Preatures, Ainslie Wills, Ali Barter and The Trouble With Templeton. Melbourne has very rich live music scene. I’ve a lot of respect for the good promoters in this city who continue to look after artists and bring live music to the people! Curating a regular night with 4-5 acts can be a pretty demanding and time consuming task if done right. The Melbourne Folk Club also do a fantastic job of this and well worth a look if you’re not already familiar.
I’m really proud of all the shows we’ve held at The Toff In Town. Unfortunately at the moment I have too many creative projects occupying my time so for the time being the club night is on hold.
What are your top 5 favourite photos you’ve taken of musicians?
Aside from some of the aforementioned shots, here are a handful of others that spring to mind.
Ben Howard in Brooklyn on the Austin to Boston tour
Portrait of Nora Kirkpatrick. An outtake from a photo session with Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes
Willy Mason promo portrait
Bear’s Den promo portrait
Winston Marshall from Mumford & Sons on the Gentlemen of The Road tour in Dungog NSW
To see more of Ty’s awesome photos go to his Website