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INTERVIEW/GALLERY: Pat Blashill
Yohann Koshy , December 4th, 2013 06:57

The rock lensman and writer talks us through a selection of images, including shots of Sun Ra, My Bloody Valentine and George Clinton, from his recently launched website Poison

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The excellent music photographer and journalist Pat Blashill has recently launched a new website, Poison, showcasing some of his superb music photography from 1983-1995. It's currently split into three sections, 'Gimme Indie Rock!', featuring My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and Pixies, 'Afronauts and other Legends', which hosts Sun Ra, Fela Kuti and The Cure, and 'Austin 1985 A.D.', with Daniel Johnston and the Butthole Surfers amongst others. Blashill tells us it's a work in progress, with more photographs from his archives, including images of the Sugarcubes, Pussy Galore and Public Enemy, but he's given us a selection of the shots currently online.

Says Blashill: "I began shooting a 35mm camera in 1977, when I was in high school in Austin, Texas. Once I got to college, a lot of my friends seemed to be forming bands, so I started taking pictures of them. One of the first punk rockers I met was David Yow, and when somebody told me SPIN magazine needed pictures of his band Scratch Acid, I called up the photo editor, and caught my first break. In the next few years, I made pictures of various musicians and superfreaks for Melody Maker, Rolling Stone, The New York Times and Forced Exposure. I really loved photographing the Butthole Surfers and My Bloody Valentine, but my favourite subject may have been George Clinton, because I only had about ten minutes with him, and he made every second count."

Over e-mail, Blashill gave us his witty and illuminating perspectives on the nature of photography, memory and music - have a read below, and click on the image below to begin scrolling through the selection:

Despite some of these photos being taken over twenty years ago, many of the subjects are still very prominent. There's a Fela Kuti musical on Broadway, The Cure continue to headline festivals and, of course, My Bloody Valentine recently released mbv. So how do you think your subjects and our perceptions of them age, mature (or immature) in relation to your photographs? Are these images instances of a fleeting past or forecasts of what's to come?

Pat Blashill: Yes, many of these musicians continue to loom large in our imaginations but I still think of Kevin Shields as this young man, even though I know rationally we've all gotten older. My perception of him and his band is locked to these images. Frozen. Maybe it's the opposite of watching old sci-fi films and laughing at the way they depict the future. We know the artists we love have got older but we still think of them as these young rascals.

That said, I've always liked looking at the family photos of my friends and lovers because I can always recognise the adult I know in their childhood photos! As a young man, I didn't think much about aging or time and I didn't think what would become of the people I was photographing. Then and now, I think I take pictures for the same reason I write. It's my way of trying to understand the world. So, instead of trying to capture their fleeting youth, I was curious about the music these people made and wanted to understand it through them.

And as for the second part of your question, many of my subjects have no relation or even an awareness of these images, and that's not right. I built a website for my music pictures primarily because I want to make sure the bands themselves and their fans see these images.

The Fela Kuti and Robert Smith photographs are particularly interesting. Whereas Smith is draped in black, holding his bag close to his chest, his eyes suggested a confidence or forward-thinking anticipation. Conversely, Fela, despite being dressed like an Afro-beat messiah, seems somewhat forlorn and vulnerable! So, who do you find yourself photographing, the projected image or the person behind that image? Or are the two inseparable?

PB: Ha! Fela and Robert Smith, two great tastes that taste great together! Yours is an interesting reading; both Smith and Fela struck me as very charismatic. Fela was actually onstage, Smith was not, but both were performing for us. Persona and person do blur together and the space between them is where the interesting stuff happens. I don't think I was trying to capture the truth about these people, I only wanted to get a facet of them, or maybe just an image that others could recognise and identify. As in, "Ah! That's the creature who sings 'Just Like Heaven'?".

Which do you prefer capturing: the posed or candid photograph? How do you feel they differ in terms of the insight they offer? The same goes for black & white or colour photography: how do you choose which to use and for what reasons?

PB: I like it all. Candid, posed, black and white, and colour. They're just different flavours of the same thing. I do think posed photographs are underrated because the way that someone poses for you tells you a lot about them. And true candid photographs are almost impossible to make, especially today when we're all aware that we're being recorded, posted and photographed 24/7. Hello NSA!

I took a lot of black and white pictures because of the control it afforded me. At punk rock shows, I could control the exposure (unless the moshing was really violent, in which case I was just trying to keep my head from getting kicked in) and in the darkroom, I could control the contrast and texture of the film and the look of the prints. I liked the vividness of 35mm colour slide film but I didn't do the darkroom work with it, so I had less control over those images. Now of course this is all different, I shoot colour, digital pictures and fuck with them in Photoshop.

Finally, with the rise of high quality camera phones that anyone and everyone has at a gig, and the increasing use of .gifs to portray musicians online, what role do you feel music photography ought to and will play in the future?

PB: That is the twenty-dollar question right there. I very much like being able to go to Facebook or Tumblr or Flickr and see photographs of an awesome punk rock show that happened in Zagreb last night. I think photography can still be a way to get the news out about something, and a fantastic way of understanding the world around you.

As a profession though, photography is a pretty good past-time. A lot of the photographers I know are unemployed or have switched to another line of work. One thing I've noticed is that even though everyone can take better photos now, some pictures still stand out in this sea of imagery we swim in. I often see photographs praised as "great captures" as if someone is saying, "Hey, congratulations for being in the right place at the right time and pushing a little button!".

The best photographers continue to be those who have looked at the photographs of people like Diane Arbus, Robert Frank or Andreas Gursky and then asked themselves, "Why do I like this image?". The most vital photographers don't always think about capturing something but they do think very carefully about how they are organising information within the four lines of the frame.

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