Rock Photography Is Fading Fast

| 10/15/2008 4:37:19 PM

Rock photoWhat has happened to great rock concert photography? Is it part of a bygone era, or has the music industry forgone photographers due to control issues? A mix of both, says Mark Paytress in Creative Review’s article "Three Songs and Yer Out! The Dying Art of Gig Photography" (reprinted from a recent issue of M magazine). The "three songs" refers to an industry-wide guideline that photographers are allowed access to the artists only for the first three songs of a performance. The practice started as a courtesy to performers to keep distracting flash bulbs to a minimum. But then it worked its way around the scene and became the rule at most venues. Artists and their management blame the venues for enforcing the rule, while the venues insist they're just doing what they're told by the management.

Blame game aside, it's difficult to capture great images when you know you're racing against the clock. Paytress points out that some of the greatest photos of rock 'n' roll came from the latter part of the set. For example, Pennie Smith snapped Paul Simonon of the Clash smashing his bass at a show in an image that would later be used as the cover for their classic album London Calling.

The three-song rule is a symptom rather than the illness. For the past decade or so, musicians have increasingly gone from being entertainers to being corporations. Case in point: Both Madonna and Jay-Z left their longtime labels to sign with concert promoter Live Nation. The PR departments of these corporations try to control images of their clients all costs, shunning the raw candid shot for staged, vetted images. Add the limited opportunities to the ever-shrinking medium of music imagery (the evolution from LP to CD and CD to digital thumbnail image), and you can see why Paytress and many photogs call concert photography a dying art.

All that's really left for rock photography are studio shoots, where the photographer and the artists can explore their creativity, albeit without the delicious spontaneity of a live show. But with the music industry continuing on a downward spiral, who knows how far budgets for those shoots will stretch.

Although the outlook is bleak, there are still great photos out there. You can find some of them at: Rock Archive (, Redferns Music Picture Library (, Rex Features (, Photographic Youth Music Culture Archive (, and Steve Gullick (

Image courtesy of, licensed under Creative Commons.

Concert Photos Magazine_2
8/12/2010 10:03:49 AM

Many photographers are pushing back the strict limitations being imposed on concert photographers both in physical limitations on shooting photos and in the rights-grabbing releases. New on the block - Concert Photos Magazine http:/

Hali McGrath
5/26/2009 6:13:01 PM

THANK YOU Rachel Levitt and UTNE for even addressing this subject. I've been a concert photographer for 15 years. Having to work within the "First 3 Songs/No Flash" rule for so long, I can usually get what I need within the 9-10 minutes window. However, from an historic standpoint, I can't get the best representation of the show as a whole. Case in point when I shot India.Arie in April I was long gone by the time she had dressed up in an amazing butterfly costume. I can't speak for my fellow shooters, but I always put the fans first and I try not to be a distraction. But when I'm allowed to shoot the show from start to finish, I'm even more invisible because I can take my time and go with the flow. It seems to me the few "bad apples" who take advantage of the access could be removed by security rather than limiting "the whole bunch." I won't hold my breath for any changes to the rule. As long as music photography is treated merely as a means to an end (publicity) instead of what it strives to be--Art.

11/20/2008 12:05:48 AM

Proof that great concert photography still exists even if a 3 songs and out policy is in effect? The only reason great rock photography is a dying art is due to the fact that great photography itself is a dying art. Photography is an industry that has become the victim of the digital camera generation. Too many people are simply purchasing professional photography equip. with little to no real understanding of how to technically and effectively use the that five thousand dollar camera they are holding in their hot little hands. A great photojournalist can get THE MONEY shots in the three sounds and out policy, and easily walk away with over 400 high quality images. It all boils down to the person behind the camera and their skill as a photographer despite 3 songs out out.

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