Medicine Boy at The Mercury, March 2017

I’ve been wanting to see Medicine Boy play live for a long time. There have been few enough psychedelic rock bands in South Africa, and fewer still that have managed to attract audiences outside the country. But I’ve either missed out on sold-out shows, or had conflicting engagements.

My buddy Jason and I entered the hot, three-quarters full Mercury–once the crack team at the door had conquered the arithmetic  necessary to make change.

Heroine were just finishing. It was a shame because they sounded great. I heard heavy toms with two female voices harmonising cooly over the top. I’m eager to see this three piece in the future.

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Heroine img src: facebook.com/heroine

Jason and I agreed that  an all-male outfit didn’t fit the name, The Deathrettes–no matter how great it is. They delivered rousing garage psych-rock at the beginning and end of their set, with a bit of a sag in the middle. The tousled-blonde front man is great on lead guitar, but a psych-rock front-man needs a touch of mystery, and this dude was all party, drinks, and “Wassup mu’fuckaz!”

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The Deathrettes img src: theblogthatcelebratesitself

Medicine Boy nails that mystery. The band is a two piece turned three piece. On the right of the stage, the golden-haired, sleek Lucy Kruger as the witch priestess in black, slamming emphasis on a drum by her keyboard with a mallet that doubles as a wand of invocation. On the other side, Andre Leo is a dark, tangled Puck in skinny jeans, slinging an electric guitar. Between them is a drummer so shrouded in rear-stage gloom that I thought at first they were still using a drum machine (either he was using triggers or the drum-miking was excellent).

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Andre Leo and Lucy Kruger of Medicine Boy img src: medicineboy.bandcamp.com

The pair created a ritualistic theatricality that you seldom see in South African bands. They were often visually separated on stage by saturated monochrome light–Lucy in red and Andre in blue. She used formal sweeps of her drum mallet, standing either facing the audience or in complete profile. He moved more wildly and erratically. Her voice is always pitched high and clear, his low and murmuring. Their parts are kept nicely distinct.

The music too is a series of soft-loud-soft contrasts, as you can hear in their recordings. The sound is reminiscent of Heron Oblivion, but has its own set of timbres and motifs. Heard live, the sounds are delicious. Too often, bands that use harsh sounds are simply unsophisticated and grating. Andre uses rich bursts of howling fuzz or near toneless bursts of ring-modulation static. Keyboards and clean guitars are lush or chiming. I’ve mentioned how solidly the drums came through the PA.

But there’s always some cock-up with the sound at Mercury, like day follows night. The lyrics were entirely inaudible (the only exception being a snatch of Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat). I’m fairly certain that the lyrics add a lot to feeling immersed in this music. So that was a damn shame. Then there’s the audience. Jason said as we walked to the car, he wonders whether it’s just the old man in him. I said, we’d definitely have been pissed when we were teenagers by that scene. At one point during the first of a pair of sweet, gentle songs, I looked around and wondered if I was the only person listening. Everyone I could see in front of the stage was yacking it up at the top of their voices–few even turned to face the stage. I strongly doubt that this is the band’s experience in Europe.

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Medicine Boy img src: infinity.co.za

After one encore, during which the crowd that had paid more than usual to see this band completely ignored Andre’s suggestion that they all be quiet to listen, the band left and, although I could have listened longer, I wouldn’t have wanted to put them through more of that.

I want to see this band again in an audience that enjoys listening to music.

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Nobody Cares About Your Photography

A video post by The Art of Photography expressed a lot of thoughts I’d been mulling around photography. The video is called Nobody Cares About Your Photography. I’d highly recommend watching it, whether you’re a professional, a serious amateur, or even just a fan of photography.

When I posted it on a Facebook group catering to photographers who still enjoy using film, I was surprised that many people seemed to misunderstand what it asks of us–especially since, as I’d noted in my post, film photographers are not great followers of the herd. Many critics in the comments to my post believed that the video creator was unfairly asking us to do something never before seen in photography, or sell our cameras. That is not at all what I hear in this video, and I’d like to briefly explain.

I used this example from my photography. I took the image below in the Drakensberg Mountains (“Dragon Mountains”) here in South Africa. Now this is a pretty picture that used a lot of accumulated skill to achieve. The composition, the choice of film, the choice of shutter speed and aperture, the setting of the focus point, the height of the tripod, the cunning extra bracing against a sapling and weighing down of said tripod were all consciously worked out using what I’d learned over many years.

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It’s pretty. I’m fond of it. But look what happens if I google, “forest stream slow shutter” There are literally thousands of images–some better, some worse–that attempt to do exactly the same thing. We’ve absorbed an idea as photographers that success is to achieve the same beautiful image that many other people have already taken.

Here’s my symmetrical picture of the Taj Mahal. When I look at this, I wonder why I even pressed the shutter. Even some of the pics I took of the Taj to give a “different” view, because I wasn’t unconscious of this issue, probably get taken several to hundreds of times a day.

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Now it’s all very well to say: “Ah. But this is mine. It’s a souvenir of my trip.” But then why even bother learning the skills of photography and investing in expensive gear? If it’s just a souvenir, and you can find better on any google image search, why not just take a few phone snaps?

And here’s where the critics feel cornered. “If I can’t take any original photographs of the Taj Mahal, what do you suggest I photograph? Should I just leave my camera at home?” And the video actually answers that question.

Let’s stop trying to take pictures that are of universal importance. Most of us well never succeed. Even most pros never take anything that will be remembered by the world in general. The alternative is to use your skills to take pictures that are of specific, local importance. Often this means a body of work instead of trying to take that one killer image of an over-famous place, that sells for six and a half million dollars (inexplicably, in my opinion. This is another image of a clichéd subject that is not really rejuvenated by a slight twist. I very much doubt that this image will retain its value).

Projects are key. Projects that will be of lasting importance to people and places that otherwise go poorly documented. The example I used in my Facebook post was documenting your kid’s karate tour. A critic said that that had been done before. That misses the point. People come and go. Unless they’re Brangelina, they very rarely get photographed like the Taj Mahal. A highly skilled photographer can turn their camera to something like that, and it will be valued by all involved for their lifetime and quite likely beyond.

Likewise, a local community, and its buildings and businesses, will go undocumented but for dodgy snapshots on phones that will likely mostly be lost. Look at some of the amazing sequences taken by amateurs featured on The Retronaut. These pictures are important now both as documents and because they looked beyond the limited sight of a snap-shooter. This may not allow for the autopilot shooting of half-dome in Yosemite, but it will be valued long after everyone realises that none of those photographs of Yosemite mean anything after Ansel Adams made the definitive images.

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Photographers a Yosemite. All trying to get exactly the same picture. img src: petapixel.com

A series of images of unusual animal behaviour rather than trying to get the perfect image of that animal. A series of studio lit portraits of show-chickens. Your local hiking area instead of bloody Lake Louise (if I never again see one…). These are things that are beyond a quick google search to find thousands of beautiful images. No one’s asking you to give up photography, or to become the next Henri Cartier-Bresson. Use your skills, as the video says, for things that matter. Things that matter to someone, not everyone. But those over-photographed places and those clichéd images don’t matter to anyone who’s capable of using google image search.

My project isn’t going to be terribly exciting. I simply intend to take a lot of portraits of people I know, as well as I can, using my Pentax 6×7 and one of those beautiful colour negative films that give such magic skin tones (e.g., Portra 160, Fujicolour NPH400) and then make very large, 20″x24″ photographic prints to give to the subject. With luck, a handful of them will be in the possession of great, great grand-children, and great-great grand nephews and nieces as among the best images they have of a long dead relative, taken by a long-dead photographer. By then, the only picture of Half-Dome in Yosemite anyone will care about will still be one by Ansel Adams.

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Moon and Half-Dome by Ansel Adams. img src: tumblr.com