The song that kicked off my music photography career

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, HG associate editor Lilian Min or a guest writer will identify a song, album, or musical artist and explore its significant influence on their lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

The easiest way to explain how I felt about high school is this: I woke up every morning to Arcade Fire’s Funeral. I thought myself sooo clever for the choice, but after I went to college, I decided to get some morning (or, y’know, early afternoon) wake-up music that actually kicked the day off right. My pick: Passion Pit’s “Sleepyhead.”

The song bursts at the seams with texture: The languid opening squeal, the curling and trembling vocal distortions, the glitter and sparkle peppering the production, and, floating above it all, Michael Angelakos’ clarion vocals. Sure, the lyrics are all about not getting up, but in the cleansing bloom of the song’s brightness and positivity, how could you stop the spread of a smile on your face and roll out of bed to get on with the beautiful new day? I was a fan of the other songs on Passion Pit’s first EP, Chunk of Change, and then their debut album Manners, so when the band rolled into Los Angeles on tour for the latter, I asked the editor of the college paper I’d been writing for if I could review their show for the site. “Sure,” she said, “And let me see if I can get you a photo pass.”

“Photo pass”? What was that? As someone who’d generally been forbidden by her parents from going to live music shows during high school, I didn’t have the foggiest idea about how the music industry worked and how people who weren’t established music writers entered it. However, I had a lot of opinions about music (a side effect of having studied classically for over a decade) and was eager to spend all my college freedom bussing around LA to all the cool rock clubs and venues. I jumped at the chance to publish my work on the site—along with shaky phone photos—but I’d grown up seeing posters and photos of incredible live music shots, on fictional characters’ bedroom walls and then among the rooms in my own dorm. I just didn’t think I would even be half qualified to be taking those photos.

The day before the Passion Pit show, my editor gave me the news: I’d indeed be shooting the show, but had to be walked through the preparation steps by my patient editor. “Do you have a DSLR camera?” (No… and what’s a DSLR?) “Do you know how to check out a camera through our school’s equipment room?” (No.) “You have taken photos, right?” (…Yes?) Eventually, I set off for the venue with a giant camera bag and no expectations and asked the other, older photographers at the show to walk me through the rest: Photo pit check-in, pit etiquette, the three-song rule. The rest is recorded in digital.

Passion Pit at the Hollywood Palladium, 2010

Looking at these photos, I feel a sense of pride. Yes, I uploaded way too many of them; yes, I used flash when I shouldn’t have (a fellow photog literally clamped his hand on my camera and hissed “Don’t do that!”); yes, so many of these images are blurry or dark or both. But there’s something charming about memorializing the exact moment you discovered you liked something; I’d really tried to learn an art form in the span of a night.

A few months later, I took an editor role at that publication, and found myself doing that same “What do you know?” Q&A to peers across the years. Sometimes, I found myself working with freshmen veterans whose skills and equipment were eons ahead of mine, but most of the people who sat down with me to discuss what to do with this “photo pass” thing were coming into it as blindly as I had — and I’ve seen many of them blossom in the field the same way I’d like to think I did. (As for me, I’ve lost count of the number of shows I’ve shot, let alone been to, and have worked as press for local and internationally-recognized festivals [including the one that rhymes with “Brohella.”])

Live music photography is tough; the “formal” title for it, used jokingly by those who shoot shows, is “low light action portraiture,” and all of those components come together to create a difficult shooting environment. Unlike certain kinds of popular photography like, say, food or still portraits, you can’t control light or account for the actions of the people you’re trying to capture within your frame—all you have is your equipment and your general savviness and eye. I didn’t own my own camera for years, and even now, I’m using a much cheaper and smaller model than many of the people I share pits with, those who tend to skew older, maler, and taller than I am. Nothing makes me feel as small as being shoved out of the way by a large man who, after climbing atop a mini step-stool, is a full foot higher than me; nothing makes me feel as big as when I look at my photos afterward and find spectacular shots regardless.

Lorde at Coachella, 2014

A couple of weekends ago, I had the pleasure of shooting FYF Fest and catching acts like Run the Jewels, Kanye West, D’Angelo, and FKA twigs sing, rap, and scream their art in the shadow of the Los Angeles Coliseum, a stone’s throw away from my alma mater. Heading there for the first time as a photographer felt like a homecoming of sorts; FYF was one of the first things I learned about when I moved into college, and while I was working at my school publication, we’d been denied photo and press credentials several times. Though I’d attended last year’s festival, I had gone as a spectator, but here I was five years after the fact, finally working at a level my teenage self couldn’t have even imagined.

Armed with platform sneakers and shorts with pockets, I ran between stages to claim good early positions in the pit, bobbed and weaved between dozens of other photographers to sneak in good angles, and tried not to stare in awe as I viewed many of my musician idols through my lens. Shooting and editing can be an all-hours slog—after a full weekend of shows, I didn’t finish editing my photos until 4 am on Monday morning; I woke up only a few hours later for work and washed the still-fresh festival dirt from my face.

FKA twigs at FYF Fest, 2015

Looking through the photos takes me back, not just to that first show but also to the uncertainty I had upon entering college, and then further back to my memories writing short stories and essays for my middle school English classes. I’d been a “prolific” writer, filling journal after journal with the mixture of nonsense and kid clarity, complaining about my friends and unfair teachers while also crafting hundred-page narratives that would abruptly end when I tired of the tale. The act of writing was something I took seriously then; I wasn’t the “best” at it, but I liked it. I feel the same way now about show photography, which has opened doors I didn’t know existed and given me an additional sense of purpose and inquiry within the live music environment.

I stopped writing recreationally for a while in high school, devoting more time to math and science and the pursuit of “real studies.” Even now, my parents don’t consider writing a legitimate profession/career, but with show photography, I’ve found common ground with my father, who raised my sister and me on National Geographic photo essays. He prefers critiquing my Flickr feed over reading my articles, and whenever I take a trip anywhere or even just hang out with friends around LA, he’ll ask me, “Leo, are you going to bring your camera?” I’ll send him shots from my phone; he’ll email me huge photos and then text me, “Did u get my email???” Photography is technically his hobby, but when I ask him how he’s doing, very rarely does he mention his actual 9-to-5 job. Instead, he’ll show me photos of where he’s been since I last visited, the many selfies he takes with my mom, and newly digitized photos of me and my sister from when we were young.

He’s always been fond of taking photos, rustling together awkward holiday portraits and group vacation shots for now decades. His photos used to consist mostly of family members, but as my sister and I have moved out of the family home and his own father has passed away, I’ve noticed that more and more of his photos are devoid of people: sunrises over foreign mountain ranges and wild animals in unexpected places and close-ups of foods whose names he can’t pronounce. His one constant subject is my mother, who gamely goes along with his framing and sometimes snaps him back.

Family vacation in China, 2008. Dad taking a photo, Mom resigned in the background.

My father’s most frequent complaint about my show photos is that they’re too dark (seconded by the thought that I go to too many shows); but, even if I don’t tell my parents about everything I’m doing in LA, I know that dark or not, he checks the notification he gets every time I have a new upload. Perhaps they give him a window to a world he finds alien, the way I first felt when I started this work. Perhaps he sees these images as missives from the the modern young, while he finds solace capturing the things he understands. We grew up decades and an ocean apart, but we both find a thrill in the click of the shutter. His journey began a long time ago and for reasons I think I understand; I got here through a song.

My dad and me (in marching band gear) in 2011.

I don’t listen to Passion Pit that much anymore; in the years since I first started listening to them, I started learning more about feminism and subsequently leaning, fairly or not, more toward music by women and sung through women’s voices. Passion Pit, for their part, has woven in and out of the indie music conversation, one of many bands whose first impression is their strongest.

But every now and then, their name comes up in conversation; or, more likely, I pack my camera bag for another show and think back to that first gig. One of the photographers I’d met during the Passion Pit show told me, “You always remember your first” and laughed the comment off as dude humor, but the experience did stick with me. Of course, that’s the case with any show I shoot, whether it be an small gig with a rising artist (like Tove Lo right after releasing “Habits”) or a festival on the brink of expansion (like HARD Summer 2013). Pixel landscapes of an audio medium — my additional effort to supplementing the music writing I took up and which hope to make my life.

I listened to “Sleepyhead” over and over during the writing of this piece, and every time the song kicked in again, I felt a stab in my heart — not of pain or heartbreak, but of that potent mixture of nostalgia and deep, blanketing love. It’s a song that brings me back, but instead of a time and a place, it’s an instant portal to a way of being: Uncertain, but hopeful for the world ahead; struggling to find my place in an industry I knew next to nothing about, and stumbling into and falling head-first into it. It’s been a weird and wild ride, but the longer I stick with it, the surer I am that this is not just worth doing, but important, and not just for me.

Images courtesy of the author.