Austin photographer turns his lens on concert crowds

It could be that superfans — those who storm the fields of Austin’s music festivals as soon as the gates open to grab front-row spots so they can be feet away from Radiohead or Drake or Slayer when the musicians go on stage hours later — have a screw loose, or maybe they’re just living life a little harder than the rest of us. Either way, Austin photographer Sandy Carson took notice of this special breed of concertgoer early on.

“Some of the people are just totally knackered by the time the band goes on; some are being pulled out of there by heat exhaustion. It’s just crazy,” Carson says.

Being inside the photo pit, as it’s called, can feel almost as intense as staying in the front row for 11 hours. Usually photographers get access to this area, a kind of corral between the stage and the crowd, for just three songs.

“It’s pretty hectic; some of the pits have between 50 and 100 photographers,” Carson says. “Sometimes you might just get one song.”

Over time, Carson felt that the photography routine at the headlining sets could be a little monotonous, with 50 photographers eyeing the bands with long lenses. “They’re all just getting the same picture,” he says. “If it’s that, I would just take two shots of the band and shoot the audience.”

And the shots he took of those crowds are remarkable, as you can see at his exhibit “We Were There” at East Austin’s Pump Project gallery.

Carson, who is originally from Scotland, landed in Austin as a pro BMX bike rider in the late ’90s. But photography was always part of the mix.

“I was always juggling them simultaneously, both careers,” Carson says. When BMX fell away, he says, “it was an easy transition — I was already traveling the world riding bikes.”

Carson, who still has sponsors for touring bikes, got his start shooting music festivals for The Austin Chronicle, among others, but found out that the photography side of things was hardly less wild than racing bikes.

“Sometimes you’ll have four headliners playing at once,” Carson says. “You’ll be in the pit with one band for one shot, sprint across (the field) and hope you get in there.”

Every so often, though, you get to see one of your favorite bands with no one else around. “Sometimes you’ll just take a couple shots and just stand there for three songs and enjoy it, because it’s like your own personal gig from the band,” he says.

Carson straddles editorial photography and more formal artistic work. He’s had photography published in The Guardian and The New York Times, had previous solo shows at Okay Mountain and shown art at Grayduck, Houston’s Lawndale and elsewhere.

This exhibit’s cover photo, from an Anthrax show, caught four fans with wildly different expressions: One guy’s got his hand on his forehead in disbelief; another holds up his band T-shirt; a third is almost in tears; and a fourth is bowing his head and raising his arm.

There’s an amazing mix of emotions in all Carson’s images: ecstasy, exhaustion, boredom, alienation, excitement, shock and joy. His subjects are a mix of genders, of young and old.

“These are die-hard people,” Carson says. “It’s kind of a religious experience for these guys.”

Carson sifted through thousands of these crowd photos, shot over 10 years. He has an eye for wit — a cardboard Elijah Wood peers out at a James Blake concert — and for shots that capture people at some sort of emotional peak. At times his subjects are beautifully lit by eerie natural light.

There’s a companion book of photos published after a successful Kickstarter campaign last spring. The book is smartly designed to include a 7-inch vinyl flexi disc featuring a song each from Austin heavy metal fave the Sword and psych rockers the Black Angels. The Pump Project show also features a selfie booth that Carson has decked out with cutouts so visitors can pop their heads into a crowd shot.

Among other obstacles — the heat, the rules, the long day — there’s an etiquette system in live music photography, Carson says. “You always got to look behind you and make sure you’re not blocking someone.” The bands are above you on stage, a shot that’s all chin, but you can’t lift your camera above you — a definite no-no.

Carson recalls an Odd Future show at South by Southwest that had a small pit. “That one was crazy. Sometimes when it’s a really tiny pit like that, you get cameras getting kicked, you get stomped on, bodies are going over you.” Carson pulls the video up on YouTube for people who don’t believe how that one went down.

“I remember seeing Slayer at Fun Fun Fun Fest, and people had waited all day long, it was the last gig of the night, and they hadn’t played in forever. I actually hadn’t seen them since I was a teenager,” Carson says.

The crowd was getting rowdy. “When the band went on, the (security) barriers were about to go down,” Carson says. “The band were loud.”

Not to mention all the photographers in the pit, Carson says, headbanging while taking pictures. “That was a good one.”

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