Most photographic books documenting music and musicians are the result of a lifetime’s musical interest or music industry commissions; those commissions as often as not don't exist in the traditional world. Organisers and participants in clubs and festivals - including a good few professional photographers - are usually too busy organising or participating to set up their guests for planned shots; gig pictures, most certainly.
In late Spring 2011, Irish freelance photographer and writer Stephen Power told the world through Facebook and stock photography forums that he had secured a contract based on a book proposal, Traditional Notes. Regardless of his own interest in Irish traditional music, and any photographs he already had in the bag from years of attending events and playing in sessions, this book was to be a planned documentary produced to a very tight schedule to hit the Christmas 2011 market.
Most of the content had to be photographed – a punishing schedule of daily driving to meet subjects spread out across all the counties of a surprisingly sprawling small island, together with a flying visit to the Tønder festival in Denmark.
The 224 pages of this paperback are not intensive reading. The written notes are simple, set in a large type which no-one will find taxing on the eyes. The photographs often stand alone as essays on individual performers, instruments or the instrument makers. The style is unaffected by today’s brief fashions for HDR (high dynamic range) painting effects, or the ‘dragan look’ (desaturated, contrasty, hyper-real - the process used on TV to make obese people look awful and Gordon Ramsey dead hard). Instead, all the shots are classically handled for realistic colour and tone, just as you would have expected from traditional film and darkroom work, making the pictures an objective documentary record. It would also have been too easy to have hammed this up with fake-grainy monochrome photojournalism, John Hedgecoe-style artist portraits – but Power keeps it absolutely straight. His 'traditional' notes made with notebook and camera are also part of a different tradition in their own right.
Because most of the book’s photography has been shot in a single intensive season, unlike most music photo archives created over many years it captures the Irish traditional music world of 2011. It’s a sort of publishing time capsule for the future, and one hopes that bodies like the Irish National Portrait Gallery will think hard about acquiring the content in archival print form (I've said exactly this in my original review written for the photographic press, and will repeat it as Stephen continues to look for opportunities).
It’s unlikely to be done again, or done as well, or by anyone as involved and committed as Power, who is an occasional Irish bouzouki player himself, and was a music shop owner before embarking on a very successful photographic career.
This book is an example of something which UK photographers find increasingly difficult to contemplate, as the UK economy continues to lack the enterprising confidence shown in Ireland. You could imagine similar projects working in Scotland or Wales for many reasons, but struggling in England. It would be a challenge to document the whole UK scene, and rather much for a single photographer to tackle all of Scotland - certainly in a single year.
We have seen projects like Trevor Yerbury's portraits of Scottish personalities (the photo show which 'opened' Edinburgh's Ocean Terminal shopping centre) or Mark Leightley's 48-portrait black and white exhibition and book A Gathering Of Folk (exhibited at his local Museum of Guernsey in 2003). Because of the nature of festivals, it can be difficult to stage a photo exhibition - they do it under canvas in Turkey and in the open air in France, but when Steve Bloom's wonderful Spirit Of The Wild pictures came to St Andrew Square in Edinburgh the weatherproof outdoor prints were described as an 'installation' - art-world code for prohibitively expensive!
It would be great to see an initiative promoting photography of the kind Stephen Power has produced. It's another example of Ireland showing us the way.
(professional photographer and programme organiser for Kelso Folk & Live Music Club)