Freezing Time

I had long wanted to see Bob Dylan live, and took advantage of his performing in Cardiff, Wales, about two hours from where I live to tick that off my bucket list. Festooned around the arena like bunting were signs which, with both pictograms and strong words, warned that photos were not allowed. Having front row seats, and wishing to take a photo of the empty stage before the show, I asked the usher if this would be allowed. He apologetically explained that this was a zero-tolerance rule set down by Dylan himself. I had read a review of the previous night’s concert in Manchester, which told about ushers removing people from the audience who persisted in trying to take pictures. So I put my phone in my pocket and sat down to wait for Bob to come on stage.

It’s very common that people take pictures at concerts. Many people spend much of their time at concerts holding their cellphones up and filming the events. You can see this on photos taken at concerts, and on numerous YouTube videos concertgoers post. Unless the person shooting the footage is in the front row, you see countless other cellphones, their screens radiating a bluish light on their owners, creating a sort of wall of screens between the audience and the performers.

I understand Bob Dylan’s desire to have people pay attention to his music-making, rather than have it mediated by a screen. In addition, the constant flashing of lights is distracting to the those on stage. Benedict Cumberbatch, who recently performed Hamlet in London, had to ask the audience to stop filming and taking pictures during the play. Of course, the irony was that, in order to circulate this request, he had to do it in front of fans filming him at the stage door of the theater where he was performing.[1]

I attend the theater often, living near Stratford-Upon-Avon, where the Royal Shakespeare Company performs in its two theaters. There are announcements before each performance asking people not to take pictures, and to turn off their cellphones and digital watches. Only once have I seen someone attempt to take a photo during a performance. I was in the first balcony, and someone a half-dozen seats to my right attempted to snap the actors bowing on stage at the curtain call. An angry usher rushed down near me – I was sitting on the aisle – shined her flashlight on the young woman, and tried to get her to stop. The usher was more of an annoyance than the spectator who merely wanted one photo of the cast. However, no one is ever bothered if they take pictures of the stage before the shows begin (something I have done often).


(A photo of the empty stage before the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2015 production of Othello.)

I might have wanted one photo of Dylan and his band, but I wouldn’t have spent my time shooting video of the concert. I had spent serious money for front row VIP tickets, and wanted to focus entirely on the music. But I did see the occasional flash – and usher’s flashlight – during the concert, as people tried to get personal memories of the evening.

Why do people feel the need to have a visual record of what they are seeing with their own eyes? Is this an attempt to reify the feelings they have while attending a performance? Is it to have visual evidence, proof that they were, indeed, listening to Bob Dylan? “Pics or it didn’t happen,” one often hears. Or is it, like the many selfies people take in various locations, just a modern equivalent of dogs pissing on benches?

I saw many concerts as a teenager in New York, in venues both large and small, and, while I don’t remember particulars of any of them, many of them exist in my mind in a sort of crystallized form. I have vague memories of many of these events, with either good or disappointed feelings, but nothing more. For many concerts, I still have ticket stubs, and perusing them acts like a sort of madeleine that brings me back to the mood and feelings of specific shows.

One concert I remember well took place on November 11, 1978. My friend Jay and I traveled to Philadelphia to hear Jorma Kaukonen play a solo acoustic concert.[2] I remember the date because this was the first time the Grateful Dead performed on Saturday Night Live; quite an important event for us Deadheads. We were sitting in the fifth row of Irvine Auditorium at the University of Pennsylvania. We had whippets that night; those little cartridges of nitrous oxide that give you a fleeting rush. In a recording of the concert, about three songs in, you can hear when Jay slipped up trying to inhale one of the whippets which noisily leaked from the small dispenser. This was in between songs, and Jorma said, "is that nitrous oxide I hear?" The audience cheered, of course; altered states were the norm at this kind of concert.

There’s an audience recording of this concert, made from very close to where we were sitting (close enough to hear the whippet’s whoosh). The quality is not excellent, and in no way reproduces the excellent music we heard that evening, nor the feeling of seeing such a great concert in seats so close to the stage. But if I listen to that recording, memories of the event come back to me, through a veil of time. I don’t have any photos of the show, and I don’t recall seeing many people with cameras at most of the concerts I attended. Sure, you can see the flashbulbs going off during concert films from the 1970s in large arenas, but with a limited number of shots on a roll of film, and the cost of developing it, people didn’t spend an entire concert trying to take pictures.

I remember watching the New York Jets play the Oakland Raiders in the AFL championship game in January, 1969. Sitting behind the end zone in Shea Stadium, the cold New York winter permeated my clothes and my body, freezing my feet. I drank a constant supply of hot chocolate from the ambulatory vendor who carried a tank around on his back. I don’t remember much of the game, other than the fact that the Jets won (And eventually won the Super Bowl), but I have a strong memory of sitting in the stands, huddled in my parka, freezing in the cold winter afternoon. I have no photos, no selfies, no autographs, no videos, noting but my memories.

My youth is full of these fleeting recollections, all of which are tinged by time and by the disintegration of memory. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I had photographs and videos of these events. Would they seem more real? Or would my actual memories of the events be different because they were visually frozen in time?

I’ve bought keepsakes from a number of events I attended over the years. I’ve bought t-shirts at concerts, catalogs at art exhibits, and, these days, you can by downloads of concerts you’ve seen, in some cases buying quickly burned CDs on your way out of the venue.[3] But the best keepsakes are the ones in the mind; the feeling of the event, the reminder of the thrill of seeing your favorite band come out on stage as the lights go on and the audience erupts in applause, and the experience of hearing your favorite band on stage without the filter of a recording studio.

What is the value of a blurry photo of Bob Dylan and his band on stage taken from the 30th row? Sure, it reminds the person who took the picture where they were sitting, the colors of the suits the band was wearing – scarlet, for this concert – and the lighting on stage, but its very blurriness suggests that it doesn’t tell a true story. It is, perhaps, something to tweet, or share on Facebook or Instagram, but beyond that, it’s nothing more than proof that the photographer was at the concert. (And took the photo at the risk of missing the rest of the concert.)

We live in a world where everyone has a camera in their pocket and can take photos or videos of whatever goes on around them, with no worries about needing special lights or developing film. These images can be saved or shared instantly. But do we need all these photos and videos? We often see people walking around points of interest taking photos, viewing landmarks through a lens, rather than through their own eyes.

Are we all Zeligs of our own lives, wishing to prove our existence by demonstrating where we have been, and what important events we have attended? Do we need these visual reminders of what we have done, what we have seen, who we have been with to construct our personas? How will people feel in 20 or 30 years when they look back at the selfies they took with transient friends and brief acquaintances, and try to figure out where they were, and who those people were?

Perhaps it’s time to stop taking photos, to experience events through one’s eyes and ears, rather than through a lens and screen. While memories of those events won’t be as sharp, they may be more potent. In a world where people are trying to hold on to memories of everything, maybe the strongest memories are the ones we can’t capture.

  1. Watch the video: Benedict Cumberbatch urges fans not to take photos or video during Hamlet performances  ↩

  2. Jorma Kaukonen was one of the guitarists in Jefferson Airplane. Together with bassist Jack Casady, he formed Hot Tuna, a band that played old blues songs, along with songs inspired by the blues. Jorma has had a long career of playing solo acoustic concerts of his own compositions, along with the classic blues songs that he has championed. You can see a grainy, black and white video of another concert earlier that year on YouTube.  ↩

  3. Bob Dylan doesn’t sell live recordings, and issues very few live albums. Nevertheless, I do have a bootleg of the Cardiff concert, made by some intrepid member of the audience.  ↩

12 thoughts on “Freezing Time

  1. I have often wondered the same thing. Do the people who take these pictures (but especially videos) ever actually watch them?

    On a cruise a few years ago I took the “excursion” which took behind the scenes of the ship. You got to see the engine room, the kitchens, etc. Very interesting. Took a few pictures. One guy video-taped the whole thing. He even stuck his video camera down a huge garbage disposal like thing. Why?

    Great post.

  2. You topped yourself today, Kirk! Well done. Glad you enjoyed the show. Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” comes to mind, as does the band Magazine’s title: “Secondhand Daylight”, for some reason…

  3. My memory of a Jerry Garcia concert in Chicago was cut short, until this happened:

    35 years ago on a cool november evening a bunch of us went to see Jerry Garcia at the Uptown. I was living at Marina Towers at the time with my roommate Gene. We all met at our apartment before the show and got really “happy” Gene got a little too “happy”! So we get to the show and Jerry Is great, the “Garcettes as we called them were singing backup and they opened with “How sweet it is”. The third song was “Sitting Here in limbo” and thats when it started. Gene wants to go up to the stage and shake Jerry’s hand! The Bouncers brought him back. He tries again/brought back this time with a stern warning “stay in your seat or you’re out” You guessed it they threw him out, I couldn’t leave him out there in the condition he was in so I left knowing I couldn’t get back in if I walked out the door…….Fast forward to a couple of years ago: I’m trolling around on and I find the long lost show that I missed! I downloaded the flac files and listened to the rest of the show for the first time in 35 years. It was like being set free! “Sitting here in limbo, like a bird without a song”!!

  4. I can’t believe people leave the flash turned on when photographing a live stage from dozens of yards back!! The stage lighting is worth about 80kW and they think a silly little LED is going to make a difference.
    Even professional flash units are going to do precisely nothing in these circumstances. Professionals, of course would use the available light and not bother with the flash.

    Likewise, recording audio with a smartphone. Why? It sounds ghastly.

  5. Great post, thanks.
    I usually like to get an iPhone photo with GPS data from events I attend. If I can’t take one, I’ll see if there’s a useable image from the events web page. It would most likely just go into Day One & in the Photos folder as a personal memento. Just went to Cirgue’s Quidam and had a photo taken of myself in front of the sign out front, as a for instance.
    I did take photos at Disney on Ice back in the day, but unless all the stage lights were on the actors, the photos were rubbish, with or without flash.
    I’m regretful of not having similar photo mementos of concerts and events from pre-iPhone days but as Kirk says, you didn’t lightly take photos in ’70s & ’80s – too expensive!

    • That’s a good point about taking a photo with GPS. You can do that in front of the venue, or, inside, if you take a photo before the event starts, of course.

    • I have used some seriously long telephoto-zoom lenses on occasions to get photos of live performances. The problem is that they are not especially discrete. They are also a pain to hold still enough to get a decent sharp image.

  6. Very thought-provoking article. My brother used to take photos at concerts in the 1970s, using a proper SLR camera. He would get up really close and has some classic photos of famous performers. He has become quite a Facebook star for posting these photos as some of the bands are making comeback tours. So famous in fact that he has been invited to sound checks and rehearsals, and has some of the performers as friends in Facebook. So his photography has opened doors for him that he would never have been able to achieve otherwise.

    My own photography has probably been more prolific, but mainly travelling and hiking in remote places. I realised a few years ago that I had a lovely record of the sights of the trips, but I had little recollection of the “experiences” of the trips because I had been too busy looking for photos. OTOH, the photographic record does bring back memories associated with the photos, so there is some value in all those photos. Unfortunately, I hardy ever look at them…..

    • There is a very big difference between a “photographer” taking pictures, and the average concert-goer shooting snapshots and videos. as you say, your brother got close and took photos that are more like art than what all those people with smartphones shoot.

      Does he have any good Dylan photos?

  7. Good Read. Perhaps the video recording and picture taking from a patrons smart phone is habitual. Everyone’s doing it I want to do it too, and then they just can’t stop. These patrons haven’t a clue that their behavior may be annoying or interfering another’s enjoyment of a show. They are addicted to their smart phone.

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