This month’s Olaf Willoughby interview is with Gavin Mills a photographer based in London, UK. The link between photography and music is well known but Gavin gives it an unusual twist. As a music industry shooter and international DJ, Gavin works under the most demanding lighting conditions of the club scene and shows us some of the magic taking place not just out front but behind the scenes too.
How did the project begin ….
It all really began back in 2005 whenI decided to buy a camera wanting to preserve the memories of my adventures across the globe as a Dance Music DJ. Every week I’d be travelling to a different city to play House Music at some of the worlds best and most famous clubs. I never began shooting pictures with a project in mind it was really for myself and for sharing with my friends, but after some years of carrying my camera from one party to the next it turned into a substantial body of work.
As well as shooting at the club events my schedule often left me with time to kill exploring foreign cities between flights. I found myself just going out for solitary walks on the street with my camera, and it wasn’t long before I developed a love of street photography. I’ve always enjoyed People watching …contemplating the rhythm of life and now armed with my camera in hand, capturing those split-second interactions and chance encounters as they happened became a consuming passion.
I discovered that observational street style of shooting crossed over well into documenting club and music events with an added benefit. Shooting at a festival or club night nobody ever gets rattled if they catch you pointing a camera in their direction, in actual fact it usually has quite the opposite effect. Fortunately shooting with the modestly sized Leica the majority of people didn’t see me as a professional event photographer, they usually work with big DSLR’s so I could move about and shoot without drawing that much attention to myself.
What photographic choices have you made: colour palette, composition, use of flash etc.
I’ll often find the best photos are when I’ve just been enjoying and soaking up the atmosphere of the party and not even looking for pictures. Like street shooting those magic moments just happen…..but the trick is to recognise them and be there ready to capture it. With some years experience of playing and hanging out at parties I guess it gave me a natural instinct for reading the atmosphere.
Getting the key shots of the big name artists on the bill and those typical club shots of the crowd with their hands-in-the-air is always important but I also want to catch those little moments and behind the scenes pictures that tell a story and give a real sense of what a house music club is like.
Sometimes I’ll use colour when I think it adds something to a scene but more often I’m drawn to black and white images and I think it gives my pictures a sense of reportage.
Are there any technical or workflow challenges you’d like to mention?
Taking a well balanced image in low light is certainly difficult even for the most experienced photographer. Using a tripod isn’t an option and flash can often kill the look of a shot. Add to that focussing on moving subjects with a rangefinder in a dark club and you’ve certainly got a lot of challenges to deal with.
I’ve had a lot of opportunity to experiment and have played around with using flash, continuous lighting and my preferred choice is still using the natural club lighting. Each has it’s benefits and drawbacks and a feel for what’s going to work has come with a lot of trial and error. Using a flash on the M cameras has taken a lot of practise. If there’s a lot of smoke you just end up lighting the smoke and can barely see anything else. I’ve found an effective way of getting around it is bouncing the flash vertically off of the ceiling which lights the smoke behind the subject and can look very dramatic . Another good way of working with flash can be shooting at slower than normal shutter speeds and using second curtain sync giving a faint image trail but a sharp main subject. I’ve also played around with mounting a small LED on top of the camera which can be a big help as it illuminates the subject without losing any of the atmosphere and making focussing far easier.
What Leica equipment do you use and how is it particularly suited to the needs of this project?
I have two bodies my very well loved M9 and the original M Monochrom.
The M9 doesn’t perform as well at high ISO as the newer Leica cameras such as the SL or the Q but I’ve found it can still give good high ISO results as long as you don’t under expose and need brighten it too much in post.
The Monochrome on the other hand is a perfect tool for those low light situations and often I’ll shoot at 8000 or 10000 ISO as I like that gritty look for my club shots. The Monochrome is also better than any other camera I’ve used in dark clubs. Just a little selective editing in Silver Efex and it reveals all of that shadow detail.
Normally I carry two Leica lenses. My go to lens is the 35mm Summilux which I find a very versatile focal length, wide enough to capture most scenes and it can still capture wonderful portraits used at a more intimate distance, with the subject tack sharp and dreamy out of focus areas when it’s shot wide open.
My other Leica lens is a 50mm Summicron. To be honest I wanted to purchase the Summilux so it was a bit of a compromise to fit my budget but it actually turned out that I love this lens, with its classic Leica rendering it can be more flattering for close up portraits and its size and short focus throw make it a joy to work with.
What is your vision for the project, and how will you judge if you’ve been successful?
My photography has now reached a point now where I’m regularly being asked to shoot clubs and live music events. Recently I’ve been shooting a lot of artist’s press shots, album covers and for magazines which I really enjoy as usually I’m given the creative freedom to do as I want.
Last year was a really big development for the project whenI worked on putting together and curating an exhibition called ‘Lost in Music’ with the Printspace in London. The show featured pictures from myself and some other noted nightlife photographers such as Dave Swindells, Dean Chalkley , Normski and Jocelyn Bain Hogg. It was an incredible event which really showed the evolution of UK Dance Music and youth culture from the 60’s to modern day.
In regard to judging if I’ve been a successful, whether I’m making music or making pictures I just enjoy losing track of everything and being focussed in a creative flow. It’s always good feeling when others appreciate and enjoy what you’ve created so in that respect then I can say its been a success.
Did any particular person or body of work influence or inspire you?
I came across an amazing and inspiring collection of pictures from the legendary 70’s club Studio 54. The photos were taken by a Swedish photo-journalist Hasse Persson at the height of the disco era, and captured a host of celebrities like Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Andy Warhol, Debbie Harry, and Grace Jones in this crazy atmosphere of unadulterated hedonism at the club. Hasse’s journalistic style of photography is brilliant and totally gives you a feeling of what it was like to have been there. Another photographer that made an impression is Ricky Powell who documented the New York underground club subculture though the 80’s and early 90’s that eventually became Pop Culture as we know it today.
About Olaf Willoughby:
Olaf Willoughby is a photographer, writer and researcher. He is co-founder of The Leica Meet, a Facebook page and website growing at warp speed to over 10,500 members. In 2016, Olaf has taught at numerous workshops with Eileen McCarney Muldoon at Maine Media College, at Leica in New York and London and has also been exhibited in both those cities.
If you have an intriguing project or body of work that we might feature, completed or in progress, contact Olaf at: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.olafwilloughby.com