Shooting at festivals, fairs, carnivals and the like can be a mixed bag for a street photographer. The obvious benefit of shooting at these events is the bang-for-your-buck factor. What I mean by this is there’s a large amount of people in a relatively small space. It’s a target-rich environment that offers big value for the street shooter. Providing great opportunities to sharpen skills, these events are a godsend to the photographer who doesn’t live in an active urban setting or is pressed for free time to shoot. The only drawback I’ve seen with collections of festival shots is the feeling of sameness, that I’m left with. Often, I’ve seen what amounts to be hodgepodge clusters of “character” shots. Now some are excellent quality, depicting some truly unique and colorful characters. However, quite a few groups of these photos fail to capture the atmosphere, flavor or spirit of these events. There’s a lack of “moments”.
Chris J MacDonald’s ‘Field Of Dreams’
That being said, receiving Chris J MacDonald’s ‘Field Of Dreams’ zine in the post was a delightful surprise and a visual treat. Self-published this past fall, ‘Field Of Dreams’ is a brief, but gloriously colorful and vivid essay on British summer music festival culture. In just 23 images, MacDonald taps into the essence of these festivals with an entertaining mix of characters and moments.
“Shot over a number of years at a number of festivals, this ongoing project aims to tell the story of the many highs (and lows) and foolishness in between that can take place in a single weekend,” ‘Field Of Dreams’ takes the reader to six different festivals: Secret Garden Party, British Summer Time, Bestival, Standon Calling, T In The Park and Latitude. The zine trip comes in one fancy little package, measuring at 210mm long by 148mm tall. Albeit small, the quality is superior with sturdy, thick stock and luxurious color reproductions. The color pops of the page as dramatically as any other zine I’ve seen. And, somehow, the zine feels bigger than it actually is.
MacDonald, who’s shot in places as varied as Athens, Bangkok, Burma, China and North India, has a sharp street shooter’s eye and he works it deftly in the festival setting. The moments, rather than the “character” shots, are where the photographer’s skill is on best display. Anyone who’s been to a festival knows there’s an abundance of individuals who are out of everyday character, letting their glorious freak flag fly. But, Macdonald manages to snatch intriguing, clever and comical bits amidst the pageant of revelers. Two pair of legs, sans torsos and possibly from aerial acrobats, floating in the air while a crowd looks up… leaves the reader wondering what’s going on with the upper halves of the bodies. The composition of the image is spot on, and adding to the effect further is an image in the opposing page, a motorcyclist riding parallel to the earth on a wall of death. Along with these “action” shots there’s also examples of the post-debauchery crash. The closing picture in ‘Field Of Dreams’ is an amusing and wonderfully shot image of a festival-goer who’s obviously had too much and forgot that you’re supposed to pass out in the tent, not on it. Again, MacDonald delivers the festival to us visually, but we can almost hear pulsing beats in the background as we experience the happening in the field, with the amped-up, the burnt-out and the strange.
We here at Street Hunters are big fans of independent and small publishers of zines and photo books, and we applaud their efforts and investment in time and money to bring us printed matter of their work. MacDonald is no exception. Chris took some time from his schedule to answer a few questions about himself, this project, his style, self-publishing and a rather unfortunate incident.
Where is home base for you now?
Interesting question. I resigned my previous job in the city of London just before Christmas and don’t start my new role in Amsterdam until late February so you’ve caught me in a current state of flux. It’s kinda awesome as I don’t have to worry about work for two months and can relax, get caught up on editing and seeing friends and get in a bit of photography time.
How long have you been shooting?
I’ve been shooting since I was about 14. We had a darkroom photography course in my high school that was so popular each student was only permitted 2 rolls and 2 dark rooms sessions. I wanted to shoot more and was an early adopter of technology so jumped onto digital. I used to snowboard a lot and started going to the competitions and taking photos of the guys doing tricks, I would then park myself in the lodge afterwards and sell prints to them an Epson inkjet I would lug around. This would have been 1997-99 so really really bad digital cameras but still, people paid.
What drove you to street photography? Who are your influences?
I lived in Beijing from 2007 until 2010 and would wander the hutongs (alleyways) with a camera and just take pictures of daily life and interesting and bizarre moments. Whilst in China I was spending a good deal of time at a friend’s video studio where one of the guys was producing all of Edward Burtynsky’s ‘China’ project and that sort got me appreciating photo books and professional photography. Along the way I came across a friends collection of art books that included books by Koudelka and Cartier-Bresson which captivated me.
I left China in March 2010 for London and was a bit overwhelmed with work and qualification exams but in the spring of 2012, after picking up a copy of ‘Street Photography Now’ a year earlier, and having been saving for over two years managed to acquire a new [Canon] 5D, I attended my first workshop with Nick Turpin in Paris. I look back at one photo in particular as my first proper “street photograph” and Nick as an early inspiration.
After that workshop I was shooting but work and life took over. For years I just shot gigs, which combined my love of photography and music and saved on concert tickets. But taking a week off in November of last year to attend a workshop in Varanasi India with Maciej Dakowicz really got my head back in the game. Since then I have really pushed myself. I did another workshop with Maciej in Burma for 2 weeks in March 2016 and then set about focusing on my project for the entire summer.
I also blame/thank Maciej for my new found addiction for collecting photo books…
Did you initially have a festival project in mind?
Not initially no. Because I had an ongoing relationship with a few agents for photographing gigs in London, I would get asked to photograph festivals in the summer. Whilst doing a festival one summer in Lisbon with the editor of ‘Gigwise’, we saw quite clearly that the articles that got the most clicks were the ones with pictures I took of the crowds.
It was during the Burma trip the Maciej was suggesting the next step should be to focus on a long-term project that looks at something that hasn’t been looked at before. It was obvious then that I should look at festival culture in the UK.
Where are these music festivals?
All the music festivals are in the UK. From T in The Park in Perthshire Scotland to Bestival on the Isle of Wight. I know there are many great festivals in other parts of the world but I feel the strong cultural element of British summer music festivals would be diluted if I started mixing in events across the channel.
Any funny/interesting incidents while shooting at these festivals?
Almost every one of my photos has a funny / interesting story behind it, but I have to be careful what I say!
This photo was taken at Secret Garden Party which happens to fall on my birthday and unlike most festivals where I go alone, and possibly meet up with friends I know who are there but generally just go with the flow and mix and mingle, I was there with half a dozen friends as we have always attended SGP and it was a bit of a birthday thing for me.
We were all horribly hungover and lazing about our tents the morning after a particularly festive evening and I heard this “flop” from the tent next to ours and just saw this guy hanging out of his tent and clearly feeling worse than I. It seemed all too perfect a photo and snapped the shot.
Shortly after, he rolled over again and was now fully on top of the tent and collapsed it and then suddenly someone else in the tent started thrashing wildly as they were trapped inside…. haha
Any particular influence that drove you to self publish?
I wanted to put together something physical and tangible, not with an expectations of making a profit but rather to send to editors and publishers around the UK to drum up interest in what I was doing. Festivals are not cheap and I have to do my best to get press passes and my costs covered.
The zine tells the story of one day building into the madness of the night, then the rough morning after. I hope to shoot the project for a few more years and work up enough content and eventually publish a book that tells the story of a full weekend.. 3-4 nights and every high and low in between. Regardless of festival, music style or location within the UK, the experience is almost universal and something almost everyone in the UK has done at least once.
Was self-publishing a difficult process? Expensive?
It helped having a friend with excellent InDesign skills (thanks Rosemary!). It is on my to-do list of things to learn (for future zines)!
The printing cost about 150GBP for 50 copies so not that bad.
Do you enjoy shooting festivals more than “traditional” street?
I definitely enjoy shooting festivals. I am a social person and I go and spend a whole weekend walking around, taking photos and interacting with people.
One of the biggest challenges with shooting festivals is a lot of people WANT to have their photo taken, especially when they see you walking around with a big 5D and a flash in the evening. To keep it candid, I generally shoot with the 5D only in the daytime and try to be as normal as possible but for the most part, I have found shooting with the Ricoh GR the best approach given its size. That, and I dress up and party just like everyone else!
Do you have any other projects planned?
I am going back to Burma for another 2 weeks as part of my two months between jobs. I guess you could say that returning for a second time within a year might constitute a project. I certainly plan to keep going back. To me there is much more of a sense of adventure when travelling there as opposed to most everywhere else in SE Asia.
My family is from a small island in a remote part of Canada and every time I go home I take loads of photos so in a way, I think that might be my longest term project.
I’ve also spent the last six years playing on the oldest and largest gay rugby team in the world, the Kings Cross Steelers RFC and that has provided countless great moments. Given I’m moving to Amsterdam I am retiring from the team but I will still go on tour with them once a year to these gay rugby cups which can be quite… interesting.
Your work is very colorful and vivid… is the color in the scene as important as the “moment”? Do you find it a challenge to pair the two?
I absolutely love colour and have found inspiration in the work of Harry Gruyaert and Alex Webb. Most recently at the Brussels Street Photography Festival, I got to show my zine to Nick and Harry at the same time – was great to have their feedback.
One of the perks of festivals is that they are almost an overload of colour and everyone gets dressed up. It’s a bizarre sort of commotion and energy where guys use it as an excuse to dress in drag and wear tights and everyone lets their hair down. This energy is such a contrast to the daily wear and tear of the City of London where I spend 95% of my time, which is grey and dull, and I know so many of the festival goers do too. Then I just focus on watching, looking and hoping for the moments. Staking out the busy scenes and looking for the right occasion.
You’ve lived in and traveled to many different places, where has been your favorite place to shoot and why?
London has been my home for seven years now but it doesn’t have the greatest light. Half the year it’s flat and grey and that’s pretty much the same for a lot of northern Europe. I guess you just make the most of the situation and always always have a camera in your pocket.
Looking back on my time in Beijing, I really wish I had better understanding what I was doing with a camera then and what street photography was – it was just a bit of a shooters paradise for subjects.
But I am looking forward to moving to Amsterdam and shooting in a new country. I like Otto Snoek’s work and see potential for some great moments there.
Despite moving, I will still be back in the UK to keep shooting ‘Field of Dreams’. I did seven festivals last summer – next year I plan on doing 3-4 but doing them bigger and longer.
I saw that you had your camera stolen… how traumatic was that?
Awful. I was at Bestival, the final festival of the season for me and I was shooting with a Ricoh GR and at night with a flash. I had perfected my technique and I could tell my hit rate of great moments was very high. I can still see in my mind’s eye the most amazing photos that I will never see again.
It kills me because I lost two of three days worth of photos because that camera got stolen. The only one I have to show for it is the legs on the maze photo because I exported it from the Ricoh to my phone on Sunday morning of the festival to share on social media….
Where to Find Chris online
Did you like our review? Buy this zine
Very limited quantities of ‘Field of Dreams’ are available directly from Chris’s website here: