On Festivals, Backstory, and Collaboration

Two lanky photo nerds in a station wagon

on our way to Eaux Claires Troix.

Nate Ryan, staff photographer at 89.3 The Current: “The thing is, festivals generally don’t do it for me. I much prefer Frankie Lee and friends in the Clown Lounge.”

Me, still amazed that I’m even here: “To be fair, this is the Frankie Lee and friends in the Clown Lounge of music festivals.”

I still haven’t forgotten

what it was like in October of 2014, when I shot my first assignment for The Current. The photos didn’t appear for a couple of days. Then, instead of a review, it was an essay by Andrea Swensson, who I’ve always known to be exceedingly gifted at turning vulnerability into strength with her words. With my name under the header image. I work for The Current now.

And every now and again, I get that feeling. Lifted up and shamelessly grateful that I get to give of myself and my work to a blog, curated and caressed by a team of love-music-so-much-it-hurts kind of fools. Like myself.

Eaux Claires has always been about

collaboration, marching to a diff’rent beat than those corporate music festivals, instead fostering community and weird sets in the woods and oh my god so many people have written a variation of that sentence I want to barf because it can’t be repeated enough how rad this festival is.

I missed Year Deux, but was lucky enough to score last-minute credentials to shoot the inaugural year for Billboard. They ended up only buying one photo, and it wasn’t even of music. Instead, it was a dopey backstage shot of Justin Vernon and Boys Noize. Didn’t stop that weekend leaving a profound impression on me, and marking a kind of quasi-milestone in my “career” doing this music photography thing.

Backstory’s important. Eaux Claires knows it.

Paul Simon does not

appear on my list of artists I need to see in my lifetime. I borderline disregarded the weight of his influence and presence as recently as last Friday.

I started to grasp (comprehend? register?) what Paul Simon means when The Staves used their short set on a tiny stage to pay their respect by singing his songs. They peaked at “His bow tie is really a camera.” People cried, but not like they cried when Paul opened with “America” after a downpour the next day.

All you needed to know was written on their faces.

An hour before Feist

was scheduled to play, hardly anyone was in the vicinity of the Flambeaux stage. Me and my 70-200 got a spot on the barricade, just off-center enough to get a clean shot free of the mic stand. Not that I was planning to use it. Nate was going to shoot from the pit* and let me enjoy a set by one of my absolute favorites.

I mean absolute favorite. Feist released Metals — a graceful, supple, assured masterpiece — in the fall of 2011: the start of my junior year of high school. It stuck. Through two years of high school, three years of college, and a year of young adulthood. And then Pleasure — delicate, cock-eyed, roguish — was released this spring.

I said to Nate over celebratory/replenishing beer and pizza on Saturday night: “I basically became my whole entire person between Feist albums.”

*As it turned out, all photographers were evicted from the pit and sidestages about 30 seconds into her first song.

I can’t thank Nate enough.

Where he would have been totally justified in relegating me to second shooter, he treated me like a collaborator. Giving me options, asking me for input, bouncing ideas back and forth across a motel room each night before bed.

This was Eaux Claires, after all.

Featured this weekend

at a festival in Wisconsin:

  • Lower back pain
  • Muddy sandals that, once wet, never totally dried
  • Shallow depth-of-field experiments
  • Lots of Justin Vernon wailing
  • Paul Simon watching Feist from sidestage
  • Four dads playing relentless post-metal on a sunny afternoon in the woods
  • Chance encounters with my high school APUSH teacher and one guy who I recognized, who knew exactly who I was, but who I can’t place who, what, or why he is
  • Spectacles by Snap, Inc.
  • An unusual chill amongst photographers from different outlets
  • An abundance of heart-eyes emoji
  • An overabundance of 17mm
  • Just one Prince cover?
  • Stages that are too damn high
  • A neck-and-neck race between “May I Have This Dance (feat. Chance the Rapper)” and “America” for Theme Song Troix
  • Gushing about dance class with Francis
  • Kortney Traxler and her emotive face during Paul Simon’s set
  • Emily Wartsbaugh, a supreme barricade buddy
  • Mac-n-cheese on a sandwich
  • At least one dozen sets feat. at least one member of Wilco
  • And no Bon Iver songs

For the next year,

and for many years after, memories of this weekend will ride along with me. They will trickle out of me in iterative fashion. Some will fade. Others will be burnished to a rosy glow. I will return to the river.

I will return to the river.

Eaux Claires finds a new rhythm with more focused third installment by Andrea Swensson

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