These Photos Tackle Twenty Years of Music Festival Madness
You may have gone to Coachella this month, but you have nothing on photographer and documentarian Cheryl Dunn. Her latest book, Festivals Are Good, compiles over 20 years of photography from music festivals all around the nation. She’s been to roughly 50 of them, including 1994’s revival of the epic ’60s festival, Woodstock, several Bonnaroos and Warped Tours, and she hit Coachella before it became obscenely fancy. Dunn witnessed the chaos that live music brings out in people—the fans that pay hundreds or thousands of dollars to stand in the sun for days to see their favorite bands (she dedicated the book to “the fan of fans”).
Dunn is essentially the godmother of music festivals. She gets in with the grit and grime and breaks the rules—a style that’s evident in the depth of her photos featured in Festivals Are Good. You won’t find any flower crowns here.
I met Dunn at her studio in the Financial District, a place she called home when the twin towers came down. The walls of her studio are plastered with some of her own photography and posters from Everybody Street, her self-directed documentary about street photography, featuring legendary photographers Mary Ellen Mark, Ricky Powell, and Bruce Davidson—just to name a few. She also has a massive surfboard propped up in her pad, which Quicksilver exchanged as a kind of currency for a film Dunn had worked on for them. It’s an interesting mix.
Over the echoes of afternoon foot traffic, we talked about the roots of her book, the growth of music festivals, and how to survive the inevitable madness that comes with the territory.
What drove you to gather all of these photos from festivals and put them into one cohesive book?
I had a minute and was embarking on another long documentary film journey. I was like, “Okay, let me just put this [book] in the world, so I have this other thing [to put] in the world in the meantime,” and I thought that this was going to be easy. It was so time-consuming and hard because it was 20 years of work, and I had 150 pages to tell a story. So, [you have to ask yourself,] “What am I saying?” There are people that would be like, “I wouldn’t be caught dead at a music festival.” It makes me laugh. So, maybe the guy that would never [go to a music festival] gets a little taste or picture of the humor and the pathos of it. I mean, for me, as a shooter, it’s super great to get out of the city and be able to shoot for five days in a row in a sea of 100,000 people.
“There’s definitely a huge part of the population that’s not throwing down $1,500 for a ticket and a fancy tent.”
How did you end up choosing the final photos in the book?
It’s not like the greatest hits of every picture I took. There’s a story to it. In working with my brilliant designer [who led the art direction], Tony Arcabascio, he kind of held my feet to the fire. [Making] this book [was] very similar to making a film, where it has acts and continuity, where you’re going from day to night to day to night. The way we conceptualized the formation of the story was what it would feel like if you went to a music festival for five days. What’s day one like? What’s night one like? When do you get really sunburnt? How dirty do you get? It’s sort of like up and down of your state of mind and your excitement, and your fatigue. That’s the way we built the story, so it would give you a visceral feeling of what it would be like if you were at a music festival for five or so days.
Do you think people nowadays see music festivals as more of a status thing, rather than being about the bands and music?
I wouldn’t say the music is secondary, but in some instances, it’s becoming about the spectacle. Now it’s VIP camping, glamping, but there’s definitely a huge part of the population that’s not throwing down $1,500 for a ticket and a fancy tent. If you go to Bonnaroo, the biggest festival in the United States, [a ticket could be] a couple hundred dollars and those kids are happy. That’s what I’m into recording because that’s more geared to me, obviously. You know, you can be a hater on gentrification, you can be a hater on how things change, or you can look for other interesting aspects of that.
Has the crowd changed much?
Coachella is close to Los Angeles, so, you have a lot of industry people—it’s a different kind of crowd than if you’re in Manchester, Tennessee, or somewhere in the Midwest. I started shooting [at Coachella] like the first couple years that it was functioning. It’s really obviously changed since then, but I mean the first year, in the ’90s, maybe ’99? I couldn’t even get anyone to go with me.
Literally, I went by myself the first year. There was some flimsy kind of string [tied] from the front of the stage to the back of the stage. There was no security. You could get anywhere you wanted. That’s how you can kind of gauge the evolution of [festivals] is how [tight] the security gets. Obviously, technology has a lot to do with it, but I mean you used to be able to sneak everywhere.
Did you sneak into a lot of places?
Oh, it’s my favorite thing to do in the world. Yeah, I’m pretty good at that.
Crowds can obviously get a little too rowdy at some festivals. Have you ever felt like you were in a situation you knew you needed to get out of fast?
Many times. I think that I look out for that, and I’m aware of that and hopefully anticipate gnarly situations because I’ve been in them. A couple years ago in San Francisco at [Outside Lands Festival], they basically put a giant chain link fence around a section of the park. The area was on the top of the park and the center of the city was [in one direction], so seemingly, way more people were going out of those bottom exits. It was really getting dangerous. I remember walking into that festival and was like, “That’s a flimsy fence. You could knock that down.” I was really eyeing that fence—[it looked] so easy to knock down.
When we were getting into this situation, and I was with my friend and her teenage daughter, lots of people were getting funneled to a very skinny area. First of all, I never stand in the middle. I’ll always be on the edge somehow. You can climb up a fence and try to do something, but not be in the middle where all the people are. There were a couple of 19-year-old-looking boys next to me. I was like, “Hey dudes, lets knock down this fence. This is bullshit. Let’s go, me and you, let’s just start pounding on this fence.” They were like, “You think?” and I was like, “Fuck it. Let’s do this.” I talked the kids into [toppling] this fence and everyone got set free. My friend was looking at me like, “What are you doing?”
When it gets to that dangerous point in a crowd, do you think that people behind the festivals only care about the security of the performers?
Well, in the last couple of years, there have been deadly accidents. I’m sure they have huge insurance policies. I’m sure they do care, but it costs a lot of money to care—a lot. I don’t want to shame that festival because I think it’s a fabulous festival, but it’s more so that danger can be in large crowds any way you slice it. It’s just about being aware. Shit happens. Pay attention.
You have to take your safety into your own hands and use your intelligence and your experience. Just pay attention.
But then when you’re on certain substances trying to have a good time…
[Laughs] Well, you better use the buddy system. Buddy system—always. Word to the kids.
Check out Cheryl Dunn’s book, Festivals Are Good.
All images courtesy of Damiani and Cheryl Dunn.
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