A Photographer's Eye View Of The 2011 Festival Circuit

A selection of great images from Bestival, Galtres, The Big Chill and beyond in the year Amy Winehouse's ghost dominated performances everywhere...
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A selection of great images from Bestival, Galtres, The Big Chill and beyond in the year Amy Winehouse's ghost dominated performances everywhere...

There was an elephant on the main stage this summer, and its name was Amy Winehouse. As elephants go she was a bit scrawny and forgetful, but that didn't stop the headliners from engaging in a War of Wino to see who could pay her the biggest and bestest on-stage tribute in a festival season that, for me, only got going after her death in late July.

Down in the photographers' pit at Camp Bestival, we focused hard on the peachy face of Mark Ronson and wondered whether he'd cry. He didn't. He looked about as shattered as a preposterously handsome millionaire can look, and he oozed nobility as he and Zuton Dave McCabe silenced the crowd with a heartbreaking acoustic version of Valerie. I shot Ronson a few years ago at a chaotic Gatecrasher Summer Sound System, where he lit up a ciggie behind the decks and puffed away with the self-regard of a man for whom all of life is post-coital bliss. At Camp Bestival, a week to the day after his muse had died, he cut an altogether more dignified figure, with way better hair.

A week later at the Big Chill, Kanye West paid tribute to Amy by being a shambolic, disassociated oddball who made 10,000 people boo and wander off to score some lukewarm noodles. His light was atrocious and we were only allowed to shoot half a song. Apparently there was another half a song, but I remember little other than Kanye talking about Kanye while the audience looked around for pebbles to throw at him. When his sermon turned to "my sister Amy" he sounded as sincere as one of those Mumbai callcentre workers who ring up to ask if you're enjoying your mobile plan.

Jessie J, Paloma Faith and Kelis all did sterling work but couldn't quite refresh the parts that Amy no longer reached

At least Kanye allowed photography at all. It's becoming increasingly common for headline acts to flex their muscle by banning snappers, though they're happy to allow an enormous video camera to sit at the front of the stage, blocking the view of a good chunk of the audience. Among this year's snap-refuseniks were Blondie, Bjork, Robert Plant and, er, Crystal Castles. The former three were disappointments musically, particularly Plant, whose dad-dancing during his Zep-free Big Chill set tickled hitherto undiscovered nerves of embarrassment.

I'm probably just bitter, but I couldn't help but warm more to the acts who welcomed our lenses - perhaps because they seemed less arrogant, and therefore more connected to their audience. The anointed Polly Jean Harvey didn't throw her weight around. She just performed beautiful song after beautiful song and shone with a quietly mighty charisma. The Cure, Brian Wilson and the Wonder Stuff were a joy to watch because they seemed delighted to be on stage in front of shitloads of shouty people, as did Primal Scream, who continue to be a marvellous advert for early nights and Hob Nobs.

Photography bans are rarely an issue at smaller festivals ("boutique" festivals, if you're an arse), though I'm told that Prince was having none of that snapping nonsense at Hop Farm back in the olden days of July. (I wouldn't know. I was out in the crowd, poncing about with a 35mm point-and-shoot while people did Mexican waves with bits of purple curtain.) There was a heartening lack of red tape at Leefest, Woolfstock and poor old Galtres festival, where the Charlatans gamely performed to a crowd of damp fans in the aftermath of a Yorkshire storm. Tim Burgess had taken the precaution to dye his hair orange, lest he get sucked into the gluey quagmire.

The demise of Amy Winehouse leaves a vacancy that various bombastic female vocalists tried to fill on the summer's main stages. Jessie J, Paloma Faith and Kelis all did sterling work but couldn't quite refresh the parts that Amy no longer reached. Adele was otherwise disposed in venues with roofs. No‚  there's only one woman alive who could have eclipsed the Wino ghost this summer. She's my dream model, and rumours of her imminent arrival hummed in my ears throughout Bestival. Sadly it was not to be. Maybe next year, Dolly Parton. Maybe next year.

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