Words and Photographs By Alessandra Nicole, As appeared in the spring edition of Landenberg Today, April 2015
Three chili peppers, some rocks, a honeybun and three cigars. Four white plates containing these objects were lined up on the hardwood floor in front of a fireplace in a cozy Landenberg apartment all awaiting their screen debut and their sacrificial destiny — on the strikingly cold and misty Saturday morning when I performed in a music video, on assignment from Landenberg Today.
I was greeted at the door by the broad Cheshire Cat smile of writer/film director/musician /Renaissance man Chris Malinowski, who was creating a music video titled “White Deer” that would soon serve as part of the soundtrack for his latest film, “Yes, Your Tide is Cold and Dark, Sir,” which has been screened at several festivals around the nation and is now available through Amazon on DVD.
I stepped through the doorway of his cottage, and although I didn’t realize it at the time, that simple step forward was as good as signing my name on the dotted line of a contract issued by a distant and unknowable Supreme Creator. Stay with me here.
After returning Malinowski’s smile, I very shyly offered my own to a small group of five other women, all strangers. Gathered to one side of the virtually empty living room, they were completely clad in black just like myself, as Malinowski’s email a week prior had requested. On the room’s other side, a man with a camera adjusted a rig, holding it belted firmly around his waist.
In the rain, still others were positioning a large light just outside of a bank of windows that led into the living room. A flick of a switch and Ahh: Instantly the cold, misty Saturday morning was transformed into the fantastical mind trickery that was a perfectly realistic sunny afternoon. The “sun” streamed luxuriously across the floor of the room and the women flocked toward it, smiling.
I knew little about Malinowski, beyond his unapologetically gregarious and dramatic stage performances (at times in full makeup) at the Deer Park Tavern in Newark, with his band, The Collingwood. As frontman and lead guitarist, he seemed to be a man possessed. His eyes would roll back into his head in an inner-lighted bliss.
A well-known fun fact about Malinowski is that his favorite place on earth to visit is New Orleans, and that not only does he bask in the well-known undercurrent of ・voodoo・ central to the core of the city, he channels it, often, in his creative work.
For me, it wasn’t the most absurd thing to agree to show up to the set of a music video. Years ago, I was an art student at a college in Savannah, Ga. There, I found myself participating in courageous filmmaking and acting projects, convening with my fellow students in basement coffeeshops until the small hours, fleshing out their visions. We all worked tirelessly on film shoots, propelled forward by the natural electricity of inspired artistic discourse and execution.
After college, I was a production designer on several short and lengthy projects, grim horror stories, high-concept dramas and dark comedies. I lost hours and days without realizing it while in production.
In Landenberg, I was totally in my element.
The six of us sat cross-legged on the floor around the white plates. We held hands. Malinowski sat in a wooden chair in a corner of the room with one more statuesque and masked woman standing at his shoulder. We fumbled with our ill-fitting masks, offering one another rolled bits of paper to keep the masks from chafing our faces.
Someone pressed ‘Play’ on a boombox that sat on the floor by the door, and suddenly, the room was filled with the haunting, melodic sound of Malinowski’s guitar on the track “White Deer.” It was the first time I heard the tone of the song, and the first time I would get a real feel for what our director was looking to achieve. The song was played with saturating volume, the tempo slow, and it cast a spell over us. I am a hyper-aware introvert and holding hands with a stranger of the same sex was a hyper-real experience on its own, but I barely noticed the camera hovering around us.
At first, we were to sit as still as possible. Severals takes were made. In between, we smiled, and fixed one another・s hair and masks. I was in the company of extraordinary women; it was as if the setting and the music had peeled off our earthly bodies and we were these radiant young souls. The more vulnerable and transparent one of us became about a wrinkle or an ill-placed strand of hair, the stronger we became, and the greater we were as a formed circle.
When I stole looks across the plated offerings at our knees to the ladies facing me through the ill-aligned holes in my Zorro mask, I saw our manufactured golden sunshine creating angelic halos around their heads. Something quite special was happening to us. Soon, we were on our feet, dancing in slow motion, hands waving around.
Malinowski coached us in that the footage was going to be slowed down so that we would appear to be in slow motion, but I felt that it was already happening, in that way you feel when you are aware that you・re going from merely buzzed to full-blown drunk. Although we were all clearly sober, time was slowing in the most peculiar and special way.
There was one part to the shoot left. Alhough it was raining, Malinowski asked if we would be willing to go outside and dance in the elements. I looked to the other women, and it was a universal understanding that this was the perfect evolution of the day — to ground our collective heightened spiritual experience by dancing in the rain in the cold Landenberg afternoon.
A few of us removed our shoes and decided to dance barefoot. We ran outside and gathered at a tree behind the cottage, and without any external music guiding as at all, we danced together, slowly, beneath an overcast sky while rooted to the earth beneath our tender feet. The more I trampled the frozen world beneath me, the more I felt vested by the women around me, and existence itself, to stay vibrant, new, open.
I left the set of Malinowski’s music video feeling transformed. His cottage and his song provided the backdrop to such a special synergy that I will not easily forget. It’s wondrous when you’re open to brand new experiences to begin with. My own reaction to life prior to this had been one of isolation, but to meet creative women who are all on the same stage, was like seeing the glow of a lighthouse after having been at sea for too long, and getting to dance with that beam of light.
I want to live in that light, to bask in that light.
Alessandra Nicole is a writer and photographer. Her essay, “Like a Ballerina in the Air,” appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Landenberg Today. To learn more about her, visit www.alessandranicole.com. Other published essays include: “Sunlight, Held Together by Water,” which appeared in Fall 2014’s edition of Kennett Square Today magazine, and “Requiem for a Tree,” which first appeared in the Fall 2013 edition of West Chester and Chadds Ford Life magazine.
To view the “White Deer” video, visit: The Collingwood: “White Deer” Official Music Video, on YouTube.
My love affair with music began when I was very small. My father used to take me to the record store with him to buy albums every weekend. He kept me adequately steeped in some of the greatest classic rock music in history. I would pour over the elaborate album jackets on the living room floor on Saturday afternoons which would later help inspire me to major in illustration in college. Led Zeppelin’s most sinister track Kashmir would put the fear of Hell in me on hot summer nights when the electricity would threaten to go out. The Cars and E.L.O. would have me dancing around our small house in my footie pajamas. And I’ll never forget eating t.v. dinners to most of the Doors and Fleetwood Mac albums. I grew up on everything from Allman Brothers to Zappa and most everything in between.
After a stint in news photography that ended with an event that caused me take a lengthy hiatus from the camera, I was urged several years later to return for the sake of a music production business someone I once knew wanted to start. I began photographing bands around my tiny city in order to get up to speed with a digital SLR. From there I’ve been fortunate to graduate from the small town local band scene and cover national acts from time to time though my photography is no longer music industry centered.
I love these shots I’ve posted because each one conjures the song that was being sung when the frame was made and gets stuck in my head. I also studied film making in college and my mind works cinematically as opposed to in stills. This made it difficult for me to slow myself down to steal a moment out of the air that conveys the emotion of a full performance. It’s a bigger challenge as I am not afforded sound and several minutes of footage in order to capture the ambiance and motion of a performance.
At first the transition was extremely difficult, and while the advent of digital photography made many things easier than the film days where I got my start, I was very challenged to find expressions and compositional elements that could tell more of a story than just to set out to make a “pretty” picture, though of course that is important too. I had to rely on intuition, look deeper, and seek out a compelling element, a magnetic detail. Motion-swept hair, an expression of pure glee, the particular arrangement of band mates as they perform in close proximity, a moment of bliss, a note of anguish, the way the light falls in a particular moment, an interesting instrument, a guitar strap with personality, in front of the crowd, through the crowd, for God’s sake – move around!, always look for more.
One thing is for sure, it pays to work for bigger acts as the lighting quality is most often professional. This means I’m no longer fighting the awful lighting of a dank hole-in-the-wall where some beer-breathed bar star is performing and thus am not wasting my precious camera actuations on images that will not do my talents and technical aptitude justice, the results of which can actually blemish a sound (so to speak) reputation and make one work harder in post trying to make chicken salad out of chicken crap. I used to like to carry my camera along to local gigs convinced it was helping me “keep up on my chops” but I realized what a waste of my valuable time it became. As acquaintances and their broke bands would expect to grab images off of me for free, I realized what a waste of time, money, and equipment maintenance it was for me.
A lot of photographers I know are spoiled by the digital technology, get lazy, and over shoot. I still have a film photography mindset and tend to shoot very conservatively, lining everything up and making each frame count. Film was not only expensive to process, but you had to know your exposures by memory as there was no way to make any adjustments before taking the film into the darkroom and seeing what you had. Many photographers (and clients, too!) today wrongly think that digital affords them unlimited shooting however a camera body is only good for so many presses of the shutter button (500,000 seems to be the standard) before it begins to fail! It still behooves you to be on top of the technical aspects of photography and make each frame count!
In live music situations razor sharp, fast glass and a high ISO sensitivity (big sensor) are absolutely key. Few things get under my skin more than skimming through my files after a performance and finding facial features a little soft in an otherwise stellar capture. For an example, note the image of the lead singer for the UK band James below:
It’s also important to do your research. If you’re covering an act whose music you are not familiar with, look them up and get to know at least two of their hits. You shoot differently when you’re connected to the music because it’s a song you’ve heard and that comes across in your images. The connected energy translates over because suddenly not just your sight and mind but your hearing and heart become engaged with the way you are seeing. Most likely when you’re processing your images the ones that were captured during a song that you knew will be your strongest. Even if nothing stands out visually an image (or several) will have an alluring quality to them for seemingly no reason at all! In photography and in any situation in life the end result is a thousand times more successful when your heart is engaged.
One of my most favorite acts to have covered this past year was Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. A great pro music photographer friend invited me along to experience the Electric Forest Music Festival up in Rothbury, Michigan over the summer. I photographed anywhere around five to fifteen great bands and music acts a day over the course of four days but I got most caught up in the lead singers Alexander and Jade’s incredibly tender relationship toward one another on stage. I’d seen them perform on the Letterman Show, on NPR’s YouTube channel, and in several music videos with such a clear love for one another but to have seen the way she lights up around him in person expanded the hearts of everyone in the audience that afternoon. Also, Alexander was extremely personable with an audience of more than 25,000! He somehow made such an enormous outdoor event as intimate as a living room set.