Live music lives on in Chris Casella's new photo book, 'Bravado'

Joel Oliphint
Anti-Flag in Chicago, September 2019.

Back in March, when the spread of COVID-19 shut everything down, including live shows, photographer Chris Casella began digging through his archive of concert photos and pulling certain shots to post on Instagram. He enjoyed the excavation process. Memories of the various bands and their performances came flooding back.

“It’s almost like when our parents would do slideshows of their vacations,” said Casella, who has been a photographer for nearly 30 years, shooting concerts for much of that time. (Casella also regularly photographs bands for Alive.) As he posted the archival shots, photographers and friends in the music industry suggested he compile the work in a book, and while at first Casella was resistant, he eventually realized a pandemic was the perfect time to take on such a project. “I'd love to finally have a document of my years of service to the music industry,” he said.

Getting through the tens of thousands of images on multiple hard drives and DVDs took about a month, and he didn’t even touch the rolls of film. At first, the photos he selected took up 250 pages. “This was originally for me. I was putting this stuff in this book for myself. ... It's hard to distance yourself from the memories of the images and what they might mean to you,” said Casella, who eventually realized he had to start looking at the images differently, knowing others wouldn’t have the same associations and memories he did. From there, he whittled the book down to its current, 184-page form.

Casella titled the collection Bravado, which is available to order through the photographer’s website. It features striking black-and-white and color photos of bands such as Foo Fighters, Metallica, Run the Jewels, Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, St. Vincent, Anthrax and many, many more.

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In making the photo selections, Casella was less concerned with defining his so-called style than he was finding images that felt somehow unique to him — a tall order when you’re often in a photo pit alongside a bunch of other photographers all shooting from similar angles. “It’s about vision. ... What did I see differently? What did I get?” Casella said.

Casella doesn't necessarily strive for perfection in each shot. In fact, for every 10 good photos, Casella said there are 500 he wouldn’t show anybody. But even in the final version, the goal is to capture a moment and a feeling, regardless of the technical details. “There's stuff in [the book] that's blurry or out of focus, but it's a moment. It feels like something, and that's why I kept it,” he said. “What do you make people feel? Is it just a live photo of somebody? Because I’ve seen thousands.”

Experience plays a role, too. Nearing 50, Casella said he's an “elder statesman” in the photo pit, and those years of experience enable him to anticipate certain things. “If you see the band a bunch of times, you start to feel when things are happening onstage, and you’re ready for something like fire that goes off,” he said. “Sometimes there's me and one other photographer on one side and 30 photographers on another side thinking that they're getting something.”

Access is a factor, as well. Casella started out shooting local shows, and while he still gets work covering Columbus concerts, over the years he has expanded his coverage nationally, photographing festivals across the country and shooting for national magazines. “Some of the stuff in the book was [because of] that access. No one else is going to have some of these images because I wasn't shooting only the first three songs. I was shooting the middle of the set and getting something that no one else could get,” said Casella, who also included some band portraits in Bravado.

In some cases, the experience of photographing a show opened Casella’s eyes to a world he didn’t previously understand, like the Electric Daisy Carnival, a multi-day EDM festival in Las Vegas featuring dozens of DJs. “Going into it, I was like, ‘I don't know what this is. … This isn't my scene at all. I don't like this music necessarily,’” he said. “But I got back and I had this newfound respect for what was going on, and I had a blast. The energy is crazy. It's absolutely insane to see that many people out of their mind, in the middle of the night, in the middle of the desert. I would totally do it again, not because I want to hear any of the music, but because I want to be in that atmosphere. You feed off of what's going on.”

Bravado also features images of artists who have since died, such as Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell and Motorhead’s Lemmy. The photos can also be a painful reminder of what was lost in 2020, and the fact that while live shows may return at some point in 2021, for now, our memories of loud, sweaty rock shows will have to suffice.

“Because of the pandemic, I wanted to not only document this for myself, but celebrate this thing we all miss. … Stop for a second, since we have the time, and think about what it means to you. What does live music mean to you? What do these artists mean to you?” he said. “Take a second to respect it and realize how deep the meaning is for a lot of people, and to celebrate it. I think it's wrong if we just take it for granted.”

Frank Carter