Concert photography: Appalachian Christmas

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One of the things the congregation of Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church looks forward to every year is the choir’s annual Christmas presentation. This year’s event turned out to be extra special. MaxPres has played Lewis Henry Horton’s An Appalachian Nativity several times before, going back at least to 1982 and most recently in 2007. It’s a cantata music minister Clif Cason says the choir loves to sing, and this year he added an extra element – orchestrating it for a small ensemble.

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This being essentially the world premiere of a new interpretation of this piece, and being the “house photographer” for the church, I really wanted to document the event, particularly considering Clif tailored his score to specific musicians in the congregation.

So, I went to a rehearsal four days before the event intending to scout out how to unobtrusively be in the best positions to shoot the performance. When I arrived, I was flummoxed to find the entire performance was going to take place in the choir loft, due to some logistical constraints. The problem is, our choir loft has a wall that is not incredibly high, but is tall enough to shield most of the seated musicians from the congregation’s view – and my camera lenses – even from the balcony.

With all the musicians up there, there was no room to pack me up there, and it would have been obnoxious anyway for them to perform with a photographer so close, not to mention the click that would occasionally rise from the loft, even in “Quiet ” mode. A remote camera would have just yielded shots from one static position, and that wouldn’t have solved the click problem either.

The solution I arrived at was two-tiered: Go to a Saturday morning rehearsal and shoot over the wall from a step stool – an essential piece of photo gear if there ever was one – and from the sides. Then, Sunday morning, just shoot with a long lens – 300mm/f4 – from the balcony  to try to give a sense of what the morning looked like.

Was it the ideal? No, and I don’t think anyone was thrilled with the musicians hidden in the loft. But that was all the more reason to me to show some representation of who they were. And I think I caught them, working hard to create what turned out to be a special moment for our church.

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