New exhibition highlights 25 years of concert photography by artist Ivan Prokop

Ivan Prokop, photo: CTK

This Thursday saw the opening of a new show in Prague highlighting 25 years of concert photography by independent Czech photographer Ivan Prokop. The respected artist has shot performances both in the Czech Republic and abroad, capturing both Czech musicians and world-famous artists on stage. Performers highlighted at Prague’s Leica Gallery include Tom Waits, Laurie Anderson, Iggy Pop and others.

Ivan Prokop,  photo: CTK
On the eve of the exhibition I spoke to the photographer, asking him first what was most difficult about his career.

“Sometimes things can be very difficult, especially when it comes to major shows by top stars. As an independent photographer who doesn’t work for any magazine, it can be tough. In the past, some organisers told me I wasn’t a photographer ‘for them.’ That can happen.”

In terms of the work itself it can also be tough I’ve read because you only have a few minutes to get the shot, such as the first three songs. That is something not only you but your colleagues have to take into account.

“That’s right: that’s the practice: you only have a few minutes or songs to shoot. You’re not there by yourself, there are other photographers and cameramen from the agencies and you have only little time to get a good photo, to do a good reportage shot.”

Frank Zappa,  photo: Ivan Prokop
Why is it that throughout your career that you have chosen to go the independent route: is it to have complete artistic freedom over your material?

“It’s not really a choice. It’s a problem but for me to take a good picture I have to feel close to the material and the music. I have to understand it, and I have to have a connection to the music. So I have to be independent.”

When you first began photographing many years ago, who were some of the first musicians you shot?

“I began mostly by shooting friends who were musicians: it is now quite a long while back. But my first commercial success so to speak - photos that were published – were of UB 40. That was from a concert they played in Prague I believe either in 1989 or 1988.”

Since you mention that iconic date of 1989 – so important in Czech history – how did things change for you as a photographer after the Velvet Revolution?

Tom Waits,  photo: Ivan Prokop
“After 1989 I began to work much more and there were many opportunities. I was one of 13 photographers who got a photo pass to shoot the famous first Rolling Stones concert in Prague. Everything was open suddenly and it was great!”

It must have been a very exciting time: this was a period when the former president, Václav Havel, named Frank Zappa an ‘ambassador for trade, culture and tourism. Was it exciting to be able to photograph for the first time a lot of bands that it was impossible to see ever before?

“I was able to see some earlier, in Budapest, before the revolution. But when these groups came to Prague and came to Czech Republic I visited many concerts and was very active. I tried to see everything and everyone. It was a very busy period.”

And you were independent the whole time? Or was there any time when you worked for an agency or newspaper?

“Always independent with one exception: when I was in Melodie magazine, where I did photos, typography and production between 1988 and 1990.”

Laurie Anderson,  photo: Ivan Prokop
When you photograph someone like Tom Waits or whoever you are obviously capturing the artist ‘in action’: who among the people you’ve shot were among the most expressive?

“Well there are many people to choose from but I’d mention Bobby McFerrin, definitely Tom Waits, Mick Jagger, Carlos Santana, as well as a lot of Czech musicians like Vláďa Mišík and others. A lot of people whose music I know well and I hope this is something evident in my photos.”

The picture of Laurie Anderson that is featured was taken in 1990 I believe: is that one, too, from her concert?

“That one is not: that’s another moment from backstage. It was the press conference, when many people were talking with her and I was able to go around quietly and take pictures, unimportant and unnoticed. That was very enjoyable.

Bobby McFerrin,  photo: Ivan Prokop
For me another great show as Leonhard Cohen – but there I took no pictures. I wasn’t able to get a pass. It was still a great show, but for me it’s only half a concert if I can’t shoot as well.”

Are there any other performers you’d like to have shot, if you had the chance?

“A few. Eric Clapton. There was Bob Dylan, four times in Prague; I did photograph him in Budapest but not here.”

I really isn’t easy then, even if you are established and you’ve been doing it for as long as you have, there are no guarantees....

“That’s right.”

Could you describe for a little bit your shot of Tom Waits, how it was taken?

Iggy Pop,  photo: Ivan Prokop
“That was taken on the second night of two back-to-back shows in Prague. On the second night I was the only photographer there and I think I worked through four songs. It was great: I really love Tom Waits’ music, his image and his presentation on stage. It’s not really a show by a pop star but ‘theatre’. It’s a whole stage and very artistic and visually strong.”

Your prints on view at Leica Gallery Prague are accompanied by the lyrics from famous songs by some of your subjects: Psycho Killer next to David Byrne and so on. Is it your hope that people – maybe younger people not as familiar with some of the music – will come away with their interest piqued?

Mick Jagger,  photo: Ivan Prokop
“Well my style of photography is very close to the music and we wanted to connect the two further. That’s why we have also used the texts and also prepared a two hour+ loop that features the first song by an artist (written here) and three others. The idea is to re-create, at least a little, the impression of being by the stage and seeing the actual performance. It should be interesting for young people, to connect the pictures to the music, that’s certainly one of the ideas behind the show.”

Find more information about Photopass (which lasts until August 28, 2011) at