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ON/OFF Photo Book Gives Rare Glimpse Into The Life Of Music Photographer Tom Oldham And It's All For Charity

03/11/2014 11:32 | Updated 03 November 2014

Music and portrait photographer Tom Oldham has spent the last five years traveling extensively around the UK photographing some of the world's biggest bands and it's all to raise money for War Child, a charity that protects children living in the world's most dangerous war zones.

Oldham photographs live acts moments before they go on stage and then again immediately as they finish their show. ON/OFF is a remarkable collection of music portraits giving an unseen insight into live music.

beth ditto

Beth Ditto photographed at Lovebox on 17th July 2011.

He has shot some of the world's biggest and best names in music – including Muse, Arctic Monkeys, Elbow, Prodigy, Tinie Tempah, Plan B, Ed Sheeran, M.I.A., Rudimental, Primal Scream plus many more.

The project has been shot at venues across the UK, curated by Ed Bartlett at The Future Tense, all to raise money for War Child.

Tom Oldham gives his inspiration and insight into the ON/OFF Photo Book.

Where did the ON OFF idea come from?

I shoot loads of music portraits for various magazines and I wanted to capture a live music project that tied in portraiture, to really show the energy exchange that occurs around a performance. To combine these dynamic elements in a really consistent way so music fans could see in the simplest form what a band really looks like before and after a show.
The style and tone is deliberately stripped back, removing location, colour and any distraction from the honesty of the two shots. It's also a nod to Annie Leibovitz's early days Rolling Stone work, which I admire.

What do you think these photos tell us about live music?

These shots are true I never shouted any direction, the artists would just return to the spot in front of my light where they had stood prior to walking on stage, and act how they felt. It's supposed to be loose and free and straight and therefore an honest reflection of the show, their performance and the vibe between the band.
Shooting the gig itself is commonly a rehearsed performance and I wanted a more genuine record of the tension and release in the incredibly private seconds before and after a show. Hopefully you agree this was achieved.

Which shoot are you most pleased with the results of?

Weirdly the final shoot for the project featuring Rudimental at the Roundhouse felt like a real moment. They're wonderful fellas and were really happy to be photographed for War Child - they have nothing to hide and only love to give.They look brilliant and are really living inside the moment, this is their time. It's all in the shots.

What's the best story or anecdote you earned from the nights of hard work?

So many stories. Liam Gallagher managed three frames before saying 'FOOK THIS' and walking off, that's him leaving frame you can see. The mighty Prodigy were amazing - it was quite terrifying waiting backstage awaiting the after shot, listening to their booming set. I had 17 seconds before they were ushered off site.
Tom the singer from Pulled Apart By Horses puked, then walked into our after shot. I could tell you something about every one of these, they're all really special to me.

Which act surprised you most?

And definitely Janelle Monae. She was astonishing, I still think she is the most wonderful live artist and it was a delight to shoot her for the project. Janelle really understands what's required photographically and it shows.

Who were the loveliest?

Rudimental hugged me afterwards. MIA was really warm and kind. Janelle Monae and Grimes were super friendly and grateful for their involvement too. Anyone who is nice in that moment and can focus on other people is very generous I think.

Did any artist have to go above and beyond to make this work?

Muse stood in the mud in the freezing cold backstage gazebo to do this for us. Their management were annoyed but the band didn't care, despite it ruining Matt's new sparkly pumps. That's love. They’d just done a two hour, headline set at Leeds Festival and hardly had a hair out of place afterwards. Only the towel suggests it's even an after shot. Like - what would make them actually sweat?

What was the hardest shoot to do logistically?

Any venue where there's a staircase, my kit weighs a ton.

Did it ever go wrong?

Not really. Kasabian were the only band who didn't make it back for the after shot unfortunately. For me it was a wasted evening but as they were fundraising for War Child at Shepherd's Bush Empire rather wonderfully that evening, it's fair enough. I let them off.

Why did you do this for War Child?

War Child is the most respected charity working with the music industry and it was completely logical to try to support their work with this kind of project. Especially now - I can't remember a more chaotic and destructive time in recent world history than 2014 so to have the opportunity to contribute in this way means a great deal to me and everyone who buys the book, I'm sure.

You can pre-order the ON/OFF Photo Book here.

  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    Paul Weller, Metro Radio Arena, Newcastle 4th February 2011 Tense. You know when Paul Weller is in the room I can tell you. He brings out the A game in people around him and I made sure I was ready when I saw him making his way backstage to my set-up. Afterwards I remember he wanted to give the crowd another encore and was bloody annoyed when the house lights when on.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    Beth Ditto, Lovebox 17th July 2011 If I could shoot Beth Ditto every day for the rest of my career that would certainly suit me. She's fantastic and totally got what was required here, even amid the chaos backstage at Lovebox. She really gives it over in a show.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    Two Door Cinema Club, Shepherds Bush Empire, London 23rd September 2010 I love the sweat. I wish more bands sweated like Two Door Cinema Club. The three of them generate so much sound between them, they had the crowd in their palms from the first bar – a proper singalong it was. A wonderful band with fantastic fans and they tore the venue to bits that night.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    Primal Scream, iTunes Festival, Roundhouse, Camden 20th Sep 2013 Again, super-obliging fella. Comes in and makes the picture for you. I never once barked orders of any direction at any of the artists, they slot into place and do how they feel. If Bobby wants to hide behind a towel because he's drenched in sweat, who's gonna tell him not to. Not me mate.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    Arctic Monkeys, iTunes Festival, Roundhouse, Camden 6th July 2011 I was so pleased they were willing to do this. The tension prior is evident I think and the release too.I remember them as generous, warm hearted fellas and obviously, evidently, unflappably cool.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    The Kills, Leeds Festival 28th August 2011 Photographed out the back of a tent at Leeds Festival, these two were really lovely, operating at a level of cool I will never achieve and only slightly ruffled by the wind. NB Jamie Hince has massive hands. Just sayin'.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    MIA, O2 Academy, Leeds Sat 20th November 2010 I had shot MIA a couple times before but still had no idea what to expect on this occasion, as both times had been very different experiences - however I am delighted to report that she was delightful for this, knowing what we wanted and enabling a lovely shot to occur. This is certainly one of my proudest images from the series – a close-up shot revealing cool reservation to maximum relief and joy following the banger of a gig. A relief for me too, I don't mind telling you.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    Muse Muse stood in the mud in the freezing cold backstage gazebo to do this for us. Their management were annoyed but the band didn't care, despite it ruining Matt's new sparkly pumps.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    The Vaccines, Electric Ballroom, Camden 7th April 2011 The timing was great on this one as the fellas were riding high on a huge wave of escalating success that got them right to the top very quickly. Their attitude dissolved over the performance and they bundled off stage into my set and we smashed this shot in seconds. This is what success in rock and roll looks like people.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    CSS, Heaven, London 7th December 2011 With a band like this for a project like this, you couldn't get it wrong. They're made for it and were always on the 'must get' list. You can see that quite a transformation occurs as Lovefoxxx throws every cell of her body into the show (and the crowd) and her level of commitment is like few others. Stage diving legends quake in their boots when CSS come to town.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    Elbow, O2 Arena, London 28th March 2011 The atmosphere around Elbow is a really genuine one – industry pros that have been round the block. The after shot was a magical moment where these jovial gentlemen really looked like a band of mates. I love them.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    Flying Lotus, Manchester Warehouse Project 29th October 2010 The portrait of me at the front of the book is from this show.The set up was backstage at Manchester Warehouse Project en route to the stage and was quite grimy. Again nothing was directed, he was getting ready for his set and just stood in initially as you can see, then after he was happy, relieved, sweaty and proved it on camera. A successful journey in my book.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    Lykke Li, Heaven, London 4th November 2010 There was a lot of hype and noise about this show. Tension was in the air, Lykke performed for just under an hour and the place was rammed out and HOT, yet she looks as though she's only been to the shops and back. Some people just do not sweat, ever.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    My Chemical Romance, LG Arena, Birmingham February 13 2011 This was a really big score for the project. A huge band with a super enthusiastic fan base, both of whom completely gave themselves over to the performance. There's a quietly charming element to the Off shot that I only noticed when compiling the edit, Frank Iero was holding up photos of his family for this frame only and I really felt for him, especially when he was so far from home.
  • Tom Oldham/War Child
    Warpaint, Barfly, Camden, London 15th November 2010 War Paint are so much fun. They're lovely for starters, really kind and warm, and were happy to have me hang out in their dressing room which is fairly unusual. They were kinda new in town in 2010 and you can see their reserve beforehand, but when they came off, they were so excited one of them tossed red wine accidentally over another and it rather dampened the atmosphere temporarily. I clawed it back though, as you can hopefully see.
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