This article was first published in 2006 and is adapted from the introduction to Sophie’s book Peace Love and Brown Rice a Photographic History of the Big Day Out.
Words and images by Sophie Howarth
Summer since 1992 for me has meant the Big Day Out (BDO). It punctuates summer. In October, when still feeling a bit wintry, the first announcement of the tour band line-up is released. It brings with it thoughts of the heat and all the shenanigans that go with it.
In the summer of 1992, the first BDO, I was about to enter my second year of a three-year diploma in fine arts at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School).
My friends since high school were all involved in music. They played in bands, toured bands, worked at record stores, worked at record companies, promoted shows, worked in band pubs and other live venues.
My introduction to this world from the inside had been through Stephen Pavlovic (now Modular Records). He was my boyfriend at the time. I got a taste for the life - everyone around me moved in this world. Swept along with them, I started photographing bands and the life around it; my life.
I was a bit younger than the rest by a few years, and at that stage in life it can make a difference, but there was heaps of encouragement from everyone around me.
The summer of 1992 was Stephen’s potentially big tour. It turned out to be bigger than big (we all know the story of the Nirvana phenomenon).
By the time Nirvana arrived for the Australian tour they had swept the world. I recall a message my Dad left on our answering machine, calling from Seattle where he was on biz, ‘this band that Stephen is about to tour is huge here, all over the news’.
I mostly remember the Horden Pavilion that first BDO, hanging off a railing front of house. I didn’t take any photos. I remember deciding that I wanted to have an experience of the day not through the camera lens. How that one has changed! I tend to experience everything through the camera now…heehehee.
I was 2I and wondering what to get up to, and I still had the safety of two more years at art school before being flung out into anything career like. I was always anxious that nothing would ever happen for me. The the other side of knowing all these great people was that I compared myself to them and thought that I had missed the boat on doing or achieving anything. The people around me were already so successful.
This was the first BDO and I was just learning how to take photos (especially without a flash) - the rule in the pit is ‘first 3 songs - no flash’. For a long lime I shot blanks, roll after roll I’d develop at college after a show, repeatedly setting the aperture way wrong...getting blanks!!
1993 came and I decided to go away, purposely missing the BDO. Stephen and I broke up halfway through the year. I then began to think this really was where I wanted to express my photography, in the music industry. When it all shook down, I discovered that I did have a leg to stand on and genuine friends in this industry (I wasn't just Stephen’s girlfriend).
It was the beginning of a very driven part of my life - a job with ‘On the Street’ and a show every other night to photograph (some nights two), then every festival (no matter where it was), as well as promo shoots for local bands.
Along the way the BDO grew, the people who worked on it got more experience and this caused great things to happen for me beyond the event.
Some highlights for me: ASH flew me to the UK for 10 days to photograph them for their album artwork and publicity; PJ Harvey invited me personally to photograph her side-show at the Palace in Melbourne; Offspring took me on part of their Australian tour in 2000, Grinspoon used a shot from my BDO archive for their “Rockshow” single cover art (which evolved into a poster and merchandise). And, In 1997, Something For Kate took me to NZ to document “Elsewhere for 8 Minutes”, gave me a car and sent me off to photograph their album artwork, which ended up on the covers of three singles and the album.
I began to have a rich photographic life, which included the BDO and other music festivals. I became financially sustainable and creatively satisfied - working on band shoots year-round, selling from my growing photo archive to magazines and back to the bands (at festivals, most photographers are freelance. The event gives you a pass, you outlay the costs involved and if anyone wants to buy - they buy later!!). I was lucky.
I shoot less festivals now, though the BDO has remained a constant. In 2004 it was significant for me that the BDO took me on the road as one of its official photographers. From the macro to the micro: the massive crowd, the detail of one punters face…eye, hand, tee shirt, smile – to the band on stage, a guitar, taped up fingers. I love to photograph it all. It stirs the magic…it's the only game for me - taking photographs. Still in this crazy environment.
Even when you wake up and you’re not in the BDO bubble but your own bed - it's February, January is over and you’ve spent an intense two weeks with a bunch of people you may never see again. But hey Bondi Beach is at the end of the street and there's 100 rolls of film to develop…it lasts forever!
Listen to a radio interview with Sophie on ABC Radio’s Double J TAKE 5 Grunge Heroes
Visit the Sophie Howarth Photography Rock Archive.