Each June, thousands of eager music lovers gather in a wooded region of Rothbury, Michigan, proudly waving their quirky homemade totem poles as they navigate through the brilliantly imaginative world of Electric Forest—a music festival curated like an acid trip. The forest has been enjoyed by thousands of outlandishly dressed festival-goers since its birth in 2011. Yet, few people have been able to eternalize the festival quite like Florida photographer Calder Wilson. Famed for his bold aerial shots that bravely fly over some of the most riveting dance music festivals in North America, he recently spoke with THUMP about his unique eye for visual storytelling.
THUMP: How the hell do you grab those festival aerial shots?
Calder Wilson: The right equipment and a lift in a helicopter. Luckily, the festivals I work with implement those aerial shots. EDC, for example, they're very good at having multiple flights for the photography team. There's some special considerations to take in when getting those shots at night. You have to warm up and you have to go find the right angle up there. For example, my EDC shot with the full firework array, I got that on the second flight of the second day. I missed it on the first day, but the second day I was really prepared for it.
Did you invent that kind of photography?
It's a process called 360 panoramic photography. I'm the director of photography for YouVisit, which is a virtual reality company based out of NYC. I've been a photographer with them for the last four years. Part of the job is going to these spaces and creating 360 projections. I think it's the best way of one photo showing the entire event. You've got the crowds, you've got the huge stage on top, but you also get what's happening to the right and left. It's a good way to tell a story.
You describe your photos as a "new perspective." How do your images offer new perspectives of the festival experience?
I think we're all used to seeing a bunch of concert footage from cell phones. When a lot of people see a cool live show with fireworks, they'll whip out their cell phones and start taking photos. We all know that the iPhone coverage doesn't do what we're seeing in real life justice. I try to capture the moment exactly like it was for the person who saw the show.
How did you get into shooting music and festivals?
I starting shooting music photography in my basement during college, where I had my friends' bands come over for house parties. Photographing them turned into photographing our friends' band Papadosio. They got me in touch with AURA Music Festival, my first festival, and that lead to me shooting Camp Bisco in 2011. MCP Presents, who produced Camp Bisco at the time, liked my work, which lead to me running photography for events like Counterpoint, Lights All Night, and BUKU. From that point on, most of my work has been for festivals directly.
What aspect of your photography is distinctly Calder Wilson?
Today, people are doing most of their photo viewing on their smartphones. The images are small on Instagram, or on a Facebook story, and a photo that may not look as nice on a larger monitor can look pretty good on a smartphone. Because I work directly for events, they need images that look good printed in press, on billboards, and other larger format mediums. I want every photo I deliver to be print quality, the larger the better, so nailing the focus and exposures on my shots is the most important thing for me. I hate technical flaws, probably to a fault, but it's pushed me to be more consistent with my delivery.
Which festival has been the most inspiring?
For me, Electric Forest Festival is the most inspiring event. There's absolutely nothing like it. Sherwood Forest feels like another world. The combination of nature and art offers some amazing photo opportunities.You could spend the entire weekend in there just hanging out and having a great time. Then, outside of the forest are these crazy high-energy shows like last year's Saturday night String Cheese Incident and Bassnectar shows. It really gives the best of both worlds for attendees. Wish more events were like it, but then this one wouldn't be so special.
Electric Forest will return to Double JJ Resort in Rothbury, Michigan from June 23-26, 2015. Tickets are on-sale and available for purchase here.
Rebecca is on Twitter.