Photographing the festivals: A really 'in tents' experience, man

The sports photographer Stuart Roy Clarke swapped football for festivals, attending 37 last year alone. In a sneak preview of his new book, e sets the scene for 2008’s summer of love
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Whatever did British people do in summer before there were music festivals? Did we spend our weekends planting sweet peas in the garden? Or flooring pints in the pub? Of course we knew festivals existed somewhere. We knew the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts was going on; it had been luring revellers into its muddily spaced-out embrace since the early Seventies. Gradually it was joined by Reading, then Leeds, then the Monsters of Rock Festival at Donington Park if you fancied banging your head with other heavy metal zealots to the subtle riffs of AC/DC and the mighty Maiden. But that, by and large, was it.

Now you can't move for music festivals across the UK. Three-day rock events now sprawl across every weekend in the calendar, from May to September. And the punters are just as likely to be well-heeled and middle-aged parents as poor, groovy students.

You can pay £150 for the full Glasto experience, complete with cosmically significant "healing" fields and an alternative township of ramshackle stalls selling wire jewellery, organic halva and mung beans. Or you can pay a mere £60 for the Truck weekend. You can pitch a tent, hire a caravan or sleep up a tree. You can dress as Satan or Amy Winehouse, paint yourself blue or clothe your naked body in feathers. But whatever you do, you stand a good chance of being immortalised by the lens of Stuart Roy Clarke.

Clarke has been a football photographer for 16 years. But a few summers ago, he decided to visit pop festivals with his camera, "to ride the new wave of enthusiasm" and catch some music fans off their guard. There were, by his computation, 600 in the UK and Ireland last summer. Clarke went to 37 of them, discreetly snapping the revellers, day and night. The charming, sometimes eye-opening results of his quest are published, later this year, in the bluntly titled new book Scenes from a British Summer Country Pop Music Festival.

Did they all blur into one after a while? "I don't take drugs or drink," says Clarke. "They never blurred for me. Photo-wise, I'm never confused by where I am, or where I was." What did festivals have in common apart from music, grass, canned cider and people kissing in the sunshine? "Idealism. Some festivals have the capacity to change lives." Really? "Oh yes. Festivals can make people change the tempo of their lives, by taking them away from all the things they're used to, into a communal arena."

Why do no bands appear in the pictures? "As a football photographer, I'm drawn to photographing the crowd, and I followed the same line with the festivals. Most people's experience of festivals is travelling, dealing with tents, human interaction – these outweigh the experience of watching the bands perform."

Clarke doesn't welcome comparisons with Martin Parr, the photographic satirist of people misbehaving in social arenas. "I never really liked his stuff," says Clarke. "He's too down on people. I prefer a warmer, humanist approach."

Warm, indeed. His pictures are full of embraces. Lovers insert their hands into each other's jeans and sleeves, out of fondness or chilliness. A tattooed desperado twines himself around his girlfriend without relinquishing his cigarette. A couple enjoy a snog to the fury of their neighbour. You can feel the photographer's combination of amusement and sympathy for the yuppie using his mobile to phone for help after a downpour has flooded his tent.

Clarke approves the spectacle of festival-goers dressing up in masks, angels costumes or Grim Reaper robes. "It's part of the desire to become somebody else," he says, "stepping outside your clothes, shedding your reptilian skin. There's a lot more to it than fancy dress." His favourite photograph, however, features no clothes at all. "It was the Big Green Gathering, in Cheddar Gorge. I went there with high hopes, but found it very dull – until I came across some people digging a hole in the ground. It gradually evolved into the scene in the photograph. There was nakedness – though nothing orgiastic – and music, and people chucking mud everywhere. It was so tribal, so primeval. On the edge of the hole, you can see a woman playing the saxophone. At first she seemed terrified that a speck of mud might land in the sax – but after a while she just didn't care. She became abandoned." He sighs, sounding just a touch of an old hippie himself. "It was just a joyful, beautiful scene." Right on.