United By Mud

From folkies to farmers, it takes every kind of people to make the Glastonbury Festival. Nicholas Barber introduces portraits taken at last year's sodden gig
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The Independent Culture
HOW do you take a snapshot of the people of Britain? How do you tick off as many ages, classes and creeds as possible, in one place over one long weekend? How do you rejoice in heterogeneity without abandoning a unifying theme - and still have time to catch Van Morrison on the Pyramid Stage? For Andrew Johnston, a Somerset-based photographer, the answer to these questions was, if not on his doorstep, then only 25 minutes down the road: Glastonbury.

Almost every June since 1970, tens of thousands of people from all over the nation have congregated in the fields of Worthy Farm, attracted by the prospect of losing themselves in a sylvan world of music, camping, noodles, face-painting, and wooden pyramids that mend your aura if you squat in them. The festival has grown into a unique, magical gathering, one that caters not just for rock fans or folk fans or dance fans or travellers, but for everyone who doesn't mind queuing up for running water. Johnston called in another photographer, Andrew Errington, and they set about putting last year's Glastonbury festival on film.

Glance at the pictures printed in every newspaper in the country this morning, and you'll see how easy it is to steal a candid snap of some half-naked, muck-encrusted students dancing around a pagan altar constructed of beer cans, but Johnston and Errington were determined to take a less voyeuristic path. With the permission of Michael Eavis, the Festival's founder, they erected a tent, 15 feet long and 12 feet high, mounted Errington's Hasselblad on a tripod, left one side of the makeshift studio open for lighting, and invited passers-by in to pose. This photographic healing pyramid was, says Errington "an area of calm and quiet in the middle of an amazing medieval encampment".

The idea was that the sitters would retain a dignity that your average handing-round-a-joint-in-the-rain festival shot doesn't allow. They were told that they were active participants in a photo-documentary and encouraged to present themselves however they wanted. It shows. In the portraits, with their echoes of Irving Penn and Victorian family groups, the sitters became stars of their own dramas, models that Benetton would spend millions of pounds tracking down and signing up.

For four days from sunrise on Thursday to sunset on Sunday, Johnston and Errington took over 1,200 pictures; our selection is just a cursory flick through the all-human-life coffee-table book the two Andrews plan to have published. As a celebration of "the diversity of pre-millennial Britain", the project has just one flaw. A cross-section of the population may well make its way to the Glastonbury Festival, but once those people get within a mile of the leylines that run through Plumley's Paddock and the Avalon Field, their identities mutate. Glastonbury is another planet, a parallel universe, where technology has advanced far enough to blast music across acres of countryside, but not far enough to make going to the toilet anything other than a nauseating experience. In order to survive, the inhabitants evolve into a new race. Sleep patterns go haywire, diets are upended, fashion edicts are spun around, until wearing oversized blue and yellow checked top hats seems rather stylish. And 1997's Glastonbury was more alien than ever. It was the year of thick, oozing, sucking mud, and anyone who wasn't put off could claim a special, tough, positive spirit. You can see it in these photographs. !

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