Phil O'Kane

Watch an online exhibition and read a review by Lee Henry

The Out To Lunch festival's official exhibition at the Black Box in Belfast exhibits the work of photographer Phil O’Kane, a fresh-faced 22-year-old who finds himself working in music photography, after lessons in piano and guitar failed to take a hold.

Featuring photographs of musical luminaries like Duke Special, Oppenheimer and Therapy?, it’s O’Kane’s first solo exhibition and focuses solely on his work within the NI - and more specifically - Belfast music scene.

About 20 images adorn the Black Box café walls, some in colour and some in black and white. Those unacquainted with the current crop of NI bands doing the rounds, and featured in the exhibition, would do themselves a favour by reading up on their who’s who lists, as there are no descriptions supplied.

With no formal training under his belt, it’s easy to see that O’Kane is starting out in the world of music photography. Many of the images lack perspective and compositional flair. One image of Therapy? frontman Andy Cairns, taken in Belfast's Spring & Airbrake, pays little attention to the subject himself and perhaps too much to the space around him.

As a result, the picture feels empty and directionless. The same can be said for a smoke-filled shot of the piano-playing Duke Special, taken at Glasgowbury 2007, and an almost indecipherable shot of Oppenheimer's Rocky O’Reilly.

Why O'Kane would take the time to get so close to such big-hitters only to do so much to obscure them is somewhat baffling. Surely it only manages to defeat the point. When Jewish-American photo genius Lee Friedlander met jazz maestro Miles Davis, he didn’t throw a blanket over Davis' head - he took a medium close-up, head on.

Davis had enough charisma in his eyelashes to make the shot work, without Friedlander having to resort to elementary techniques to make his image unique, such as an over-developed use of black and white.

That’s not to say that O’Kane is lacking in willingness or ability. He cites New York photoblogger Travis Ruse as a key influence and has travelled to NYC himself to shoot the locals. The non-music related images on O'Kane's website are infinitely more affecting and unique than any of the images included in this music collection.

A personal friend of many of his subjects, at times O’Kane manages to capture the drama and tension of the intimate live performance by getting up close and personal with bands like Katy and the Can Openers and Boathouse.

But there are no compositional masterpieces on show here, and so there shouldn’t be, not at such an early stage in his career. As any good music photographer will tell you, only practice makes perfect. But a music lover with a camera in his or her hand does not a music photographer make. Simply taking pictures of the stars is not enough. It may take some years, and many more gigs, before O’Kane can bring the form and emotion evident in his life work to his music photography.