Publicity shots

31st July 2017 | Concerts, Musings | 3 comments

The Edinburgh Festival and ‘Fringe’ begin this week and the city is plastered with publicity posters. The trend towards anti-glamour continues. Even if a performer wants to look glamorous, they are portrayed in a jarring context. Someone in a beautiful suit lounges in the doorway of a graffiti-covered industrial warehouse. Actors look away from the camera, their faces obscured by deep shadow. Comedians grimace and gurn. ‘Bad hair days’ are the norm. Performers are shown in contexts that have nothing whatever to do with their artistic role. A string quartet walks on the beach. A singer mooches down a disused railway track. Wind players ‘fight’ one another with their clarinets. A cellist ‘sails out to sea’ on his cello.

After passing a whole wall of such posters, I said to my companion, ‘The days of brushing my hair nicely for a publicity photo are over.’

Images have been changing for a while, but classical musicians are still unsure what to do for the best. At least, I don’t know anyone who is sure. We used to be told to dress up, do our hair and make-up nicely and arrange ourselves in an attractive group (girls in front), each person holding their instrument so that viewers would know what played what. Good lighting was imperative, and we rejected any shots where our hair was messed up by the wind. In solo publicity shots I was always required to be playing the piano, or at least leaning against it.

When I started to see images of, say, a chamber group astride motorbikes in the rain, or skulking in sinister wastelands, I wondered what message was being given and whether it was the right one. Since the days when I was part of Domus, travelling with our portable concert hall, we have argued about whether it’s right to pretend that our kind of music is fun, quirky or light-hearted when in fact it’s fundamentally serious and we have worked seriously at it for ages. Yes, we want to attract all sorts of people to come to the concerts, but we don’t want to pretend that this music isn’t what it is.

Most of us are still struggling with this issue. We want to move with the times, but we don’t want to be dishonest. My own publicity has changed to simple head-and-shoulders shots, and I don’t dress up. I don’t mind about hair blowing in the wind, but I haven’t yet felt comfortable about being shown gazing sadly out of a train window, or jumping off a skip in my pyjamas.


  1. James

    That is hilarious! I suppose it’s all about the fashions of the times. It is hard to imagine what Mozart or Bach would have made of it but I’m fairly sure that Beethoven would just have stood, snarling in front of the camera (and he only ever had bad hair days!)
    I just finished listening to Domus, actually, playing the Dvorak Piano Quartet in E flat. It’s such a majestic piece and the playing is simply superb. I always wonder how you (plural!) managed to pull it off so well, you must have all been quite young and new to recording. Like Marita Koch’s 400m world record it still somehow manages to put all others in the shade. (No, I’m not suggesting that it was recorded with the aid of performance enhancing drugs). The cover art is nice, too. Landscapes seem to go well with chamber music.

  2. Jen

    Was always struck by the portrayal of Mozart in Amadeus as a wild child especially in his teenage years. Maybe just going back to that? When actually watching a performance I personally find it easier to concentrate on the music if not distracted by odd dress/ hair/ tics, and so probably wouldn’t choose to attend a classical concert unless I knew the performer to be amazing if the publicity for it was absurd.
    When attending the Fringe which I have done regularly for years I have also learnt to weed out any show that describes itself as – well a random selection from the current brochure:” knotty, agrarian, lyrical and intense”; ‘insightful despairing wit’; etc etc.
    Keep brushing your hair I think!

    • Susan Tomes

      Ah, Jen, if you are in Edinburgh then you’ll know what I mean! It strikes me that today’s publicity is very ‘noisy’. Everyone is shouting and doing dramatic stuff in their publicity shots, and everyone’s quotes makes them sound like unmissable five-star acts. Reviews like ‘unsurpassed’ and ‘side-splittingly funny’ no longer mark anyone out as special. Perhaps there could be a market in ‘quiet’ publicity. ‘You might rather like this.’


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