Michael Tullberg: Taking on the Role of a Rave Historian

All text and rave photos by Michael Tullberg. Used with permission.

My name is Michael Tullberg, and I’ve been a music and pop culture photojournalist in Los Angeles for the past two decades now. I currently photograph for Getty Images’ Entertainment division, and have shot personally for artists like Diana Ross, Jane’s Addiction, and Robyn. However, my modern music work is only one reason why I’m contacting you. I’m also one of the longest-running electronic music journalists in this country, having gotten started in the L.A. rave underground in the mid-90s. Back then, I was writing and photographing for most of the dance music mags of the day, and shooting album covers for electronic music icons like Carl Cox and Ferry Corsten, to name just a couple.

My magazines and record labels flew me around the country, sending me to raves, concerts, clubs and festivals. That experience not only eventually led me to Getty, but also provided me with the material to write and publish two books about the glory days of the American rave scene: DANCEFLOOR THUNDERSTORM: Land Of The Free, Home Of The Rave and THE RAVER STORIES PROJECT. The former is a big coffee table photo book, and you can find plenty of details about it here.

In those days—very much the analog days of film—I was shooting most of my work with a mid-60s Honeywell Pentax Spotmatic (with screw-mount lenses!), and larger stuff with a Mamiya 645 Pro. I developed several different photographic techniques for my rave scene shooting, with the purpose of getting that incredible rave vibe on the film. That fluttering, buzzing, proto-psychedelic ambiance that had been so missing in most nightlife photography up until that point. I was looking to build visual overload on the film, and in the best of cases, I succeeded.

I started out using high speed film, but the truth is at one point or another I used practically every kind of film that could be found, including color negative, color slide, black and white, and even color infrared at times. I would often do very long exposures, and combine that with camera movement to create great swoops and swirls of color. I would use multiple strobe units with colored gels on the flash heads, so as to add even more color to a scene that was already often on the verge of visual overload. I would create stroboscopic effects with my flashes, and combine that with camera rotation to create vortex-like patterns. On occasion I would do light painting with a hand-held laser. All of these could lead to light and color streaking, bleeding and exploding all over the place on the film…just like at the party. It was all about expanding the palette and pushing the boundaries, so that someone not involved in the rave scene could look at the photograph and understand what was really happening.

Of course, there was no screen on the back of my film cameras for me to check to see how I was doing. I would find out how I did once I got the film back from the lab the next day. It really forced me to pay attention and burn the basics of photography into my brain, so that when everything was getting crazy at a gig, I could compose and shoot almost automatically, without having to think about what I was doing.

I do much fewer unpermitted events today than I did twenty years ago, but I still try to keep those underground roots alive, and I’ve even managed to use some of my old rave lighting techniques in some of my work for Getty. I suppose you could say that I’ve become somewhat more “respectable” professionally, but I’ve also been transitioning into the role of rave historian, which is in part where DANCEFLOOR THUNDERSTORM came from.

Why did you get into photography?

I got into photography because, as I mentioned, I was looking to reproduce the often amazing world of below-the-radar nightlife. I got hooked on bringing gold nuggets out of the underground and into the daylight, so to speak. L.A. is truly a nocturnal wonderland of stimulation at times, and the rave scene epitomized that spirit the most in the 1990s. I saw the rave scene as yet another instance of grassroots entertainment that, though controversial at the time, would in the end be celebrated as a unique and pivotal era. The rise of today’s EDM festival circuit is proof positive of the rave scene’s success.

I have always felt that the time period of the rave scene is one of the most critically overlooked periods in American pop culture. I felt that way about it back then, and I feel the same way about it now. I genuinely believe that the rise of the rave scene and electronic music is the most significant cultural movement in American music and pop culture since the founding of hip-hop. I also believe it has been one of the most unfairly maligned music movements to come around in living memory, and that it deserves to be treated as part of the grand American music tradition just as much as jazz, swing, rock & roll, and the blues do. This is one reason why I wrote DANCEFLOOR THUNDERSTORM—to give those people the attention and respect that they earned, one incredible party at a time.

What photographers are your biggest influences?

My biggest photo influences are primarily the great rock and roll photographers of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Among them are Jim Marshall, Ross Halfin and early Annie Leibovitz…but the biggest by far was the great Neal Preston. His work with Led Zeppelin was the first to really inspire me, and not coincidentally, it was one of his long exposure shots of Jimmy Page at Knebworth in 1979 that showed me that an experimental approach to live music photography could in fact work.

My other visual influences have been the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters, particularly Monet, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and others. I definitely transplanted the Impressionist look into my rave photographs many times. Like them, I was often more concerned with conveying the vibe of the event more than the need for visual sharpness and clarity. And remember, some of those painters (like Toulouse-Lautrec) celebrated entertainment that was often considered scandalous in their day. I saw many parallels between what they had done, and what I was experiencing in the rave scene.

I also tapped another unusual source: anime. I was an old-school anime fan from the early 1980s, long before it became fashionable in this country. Visually, anime was often so much more daring and dazzling than most American animation. Its vibrant use of color and movement was a direct influence on my rave photography, for that intense color was ideal for the feelings I wanted to convey in my pictures.

How long have you been shooting?

I’ve been shooting since 1993, and professionally since 1996.

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

It keeps me sane. Seriously. It’s the feeling of rightness when you lift the camera to your eye, and see what you’re about to create through the viewfinder. It’s the anticipation that swells when your finger presses halfway down on the shutter button. It’s a type of creative outlet that’s vital to an artist’s well-being.

Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?

I am most definitely both, because in music and entertainment photography, the two go hand in hand. The documentation part of it is fairly obvious—so obvious, in fact, that with today’s photo technology, anybody can do it. (Whether they can do it well is another matter altogether.) However, when I’m out there in the field, I’m certainly creating as well as documenting. The creative part consists of whatever technology I bring with me (like the colored strobes, lasers, etc.), and the visual composition I choose to employ. This is as true at a mainstream concert as it is at an underground party. Here’s a good recent example of both with Dita von Teese.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically.

When I create images nowadays, it’s usually in the field, often at concerts or other live events. I’ve heard comments from people that I have the look of a hunter when I’m working, and that’s a pretty apt comparison, I think. I’m so completely focused on what I’m capturing, that everything else just falls away. In the best of conditions, I’m completely in that zone, totally zeroed in on what’s happening at that moment, and how to capture it best. If I’m shooting an artist for the first time, then I really need to try to anticipate what they’re going to do, which is difficult sometimes.

When I do a live event, particularly a big one, I try to do homework beforehand about the artist, and the show they’re putting on. YouTube is great for this, because the fan-shot videos allow me to see what goes on in the show. This is important when you have a limited amount of time in the photo pit. A great example of this was when I was assigned to shoot Roger Waters performing “The Wall” at the L.A. Coliseum. Through watching YouTube videos of earlier shows on the tour, I knew that the third song in the set was going to be the iconic “Another Brick In The Wall, Part II”. I also knew that the show would be featuring the large, imposing Schoolmaster puppet, which would loom Roger and the band. Because of this, I knew where to position myself to get the shot with maximum impact, as you can see here.

Want to walk us through your processing techniques?

If you mean post-production, I try to do as little as possible, unless I’m putting a specific spin on an image. I’m not really a fan of heavily processed digital images, which I suppose is a product of being schooled in photography during the film years. To me, getting the exposure right in the first place is the key, not how much fiddling you can do on the computer. That said, when I do go into post, I’m primarily a Photoshop user, with Nik software plugins for conversions and effects.

Tell us about the project that you’re pitching, or your portfolio.

As I’ve said, my work can basically be divided into two major sections: my classic rave film photography, and my modern (mostly) digital entertainment work for Getty and others. On the rave side, I’ve published not just DANCEFLOOR THUNDERSTORM, but also an interactive iBook sequel called DANCEFLOOR THUNDERSTORM: The Out-Takes. I’ve also held several exhibitions of my work over the years, and have also begun doing spoken-word gigs about the histories of the rave scene and rave photography, like this one at the EDMbiz trade show:

I’m currently working on an oral history book project about the glory days of the rave scene, along the lines of the punk classic Please Kill Me. This is very much a long-term project, which will not be completed for a long time to come.

One big event I’m covering in the near future is going to be a spectacular meeting of the rave world and the upscale mainstream one: a French electro dance party in the palaces at Versailles. I’m going to be there in early June, writing and photographing the event for the UK magazine Mixmag. This event, in a very real sense, represents the incredible journeys of both the rave scene and myself. I started out photographing deep in the L.A. rave underground 25 years ago, in the warehouses and after-hours clubs that L.A. became infamous for. In fact, the very first rave I attended was shut down by the police, with attack dogs! In the quarter-century since then, I’ve covered and written about dance music culture around the globe. My passion is such that I’ve published two books about it. For this old L.A. rave veteran to be able to come all the way from the darkest, shadiest underground warehouses, to celebrating this music at its most opulent and highbrow peak—Versailles—that’s a great storyline all on its own. And of course, there’s the parallel angle of the music and culture making that enormous leap from the streets of America to European palaces as well.

On the other side, I’m still providing photos to Getty, and to mainstream artists who need great pictures. Over the years, I’ve done gigs as varied as Elton John’s Oscar viewing parties, the premieres of blockbuster Hollywood films, and the often scorching heat of Coachella (been there eight times, BTW). There is, I admit, a certain allure of working in the higher ranks of the entertainment business, which is probably a major reason why I’ve been working with Getty for fifteen years now.

What made you want to get into your genre?

Music and entertainment — documenting it, and being part of it as well.

Tell us a bit about the gear that you use and how you feel it helps you achieve your creative vision.

I currently shoot mostly with Nikon, and have for the past fifteen years or so. The great thing about Nikon is the enormous amount of lenses and gear that you can get for their cameras. The fact that the F-series adapter for their mirrorless Z series works so well means that all those lenses’ lifespans are going to be extended. Since one of my workhorses is their 200-400 f/4, that’s important, since Nikon’s not likely going to come up with a Z series equivalent for several years, at least according to their present timetables. It won’t be cheap when it comes out, either.

What motivates you to shoot?

That depends entirely on who or what I’m shooting. When I’m on assignment for Getty at a high-end music or celebrity event, the motivation comes very easily most of the time. We’re expected to deliver top-quality results, and quickly—sometimes with the client right there. Recently, I ended up shooting the opening night of the pop superstar Robyn’s current U.S. tour, with Robyn and her management having final approval for what they would use in their own publicity. This meant that I had four songs to shoot—from only one vantage point, BTW—and then following that, I had to perform some real machine gun editing to have a selection of images ready for Robyn when she came off the stage at the end of her performance. When you’re under the gun like that, one’s workflow becomes very simplified, if you’re smart. Here’s a sample.

The nightlife shooting now occupies a smaller place in my photo priorities than it did twenty years ago, if for no other reason than I pretty much did it all, saw it all, and managed to survive it in the end. I did it, and I have no reason to want to repeat it in my later years, because what would be the point? I certainly still go out now and again, and most of those parties are underground ones, because I don’t think I’ll ever fully cut my ties to that culture that gave me so much. But to try to dive so deep once again into a subculture in my fifties, in an EDM generation that bears little resemblance to the rave scene that I and my peers helped pioneer, makes little sense to me. I am content to be among the first of the historians for this genre, and for this era in pop culture.

I also enjoy shooting with plastic cameras, when I get the chance. During my long tenure at Freestyle Photo Supplies in Hollywood—when Freestyle was the US distributor for Holga cameras—I ended up writing most of the Holga Manual that came with each camera. I’ve shot some pretty remarkable things with the Holga, and a bunch of other funky plastic cameras.


Visit Michael Tullberg’s website, Instagram, Getty Page, and YouTube channel to see more of his work.