The Beatles First U.S. Concert was here

Shutter: 1/800, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 15mm, ISO: 100

On February 11, 1964 the Beatles played their first ever U.S. concert at the Washington Coliseum (aka Uline Arena) right near Union Station. The building still stands, but it’s now used as a covered parking lot for DC commuters. Most of the seats are gone, but a few remnants can still be spotted if you can get in with a camera. As I’m embedding myself more into photographing the DC rock scene, I thought I could stop by and pay tribute to this rock and roll relic, right in our backyard. Click below for more pics and historical video.

Shutter: 1/40, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 15mm, ISO: 1600

I stopped by the arena around 5:30, so most of the commuters had left for the day, and any other people in there were in the process of leaving. I wanted to shoot it when it was mostly empty. I’m going for historical impact, and the less contemporary cars in the shot, the better. That’s also partially why I made this image b&w, to highlight the history of this place over its current function. Also, note there is a similar wide shot to this one in the gallery below in color, but the dinginess of that image overpowers the texture, so the reason to go b&w was two-fold. And remember, this is private property, so you do need to ask the attendant if you can go in to take photos. He told me not to climb on anything, and though very tempting, I complied.

orange cluster
Shutter: 1/40, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 1600

In the back right corner, there is a cluster of orange stadium seats that remain. I like how in this photo, the lighting and the isolation naturally create a spotlight effect around the cluster. Back in its heyday, people would come and sit in these seats to watch a big event, but now, given the circumstances, the seats are the primary focus and thus get the spotlight treatment. I like how you can see intact cement stairs, but also where its begun to crumble. Fans of post-apocalyptic fiction love images like these of familiar structures, especially leisure-based artifacts, succumbing to neglect. In addition to the reversal of the spectator seats becoming the focus, I also like how back in 1964, people would have killed to get a seat at the Beatles show. And here we are now, and they’re forgotten. Almost as if they weren’t important enough to throw away.

Shutter: 1/50, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 1600

Here is another image I dropped to b&w specifically to focus on the texture and the history. Why am I being so defensive of dropping the color? Because we hear it’s all too easy to make something “artsy” just by making it black and white. I want to make it clear that it’s perfectly fine to make something b&w, but know when to do it, and why it’s the right choice. In this photo, I love how you can still see the row letters. This little detail gives the viewer that much more attachment. If we were to find someone who attended this concert (if you know someone who did, please let me know) we could attempt to figure out how close they sat to the existing seats. It’s funny, the grayscale actually makes it look less dingy to me, than when I left in the orange.

crummy seats
Shutter: 1/80, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 70-200 mm, ISO: 1600

As a photographer, your job is to show the world something you saw, and then defend why you took the photo. Within the frame of your photo, you need to draw the eye someplace specific to communicate your message to the viewer. In some of the best photos, your eye takes a journey by beginning one place and traveling to another. (That’s why photos of paths going through the woods are so popular) In this particular photo I want the viewer to focus on the details of the crumbling cement. Hopefully you see the seats first, but because they’re slightly out of focus, your eye moves to what is in focus, the precarious edge. I’m also hoping that the slope of the edge, as well as the terrible state of the chairs and wall paint create a little bit of visual tension in the viewer. Because the ground element is tilted, your brain feels like the chairs may slide off. They don’t look very stable or comfortable in their own right. I felt it was crucial to keep the blue hue of the paint on the wall instead of making this photo b&w. The color provides a little bit of depth, and because it’s in color, I’m not giving the viewer the immediate comfort of looking at history, I want it to feel more real and in the now, adding to the tension.

Shutter: 1/80, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 70-200mm, ISO: 1600

To further illustrate my point, here is a similar photo from the same vantage point, same settings, however I’m now focusing on the seats and the wall. The chairs still look uncomfortable and dirty, but I don’t think there’s nearly as much tension or any message. My message behind this shoot is to focus on something that was once very desirable, that is now very significant, however in terrible shape. I also want to record what I saw and present it to the viewer for journalistic purposes, but while doing so, I’m going to let my feelings and impressions dictate what I show you.

Shutter: 1/25, Aperture: f/2.8, Lens: 15mm, ISO: 1600

Enough gloom and tension, I also wanted to have a little fun. I stopped by kind of on a whim, so I didn’t do that much prep work ahead of time. I’m still on the lookout, but I wanted a good wide shot of the Beatles on stage, with some type of landmark in the background, and maybe I could do one of those historical photo merges. I do know they played “in the round” so they were pretty much in the center, but otherwise, the video and stills I’ve found have all been tight on the Beatles, (of course). So in the meantime I pulled up a YouTube video of the Beatles playing this very concert on my phone, and held it up for a photo. It was actually pretty difficult getting the lighting right so that the iPhone would be exposed the best it could, but also show the environment. Yes, I could have comped something in Photoshop, but the point was to share that connection I was longing for with something historical. Here is that video.

Note the concert photographer at the :57 mark. That’s where I froze it for the photo above. There’s a longer, higher-def video here

To give you some context, the Beatles were already huge at this point, they played in NY on Ed Sullivan a few nights before, it’s not like they were relative unknowns at this point. This isn’t like the mythical 1969 Led Zeppelin concert a few miles away at the Montgomery County Youth Center before anyone knew who they were. That’s another shoot I want to do. But Washingtonians were the first Americans to see the Beatles perform live in concert, and it was here, in this decrepit parking lot that I pass every morning on the way to work. I want to give a shout-out to my mentor Paul who told me about this place’s history. You should check out his blog.

There are a few more photos below, featuring little details about this place. If you’re interested in more Uline Arena history, check this out for more pics and video. You can see more of my current concert photography here.

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One Response to The Beatles First U.S. Concert was here

  1. Shawn V says:

    Did not see the Beatles there, but more than one Ringling Bros Circuses and the Washington Chiefs Hockey club. No “glass” around the rink, but chain link fence!