'A great photo should show the passion and energy of the band. You need to capture them giving everything to the music…' Maddy Fry talks to James Mahon about his new exhibition of photos at the Athlone Art Gallery.
"I never really thought they would make it," says James Mahon with a shrug, looking back to the late 1970's when he felt like the band's unofficial photographer-in-residence. "There was no sense they would be huge. They were good and getting better, and turning out some good songs, but it wasn't until they released ‘War' that it was clear they had really knocked it out of the park."
Mahon's current show in the Athlone Art Gallery captures the embryonic U2 when they were still developing not just their craft, but their live presence and fan base. It wasn't unheard of for them to play shows where only six people turned up. At one event, whose small audience was due to a publicity cock-up, the band were determined not to see the gig as a waste of time. They wanted to "treat it as a rehearsal. They just went through the songs because they were there and had the stuff set up. I wanted to get something that was technically correct, with the right lighting, but I also wanted to capture how expressive they were as performers. Edge tended to move around more later on, but Bono was always making loads of gestures on stage."
He and Bono were close friends at their north Dublin primary school, gathering at each other's homes to watch seminal events like the moon landings, before parting ways when Bono ended up at Mount Temple and Mahon went away to boarding school. Yet his relationship with U2 was largely accidental.
"I was young and enjoyed going to gigs, but I had lost touch with ‘Paul.' My sister was the one who told me he was in a band. I wanted to go and see them but I didn't want to pay, so I told the people on the door I was the photographer!"
He adds that, "They were determined and serious, more into performing than posing. They were obviously used to getting up early and working hard rather than going out and getting drunk. They looked good, had good songs and good fans. It all aligned well."
The stunt paid off. When he saw Mahon's photos, Bono suggested he bring them to Hot Press magazine, who asked him to do more. Despite his long relationship with Bono, Mahon's rapport with the band was semi-professional rather than convivial.
"I wasn't really one of the gang. I was just part of the furniture. Photography was a great way to get access to things, but on the periphery."
That said, he went to a lot of shows. Between 1978 and 1980 he saw the band 40 times. It's a track record that would make any fan of the band in that era ache with envy - particularly seeing them play the odd lost U2 classic from pre-‘Boy' days, such as ‘Concentration Cramp.'
"They were always playing their own songs, even early on, which made them unusual," he recalls.
His favourites from the collection on show in Athlone include one of the Edge in relaxed mode pouring coffee off-stage, Bono singing with his hands behind his head, and Adam standing on stage with the light shining behind him, looking, remembers Mahon, "like the coolest of them."
The exhibit, which runs until 12th September, is U2-heavy, with the band featuring in 14 of the 26 pictures on display, but it contains images to please fans of other bands at the time, including XTC, the Ramones, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC. Most acts are from outside Dublin, but the presence of the Virgin Prunes adds a touch of local avant-garde.
"U2 and the Virgin Prunes were joined at the hip, but the Prunes were so much more visual. You never knew what they were going to do on stage," Mahon recalls.
He concedes that his own trajectory would be a hard way for a budding photographer to cut their teeth: "The digital age has made it easier to clean up negatives on an enlarged screen, but phone cameras have gotten so good now, and people can use them to see bands up close, wherever they stand, so there's much more competition. Back then, not as many people had cameras."
Yet the photos prompt a lot of satisfaction for Mahon.
"It's great to look back on who U2 were as a band. You remember how much nerve we all had when we were young, just trying stuff out to see if it works. A great photo should show the passion and energy of the band. You need to capture them giving everything to the music while feeding off it at the same time. That's certainly where U2 were at."
The exhibition is open until the 12th September in the Athlone Art Gallery in Lloyd's lane, Athlone, Co. Westmeath, Ireland.