Photographer Mike Schreiber Explains What it was Like to Cover the Wildest Music Festival of All Time: Woodstock '99
Earlier this year, Famed photographer Mike Schreiber published Woodstock ’99, a book of mostly never-before-seen photos of the infamous festival. We had Schreiber break down some of his most iconic shots.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why would anyone want to be here?’”
Mike Schreiber has photographed hundreds of live shows and artists over the last 20 plus years. For one weekend in late July 1999 at the former Griffiss Air Force Base in Rome, New York, Schreiber saw a music festival turn into a veritable warzone. Woodstock ‘99 was a hedonistic concrete wasteland seemingly sovereign of the rules of human decency where security guards were just happy to get free admission to see Korn and sexual assault ran rampant.
“There was nothing but cement and heat pounding on you non-stop,” Schreiber, who shot the festival for Spin Magazine, said. “People were drinking, doing drugs, and there was a lack of water. [Vendors] were price-gouging the water. The whole thing was a recipe for [the festival goers] to potentially burn it down.”
Born and raised in Long Island, New York, Schreiber delved into photography after working at a photo agency and being drawn by the vivid concert photos he’d see photographers bring. He eventually taught himself photography through trial, error, and research. Over the years his camera lenses and discernible eye would go on to take intimate photos of the human condition, from orphans in Nepal to people behind bars in Angola Prison.
But he is best known for his photos of rappers that are part of hip-hop lore, etched in people’s minds as paramount visual memories of that time. The Unsigned Hype feature in The Source that helped launch Eminem’s career? That’s a Mike Schreiber photo. DMX backstage at Woodstock ‘99? That’s a Mike Schreiber photo. Voletta Wallace holding a photo of a young Christopher Wallace years after he was murdered? That’s a Mike Schreiber photo.
In July, for the 20 year anniversary of the festival, Schreiber published Woodstock ‘99, a 24-page book of mostly never before seen photos. The famed photographer sat down with Okayplayer at his apartment in New York City to discuss what debauchery really went down at Woodstock ‘99, DMX’s aggressive recording habits and much more by going behind the stories of some of his most iconic photographs.
As told to Keith Nelson Jr.
This must’ve been mid-day. It was hot. If you notice, everybody is sunburned. It was obviously mostly white people and just miserable. I don’t remember what day this was, but I do remember it was before the madness. It was almost like two separate festivals. There was during the day where it was Jewel, Alanis Morissette, The Roots, Sheryl Crow, Dave Matthews, Wyclef [Jean]. Everyone was peaceful.
At night, it was Rage Against The Machine, Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Metallica. It just turned into this fucking nightmare from hell. It was like the crowd changed. It was almost like everyone cleared out and made way for the roughnecks. You could tell by looking at the lineup it was going to be a shitshow. You can’t have that lineup and things not deteriorate.
This was during the Korn set. I remember the Korn set being scary because the energy was so dark. The only way to get out of the crowd was to crowd surf to the front. So, there were just bodies coming over. That was on purpose. They just wanted to leave. There were security guys getting kicked in the face. Then, you add in the music and it’s just madness. I remember it was angry, belligerent white dudes standing in the heat all day.
With the hindsight of 20 years, and having this douchebag president, this guy reminds me of [Supreme Court Justice] Brett Kavanaugh. I can see Kavanaugh being that guy. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers made an announcement to stop grabbing women’s tits because it was so blatant…There was so much of it and I remember thinking, “This is fucked up.” We all knew it was fucked up, but there was nothing you could do.
When I was editing this and looking at close-ups, I saw it looks like sharks surrounding a baby seal or something and ripping it apart. If you’re a girl there, you’re there to hear music and have fun. You’re not there to get assaulted.
That’s not mud. There was no rain. It was mud in the sense that it was liquid and dirt, but all of the toilets overflowed the first day. You can see he’s right by the toilets. They all overflowed and these people were like pigs in shit. He was just playing in the mud. You could smell it wasn’t mud. When people are in a situation that is so outside their normal, they become different people. Whether it’s sexually assaulting someone or sitting in shit. It’s all in his face. Plus, there were no places to shower. You’re just like that for three days. It really became Lord of the Flies.
They started burning it down. I think the Chili Peppers were on stage but it wasn’t near the stage. They basically evacuated everybody. I did this interview and they asked if I thought about going into the crowd during this. I said, “No. If I wanted to be a war photographer that’s what I would’ve done.” These people were fucking crazy. I had seen these people being crazy for three days. I’m going in there with my camera, my body, and everything else.