My photo journey began with the music. I consumed it, trying to learn as much about musicians, bands, splinter bands & chronology as I possibly could. Payday on Friday, a trip to the record store on Saturday. $25-30 spent, a return trip home with 7 or 8 LP’s under my arm. Mostly rock, then blues, folk, fusion, finally jazz.
Back then I had only begun to use a 35mm SLR film camera–an old Minolta SRT 201 with 50mm & 135mm lenses - and was just learning black & white darkroom as well. And so, one very cold evening in February 1978 ,I slipped into the Paradise Club in Boston to see a favorite of mine, drummer Billy Cobham. He had played with the legendary guitarist John McLaughlin in the Mahavishnu Orchestra a few years before and done a solo LP ‘Spectrum’ that had me routinely cranking the stereo volume up to 10. Back in the late 70's photo access to performers was virtually unlimited - especially in the small clubs-and this was the case that evening so many years ago. Drifting around the edges of the stage, looking for an ideal angle on Cobham sitting behind his massive drum kit, a click here, a click there. Home to process the single roll of Tri-X 400 b&w film I had shot and there it was–a beautiful, crisp, perfectly exposed frame showing him surrounded by drums & cymbals, glaring in my direction. From then on the Minolta joined me at every show I could get a ticket to.
The unfettered photo access that I experienced that evening would be the case for only a few years longer – at least mostly relative to the big acts & larger venues - as more and more restrictions made close- up photo ops a difficult endeavor. Luckily for me, I had begun to photograph for the Boston Phoenix weekly around that time and so, in addition to covering the regular news events, politicians & shop owners, I was able to get press passes for live music assignments. Typically, this meant the chance to stand and shoot directly at the lip of the stage, often a mere 5-10 feet from the musicians. Stevie Ray, Chrissie Hynde, Miles, John Lee Hooker – it was incredible. Sometimes, I’d have the chance to attend an all-day jazz, blues or folk festival and just plant myself at the feet of many of those whom I idolized - Chick Corea, Leo Kottke, Carlos Santana - for the entire show. I’d blow through 25-30 rolls of b&w film on days like that. It was an absolute rush.
My guess is that the type of access photographers such as myself were afforded from years 1978 to 1992 is, for the most part, gone these days. Signs that a significant type of clampdown was underway began sometime around 1982, until 1985 when the 3-song limit was firmly in place for holders of press passes. Whereas the publicity seemed to be welcome in the early days, by the mid-80's it apparently meant a bit less. 3 songs worth of photography at the beginning of the show and then you were escorted out the back door of the hall or arena. To my further dismay, cameras then became prohibited at more & more shows as time went on. Sometimes our Phoenix press passes were denied entry access just prior to the start of a show even though they had been approved earlier that same day. Equally frustrating was artist management’s insistence on controlling image distribution. Only they could ultimately determine what photos would be allowed to go to print. In my mind, all this signaled the beginning of the end of what at one time had been an absolute passion of mine.
Today, I still go to shows, but typically without camera. Nonetheless, on occasion, the old fire is rekindled and I bring my digital along, holding out hope that I won’t be hassled and told to remove it from the hall or club. Sometimes, I do get it into a venue and once again experience the pleasure of photographing a musician in concert. And occasionally I come up with something I think looks good like the pics of guitarist Adrian Bellew. A bit more luck may be involved in getting photos taken these days, but it can be done!
And so, as time has passed I have begun to realize how special my small collection of performance photographs truly is. Some artists, such as the beloved Irish guitar icon Rory Gallagher, are no longer with us and as such his set of images means a great deal to me. Joe Strummer, Fela Kuti, Stevie Ray, Lester Bowie - the list of those seen here and who are now gone continues on & on. Although I have only a handful of frames of many of the musicians whose live performances I attended, they are perhaps some of the most precious images I’ve ever made.