Lush Life Exhibition

What follows is a first-person account of how I came to work at The Fillmore, and what it’s like shooting touring musicians at this historic venue. It was written for The New Fillmore newspaper to coincide with my 15-Year retrospective of being the house photographer, which was shown at the Lush Life Gallery in San Francisco. The print version can be downloaded here.

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In 1993 I was 22 years old and standing on the corner of Fillmore and Geary, looking up at rock music’s most holy house, which had just begun its phoenix-like restoration.  The Loma Prieta earthquake that damaged the Bay Bridge had also knocked The Fillmore Auditorium out of commission –a brutal hit to the local music scene. But the contractor trucks and seismic upgrade materials in the adjacent lot were signs that music would once again grace the stage of the ‘Mo.

“I’m going to work here,” I vowed to the universe and myself. At the time I was fresh out of college, working on staff at the Holy City Zoo comedy club in the Richmond, and shooting at Candlestick as an assistant photographer for the San Francisco Giants. Since I had no photo approval, when I went to concerts I often snuck my camera body into the show in a bag of Chips Ahoy cookies, with my telephoto lens wrapped in deli paper to resemble a sandwich. Unauthorized photography has a certain excitement to it, with a cat-and-mouse element with security, but I was about to go legit.

Reopening The Fillmore was always on Bill Graham’s to-do list, and following his death in a helicopter accident in 1991, the staff of Bill Graham Presents took up the mantle. I had a friend who worked at the company, and he got me a meeting to pitch my idea to photograph the restoration project. I’m a sucker for old buildings, and this one, soaked in psychedelic history, was just begging to be documented. The real plan, however, was to maneuver myself to be in position to shoot shows once it reopened.

That’s how I found myself, in April 1994, representing The Fillmore as its house photographer- the greatest job I, or practically anyone else, has ever had. Here’s how it works. The club gets the credential for me to shoot the performance itself, and it is up to me try to get a backstage session. The music world is increasingly controlled by managers and publicists, who if you try to arrange a shoot in advance, start issuing their demands, limitations, and rights of approval of what shots get used and where.

I quickly learned that the key to access was held by the road manager, who’s job it is to make sure the show happens on time, with a happy band, crew, and audience. One of the great benefits of shooting for The Fillmore, as compared to any other venue, is that performers want to be part of the photographic record; they feel a kinship with past performers, and feel honored if their images grace the walls of the lobby.

The road manager is the only one who can get the band together before or after the show for a quick shoot. And to be sure, these shoots are quick. It was in shooting these dynamic and elusive artists that I developed what multiple subjects have described as a “painless” shooting style. Just before or after a performance, the last thing these people want is a drawn-out photo session shooting a hundred frames. So I developed a modus operendi centered around being totally prepared- locations determined, tests shots taken, and a portable flash system with a near-instant recharge time, because any delays when you’ve got a celebrity sitting for you is just death- figuratively for you and literally for your photographs. Annoyance isn’t a complimentary facial expression.

Cut to fifteen years later. If one can be said to write a love letter to a building, this exhibition is mine. Assembled is a kaleidoscope of musical performers and genres, with assorted other characters like the Jim Rose Circus and Zach Galifianakis thrown in for good measure. The aggregate talent on display is truly mind boggling from Pete Townsend, to BB King, to David Byrne. And there are the bittersweet images of those who’ve left us- Tito Puente, John Lee Hooker, Norton Buffalo, Ken Kesey, Mark Sandman, and Johnny Cash.

But it’s really not about individual performers. It’s about creating a testament to music and free expression, and placing it all within the context of one magical building- four seismically reinforced brick walls from which emanate the sounds of transcendent spirit.

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Read more.. Tuesday, June 29th, 2010