In Praise of Lucinda Williams

Lucinda Williams at the Warfield- 2001

I first saw Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore in 1997, when she was just about to release her breakout album Car Wheels On A Gravel Road. A few years earlier I’d seen Johnny Cash and he’d done a fairly complete job of curing me of my distain for country music. I’d soon be musically educated to learn that what I didn’t like was actually what was considered “new country” at the time- your Garth Brooks/ Billy Ray Cyrus kinda music.

I’ve always had a preference for great lyricists- Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Randy Newman. And I’d soon find that so-called country music has some of the best songwriters in the world as I delved into the work of Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda.

Lucinda and Band at The Fillmore – 1997

But I had no idea she’d become one of my favorite musicians at that first Fillmore show. I just liked what I heard and made the effort to get a shot of her with her band backstage in the stairway.

Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 1997

Cut to two years and a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Folk Album later. “Car Wheels” was a huge hit and critics had gone apeshit over a blend of rock, blues, country and folk. They were calling it “Americana” and “Roots Music” when in truth it was just a great blend of all of it anchored by a true poet.

Lucinda Williams at The Warfield – 1999

And Lucinda had clearly been inundated by media with her new renowned, and it took about half an hour before she came out from her dressing room to do a portrait with me. But she was incredibly kind and gracious when we did it. And I guess she’d been doing lots of annoying photo shoots because she said “I LOVE the way you take pictures! Other photographers always tell me to do this and that and look this way and you don’t do none of that!” Then she gave me a hug- something I wasn’t used to from my rock and roll subjects- and cementing me as a fan for life.

And in saying this she also helped me crystallize a part of my shooting style, which values comfort above all else. Without it, you’ll never get an honest portrait.

I think she’s had to deal with a lot of photog-douchebags over the years, because I’ve heard that she’s not a big fan of being shot- but she always seems to allow me to do a quick portrait- as long as I’m patient (she’s still a superstar, after all, and anointed by Time Magazine as America’s Best Songwriter).

Doug Pettibone at The Fillmore, 2003

But to be fair, I had a lot of help and advocacy from her guitarist for many years, Doug Pettibone. Somewhere around 2000, The Warfield had put up a shot of the band performing, and he’d seen it. I met him at The Fillmore the next year and he asked me if I knew the guy who shot it. “Yeah, I know him pretty well,” I said. We ended up hanging out and he came with me to a jam session at Capp’s Corner that was mostly comprised of cast members of Beach Blanket Babylon getting away from their camp and into some classic rock and soul tunes. He tore it up and we’ve been friends ever since.

Lucinda puts out a new album about every two or three years,  and it never disappoints. There aren’t too many artists who’s vocals and lyrics seem to get better all the time- Bonnie Raitt is an example. But what sets her apart, especially as a female artist, is that she can be honey-sweet one moment and whisky-sour the next without coming off as contrived. She can be growly, angry, and raunchy, then tender, sad, and lovely, then pointed, poignant, and political.

And something else I find attracts me to her music (and is often the case with artists I admire- be it Tom Waits, Pink Floyd, or late-era Beatles) is the percentage of songs that aren’t about love. While she can pine over lost lovers and do done-wrong songs with the best of them, she also sings of suicide, wealth, abuse, and in one case how her ex-boyfriend couldn’t get her off. Not exactly the stuff of country music clichés.

Lucinda Williams at the Fillmore – 2003

She’s so smart, yet so American. So vulnerable, yet so strong and sexy. If I had to pick one word to describe her, though, it would be “authentic.” If you wonder where the heart of country music went, look no further.

Lucinda Williams at The Fillmore – 2003
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Read more.. Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

¡SATIRISTAS! White Guilt Night at the Actors’ Gang

Paul Provenza and Tim Robbins

We had another sold-out house at The Actors’ Gang Theater for our monthly ¡Satiristas! night as part of the Axis Mundi Series curated by Tim Robbins. In honor of black history month, we celebrated White Guilt Night.

Billy the Mime

Following cocktails on the patio, Billy the Mime, performing in whiteface, kicked things of with his history of the African American Experience in America- incarceration and exploitation capped with a triumphant cigarette outside the White House.

Mark Silverman sang about the word white people can’t say, and cartoonist Keith Knight presented a slideshow of his racially themed one-panel cartoons (th)INK.

Cartoonist Keith Knight
Humorsician Mark Silverman

This was followed by a game Paul calls “RACIST or NOT RACIST” wherein he projects imagery gathered from around the world of questionable taste and intent and the audience comments on its effect. But within our audience were comedian friends and SATIRISTAS galore- Kevin Kataoka, Ngaio Bealum, Jim Jeffries, Rick Overton, Matt Kirshen, Kumail Nanjiani, Gary Shapiro, Suzanne Whang, Troy Conrad, Chris Pina, Emery Emery, and Franklyn Ajaye.

Everyone was encouraged to comment without reservations, but egregiously racist comments, even if hilarious, required a cash donation on the spot for the Southern Poverty Law Center, the civil rights organization that successfully sued the Imperial Klan in Kentucky for actions of its militia members.

Agitator Eddie Pepitone
Agitator Eddie Pepitone

This lowbrow high-mindedness seemed to be lost on Eddie Pepitone- as evidenced here in this video.

But even the Satiristas have their breaking point- and it apparently comes in the form of a woman yelling out racial slurs in fake accents. Thankfully, we had our own comic ninja  Dylan Brody available to forcibly eject her, for which he earned a punch in the nose before subduing the the heinous heckler.

Kung-Fu Comic Dylan Brody

The show itself had its proponents and detractors, with a glowing review on Buzzine, and a he’s-just-not-into-us open letter to the Actor’s Gang by Brian Kim Stefans, which he also posted to the Satiristas website.

During all the laughing, shouting, comedic race-baiting and card-playing, painter Michael Pukac was upstage creating his interpretation of the evenings’ proceedings. Shana Sosin, producer of Axis Mundi, summed it up better than anyone: “There were times when I was really uncomfortable. THANK YOU.”

Artist Michael Pukac
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Read more.. Monday, February 14th, 2011

Second Season of The Green Room with Paul Provenza

On Set of The Green Room with Paul Provenza

A couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of doing portraits during the production of the second season of The Green Room with Paul Provenza for Showtime. Held at the Vanguard in Hollywood, we did six shows in three nights, with some of the greatest comics in the world. It was a masterpiece of booking, with each show sculpted rather than scheduled.

Paul Provenza portrait by Dan Dion

You can see portraits of almost every guest on the Green Room Facebook page, but I’ve attached a few of my favorites here.

Among the celebs in the audience were Laraine Newman, John Corbett, Darren Criss from Glee, Lucinda Williams, Dave Foley, and the dashing young star Ron Jeremy.

The season will air sometime this summer, and it’s funny as hell.

Bo Burnham portrait by Dan Dion
Jamie Kilstein portrait by Dan Dion
Jamie Kilstein portrait by Dan Dion
Ron White portrait by Dan Dion
Marc Maron Portrait by Dan Dion

Kathleen Madigan portrait by Dan Dion
Richard Belzer portrait by Dan Dion
Tommy Chong Portrait by Dan Dion
Rick Shapiro portrait by Dan Dion
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Read more.. Saturday, January 29th, 2011

The Rule of Thirds- A Comedy Triptych: Zach Galifianakis

This is the first in an occasional series of posts highlighting one comic as depicted by three photographers who shoot a lot of ‘em: Robyn Von Swank of Los Angeles, Seth Olenick of New York, and Dan Dion of San Francisco. We encourage you to friend, follow, subscribe to, and/or contact us.


Zach by Dan Dion


Zach is a such a unique comic. Part Steve Martin, part Steven Wright, part Steve Carrell. He’s cultivated that kind of clueless confidence of Martin, the absurdity of Wright, and the cringe-inducing silences of Carrell. But the best thing about Zach is that he has become one of the biggest comedy stars in the world completely on his own terms, in his own sweet time.

This shot was from his 2006 show at The Fillmore, where I work as the house photographer.






Zach by Robyn Von Swank

This is an unreleased shot of Zach that I photographed at All Sets, when we were doing the first Comedy Death Ray Calendar. I had been a very huge fan of Zach for a long time and was super nervous to meet him. He ended up being a really nice and down to earth person, and this shot was actually just done on the side for fun, and not ever used in the calendar. Zach also smells nice.




Robyn Von Swank-  WEBSITE



Zach in Brooklyn by Seth Olenick


If I was a pretentious artist, I would say that I conceived of this image as a commentary on the commodification of comedy and the comedian that our post-modern society has put in place.  We are living in an “Add to Cart” world where the decisions on what comedy we consume are based less on our brains telling us what is funny and more on what percentage of people who viewed said comedy item actually purchased it.  So the notion of what is funny enough to consume is decided by how palatable the comedy is to others, thus making our decisions that much easier.

The renowned French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard, brought to our attention the idea of understanding signifiers and meaning only through observing how signs interrelate. By that notion, do we want to consume the comedian because we find him funny, or do we find him funny because he is being presented to us in a way that is easy to consume?

Thank God I’m not pretentious.




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Read more.. Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

O’Reilly’s Oyster Fest- Cake, Jackie Greene , Raveonettes

Oyster Fest

Here are some belated photos from the annual O’Reilly’s Oyster Fest in San Francisco. This used to be a free event in Washington Square Park in North Beach, but moved to Fort Mason, became a ticketed event, and started having much bigger bands. With the right weather, the view of the Golden Gate Bridge can be positively muralistic.

Cake by Dan Dion

This year’s headliner was the Sacramento-baked irono-comic band CAKE. I’m a huge fan. While other bands are spewing cliche-filled “love” songs, Cake says they “want  a girl with a short skirt and a long jacket.”  I can appreciate that in a big way.

The Raveonettes are a Danish band that were cool, and a good bit of variety to a typical festival, but to be honest, really shouldn’t be playing in the daylight.

Also on the bill was Jackie Greene, who has been anointed by the Deadhead set as some kind of second coming. Of what, I’m not sure. He’s talented and can certainly kick out the jams. A few years ago he was sporting black leather jackets, but now seems to be channeling the freewheelin’ spirit of Bob Dylan. His drummer got caught in Bay Bridge traffic, so renaissance man and former Tubes drummer Prairie Prince sat in and did a fantastic job. Mad props to Fiachra O’Shaugnessy, Myles O’Reilly, and O’Reilly’s Irish Bar and Restaurant for pulling of another cool local fest.

Jackie Greene by Dan Dion
Raveonettes by Dan Dion
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Read more.. Saturday, November 27th, 2010

Comedy Festival Season 2010

Comedy festival season 2010 has come and gone, and here are some of my favorite portraits I made this year in Montreal, Vancouver, and San Francisco.

Bo Burnham at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival

Steve Martin at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival
Kevin Smith at the Montreal Just for Laughs Festival
Tim Minchin at the Just for Laughs Festival
Ngaio Bealum at SF Comedy Day
Mae Martin at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
Jon Dore at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
Matt Kirshen at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
Dave Foley at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
Maria Bamford at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
James Smith at the Global ComedyFest
Tom Green at the Vancouver Global ComedyFest
A. Whitney Brown at the Other Cafe Reunion
Barry Sobel and Robin Williams at the Other Cafe Reunion
Paula Poundstone at the Other Cafe Reunion
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Read more.. Monday, October 25th, 2010

In Praise of Les Paul

In Praise of Les Paul

Les Paul at The Iridium near Lincoln Center in 1998

Les Paul died a year ago today. I wanted to share these two images of him. His passing was the loss of one of the greatest innovators in music, as he created the first solid-body electric guitar, which as I understand it is an instrument that is really starting to catch on.

This first time I saw him was at the original Iridium nightclub in New York in 1998. He was so amazing and spry, busting out licks and dropping Monica Lewinsky jokes between songs. Every once in a while his arthritic hands would seize up on him and he’d have to pull his left hand over the guitar neck and slap his picking hand to get it to release. But he did it so fluidly and in rhythm that it seemed to be part of the song.

I went back to the new Iridium on Times Square almost ten years later and he didn’t seem to be a day older. After each of his weekly performances, he sat at a table to meet every fan that stood in line. What an epic human.

Les Paul at The Iridium in Times Square circa 2007
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Read more.. Thursday, August 12th, 2010

Feature in SF Chronicle


by Sam Whiting

Portrait of Photographer Dan Dion by Chad Ziemendorf

After 18 years of shooting stand-up in San Francisco, Dan Dion knows what doesn’t work – a photo of a comic trying to be funny.

This rules out onstage action, and it also rules out offstage gags. What’s left is backstage after the show, when the artist is wrung out and relaxed.

Damon Wayans in San Francisco photographed  by Dan Dion

“Stand-up comedy pictures, performing?” he asks, rhetorically. “Boring. It’s the portrait that has always gotten me.” A hundred of these appear in “Satiristas!: Comedians, Contrarians, Raconteurs & Vulgarians” (It Books, $29.99), a collaboration with Showtime host Paul Provenza that has taken four years to put together.

“What I want is one moment that tells you who they are instead of making you laugh,” says Dion, 39, on a night last week when he is on duty at the Punch Line, where he is house photographer. His framed prints crowd the walls, but few of the subjects are smiling and none are laughing.

“Most photographers, when they photograph a comedian, their first thought is that the picture has to be funny,” he says. “Funny pictures have a rapidly descending half-life. Each time you see it, it’s half as funny.”

On this night, Dion is at the Punch Line to shoot the headliner, Maria Bamford. She is third on, but Dion doesn’t mind sitting through two opening acts. He grew up a “comedy nerd,” listening to Alex Bennett’s radio show while growing up on a vineyard in Kenwood, the son of a Pan Am captain-winemaker.

At Santa Clara University, Dion was the comedy director. He had an annual budget of $10,000 but always spent $15,000 flying in the likes of P.J. O’Rourke and Second City to perform on the Jesuit campus.

Comedian Dave Chappelle photographed by Dan Dion

During summers he worked at a portrait studio, shooting seniors for high school yearbooks. These two extracurricular jobs merged into a real one. Straight out of school, in 1993, he was hired to work the door at Holy City Zoo. At the time, 8-by-10-inch head shots were what passed for promotional materials. “They were universally horrible,” says Dion, who started making his own pictures of the talent.

“I had the arrogance to include personality and context,” he says. “I wasn’t shooting as a sales tool.”

The comedians liked that, and word got around. Along the way he also got jobs shooting for the San Francisco Giants and for concert venues. But musicians and athletes were never his kind. No comic ever made him wait two hours at a dressing room door. They’d invite him in right away for a beer, which is about as long as it took him to make a portrait. Ten minutes, 20 max.

“The greatest reason for my popularity among the comedians is that I don’t try to make them funny. I have a visceral reaction against open-mouth mugging,” he says, shrugging his shoulders, palms facing up in the standard “I don’t know why I’m funny” gesture.

When he is not shooting comedy for the Punch Line and Cobb’s Comedy Club, Dion is house photographer for the Fillmore, where he met his wife, Lisa. They are raising two kids in an Edwardian in the Panhandle. Dion has had an exhibition at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and his work is displayed annually at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal. He estimates there are maybe five photographers worldwide who do what he does, and fewer still who don’t do what he doesn’t do.

Rachel Dratch photographed by Dan Dion

“I don’t make dishonest portraits,” he says, describing that crime as “taking a political satirist like Bill Maher and putting him in a kiddie pool. It’s funny but it’s dishonest. … It makes no sense.”

Among those shot for the book, with accompanying Q&As by Provenza, are Robin Williams, Stephen Colbert, Judd Apatow, Lily Tomlin, Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno and the Smothers Brothers. Those photographed but not interviewed include Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd, Dana Carvey, Chris Rock and David Spade.

Here is a selection of portraits with Dion’s explanations.

Damon Wayans: “That was taken at the Punch Line 15 years ago. It was an exercise in color. I knew he had this jacket and I wanted to do a deep, deep, deep black shot. The toothpick was just what he had in his hand. I didn’t want to make him look like a hoodlum, but I wanted to make him look kind of badass.”

Rachel Dratch: “That was during SF Sketchfest. She’s actually standing on top of a counter in her dressing room. I love the way her foot is cocked. She’s so at ease.”

Dave Chappelle: “I’ve known him for a long time. I haven’t seen a shot that gets him better than that. I absolutely love this photo with the cigarette and Muhammad Ali screaming like it’s coming out of his chest.”

George Carlin: “It’s the last picture in the book, a quick shot after a show at Davies Symphony Hall, in 1999. He’s in the concertmaster’s office sitting on a piano. I gave him the picture the next time I saw him. Ten years later my partner, Paul, mentions the picture to him and he says, ‘That’s the picture I want to be remembered by.’ Two weeks later he’s dead.”

George Carlin photographed by Dan Dion
Fred Willard photographed by Dan Dion

Fred Willard: “I got to his house in L.A. and I see the hot tub and a rubber duck. I say ‘OK, that’s going to be the shot.’ It’s just got a little bit of silliness to it. It’s not a structured joke.”

E-mail Sam Whiting at

This article appeared on page E – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Link to Original Article in SFGate

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Read more.. Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Preface to ¡SATIRISTAS!

¡SATIRISTAS! Below is the preface to my new book ¡SATIRISTAS!, a collaboration with comic and filmmaker Paul Provenza, featuring my portraiture of satirists and interviews by Paul. It was published in the spring of 2010 by HarperCollins.

I’ve always respected the disrespectful. When I was a child, the hilarious impudence of Bugs Bunny, Mad magazine, and Hawkeye Pierce whet my appetite for the greater blasphemies of George Carlin and Lenny Bruce. When San Francisco became the flashpoint of the comedy boom of the eighties, I dove into the local scene with a zeal that most of my teenage peers had for music. But I wasn’t interested in what was simply silly, derogatory, or observant. I wanted insight and bite, with savage wit and a scowl at authority and convention. Stand-up became my punk rock.

Twenty-five years after I saw my first live stand-up show at thirteen, seventeen years after I joined the staff of the Holy City Zoo comedy club at twenty-one, and after I’ve been its most prolific portrait artist for about ten years, this book is my love-letter to comedy.

A headshot differs from a portrait in that a good portrait captures the stature and spirit of its subject as a testament of who he or she is in the world. A headshot is a desperate cry for attention. It’s an image designed to mask the subject’s need for work and love with an attitude, gesture, or look that might be marketable.
Marc Maron

Many years after I started photographing comics, Marc Maron summed up the philosophy I’d never quite put into words. I came to recognize that my aesthetic was created in reaction against the world of hack headshots, and was forged by the ubiquitous black-and-white eight-by-tens of open-mouthed muggers that encircled most comedy clubs. Their banality made me all the more drawn to the engaged honesty of August Sander and the elegant composition of Arnold Newman.
I began to wed my two passions, comedy and photography, while on staff at the Holy City Zoo comedy club. I took two photos that changed the course of my career, and neither were portraits: Mike Meehan onstage, and Bob Rubin off. In the supposedly jovial world of comedy, both revealed a dark and brutal vision.

Meehan said it was his favorite photo of himself, and Rubin said his hungover, daylight agony during a morning radio broadcast said all that needed to be said about stand-up.

I was inspired by their support, and recognized that there were other levels to these performers, which were rarely shown. I set out to create work that elevates the subject, and I think my portraits represent how I feel about comics: respectful, enamored, appreciative. I’m not asking the monkey to dance.

I will admit to not being a very “conceptual” photographer. While working with comedians would seem to be fertile ground for that kind of thing, I don’t very often create gag photos, though there are some exceptions. I never want to make my subjects uncomfortable. Greg Proops told me that in his last shoot the photographer wanted to put him in giant shoes. I could feel his distain, and knew that my smoky noir shot would certainly suit him better. Comics, by definition, need approval from the audience, but I want approval from them—the world’s greatest critics.

In general, stand-up comics hate to do photo shoots, while sketch performers pose at the sound of the camera bag unzipping. Sometimes the challenge is to draw out their true character, or sometimes it’s to tame the spaz. I don’t think portraits necessarily need to have something happening in them. I’m more interested in showing who someone is than in a concept or joke. Famous comedians in particular are used to photographers wanting them to “just do something crazy!”—which is especially annoying to comics who view themselves as social commentators rather than clowns. When my subjects ask me, “What am I supposed to be doing?” I reply, “Nothing. Just be here.” It manifests a stillness and relaxation, and I get to feel all Zen and shit.

I’ve often been told that I capture the “essence” of comics, which is a great compliment, and I’ve tried to break down why. My intimacy with the comedy world allows me to pick locations that are appropriate, but it is most influential in the edit, when I get to choose just one frame to encapsulate a comic mind. The great music photographer Jim Marshall taught me very early that the key to the guarded door of celebrity photography is trust. Without it, you don’t get in. Betray it, and the drawbridge is raised and you are thrown to the alligators. I can honestly state that I have never taken a celebrity or performer’s photo offstage without their cooperation (and I have a feverish contempt for paparazzi). The other main factor is my shooting style itself, which is built for both comfort and speed. By far the most common comment I get after a shoot is “That was painless,” which is something I’ve come to pride myself on.

My luxury is that the portraits are the purpose. With this work, I’m not shooting for casting directors, magazine editors, or managers, but for exhibitions, this book, and the artists themselves.


I met Paul Provenza on my first night at a comedy festival in Sydney. In a dodgy King’s Cross pub, over many pints and smokes, we bonded over our admiration of Dana Gould and Maria Bamford. Over the next week, I came to know the irreverent intersection of intellectual and scatological that is also known as Provenz. I’ve never met anyone who knows as much about comedy as Paul, who floats freely between the rarefied air of network late-night, down to the New York club scene, to the subterranean stages of Edinburgh. And he doesn’t give a fuck if you like what he says or not.

At the time I was on my seemingly continuous quest to find a publisher for a book of my comedian portraits. I soon realized that Paul, as comedy’s insider inquisitor, would be the perfect person to interview the people in the book. He was game, but we needed a bit more focus rather than just comedy in general.

When we narrowed the scope to satirists, the preferred comic subset for both of us, we were able to quickly make a master wish-list of those we wanted to include; we got probably 90 percent of them, and many others along the way. While some of my favorite comics, like Stephen Wright, had to be excluded, the wide world of satirists is populated with a unique and dynamic sort.

Over the years I’ve had some incredible privileges with comedy legends: drinking wine with Tommy Smothers on his vineyard; doing Cheech & Chong’s first portrait session in twenty-five years; exploring the multiple airport hangars of Jay Leno’s car collection; being invited to shoot inside the homes of Tom Lehrer, Fred Willard, and Jello Biafra; and shooting both Conan O’Brien and Stephen Colbert in their offices (on the same day). I’ve had the exalted rock awesomeness of hanging backstage with Spinal Tap and Tenacious D, and drank many after-show beers with reprobate geniuses like Dave Attell, Greg Giraldo, and Doug Stanhope. I had the bittersweet honor of having George Carlin say my photo was the one he wanted to be remembered by, three weeks before dying.

While getting some of these people required hoops and a ridiculous number of phone calls, e-mails, and scratched appointments, the vast majority were incredibly cooperative and permissive. None of these portraits were done in a photo studio. There were only two people who asked for approval of the image before publishing. Only on about four of the shoots did I have an assistant, and a makeup artist only on three of the women (and one dude).

These pages hold some of the world’s greatest comic minds for you to connect with, and I hope my images help.

Thank you. Tip your wait staff.

Dan Dion
San Francisco, 2009

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Read more.. Thursday, July 1st, 2010

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.


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