Molly Hatchet (c 1980, Philadelphia, PA)© Copyright David Simchock
One of the most common questions that I get asked is: "How did you get started in music photography?"
And, the answer might be a little different than you expect.
Sure, I've been busting my ass for the past few years, honing my skills, building my portfolio, and expanding my client list, but my history as a "music photographer" goes back in time quite a few years, well beyond 2003 when I shot my first show as a professional. In case you are wondering, that show was Pavarotti in Trenton, New Jersey, and I didn't shoot another show until 2006, with my big push into professional music photography not coming until about 2009.
So, when and how did it all begin?
Well, I've always been a music freak since I was a kid growing up with neighbors who were teens during the 1960s. I was also always into the arts, and had an interest in photography since I was a kid. When I got to high school, and started to attend concerts in Philadelphia with my friend Jack (who had his driver's license), I had a brilliant idea as to how I could sneak a camera into shows. This was the late-1970s / early-1980s, obviously long before digital cameras and cell phones, and also long before small, high-quality point-and-shoot cameras. And, yes, it was the "film days".
I was about 15 years old when I "started out".
My secret scheme to get a camera into a show was to use a binocular case with my camera gear inside of it, and disguised the inside to look like a set of binoculars. Back then, venue security wasn't such a big issue, and there weren't any hired hands rummaging through backpacks and purses, and doing pat-downs. They'd open up the binocular case, and it looked like a pair of binocs, with two faux lens caps facing upward, and a lens cloth in between. Just a quick glance, and on I went into the venue with my camera. I pulled off this stunt numerous times in my youth, and not once did a security guy move the lens cloth to see what was underneath. I even once snuck in a movie camera into an Outlaws show at the Tower Theatre in Philly, which was quite a feat!
The photo above was taken at a Molly Hatchet concert at The Spectrum in Philadelphia around 1980 when Molly Hatchet were in their prime. Yeah, it's a little fuzzy due to the slide scan, but I think I nailed the exposure, and it's not a bad moment for a teenager to capture!
In the very early days, I shot a range-finder camera that had limited focal length capabilities on its lens (probably a prime lens, with all camera controls being "manual", including focus, which required me to estimate the distance to the stage and performers). Eventually, I moved up to a Minolta 35mm film camera with a telephoto lens (I'd have to guess it was 200mm, which was much stronger than the range-finder's lens). I always shot slide film, probably 800 ISO. I'm not sure why I used slide film, as in retrospect I should have shot film which would have been more forgiving when it comes to exposure. I would wait until the end of the show, usually the encores, to get the camera out of my secret stash, just in case I was spotted by venue management, and asked to leave. It never happened, but at least if it did I would have been there for most of the show.
Just about every show I attending in the early 1980s -- most of which were southern rock bands -- I had a camera with me. Yep, I was a sneaky teenager, with a plan to buck the system. Imagine that? I never did anything with the photos apart from show them off to my friends, so it wasn't like I was trying to commercialize on my deviant efforts. Little did I know at the time that I would some day become a professional photographer with media access to concerts and festivals, and no need to sneak in my gear.
Of course, now almost 40 years later, and being very active in professional music photography, my early passion for concert photography does make for a good story. With cell phone technology being what it is today in 2018, and with the phone camera and editing software capabilities possibly what I shot with in 1980, there's no longer a need to sneak in a camera to do what I was doing back then. And, I would highly recommend that people never try to sneak in a pro DSLR camera and lenses, unless you are okay with risking being thrown out of the show, if not banned from the venue for future shows as well. Just don't do it. Enjoy the show, grab a few cell phone shots (but, please limit how much you are distracting those standing behind you with your phone), and allow the pros in the photo pit to document the gig. If you're genuinely interested in shooting shows, there are ways to go about it without risking your ticket or your gear. Perhaps that'll make for a future blog post.
In the mean time, here's a shot of ZZ Top that was also taken at The Spectrum in Philly around 1982, followed by another shot of ZZ Top that I took as a hired pro at The Biltmore Concert Series a couple of summers ago. What a difference 35 years can make!
ZZ Top (c. 1982, Philadelphia, PA)© Copyright David Simchock
ZZ Top - Biltmore Concert Series, Asheville, NC (2015)© Copyright David Simchock