Interview and story by J Hunter
Photograph of Rudy Lu by Cheri Bordelon
All other photographs by Rudy Lu
To paraphrase CBS-TV’s version of Sherlock Holmes (not to be confused with BBC’s version, “Sherlock” – which is WAY better), I’ve had success in my avocation not by what I’ve done, but by whom I’ve met. I consider myself phenomenally lucky that the photographers who’ve put flesh on my words not only know their way around a camera, but also know the physical and emotional intangibles that cement the connection we feel with music and musicians. Of the many things Rudy Lu gets, he gets that connection. Rudy and I have been working together since 2008, when he shot one of Terence Blanchard’s numerous performances at Skidmore College, and I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve collaborated since then. And not to get too inside-baseball here, but there’s a feeling amongst Nippertown writers that if Rudy’s shooting your show, whatever you do will definitely look real good!
Now, believe it or not, composing a good photograph (from a physical standpoint, anyway) doesn’t take more than a little thought and an understanding of spatial relationships. Trust me: If I can do it, anybody can do it. But to know when that moment happens, and see an element in that moment – a look, an expression, an intensity – that elevates a picture above a snapshot is something that only comes from long experience and an understanding of what’s happening, both to the performer and an audience. Take a picture of a guitarist playing onstage? QED. Take a picture of a guitarist when he’s playing a note that’s so good that it brings the crowd to its feet (and then taking it without your camera flying out of your hands or getting knocked over by a rabid frat boy)? Not so simple. Rudy Lu does it time and time again, and there hasn’t been a set of photos he’s shot for me where there isn’t at least one shot that makes me mutter, “God damn it, why can’t I do that?”
An exhibition of Rudy Lu’s photographs “Hudson Celebration: A Benefit for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater” is on display through Wednesday, April 30 at the Niche Gallery in Saratoga Springs. The artwork of Matt Chinian, Frances Gaffney, Patricia McDonald and Kitty Trimarco is also included in the exhibit. The opening reception with the artists takes place from 5-8pm today (Thursday, April 3).
What people will discover when they attend “Hudson Celebration: A Benefit for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater” is that Rudy applies that same sense of knowledge, instinct and timing to photographing aspects of the winding body of water that connects the Adirondacks with New York City. It’s through that love (or because of that love) that Lu met the late Pete Seeger, an icon of both the folk music movement and the environmental movement. Rudy took a few minutes from preparing for this show to talk about that, and about a few other things dear to his heart:
Q: Your artist statement says, “I have lived, worked and played in the Hudson River watershed almost my entire life.” Can you remember the first time you saw the Hudson, and where you were in your life at that time (Age, place, upbringing, etc.)?co
A: I was born in Albany, and with the exception of brief family residencies in Florida and the Bronx, I spent my youth in Schenectady County and Niskayuna. I associated the Hudson with visiting my grandparents in the Fordham Hill section of the Bronx. The family would pile into the family sedan, and my dad would drive down the Thruway. We would cross the Tappan Zee Bridge. I was always impressed by the length of that bridge and the majesty of the water around it.
Q: When did you first get involved with Clearwater?
A: My initial involvement with Clearwater was in the early ’80s. I had relocated to the Mid Hudson Valley/Westchester County (Beacon, NY) at that time to start my career in safety consulting. As my job involved at lot of day trips in the field to visit customers, I got to know my way around a little quicker than most people just through the hours of driving I was doing (and still doing). I noticed how beautiful my surroundings were. From all the reservoirs in Putnam and Westchester County that are the NYC water supply, to the gentle mountains of the Catskills, the Palisades, the rolling Taconics.
Being new in the area, I was looking for something to do. I had heard there were free sailing lessons being offered in Beacon. I was walking along the Beacon waterfront looking at the sailboats. That’s when I met Pete. He was wading in the water. He comes up to me and says, “Hi, I’m Pete Seeger, would you mind giving me a hand?” He was pulling up water chestnuts in the harbor. I removed my shoes and began wading in the water to help him.
He then proceeds to tell me about the natural history of water chestnuts, the dangers of using herbicides to control them and the various other ways to get rid of them. That started my 30-year on-and-off involvement with the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, including serving on the Board of Directors, being an active member of the sloop clubs – especially the North River Friends of Clearwater – and photographing the Clearwater events for Nippertown.
Pete’s art and gift was the ability to move people to action through his songs, words and true humility. He will truly be missed by the world, and especially here in New York State.
Q: Is there anything about Pete that people don’t know? I mean, if there’s any musician who deserves a film about his life, it’s got to be him!
A: Pete was exactly as he presents himself in public. What you saw is what you got: A man with incredible vision and ideas. He would not have been, though, if not for his wife and soul mate Toshi. She saw that the day-to-day stuff was done and kept him on track.
Q: Did your interest in nature photography come from your work with Clearwater?
A: No, it actually came from my riding around the Hudson Valley and its surroundings for my day job. I had actually stopped photographing for pleasure in the late ’70s as I was not pleased with my work and was busy obtaining a graduate degree in zoology.
Q: When did photography first come into your life, and when did you decide that it had to be a major part of that life?
A: I took a photo course in high school and maintained interest throughout my student years at Union College, where I photographed for the college paper and the yearbook. I took a college course in photography and realized my limitations. I quit in frustration and did not start again until the early ’80s when the beautiful scenery around me stimulated me. I started spending all my vacations taking photo workshops. I took courses from well-known photographers – Carl Heilman, David Middleton and Tony Sweet, among others.
Q: There are some truly phenomenal shots of places around the Hudson in this exhibition. What’s the time span of these photos – that is, when were they shot and (if you can remember) where? Also, at a guess, how many of those shots came out of nowhere? (“Oh, shit! I GOTTA have a shot of that!”)
A: The photographs go as far back as the ’80s and are as recent as this summer. I have used the term Hudson loosely. For many the river starts in the Albany/Troy area, but actually the river originates in the Adirondacks – at Lake Tear of the Clouds near Mt. Marcy – and flows past North Creek and Glens Falls up in northern NY. The river breaks up around Manhattan into the Hudson and East River. The Mohawk also feeds into the Hudson. So these photographs span 300 miles apart as well as a 25-30 year time period.
Q: When did the idea for this exhibition occur to you, and was it always going to be a fundraiser for Clearwater?
A: I was in Saratoga for an art show opening to congratulate the gallery owner/manager Susan Rivers when she mentioned she was interested in my work. All Niche Gallery exhibits are for charities. Hudson River Sloop Clearwater was the first idea to come to mind. As you well know, I am better known as a music photographer. I wanted to include some of that work, but also show my work as a landscape photographer.
Q: I’ve known you as a concert photographer for almost eight years now. When did you first start shooting concerts – both for yourself and for publication?
A: My first attempt at concert photography was when Chick Corea & Return to Forever played at Union College in 1975. The work was awful. I continued shooting in college maybe one or two other concerts that I can recall, Loggins & Messina and Patti Smith. I’m really dating myself here… (Laughs) From what I recall, I don’t think I shot again until the ’80s at the Clearwater Festival. That was strictly for myself. Then through the ’90s, I would periodically photograph for myself at the many free musical events that the Capital Region offers.
I first met my dear friend and senior colleague Andrzej Pilarzyk while attending and photographing the Lake George Jazz Festival in 2001, right after 9/11. Some time later, we started hanging out together and photographing. I owe him a great debt for encouraging me to take myself seriously and showing me the ins and outs of concert photography and the art world. My images were first published in 2007 on albanyjazz.com. (Fellow Nippertown and albanyjazz photographer) Al Brooks invited me to post on the site. Al was very generous in sharing the space. Brian Patneaude provided – and still provides – a wonderful platform for publishing the images and placing this area’s jazz scene on the map to the world. I started posting for Nippertown sometime later, primarily non-jazz events.
Q: There’s a picture amongst the samples you sent me of a guy playing piano while a cat looks down on him. As both a music lover and a cat lover, I really need to know the story behind that one!
A: The piano player is Spike Wilner, who is manager and one of the owners of Small’s in Greenwich Village in NYC. Small’s holds about 50 people. Minnow is the cat that came with the club, and is frequently there when Spike performs with his trio. For some reason, Minnow likes to hang out on the piano when it is played. Minnow is usually sleeping or otherwise not paying any attention to the goings on at the club or the piano playing for that matter. I was lucky enough to be around when Minnow was actually paying attention.
“Hudson Celebration: A Benefit for the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater” is on display through Wednesday, April 30 at the Niche Gallery, 480 Broadway, Saratoga Springs. Featuring the photography of Rudy Lu with additional artwork by Matt Chinian, Frances Gaffney, Patricia McDonald and Kitty Trimarco. The opening reception takes place from 5-8pm today (Thursday, April 3). For more information, call (518) 330-5176.