ArtBeat: Behind the Lens with Andrzej Pilarczyk, Part II
Lately, we’ve been getting a whole bunch of compliments about the musical performance photography of Andrzej Pilarczyk, Chief Photographer here at Nippertown.com.
We thought you might like to get to know him better, so we sat down for a chat with him in advance of his new exhibition of music photography, “Freedom Through Collective Improvisation: iEAR Presents! Free Jazz from the Sanctuary,” which opens at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy on Thursday. There will be an opening reception with the artist at 6pm, and admission is free. The exhibition will remain on view through Friday, April 30.
Here’s part two of our interview. You can go here to read part one:
Q: Did you ever shoot a show and you were so blown away by the performance that your photos were only middling?
A: Oh yes! Loving music so much, on occasion I am so swept away into the performance that it’s hard to concentrate on the photography part of it. I find at those times that there might be so much happening on the stage that I’m looking and absorbing the performance and forgetting to take a picture.
Q: What’s your favorite photo that you’ve taken?
A: I have so many favorites: Odetta singing her heart out at Caffe Lena in 1993, Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland at the Glens Falls Civic Center, B.B. King in 1994 and Dizzy Gillespie in 1987, among others.
However, the first one that popped into my head as the question was asked was a 1987 photo of saxophonist James Moody wearing a straw hat with bassist Todd Coolman playing in back of him. The two men were reunited three years ago a Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute concert. I was able to place myself in the same shooting position to recreate the shot so many years later.
Q: Are they any performers that you will never shoot again?
A: Yes, absolutely. Sometimes it was their ego or attitude that turned me off. Occasionally it was the performance itself. You could tell they were not giving it their all.
Q: What’s the best show you’ve ever shot?
A: Clarence Gatemouth Brown, the late and influential Texas blues guitar wizard at The Egg in 1994. It was the whole package of interviewing him before the show, photographing the sound check, hanging out with him afterward, shooting the show and then shooting Gatemouth with the whole band in front of the tour bus. Add to that his asking me if I wanted to join the tour and document it photographically! He even took my camera and shot me in front of the tour bus with his full band including the horn section clowning around in the background! I was on Cloud 9 for weeks afterward.
Q: Okay, what was the worst show you’ve ever shot? Come on, spill…
A: Seeing a well-known older blues-harp legend in the early 1990s whose songs were covered by the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and many others. He was so high on drugs – and drunk to boot – that half the time he was staggering around the stage, lost as to what song the band was playing. The leader of his band cornered me after the show and asked me not to judge the band by the headliner’s performance.
Q: You have a definitive style of warm and saturated, well-composed performance shots. Did you consciously work towards this?
A: Yes, I did. My goal was always in getting a clean portrait-type shot of the performer(s) that was well composed and balanced. Probably a product of my love for art and painting in particular.
People tell me that I have an identifiable style. In any art form in the beginning you learn your craft and often emulate your visual heroes or sheroes. After applying knowledge, practice and patience, over time you start to develop a consistent approach and eventually a “style.” The two ruts that photographers get into is that you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where all your performance photographs look alike from the same angels or where the expressions of the artists are all similar.
For example, folk icon Richie Havens is almost always photographed by every leading photographer with the same intense scowl while furiously strumming the strings of his acoustic guitar – like in the film “Woodstock.” When I photographed him many years ago, I wanted to catch a different side of him. So what would be a different approach? I saw that he is a warm and charismatic man with a sense of humor. I asked myself, “How do I capture that?” Instead of the intensity of performing, I caught him smiling and telling jokes to the audience. I believe it is a powerful shot that captures another side of him.
Q: Do you have any advice for photographers trying to shoot live performances?
A: If you want to dedicate yourself to doing performance photography, my simple advice is to go out and do it. Don’t make excuses to yourself. No, you’re not going to photograph the “stars” right off the bat. That may take years of hard work. After all, you have to prove yourself before somebody takes you seriously enough to give you that kind of access.
Start small by capturing musicians at the free concerts in area parks, clubs and coffeehouses (please – no flash) and work your way up. Keep learning all the time, and don’t get dismayed after a bad shoot. Just keep wood-shedding and define your goals, but be flexible. Once you eventually attain a professional level, the doors may be open to you to make a little money or get wider exposure. Remember that you have to go out and knock on those doors.
In 1990, I felt confident about my music photography to team up with a then regional music reviewer, Bill Smith. He felt people would be more apt to read his review if it was illustrated with my concert photograph(s). I felt it was an opportunity for people to see my work.
Smith started working for free by contributing to a fledgling, at the time, arts and entertainment regional publication, The Source Magazine. He brought me in, and I met the magazine’s managing-editor Miriam Impellizzeri who liked my work and encouraged me (because of my passion for all kinds of music) to do more than just shoot. I also became a reviewer for that magazine.
I worked for them for over four years, and it was an amazing training ground for me and for all who saw their potential by working for little or nothing. Many of its alumni now work for important local publications: Sean Stone (Metroland’s Arts Editor), Joe Putrock (for The Times Union and Metroland), Mike Farrell (Times Union staff photographer), Kristen Ferguson (music reviewer) and the list goes on.
It is a tribute to the dedication and perseverance of these people and myself that they are working in this difficult but rewarding profession as journalists.
Q: One last question, and you know we couldn’t let a music hound like you get away without asking – What was the first album you ever bought?
A: Like many of the great or famous musicians you have asked that question to, my first impulse is to name someone “cool.” “Oh yeah, my first album was by Henry Rollins and Black Flag.” Or “The Pretty Things because they were raunchier than the Rolling Stones, who they directly influenced.”
But alas, it was only a tame vinyl version of the Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night.” I do remember at the time holding a Steppenwolf album and painstakingly making my decision based on which past hit on those respective albums did I like more at that moment. And I did eventually buy that Steppenwolf compilation album, “Rest In Peace.”
It’s funny, but I haven’t heard the “Hard Day’s Night” album in over 20 years. The Steppenwolf one I hear at least once or twice a year. Our tastes may change over the years, but in some cases they are with us for the rest of our lives.