In 2015 it’s only ironic hipsters who don’t have a camera on their phone, and every concert audience you attend is littered with people taking low quality photos, selfies and video footage on their smartphones. This has become an issue for the likes of Jack White who went to the extraordinary length on his last tour of hiring a professional photographer to provide audiences with images they could use on social media without spending the whole show dampening the gig’s atmosphere by watching it through a camera lens. But it wasn’t always like this….
Forty years ago, cameras were not so ubiquitous, and thus our knowledge of concert performances in the 1970s by stars such as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Elton John, The Who et al is framed by the professionally shot images taken by photographers such as Gered Mankowitz, Bob Gruen, Annie Leibovitz and Christopher Sykes, or by a limited number of in-concert films.
However, a vast collection of ten thousand live photos once thought lost has recently been re-discovered, and is being revealed, one image at a time, on social media photography app Instagram. What is remarkable about the collection is not just the astounding quality and range of photos covering dozens of big names, but the story about how it all came about.
These shots weren’t taken by a professional in the photo pit. Instead they were taken by a teenager: a high school photography student who hitch-hiked to gigs and sneaked down to the front of shows, using borrowed camera equipment which sometimes had to be smuggled into venues. He did this obsessively for three years, between 1973 and 1975. That we have such a huge treasure trove of images from a kid who didn’t even own a camera is truly remarkable. What’s more, for ten years the box of photos was forgotten, believed lost in a storage unit in California.
They have now been found, and are being restored and seen for the first time – and in some cases that includes being seen for the first time by the man who took them.
I got in touch with the man behind Instagram account @FromMySeat to hear the story from his home in California…
“I started out slowly. I had no money. No equipment.. I just wanted to do it, and the more I did it the more I wanted to do it. I was so interested in music that photography gave me something to live for I guess, to go for, to do. Something that meant something to me.”
“I was a rebellious teenage kid, in a conservative home, so nobody supported me. I was on my own and I had ADD, but back then nobody really knew anything about that. Most people had given up on me, but in my second semester senior year of high school I took a photography class.”
“There was a student teacher, Skip Loomis. He offered to loan me his camera and help me to take photos at a concert I had told him I was going to. When I brought the film back in and he helped me develop it, I got excited…
“I learned the “system” to getting tickets before they sold out and how to sneak down and manoeuvre through a crowd. I almost never had a seat up close. I had to sneak my way up to the front and fight crowds of people who stormed the stage…
“I didn’t have any money to speak of and had to scrounge up enough money for a ticket and then as much film as I could afford. I worked at a few places earning barely enough to support my growing addiction. I didn’t own a camera but managed to develop a pool of people to ask. The cameras were all different. So were the lenses and focal systems. I processed my own film in my bathroom with towels stuffed in cracks to block the light. But I ended up with a hell of a lot of photos that I’m finally digging back out.”
It was a Led Zeppelin concert that proved to be a key moment…
“I was so excited when I saw (a shot of Robert Plant) on the roll of film. It’s probably what motivated me to become obsessed with photographing concerts.
My favourite shot – and the shot that really put me over the edge to say “I love this , I wanna do this” was a shot of Robert Plant and it’s one where he’s a little blurred, that one was one of my early concerts in 1973. It was so chaotic when Zeppelin came out, and I was in somebody else’s seat and I had to leave. And I thought “wow – I love this”. I had never seen Zeppelin before, and was barely into photography at concerts. I had gotten there early and snuck down and I had either two or three rolls of film. It was crazy. I just remember the power and the energy that was emitted from the stage. Just look at them and what I got in those photos – that’s Robert Plant going crazy. It was bam bam! I was blown away! The fact is, this kind of captured that – you look at his face and go “wow”..
This particular one kicked me in to doing more.. I don’t know it’s my best one but it’s my favourite, and I had the experience to go with it.
Simon and Garfunkel
“At a Paul Simon concert in Santa Monica Art Garfunkel appeared for the encore. Paul came out and said he wanted to bring out an old friend….and Art walked out. I freaked out, stood up on my chair and started taking photos. Security saw me and were gesturing and yelling at me. So, since there was clearly no way they could get to me, I “gestured” back and finished off my roll. I didn’t stick around to buy the T-shirt however.”
The photo above was taken at an arena show, but Elton John also played at more intimate venues….
“I taped my camera to my legs to get into the Troubador to see Elton John. The Troubador is a club in LA that a lot of up and comings start at and Elton was really at the peak of his first huge surge in America in ’74-75 – he was doing Dodgers Stadium.
This club holds 250-300 people and he did three or four shows there. Elton had began his career there before “Your Song” and he had agreed to go back to do some charity stuff. This was the first time they were actually frisking people. I was scared to death, but I had paid all this money for a ticket and I said to myself “I gotta get in”. I don’t know why I was so ballsy, but I just was and I went to my car and I taped the body of the camera and the lens to my ankles.
It’s just as well you were wearing bell-bottomed flared trousers….
“Yeah! I walked up and I watched them and they were only frisking down to your pockets – they didn’t go down your legs to your ankles, they weren’t looking for guns or knives they were looking for recording equipment and cameras. I just went to my car and taped it – I don’t know whose camera it was – I feel bad for these people and their equipment. I kinda walked in and they frisked me and I just smiled and I walked in and I was in the stairwell. I was sitting in this stairwell and was at a good angle to shoot him and just sat there and shot. It was very very low light and I used a slow shutter speed and it was grainy – but I got it!”
I remember Bowie was singing Rebel Rebel in one of my photos. He was so charismatic, him and Mick (Jagger), you just could not keep your eyes off of them. Mick Jagger absolutely demanded your attention. Look at me! Look at me..! I was just watching the concert through my camera. When I saw something I thought was cool I pushed the button and I was constantly trying to focus, constantly trying to adjust for lighting changes which happened every tenth of a second.”
I ran out of film so many times, because I never knew if I was going to get any closer, and while you are taking them you get carried away – “ooh, I wanna get that, I wanna get that”, in fact that was one of my biggest problems. I ran out of film at the Who concert before Pete, standing literally ten feet in front of me, smashed his Les Paul, and I had no camera. I was pulling my hair out. I was crying. I cannot believe I went through all my film. It was one of the early ones. I just went through my film. The next time I was up there and I saved film, and he didn’t do it the next night. And everybody booed because he didn’t do it.
So why didn’t you go on to be a professional photographer?
Bottom line is, I really wasn’t suited to being a photographer. I was as blind as a bat!! I could have passed as a poster child for kids with “Coke bottle” glasses. So I had to look through thick lenses, then through the view finder in the dark with the lights flashing and changing and reflecting into my glasses. Some cameras were very difficult to focus because of their in lens systems.”
“When I did this, it wasn’t about the photography. It was about the moments and the music and the people that I was watching and was so passionate about. To me it was all so unreal and unbelievable that this pasty white, skinny, tall, long hair, “Coke-bottle” glasses kid was standing ten feet from Bob Dylan and George Harrison. That’s what it was all about for me.”
How do you feel about that time now you are looking back?
“I’m enjoying it. I don’t know what to think. I don’t know how important these photos are to anyone right now. I’m just thrilled that people like them. I also know I have only literally scratched the surface.”
“A lot of these photos I’m seeing for the first time – at least getting a reasonable look at them.
As I go through this I take myself back there and I remember more things and details, like the stationary streaker at California Jam….he was so crazy and wiped out on LSD….
I have this picture – in the audience for George Harrison was Bob Dylan. It’s very grainy- it’s hard enough shooting the guys with the lights on them but you can tell its Bob Dylan, the hair, the sunglasses, peering over at me like…..he hated people taking pictures of him.”
“I know my shots are from a fans perspective because I was in the crowd! I captured what I saw, with all the flaws of youth and inexperience. Nevertheless I also think it comes from a perspective that’s a bit different from the pros that were shooting the shows at the time.”
“When I first started this I thought maybe I have a hundred really good shots, being optimistic, and now I’ve posted hundreds and most of them are pretty good. And I’m going through some now and I think I’ve got better ones now than I’ve ever posted before. And I haven’t even looked at so many of them….”
Finally, why have you chosen to remain anonymous whilst launching @FromMySeat?
“I don’t like self aggrandisement. I feel embarrassed trying to promote myself. I feel better promoting something a really crazy impassioned kid did forty years ago. It’s just easier for me to do that, than say “look at this great picture I took!”. That was one of my big stumbling blocks anyway.
I stopped because I was struggling because I didn’t feel confident in myself. I was just this kid and I knew the shots had all these flaws. Back on film there’s no way my photos would have stood up at all – they had too many technical issues about them. There’s no way they could have lasted. And I knew that. And even now I want to be anonymous because it’s really hard for me to promote myself. If people like these photos then they should like them (for what they are). It’s forty years ago. I am so far removed from it now I can go back and think about it, but it’s just like two separate worlds…