Really Cool: Memoirs of a Rock Photographer

Tom Petty (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

Tim Van Schmidt


The first rock and roll photographer I ever knew was my older brother Andy.

Both of my older brothers started going to rock concerts long before I did — one dressed up in a Nehru shirt his girlfriend had made for a Donovan concert, the other refusing to leave the arena until he heard the Jefferson Airplane play “White Rabbit.” The Airplane obliged, he reported.

My brother Andy, however, also brought back raw cassette recordings of Three Dog Night, rousing the crowd with “Celebrate,” and Blues Image playing long, intense jams and their enigmatic hit “Ride, Captain, Ride.”

He also took Polaroid Swinger snapshots of a half-sleeveless Alice Cooper (whose drummer, he reported, destroyed his drum kit with a claw hammer) and Iron Butterfly’s bare-chested drummer Ron Bushy doing his famous solo from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

Iron Butterfly 1969 (Photo by Andy Schmidt)

These new sounds and visions from the concert world were strange and exotic – and it wouldn’t be long before I got to experience it myself. Andy opened that door for me, thanks to his willingness to capture the moments.

Andy was also responsible for encouraging me to take my first rock and roll photo. We were in Long Beach, California seeing the great progressive rock trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Andy had brought a camera and had already gone up to the stage to take some photos — he really dug doing it.

But later, keyboardist Keith Emerson crawled off the stage and started making his way down the aisle we were seated on. I was in the outside seat. Andy saw what was going on and he quickly shoved his camera at me and said “Take a picture!” I managed, with no skill whatsoever, to take a pretty good one. That was in 1972.

I suppose I became aware of the big rock and roll photographers — like Baron Wolman — mostly through the exciting images in Rolling Stone magazine. But I was more in awe of the various newspaper photographers who got to shoot the concerts I was going to see and I marveled at their images accompanying the reviews.

But I was more interested in writing and had no idea that I would get a chance to fill that role myself.

I did my first concert photoshoot as a journalist for a Fort Collins newspaper in 1989 — Tom Petty at Fiddler’s Green, right in the middle of “Full Moon Fever” mania. I had been working with various photographers before that, but I guess no one could make it that night, so I did it myself.

Keith Emerson 1972 (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

Petty was just an excellent subject for my first real photo pass. His music is full of dynamic moments and he really knew how to strike a pose. I was certainly jazzed.

Only a few weeks later, I tried again, photographing 10,000 Maniacs at Red Rocks. Apparently, I crossed singer Natalie Merchant in some way because she came over and gave me a pretty stern look that said “back off” in no uncertain terms.

My next job was shooting Diana Ross at Fiddler’s Green and despite having the proper credentials, I got sidelined by a security guard. I mention this stuff to indicate that being a concert photographer isn’t always a bed of roses, a lesson I learned early on.

Since then I have photographed hundreds of performers in all kinds of different situations. And when it’s good — a band in full gear, a clear space to work in front of the stage, and enough time — it’s really cool, a thrilling experience that’s hard to beat.

I consider photographing Beatle Paul McCartney in Philadelphia the top moment in my photo career. It was in a stadium full of 65,000 people and somehow I worked my Colorado journalism credentials into getting to stand right on the staging itself, blast off some photos and sing along with Paul to “Jet.”

I got to participate in a press conference with McCartney earlier that afternoon too.

The result was that I certainly came away with a few workable images — and a good story to tell — but most of my work was marred by a microphone. I learned that night that photographing one of the top stars in the world with a microphone planted in the middle of their face is just a picture of a microphone.

When I switched from shooting film to digital is when I came to really appreciate the true art of concert photography. Thanks to local music festivals and a great area scene, I have been able to photograph a vast number of Colorado bands and it sharpened my skills.

Photographing regional bands is way different than photographing international stars. For one thing, you do not have that star power of instant recognition to dazzle and distract from, maybe, iffy photo work.

The ability to snap off hundreds of frames at a shoot gives me the freedom to find the best of the subject at hand, no matter who they are.

What’s the big deal? Well, I guess I’d say that rock and roll has proven to be one of our most exciting cultural products of all time. There’s lights, volume, style, sweat, posing, and intense whanging on whatever instrument — and it’s all in constant motion.

I’ve enjoyed the challenge of trying to express all of that in a single frame, whether it is someone “big” or someone “little.”

My last concert photoshoot was in February 2020 — Dweezil Zappa at Washington’s. Since then I’ve been photographing other stuff, mostly outdoors.

Dweezil Zappa (Photo by Tim Van Schmidt)

I wonder when I will be back in action photographing music. I miss the big sound, the grand gestures, and the roaring crowds. But live music is on its way back. And I know that when I see musicians taking the stage and picking up their instruments, I want to pick up my camera.

Tim Van Schmidt is a photographer and writer based in Fort Collins. Check out his channel on YouTube at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.

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