If you frequent the local music scene, then you’ve likely seen him before. Jim Gilbert is a concert photographer, among the best in a region full of talented peers. He’s earned his reputation in the small amount of space between the stage and the front row of expensive seats, known as the photographer’s pit. It’s where he resides at every show, but only so briefly.
“I have 12 minutes to tell my story,” he said.
It’s likely you haven’t seen him. There’s an unwritten etiquette for the pit, aside from the rules that strictly forbid the use of a flash. Those in the pit typically wear dark clothing. Musicians usually don’t want to see them, nor do they want to be a distraction. First three songs, and they are out. It’s okay if you haven’t seen him. He’d rather have you see the images he makes with his camera and lens. To simply state he “captures” an image would understate his work, and other photographers like him.
“As a photographer you actually time these shots,” he stated on Facebook, responding to a comment on a picture he took of Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa sharing what appears to be a joint on stage during a stop on their High Road Tour at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “You wait, ready… you see them approach each other, you manually set your camera (aperture, shutter speed, iso) and you wait… and snap. You either get it or you don’t. But, the pros get more than they miss — or at least, I’d like to think we do.”
Photography came to the 42-year-old as a means of keeping himself out of trouble where he was a pre-teen in Herkimer County. “I started photography in middle school,” he said. “I was, back then they didn’t say ADHD, they said “hyperactive.” I was a hyperactive, straight-A student who got himself into trouble a lot. So, they put me into an accelerated program where I did side projects, and one of the side projects was photography.”
Since then, he has seldom been without a camera. He strayed away from it once when he became a father out of college, where he earned a bachelor’s degree at SUNY Plattsburgh. “But, I’ve been shooting on and off for 30 years.”
Gilbert pursued photography again in earnest six years ago. He started doing studio work. He founded the Saratoga Photography Club (which he said has 500 members now). And, he began working towards shooting nature and nightscapes. His then-significant other’s discomfort with shooting female models turned his focus to concert photography. “I wasn’t doing nudes or anything. But, I could give that up. I wanted to shoot concerts.”
Aside from his love of music, and the draw of being against the stage — often against the speakers — during a live concert, Gilbert said he wanted to face the challenge of shooting live concerts.
“You can’t control the light. Because there is no flash or anything, you are subject to your environment. You can’t control your performer, not like a model where they are looking at you and you can direct them. … It’s similar to sports, where you don’t have the power to know exactly what they will do. But, you can do your research.”
He attended Photoshop World with friend and fellow photographer Rafael Concepcion, a well-respected expert and two-time author on High Density Range photography. It’s was then he crossed paths with Alan Hess. “He wrote the book on concert photography.” And it’s a relationship that’s maintained today, one often calling the other to ask about the light conditions in venues he is familiar with.
Where sports photographers know from which side of the plate their subject bats in baseball, or the rules of the game that may dictate the actions of certain players, Gilbert said he does his homework studying the habits of musicians. “You know what angle they hold the guitar, they hold the mic more to the right or the left. You can do some studying beforehand, but you can’t control it. The difference between sports and concerts is the light that’s available.”
“I can shoot sports in the middle of the day, I don’t have to worry about lighting. Concerts, I have to. Also, small concerts are in small venues with poor lighting, poor lighting budgets. You can’t use flash. It’s challenging. It’s just a challenging medium and I love that about it. The harder, the better.”
Working in the pit is also a challenge in itself. In addition to the struggle of capturing the story without any control over his subjects, there is contending with several fellow photographers all trying to share their own 12-minute story. In respectively smaller venues, he may be sharing the pit with another person. At larger music festivals like Rock on the Range, he could be standing with nearly 90 more, packed between the chaos of the crowd behind them, and the frenzy of activity on stage. Sometimes that involves enduring the rain, or the splatter of simulated blood at a G.W.A.R. show.
Gilbert’s work appears most often on NYSmusic.com, a web-based music periodical he publishes along with a dedicated staff of a half dozen editors and nearly 50 contributing writers. It affords him the opportunity to cover shows, and provides an easy outlet for his work. His online portfolio (JTGPhoto.com) reveals scores of bands, ranging from national acts to local artists. Further evidence of his reputation. It’s gotten to the point where bands have contacted him directly to inquire whether he would be shooting an upcoming show. Three Doors Down has called him its favorite photographer. Among other bands, Pearl Jam posted his photos of frontman Eddie Vedder on the band’s website.”We’re all just trying to do our job, and build a rapport.”
Still, there are some moments that stay with Gilbert without the need of a camera.
Shortly before B.B. King died in 2015, Gilbert traveled across the state to shoot the late blues musician at a couple of shows. “The second time, he sat in his chair and looked around to find someone he could boogey with, and he looked at me.” Gilbert believes King recognized him from the previous show, and picked him out from the crowd. “He sat in his chair with his arms reached out and he wiggled his hips. And, I did it from the pit. [Now,] I kind of joke that I’ve danced with B.B. King.”
Michael Hallisey is managing editor of Spotlight Newspapers.