Frameworthy – 10 Years of CHBP Coverage with Photographer Jim Bennett
Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t. They’re buried deep in the crowd, in the middle of the action, dressed in black, camera in hand at all times. An unsung hero of the night, the concert photographer is the link that connects fellow concert goers to the most epic moments of a live performance, painting a proverbial picture for all to see.
If you’ve been to a Seattle concert or music festival over the last 10 years, odds are good that you’ve seen Jim Bennett with his camera pointed at the action. If you hadn’t noticed, you’ve at the very least seen his signature photos pop up through Seattle radio station, KEXP, or printed in the pages of established publications like Rolling Stone. As the owner and principal photographer of the Seattle-based outfit, Photo Bakery, Jim and his crew have been front and center at some of the most iconic performances throughout the last decade.
Running from set to set, capturing standout moments from each, and working quickly to edit and deliver those images at the end of the day is a tiring job – Jim has proven himself to be a master of the chaos. For the last few years, Jim has been managing the photo team at the Capitol Hill Block Party, working with security, staff and artists to provide timely photo content to press of all kinds. We had a chance to catch up with Jim and learn a little bit about how he got his start, what it takes to shoot a festival and some of his most memorable moments from the Capitol Hill Block Party.
Who are you, where are you from and how long have you been shooting photos?
My name is Jim Bennett. I was born in Detroit and lived a few different places (including Manhattan, rural England and more-rural North Carolina) and moved to Seattle 22 years ago. I’ve had a camera of some kind for most of my life, but got my first DSLR about 12 years ago.
How did you get your start shooting shows? Were you always trigger-happy during live performances or did you happen upon concert photography through another style of shooting?
I brought a camera to a couple of local performances at summer concerts in a park in Duvall, then captured some images at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in Golden Gate Park one year for fun, just as a patron. I saw a shot in the paper of a guy and his dog the next day from the festival and I’d taken a shot of the same situation. I thought mine held up to what was in the paper, so I figured I could try shooting for a publication. I reached out to my local paper, the Valley View, and got an assignment covering the 4th of July parade in Carnation one year. I was blown away that when it ran they took up the whole front page of the paper with my shots, which was a ball.
In 2007, I was at Bumbershoot watching a KEXP show and asked about volunteering as a photographer. They were awesome and offered me a gig for a Wednesday night a week or so later (Casey Anderson, I believe). I started shooting music beginning with in-studio performances. KEXP wasn’t doing video yet at that point, so I was often alone with the artists and the DJ in the live room.
I was pretty unpolished as a shooter when I started, but I was committed and I received a lot of really helpful feedback. I shot my first live show at Chop Suey. Federico Aubele played an in-studio and got me on the guest list for his show that night. My first live show assignment was for KEXP at the old Crocodile – Fleet Foxes opened and utterly blew the room away, followed by Port O’Brien and the Cave Singers as the headliner. I remember Robin Pecknold was sharing a box of donuts from the green room with folks in the front row of the audience. Their performance of “Oliver James” left a great many jaws on the floor.
You’ve been managing the photo team for CHBP for a few years now. How did you originally get involved with the festival?
I believe the first year I shot, it was for KEXP. I have fond memories of Sonic Youth, Japandroids and a good many others. To be honest, I don’t recall exactly how I started shooting for the house at Block Party. I started as a member of the photo team, and after being here a couple years and learning what’s needed in terms of shots and overall coverage, I was able to get more and more involved. I constantly try to be aware of the impact of the photo team’s choices on how the whole CHBP system works: partnering with a great security crew, knowing what social media needs we have, focusing on delivery timing and shot quality for the press pool, striving to make a great environment for the people shooting for all the outlets who cover the festival, and respecting the artist’s needs. All of it.
With so much time spent behind the lens during festivals, how do you balance shooting shows while still enjoying the music being created around you?
I spend a lot of time at shows and virtually all of it is with a camera. The mechanics of putting on a show are the framework for shooting, in a sense. Knowing access points, venue policies, doing a little homework about what to expect from a band visually, checking out lighting… that’s how I experience a show. At this point, it’s so normal for me to focus on sight lines, quality of light, crowd response and great moments, that if I’m at a show without a camera for some reason I feel as though something’s missing. But honestly, whether I’m shooting or not, a compelling performance by an artist I like is fantastic. For instance, I love the Specials, and my friends captured a couple shots of me shooting them with a giant grin on my face. That kind of experience can sometimes be reflected back from the band as well if they happen to notice you’re giving back good energy, which only makes the images better—a really cool virtuous cycle.
A lot of people think music photographers have the ultimate dream gig. Can you tell us a few aspects of shooting concerts and festivals that make the job “a job”?
It is a great gig in many ways. The things you have to keep in mind are all related to the fact you’re there because you’re playing a role. You’re there to provide coverage. You’re being trusted to have access to this uncommon area and deliver great images for a purpose—an outlet, a venue, a band, a wire service, whatever it is. That means you have to be responsible in a lot of ways: taking good care of your expensive gear (and don’t bang up that of those around you), get out of the pit when you need to so you build great relationships with security and band managers, be timely with your image delivery, be professional in your communications and create quality images in a challenging photographic environment. Essentially, it is really fun and a rare situation. And, it comes with some big expectations to meet regularly and consistently.
When shooting a live performance, you have to be ready to capture all sorts of spontaneous happenings. How is this style of on-the-fly photography different than the other type of moments you capture?
Live music photography rarely offers any chance to affect the available light for the images you capture. Flashes generally aren’t allowed in most shows in the US, and in my experience, it’s pretty rare to have any input with the lighting crew. In addition, many bands move around while playing and that movement demands decent shutter speeds to get crisp shots. If you’re in a pit in front of the stage, you can move laterally most times, but there’s limited ability to change the distance in front of you.
There are still an infinite variety of ways to capture images, but the limitations of responding to found elements (light, action, distance) in your compositions mean you really develop a quick reactiveness and strong peripheral vision. Anticipating movement of various types (musicians moving towards each other, a jump, head/eye movements, flinging hair, raised guitars, etc.) helps. If a singer closes his eyes and really belts out a line at the end of the first verse but you didn’t get the shot, for instance, look for it after the next verse. Watching a little video of any recent performances can help give some clues about what kind of light you might encounter or things like whether the singer cheats right or left while playing guitar or which hand an MC holds the mic in. When you have only three songs, knowing this kind of thing up front can help make the most of your time.
What’s your most memorable moment from CHBP history, and what made it so special?
I absolutely loved Les Savy Fav’s set a few years ago. It was such an over the top performance—taking off most of his clothes, climbing the rigging, going up into the adjacent apartment building and singing out the window. Then “someone” in an eagle costume appeared on stage and was eventually tossed off, thankfully with no lasting damage. Musically, it was a super fun performance and, physically, barely contained mayhem, but all in a great spirit. A tremendous show.
How has the rise of social media and mobile photography changed the way you shoot shows and deliver your photos?
Personally, I don’t shoot shows any differently, but I handle shots I’ve created differently after I’m done shooting. I don’t post as many performance shots to social media as I might like to because stealing images is so common. I will say, shooting with your phone at the front of the pit during the first three songs is something I never want to see. If you’re there with a pro camera, you can get so much better quality content with your DSLR and that’s why you’ve been given access. Someone with their hand up in the air holding a phone blocks everyone else’s shots.
Part of the orchestration that goes on between photogs in a pit is avoiding barricades, monitors, things coming over the barricade (fans/liquids/etc.) and, in the midst of that, giving each other space to get their shots. We’re aware of each other and most people work to make sure we each get our shots. If you’re not an approved photog (maybe a VIP), I would appreciate folks hanging back with their phones during the first three songs so we can get our job done and get out.
Matt and Kim / Photo by Jim Bennett
If you could offer up a bit of sage wisdom for aspiring concert photographers, what would it be and why?
Find ways to shoot a lot, and find someone who provides you insightful feedback (maybe an editor) as you go. I think shooting for different outlets, even if you’re shooting music the whole time, will mean you encounter different assignments and editors as well as a variety of venues and artists, that will stretch you as you strive to produce quality images in each situation.