Shot In The Dark: How The Whole Mess Started

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Just a couple of days now before Rocks Off - the person and the blog - proudly presents Shot In the Dark: Houston Press Concert Photography, our first-ever exhibit of live pics we've collected in about three and a half years of reviewing shows, curated by the people who shot them.

Details: The free show starts at 7 p.m. Thursday in Warehouse Live's Studio, with more than 40 printed and matted shots by 12 Rocks Off photographers on display and available for sale. DJ HLOHL, Twitter sensation, is putting together a special Rdio playlist full of as many artists featured in the show as he can squeeze on there. Plus food by Zilla Street Eats and a cash bar featuring $3 "Shot In the Dark" whiskey and cokes, because that's how we roll.

For this preview, Rocks Off asked the participants how and why they got into music photography. It makes us a little proud that so many of them started on our watch, something Rocks Off didn't realize until we read through all their answers yesterday and this morning.

And we've had our ups and downs with the band over the years, but Rocks Off guesses we ought to go ahead and thank Kings of Leon too - without them, apparently, the rest of our photo corps wouldn't be here.

Mark C. Austin: I've always taken cameras to shows as far back as I can remember. I'd do this usually by sneaking disposable cameras into shows by sticking them up my pants leg. Usually a fruitless effort, yet I always tried.

As a kid, I'd always studied Rolling Stone from cover to cover and routinely cut out images that I really liked and put them in my school lockers and bedroom walls. It wasn't until March 12, 2005, that I actually tried taking a decent camera and lens into a show.

I was a huge Kings of Leon fan at the time and I wrote their publicist as an "aspiring photographer" who was interested in shooting their shows in Austin at La Zona Rosa and Houston at Meridian a couple of days later. It took some coaxing, but she gave in and allowed me to photograph both shows, but I had to give her the photos.

I was totally cool with that. I was so nervous to get a decent photo that I took literally thousands at both shows. I sent her the photos a couple of days later and to my surprise, she was very impressed and even asked to me to attend more shows for her.

Upon reflection, these images could be some of the worst photos I've ever taken and yet, shockingly, six years later, Kings of Leon still have those photos on their Web site. I never would've dreamed they would get as popular as they are, and that those photos would still be generating interest. Lucky me. Officially, though, the first band I photographed was their opener that night, The Features, a band I still love to this day.

My adventures with Kings of Leon opened a few doors and I started getting offers from SPIN to photograph shows in Houston and Austin for their daily "It Happened Last Night" online feature. My first show assigned for that was The Strokes at Verizon Wireless in March 2006, almost exactly one year from that first Kings of Leon show.

Which was ironic because I'd found Kings opening for The Strokes in '03 at the same venue. I still barely knew what I was doing and am none too proud of the images, but The Strokes liked them and asked to use some on their site and in some promo materials.

There was a lot of "right place, right time" stuff that happened, but I've been hooked on photographing music ever since.

Marc Brubaker: I started shooting concerts on my own, as a way to capture bands I loved. Once upon a Christmas, in 1999, I was given a Rolling Stone subscription. The copy I unwrapped was a "Behind The Scenes" photo issue, and it blew my mind. It made me want to be Mark Seliger. That's probably what planted the seed in my brain about shooting musicians.

I didn't really start taking my camera to shows until 2004, mostly due to lack of anything other than a point and shoot. The first show I actually shot for publication was in college, for The Battalion, but it was simply for a daily feature photo - not for review.

After returning to Houston, I shot a 2007 appearance at Warehouse Live by The Rentals to accompany an article by my friend Lauren Weiner that was published in the University of St. Thomas paper, The Cauldron.

Craig Hlavaty: The first show I remember shooting for Rocks Off was back in my freelancer days in 2007, and it would have been crowd shots at Austin City Limits that September with my shitty digital camera. I did better, but no less grainy, work for that November's Black Angels show. The pictures looked like the show was - colorful, grim, and shaky.

I regret not having better equipment for the first two shows I ever wrote up for the Houston Press, Kings of Leon at Warehouse Live, and My Chemical Romance at Reliant Arena. KOL looked all cool and menacing that night, and MCR was on the Black Parade tour, so both would have made for killer shots.

You have to remember that I was writing about music for the paper and the blog before we had this whole mechanism that brings you words and pictures hours after a show. We were still using publicity shots for live reviews, which today makes me shudder and sob.

Rocks Off wasn't the worldwide monolith of rock, country, and hip-hop it is today by any means; it was our "Quarrymen" period. I guess right now we are making our Rubber Soul, or at least Magical Mystery Tour.

I didn't think these Beatles comparisons out. Sorry.

Jay Lee: I got started taking concert pictures back in the '80s. In those days I wasn't shooting for anyone. I was just doing it for fun. I didn't have much money so I was using a Yashica manual focus camera my brother had given me to learn on.

But I carried that camera everywhere, which included smuggling it into concert venues to photograph people like Frank Zappa, Roger Waters, Phil Collins and others. On a few occasions I had security confiscate my film, but I managed to come away with some good shots when I got away with it.

My first "hired" gig was when Bill Hicks asked me to come to Rockefeller's and shoot his standup routine when he opened up for Warren Zevon. No money, but it got me on the guest list and got me backstage. As a bonus I got to hang around and shoot Warren Zevon as well.

In the early '90s, life changed course and I kind of lost interest in photography. I didn't pick it back up till my wife and I decided to go on an overseas vacation in 2005. I picked up a digital SLR and I've been shooting ever since.

I quickly got back into concert photography, mostly because of all my musician friends peforming at the Houston Continental Club. In fact, a good percentage of the photos now hanging on the back wall behind the bar are mine. For me, it was worthwhile just to be see my pictures being used by my starving-artist friends on their Web sites and on fliers used to promote their gigs.

Hanging out and shooting at the Continental Club lead to me meeting Chris Gray, Music Editor for the Houston Press, and that has lead to some actual "paid" gigs. I think the first one was Fun Fun Fun Fest in Austin in 2008. I've shot a handful of shows for HP since then and hope to get to do some more in the future.

But I'm still only in it for the fun. I lack the mercenary personality it takes to cash in on what I consider to be a fantastic hobby. Don't get me wrong, I love to sell photos and I am happy to be paid for my work, but I'm not in this for a payday.

It's just a kick in the pants to be at a concert of a musician or band that I love and manage to capture the moment which I can share with whoever cares to see.

Eric Sauseda (Groovehouse): My entry into concert photography came by way of skateboarding photography.

I had shot the local mini-ramp competition at the Houston Vans Warped Tour [stop] and the Houston Press found the photos online and asked to use them for a slideshow. I was honored. I'm really glad that I allowed them to use the photos, because it was those photos that led me into concert photography.

A few days after the slideshow ran, I got a call from the Web editor asking if I would be interested in shooting a concert for the Houston Press.

I had already shot two national touring acts (Coldplay and Duran Duran) for another publication prior to this invitation. I jumped at the opportunity to shoot for the Houston Press; the first show I shot for the Houston Press was in July 2009, Judas Priest and Whitesnake at the Verizon Wireless Theater.

Since that time, I have shot well over 100 different bands, numerous events and festivals, and have had the opportunity to contribute to at least one feature story.

Larami Serrano: The very first show I shot was Asher Roth and Kid Cudi in August of '09. My husband (Shea Serrano) was covering it and I'm pretty sure I was asked to shoot because a) no one else could; and b) I just so happened to have a capable camera. Either way, I was hooked.

It was so exhilarating and such a change of pace from photographing babies and families and my own children every day. The show was just plain fun. The energy of the fans and performers was contagious. So contagious that more than half of my shots were completely blurred on account of my own dancing around like a fool (still working on that).

Seeing the few salvageable shots from the show on the Rocks Off blog the next day was exciting, but it was also motviation to try and get it right the next time around. I've still only shot a handful of shows, but the experience so far has been delightful.

Marco Torres: My fondest memory from shooting for Rocks Off is my very first assignment. After several emails and phone calls asking Chris Gray for a chance to shoot something, he finally sent me to cover the "Bun B & Friends" show at Warehouse Live on June 20, 2009.   I was able to post up backstage and got to meet a who's who of Houston rap, including Devin The Dude, Trae Tha Truth, ESG, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, Lil Flip, and of course Bun B. I even got to see newcomers (at the time) Drake and Lupe Fiasco.  As I look back at the photos from that show, I can see how raw and amateur my photos turned out, but to this day they are still some of my favorites.

Jason Wolter: Music has always played a major role in my life - it is part of my identity. My first jobs were in record stores, I played in bands for over a decade and I was a chronic concert-goer throughout my twenties.

A couple of years ago, I realized that I had settled into some sort of domestic coma. I was no longer playing in bands and the number of the live shows I would see in a year fell somewhere in the single digits. I needed something to get me involved... a creative outlet that could replace songwriting and get me interested in going to see bands again.

There was always a passing interest in photography for me, and as luck would have it, I happened upon a pro-grade camera right about that time. I started shooting shows locally and became more and more intrigued with my camera and what I could produce. After a few months of this, and feeling fairly comfortable with my camera, I wanted desperately to shoot a "big" show - one in a large venue with decent lighting and a band that was on regular rotation on my iPod.

This is where being a freelance, uncredentialed, amateur photographer becomes a problem. Sure, you can smuggle your camera into venues, but you also risk getting thrown out if you are caught, not to mention the time you spend worrying about not getting caught while missing much of the show you spent $25 to get into.

This is where Rocks Off came into the picture. An opportunity presented itself, and before I knew it I was shooting large venues with decent lighting, bands that were on regular rotation on my iPod and all worry-free.

My first show for Rocks Off was Dwight Yoakam at the Arena Theater. I remember the unanticipated line of traffic that greeted me on the feeder leading to the parking garage and worrying that it was going to make me late for my first assignment. (Which it did.) There was a mix-up at the box office and no one seemed to know anything about the photo pass that was supposed to be left for me.

Rocks Off Sr. managed to hound them into some vague promise that the elusive pass was on its way. Still, we waited. Elizabeth Cook was the opener, her drawl echoed through the now-empty halls. We listened to her entire set from the lobby and still no sign of the photo pass. Worried that he would miss the beginning of Dwight's set, Rocks Off Sr. decided to go into the Arena and find the tour manager.

So there I was, still waiting in the lobby habitually staring at my watch waiting for someone to pop out with my golden ticket. Finally, Rocks Off Sr.'s companion for the evening appeared at the door holding my pass with a grin. I slapped it on, breezed through security and as I set foot in the arena the lights dimmed.

Dwight was making his way to the stage as I made my way to the sound board for my first "3 songs, no flash."

Also exhibiting: Jim Bricker, Jody Perry, Matthew Keever & Kendra Berglund

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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