My friend and fellow photographer, Rich Chapman, may have been the guy from whom I first heard this. “My cameras give me a front row seat to life.” I’ve borrowed that, and used it so many times I can’t count. When I decided I wanted to make a career in photography, specifically photojournalism, it was not because I wanted to use the camera to advocate for change, or change people’s lives. Those causes are very admirable. I was 14-years-old when I knew I wanted to make a living with a camera. My purpose was to have FUN, and witness events up close.
On February 16th, 1978, I got my first taste of what it’s like to be in the front row. Actually, the photo pit. I can not recall any event prior to this one, of any significance, that put me where I wanted to be. Access beyond the public. Emerson, Lake & Palmer performed in Western Hall, on the campus of Western Illinois University in Macomb, IL. As a staff photographer for The Megaphone at Culver-Stockton College, I applied for, and received, a photo pass for the show.
Ford, GM, and Chrysler were “The Big 3” of the auto industry. This is what I called ELP. Three musicians of massive talent, on tour for the first time since 1974. The Macomb show was on the second leg of The Works tour, which began in 1977. The band was popular, the shows were a big draw. WIU was a small venue, and I have heard unconfirmed, that an auxiliary generator necessary, and rented, to power the stage show ELP were known for.
My friend Lee Jankowski, who really turned me onto the band (I was familiar with “Lucky Man” but not much else), accompanied me to Macomb. We left Canton, MO late in the afternoon, so stoked that our dinner consisted of Nilla Wafers. Lee sat in a mezzanine seat, stage left.
There was no opening act. At some point, 3-4 of us photographers were led into the photo pit. the small area between the stage and the barrier that keeps the audience from getting too close. The house lights went down, and then, there they were! Feet away and a little above. They opened with “Peter Gunn,” and then went straight into “Hoedown.”
I am pretty sure I only had one camera body at that time. A Minolta SRT-101. I had a 50mm lens, and a Vivitar 70-200mm zoom lens with a slow aperture. I used Kodak Kodacolor II film. The film speed was 400 asa, which was pretty fast film in 1978. Making photos just about as fast as I could re-cock the shutter and recompose, I was able to work the entire show from the pit. This was before the “three songs and out” that is common practice now. I left the photo pit once, to get far enough back as to get an overall shot of the entire band. Emerson was my favorite of the three. My film negatives show I made more photos of him than the others. I was 19 years old and learning the craft. Not every frame is tack sharp.
The show was SO good! The band may have been at its peak. Emerson was 34-years old. Lake, 31. And Palmer, 27. Sadly, two of them are gone now. And they’ve gone in their billing order. First Emerson, and then Lake. Both in 2016.
This was it. The first example of being up close for a big time event. I loved the band at that time. The camera put me right there. ANY combination of music and photography, is good by me! The ELP concert is one of the biggest thrills of my career.
I’ve been back in Western Hall numerous times. I know approximately where the stage was located that night. A time or two, I’ve tried to stand in the area the photo pit was. I close my eyes and listen to hear a long gone, but still reverberating note. If there was one, it would be Lake’s song that also could describe where the cameras have taken me, and how fortunate I’ve been. The note would be from “Lucky Man.”