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(Above: Elton John and John Lennon at Madison Square Garden, 1974.
All photos by George Kalinsky, courtesy of www.georgekalinsky.com.)

By Joel Francis

In his 34 years as Madison Square Garden’s official photographer, George Kalinsky has forgotten more games, concerts and events than many people could see in several lifetimes.

Kalinsky, who estimates he has shot more than 8,000 events, can be forgiven for having no memory of Bob Marley’s next-to-last performances in 1978, because what he remembers more than makes up for any lapses.

“November 28, 1974. Don’t ask me how I remember that, but I do,” Kalinsky said with a laugh. “Elton John was playing the Garden, and he surprised everyone by having John Lennon join him onstage. Those three songs they did together turned out to be the last time John Lennon performed before he was shot. The moment I captured won’t be there again.”

Several of Kalinsky’s favorite moments are on display for a current exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. “Live From Madison Square Garden: From the Lens of George Kalinsky” opened May 1 in the Ahmet M. Ertegun Main Exhibit Hall and will run through January 2010.

“I’ve always tried to paint with light,” Kolinsky said. “Shooting against a plain black background is not the most creative, but it’s what you usually see. These performers spend millions on lighting and effects. I always try to capture that as part of the atmosphere of the performance.”

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The atmosphere for the Rolling Stones’ Garden concert in 1969 was a frenzy. The show was one of the first arena rock concerts and the pandemonium was captured and released on the Stones’ great live album “Get Your Ya Ya’s Out.”

“That was the first time I saw a buzz, a reaction like that in the audience. Everyone wanted to be onstage and the crowd started gradually pushing forward,” Kalinsky said. “I went under the stage and went on in the back and got some amazing shots.”

Getting the audience’s reaction to the band was the key to recording the moment, Kalinsky said.

“I think a huge part of the story is the people and how they react,” he said. “There may not be too many pictures in this exhibit of the crowd, but I always try to include them. Every audience is different, just as a circus is different from a track meet and hockey is from basketball. The audience is a reflection of the performance.”

The crowd at a 1974 Bob Dylan performance played a key role in a shot Kalinsky called one of the top two or three photos he’s taken.

“Dylan is Dylan, the hair, the body language, all of it connecting and seeing the audience reach out to him is beautiful and telling,” Kalinsky said. “With him, the words are so important; when I look at Dylan I try to capture the aura of the man.

“I want to get a little closer to see what his face looks like,” Kalinsky continued, “and how it shows the years, not in terms of getting older, but the years of performing with the audience and how that bond grows stronger and stronger.”

fullscreen-capture-562009-35709-pmbmpDylan played a key role in George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh at the Garden. Shooting both of those shows not only taught Kalinsky that music was the true universal language, but showed him how far the Garden’s stage extended.

“I was in a cab recently and the driver was from Bangladesh,” Kalinsky said. “He couldn’t have been more than 35 or 40 years old, but he said in the hearts of his family and friends in Bangladesh they would never forget Madison Square Garden. They weren’t there (at the Concert for Bangladesh), but they’d never forget because that’s where people learned to help his country and family.”

Events at the Garden, Kalinsky said, “become part of our culture and part of our world. It wasn’t long ago we had 9/11 and that concert. Even if you weren’t there, you were there because everybody in the world tuned in to the Concert for New York City.”

What stands out in Kalinsky’s mind from that show isn’t the defining performances from Paul McCartney, the Who and artists with ties to the Big Apple like Jay-Z and Bon Jovi, but a moment backstage with Billy Crystal before he was about to go on.

“I asked him how does he project his talent when the audience is in tears and police and firefighters are holding up pictures (of their missing loved ones)?” Kolinsky said. “He said the hardest thing to do was be funny in the face of an audience who had lost so much.”

Although Kalinsky’s relationships and reputation allowed him backstage that day, he acknowledged access has been almost completely shut down from the early days when he would take pictures of Elvis Presley in the dressing room before his first Garden concert or Sly Stone’s groomsmen getting ready before Stone’s onstage wedding in 1974.

And just as backstage has become more restrictive, the window for taking performance photos has been confined to the first three songs. That doesn’t bother Kalinsky, though, because digital technology and automatic lighting systems within the camera let him do as much with those three songs as he could in an entire show in the days of film.

“However, in terms of taking pictures it always comes down to the eye and the moment,” Kalinsky said. “You have to recognize the moment and snap the picture. This is the most important aspect, whether you are shooting a concert, sporting event or portrait setting. It’s what I’m always looking for.”

Kalinsky’s duties have also given him a window on the 1994 Stanley Cup Finals, Knicks games, scores of the world’s top athletes and personalities. This diverse shooting background has provided enough photos to fill eight books and exhibits from the Museum of Modern Art to the baseball and basketball halls of fame.

“The Garden stage, whether it’s Muhammad Ali, the Pope or LeBron James, brings out the best in every performer,” Kalinsky said. “Every day I walk into the Garden I say what a privilege it is to be part of this arena and the best stage in the whole world.”

(Below: A recent portrait of the Red-Headed Stranger.)

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