ArtBeat: Behind the Lens with Andrzej Pilarczyk, Part I

Sheila Jordan with bassist Cameron Brown
Legendary jazz singer Sheila Jordan with bassist Cameron Brown (2007)

Lately, we’ve been getting a whole bunch of compliments about the musical performance photography of Andrzej Pilarczyk, Chief Photographer here at

We thought you might like to get to know him better, so we sat down for a chat with him in advance of his new exhibition of music photography, “Freedom Through Collective Improvisation: iEAR Presents! Free Jazz from the Sanctuary,” which opens at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy on Thursday. There will be an opening reception with the artist at 6pm, and admission is free. The exhibition will remain on view through Friday, April 30.

Here’s part one of our interview:

Q: What was the first photo you ever took?

A: My father gave me his old (1960) Exacta single-lens Reflex camera when I entered my teens. (That’s the same camera that Jimmy Stewart used in Hitchcock’s classic film “Rear Window” and the first press camera of its kind where you looked through the viewfinder lens. It also had Zeiss lens – considered to be among the best in the world.) I took it to high school and shot my friends in glorious black & white.

Q: How did you get started shooting musical acts?

A: To fuel my growing interest in photography as a teenager my mother gave me a book featuring Life magazine photographer and “Witness to Our Time” Alfred Eisenstadt. He was a great portraitist who beautifully photographed world leaders, movie stars, music legends and important world events throughout his career from the 1930s on. I immediately adored and tried to emulate him.

But because I didn’t have access to world leaders, I was relegated to photograph portraits of the family dog, the neighbor’s cat, school friends and my little brother Ian’s violin recital – the first music photos I ever took.

Because I wanted to be an “artist” through creative painting and graphics I did not take photography seriously until after obtaining a Fine Arts degree (meaning unemployable), joining the military (something to do until I could figure out what I wanted to do) and then returning home after four years (and still not knowing what to do with myself).

Esperanza Spaulding
Portrait in performance of Esperanza Spaulding (2007)
Back home only a few weeks after being in the military I met regional fine-arts photographer David Brickman who specialized in street photography and also co-owned the Hamm-Brickman Gallery in Albany at the time. We immediately became fast friends, and I was able over a few years to learn directly and indirectly from him about photography as a way of life, rather than a hobby or a business.

During that time, since my passions were music and art, photographing musicians became the next logical step. I started to read about music photography and seriously study the work of master photographers who specialized in music: Herman Leonard (jazz), Lee Tanner (blues & jazz), Francis Wolf (jazz), William Claxton (jazz), Joe Alper (folk, blues & jazz), Jim Marshall (rock), Baron Wolman (rock), Annie Liebowitz (everything) and Val Wilmer (jazz & blues).

I shot regional free concerts, compared my work to the masters, studied my mistakes to correct them and went out to shoot some more. (Musicians call this “wood-shedding.”)

It wasn’t until the fall of 1987 that I decided to dedicate myself to working toward being one of the best in this genre of photography. Over the years I realized that this art-form is ever evolving and an ongoing learning process. I still “woodshed” all the time. I also keep an eye on who is doing what in my field regionally, nationally and internationally. I enjoy seeing and feeling great photographs by others as much as I do when I shoot one of my own.

Q: Digital or analog? What equipment do you use now?

A: I am fortunate to have learned the old-fashioned way with film. Besides a 10-week darkroom course in high school, I learned photography on my own. Up until a few years ago I still shot film with a fully manual Nikon (FM2n) camera. During those 19 years, my mantra was one roll of film per concert or performer. At the time, that caused me to really look deeply and take calculated risks when I shot. In those years, I worked every time at trying to get a clean portrait in performance, so to speak.

Eventually failing eyesight and the pressures of going digital forced me to get a Nikon D-70 “pro-sumer” camera. It became a great learning tool. Unfortunately, I beat the hell out of it and within two years replaced it with a Nikon D-3OO (as the primary) and a D-200 (for back-up.)

With digital, I could shoot more, take way more risks and try to catch the drama that might be inherent within the musical performance. Even though it’s a fully automatic camera, I still shoot manually.

In the last four years, the world of the web/internet opened up to me. The Lake George Arts Project, Skidmore College, and, among others, have presented my work on their internet sites. Though I have exhibited at key galleries every year since 2001, it’s thanks to digital that now so many people come up to me and say, “We’ve been seeing you shoot for years, but never saw your work until now.” Digital and the web/internet have made more people familiar with my work than working for print media (The Source Magazine, The Glens Falls Chronicle, The Lake George Mirror and others) ever did.

Q: On average, how many shots do you shoot for a typical show? And how many of those are what you consider to be good shots?

A: With film, I shot 24 or 36 frames per show. With digital, it’s anywhere from 72 to several hundred depending on my ability to move around. I try to make it interesting by shooting from as many locations around the stage or performance area as I can. While shooting from one location my mind is continually wondering what shots could be from another angle. Sometimes I know where the best shots could be attained, but I have no access there because of the audience seating or layout. This is where the old saying applies, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”

To answer the question, we can take two examples which are on the Sharon Isbin/Mark O’Connor concert at The Egg (I only shot 42 frames, and I was happy with 12 images) and the recent Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba concert at the Sanctuary for Independent Media (there was so much going on that I shot over 250 shots with 58 of them that I would be happy to show anywhere anytime). The situation dictates how many shots I will take at any given time.

Keep in mind there will be days where nothing goes right and your shooting is below what it could be for whatever reasons, including state of mind.

Q: Do you ever feel weird shooting in a concert situation? How do you deal with trying to get close-ups and maybe having to step in front of the audience?

A: I have tried over the years very hard not to block the audience in any way. That’s why you might see me crawling around in the front and to the sides of the stage. When I do have to block audience members I apologize ahead of time if I can or right after. Most
people are very kind and know I’m doing my job and actually want to help if they can.

If I’m comfortable with a musician and have their OK, I love getting down right in front of the stage to shoot. But most of the time I prefer to shoot at a distance because it fuses the foreground and background together more favorably. I give almost as much visual weight to what’s happening (or not) in the background, as I do to the subject I am trying to photograph.

Q: What was the worst situation you ever found yourself in while you shot?

A: A few years back on assignment at a free outdoor park concert, the large audience sat more than 30 feet away from the stage and the performer. I slowly crawled my way about half way to get a closer shot in that empty space and the female performer stopped the performance in the middle of her song and sternly asked me what did I think I was doing and to stop taking photographs. I was totally embarrassed, even though she apologized later after the concert. It affected me negatively for many concerts afterward.

Q: What was the most bizarre situation you found yourself in while shooting?

A: Interviewing a well-known and attractive blues singer, shooting her during the performance, hanging out afterward and then being point-blank invited to spend the night in her hotel room. I guess it’s now one of my little regrets, but at the time I had a girlfriend and that would not have been kosher.

Q: Do you do any post processing or touch ups on your photos before they’re published?

A: I do not own Photoshop or that type of program. What I do have is the Photoshop Elements 4 program. This little sibling of the major program allows me the basics of adjusting contrast, hue, color, saturation and lightening or darkening. I tend to underexpose slightly as not to blow-out the highlights, so I can lighten the shots for web use. I prefer to spend more time shooting (because I know my camera and its capabilities) then sitting behind a computer working on one image for hours. I find that too many people spend too much time trying to doctor pedestrian photographs to make them into something much better. Yes, this does work once in a while, but most of the time you see an unrealistic image that’s been over processed.

Stop back tomorrow for Part 2 of this interview.

David Malachowski
Portrait in performance of guitarist David Malakowski (2010)

  1. Nancy Walker says

    Andrzej’s photography is thought provoking, complimentary to his subjects, and always top notch. He is a local treasure!!

  2. Chris Shaw says

    It’s not just the shot with Andrzej, it’s the way he can predict the emotional moment. He’s got to be as “in the moment” as the guys in the band to be ready for some of this stuff. Snap on, Andrzej, snap on!

  3. LiLi says

    Wonderful! Looking forward to Part II.

  4. TL Stone says

    Andrzej is a fantastic photographer and a really great guy! His support of music, and specifically local music, reaches farther back than he touches on here. In 1980 he was one of the first people to encourage and support my then band the Morons. In fact he was the first person to ever record us, in our bass players living room, on an reel-to-reel that he had. I still have the reel that contains some of the only known recordings of our earliest songs. Cheers Andrzej!

  5. Andrzej says

    Nancy, Chris, Lili and Tim, I thank you all for your kind words! I’m honored.

  6. Ian C. Pilarczyk says

    That violin concert was in 1979….Andrzej has a unique ability to capture all the vitality, the passion of the musical moment– his love affair for music has clearly helped inform his photography, and his love affair for photography has informed his love for music: a marriage made in heaven. I’m proud of you, big brother!

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