Institute exhibits concert photographer’s work
Larry Hulst can tell you the best places to hide a 35 mm camera and a lens to get them past concert security.
Most of Hulst’s photos that will be on display starting next week at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown weren’t shot with a photo pass from the front of the stage. They were shot in the middle of the fans with gear he often had to sneak into the venue.
If that meant trying to maintain focus while being jostled in the middle of a raucous crowd, it also meant being there to capture those unexpected moments that occurred long after the photographers who only were allowed to shoot the first three songs were escorted from the venue.
“That gave me the freedom to decide what concerts I wanted to photograph,” Hulst said during a telephone interview from his home in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Hulst got his first camera while in the U.S. Navy while on leave in Okinawa, Japan, during a tour of duty in Vietnam. When he came home to Sacramento, Calif., Hulst would practice framing and capturing images by “taking pictures” with an empty camera to save the cost of film.
His love of music and the work of photographers like Jim Marshall and Lynn Goldsmith encouraged him to start bringing his camera to concerts.
He was in the right place at the right time. Some of the first acts he shot in 1970 were Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and The Doors, and tickets usually cost between $2 and $4.
Hendrix, Joplin and Doors’ frontman Jim Morrison all died within the next year.
Some of his photos ended up running in a college newspaper, where they were seen by Russell Solomon, founder of Tower Records. Solomon offered Hulst a chance to sell photos in front of his store, because he hoped the people buying pictures also would buy albums.
“Depending on whether I had a job or not, some days I did it just (to pay) for that night’s food,” Hulst said. “The same photos at the Butler I was selling on the sidewalk in front of a record store for $3.”
Sometimes he would use his photos and his camera to befriend acts and gain access — “My camera got me into places my money couldn’t,” he said — but just as often he bought a ticket and got his camera in by placing the body down the front of his pants and the lens down a pants leg. He also brought to some shows a friend in a wheelchair, who wouldn’t get searched.
Being 6-foot-5 helped him get unobstructed images while in the crowd, but it also made it difficult to hide from security. After he finished shooting a roll of film, he would give it to someone in the audience to hold for him in case security busted him and confiscated it.
He got caught occasionally, but he said the only time he got kicked out of the show was at a 1984 Van Halen concert.
Hulst continued shooting concerts after he moved to Colorado Springs, Colo., for a job as a photographer for the military and the Department of Defense.
“I was shooting generals in the daytime and rock stars in the night time,” Hulst said. “What is that, psychotic?”
He also had access to the photo processing equipment to develop his concert shots. He began shooting digital for the government in the early ’90s, but he continued to shoot film (and mostly B&W film) at concerts for a while longer.
“It took me a couple years to wean off of film,” Hulst said. “I would still use film if the quality of the digital cameras didn’t drastically improve. Film had a higher resolution than digital except in the last couple years.”
The Butler exhibit, “Front Row Center: Icons of Rock, Blues and Soul,” first was assembled for the Pioneers Museum in Colorado Springs, but his work has been shown in more than 40 galleries and museums.
The show covers 12 genres of music and includes images taken between 1970 and 1995 ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to the Grateful Dead to Lauryn Hill of Fugees. All of the photos are 11 inches by 14 inches and matted for display in 20 x 24 frames.
Hulst eventually turned “pro,” working extensively for Relix magazine, and his images have appeared in Rolling Stone, Guitar Player and Time.
His work also is represented by Getty Images, which has led to his photographs being featured in albums by Led Zeppelin, Bruce Springsteen, Hendrix and others.
Hulst, 74, still likes to go to concerts (Buddy Guy and Widespread Panic are a couple of his favorites), and he still takes photos when he goes. The difference now is he’s not alone. Everyone else in the crowd also has a camera, the one on their cellphone that they usually don’t have to hide from security.
“They’re doing nothing more than what I did when I started out, just recording remembrances,” Hulst said. “I wanted to have something that was my own. I didn’t want to spend $40 on a T-shirt.
“What they’re doing doesn’t bother me. I wouldn’t want to have my camera in my face for an hour and a half. I can’t imagine watching a concert that way … A lot of the time, I’d shoot one full concert on a roll of film. I shot for quality, not quantity.”