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Robert Amos: The unique art of ‘rocktography’

There is an art to concert photography, and no one knows that better than Tyson Elder, the man behind the photo exhibit YYJ Rocktographers.

robertamos.jpgIn January, I attended a show called YYJ Rocktographers, and at that time I interviewed the impresario, Tyson Elder. He mentioned that a smaller version of the show would pop up elsewhere, and now you can see 15 of the photographs on show at Discovery Coffee at 1964 Oak Bay Ave. (until mid-April).

Throughout the year, rock music events take place all over our region — in giant arenas and tiny clubs, with solo acts or three-day festivals. Elder has always liked going to the shows.

“I used to sell merch for a friend’s band, and I’d take along a camera,” he told me. It was just point-and-shoot for him at the time, nothing serious. “I learned with film cameras, and had darkrooms when I was growing up. It was in the family quite a bit.”

He went to film school, but dropped out. Later, working at the Zone radio station in Victoria, he was called on to take “a couple of pictures of this and that.” The radio work provided him with access to the musicians and promoters.

One day, sitting in a bar in Seattle, he noticed the walls were papered with concert photos of events that had taken place in that very room. And that led him to generate the idea of bringing together the photographers he met at the shows, and presenting their best images as an exhibition.

Of course, anybody can snap off a few images at a rock show, but to get excellent results as seen in this show, the “rocktographers” need permission from the promoters to get access to key positions near the stage. They are only allowed in certain places and for a limited period of time. Elder put it succinctly: “First three songs, no flash.”

The dedicated professionals with media approval work hard at this, and over the years Elder got to know some of them, though the circumstances were hardly ideal for a quiet conversation about esthetics.

And regarding the barrage of photos that results, Elder said: “It all goes on the Internet and is quickly forgotten.” He envisioned an exhibit that would provide the artists with a chance to see their work printed and hung on a wall, and give them an opportunity to get together and share their mutual interests.

Elder’s first exhibit, under the name YYJ Rocktographers, was a sort of “year in review,” limited to events that took place in the Victoria area. Now, three years later, the range of locations has expanded to include just about anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, as these photographers travel widely to capture the biggest names for their repertoire of images. Among the events included are Victoria’s Rifflandia and Rock the Shores, Bumbershoot in Seattle, and big shows in Squamish and in Pemberton. Even Phillips Brewery’s local Backyard Weekender is included.

Back in that first year, Elder gave the photographers specific dimensions and recommended a certain sort of framing.

“No one did it,” he said with a laugh. “I had pictures this small when they were supposed to be this big, some were printed on metal. Next time,” he decided, “I’m taking it over.”

In subsequent editions of the show, Elder took the digital files that the rocktographers sent in and had them printed in a standard format and laminated on plywood by his longtime printer, Terry Zlot of the Print Lab (2271 Bowker Ave.).

“Many people want to participate,” Elder said. “These days, everybody is a photographer. After all, who wouldn’t be?” Responding to an open call, this year 45 photographers submitted up to three of their most memorable images for the January show. A team of five adjudicated the submissions, and 30 prints were chosen.

It is clearly a growing community. Over three years, more than 65 photographers have been involved, and this year there were 12 new participants. The admission fee covers the cost of the photo printing, and the photographers get the prints in the end.

The big event for 2016 took place over a weekend in January at Fort Tectoria, a business centre at 777 Fort St. The photos were on show free of charge all day, with paid-admission music events in the evenings. The whole thing seems to be a labour of love for Elder. With careful planning, the entire undertaking broke even, cause for celebration by the organizer.

“It’s about bringing the community together,” he reflected, “about bringing together photographers, musicians and people who love this stuff.”

Being at the centre of the rock show scene is just part of the payoff for Elder. Now he works as a consultant with a couple of the production companies, and is sometimes contacted by promoters.

“They know if they need someone to wrangle the photographers, they just have to speak to Tyson,” he ventured. “I can put together a team of people if they need it.”

He also acts as an agent in a small way for those 30 photographers, helping them in their contacts with media organizations.

It has become a full-time job for this young entrepreneur. Elder recently was laid off from his job in helicopter maintenance, but fortunately, Rocktographers was there to absorb his energies.

“I never thought this is what I’d be doing, and having fun doing it. It’s what I love to do.”

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