Seven Questions for Erik Kabik

The city’s preeminent concert photographer on the perfect shot, the artist on top of his wish list and being on the other side of the lens

Photo by Jason Oguinik

Erik Kabik in the photo pit at Brooklyn Bowl |Photo by Jason Oguinik

How did you get your start in photography?

My first year in college, I was a psychology major. My roommate was a professional commercial photographer who had gone back to school to further his studies. Right away it clicked. I knew it was something I wanted to do. I started looking at all of his work and talking to him about photography. I immediately switched my major to fine-art photography. I got right into it.

You were using film in the beginning. How has digital technology affected your work? 

I relearned the whole thing when I went digital. It enables you to capture a lot more information and deal with it later. With film, it’s “This is it. Now or never.” There’s some leeway in the dark room, but there’s a lot more leeway with digital. … You have all of this information, and you have to dump it into your computer and sift through all the images that stand out. There’s a little bit of post-production work in terms of adjusting color or depth. When it’s a photojournalism assignment, there’s no retouching involved. When it’s a commercial piece or an art piece, I get really into photoshop and retouching.

How do you know when you’ve got a great shot at a concert?

Sometimes you know when you click it. You’re hoping that when you clicked, the light was the same then as it was the second before you clicked, because the lights are always changing. You’re looking, and you’re going, “Oh, this is perfect!” but right after [that] the lights could go dark or change colors. With concerts, it’s always a challenge and it’s always messing with you, because everything is shifting rapidly. You just shoot away and try to get the best moments that you can. I’m always looking for some kind of emotion from these people onstage.

Who has been the most challenging act to photograph?

Tool. I’ve tried to photograph them a number of times, but they traditionally play in very dark lighting. The lead singer stands behind the band, in the dark, purposefully. When you shoot a band like that, you have to get creative.

Nine Inch Nails a couple of years ago at The Joint was challenging because of the strobe lights. The lights are flashing rapidly, so you have to fire rapidly to capture something and hope there’s an interesting image in there. That was like opening a box of chocolates after that show. I shot so much that I went home and I was like, “OK, what do I have?” Every 10 frames of blackness, there was one good one.

In addition to concerts, you shoot celebrity portraits. How do you prepare for those?

It’s nice to know something about the subject beforehand. I recently [photographed] chef Kerry Simon. Just knowing him from many years of shooting him around red carpets, that was helpful. I worked with Carlos Santana in that capacity, and knowing his music was helpful.

As a photojournalist, I like to be a fly on the wall. I don’t really like to direct people when I’m shooting them. When you’re in a portrait session, you have to. I still like to have them do their thing, though. I like to capture them rather than a moment that I’m creating for them.

Nowadays everyone wants to share a photographer’s work on social media. Does that ever get annoying? 

No, not when they respect the copyright and the crediting. Social media is this new territory that we’re all getting used to. I find it supportive of everything that we go through as photographers more than anything. I’m not crazy about when people take your work and throw weird filters all over it. That can be a little annoying.         You intend for it to look a certain way and then it shows up with some weird sepia tone applied. Other than that, fans sharing photos on social media with credits is a good thing.

Do you take photos on your own cellphone?

I do, but I’m very selective when I post them. I almost always “this is a smartphone photo.” When I do phone photos, I don’t take a lot of time to pose them and clean them up. They’re pretty raw. They’re pretty crappy. I kind of think that’s good, in a sense. It’s a cellphone photo. It’s not supposed to be amazing!

Whom do you still want to photograph professionally?

Bob Dylan would actually make me shake a little bit. He’s the top of the mountain for me. I’ve never professionally been able to photograph him. I’ve had my cellphone at shows and gotten a couple [of photos], but it’s never been a professional situation. I can’t even imagine doing a portrait session with him. That would be the ultimate experience for me.

After almost 20 years in the business, what gives you the most satisfaction?

I enjoy creating or capturing these moments that are not memories just for me, but for everybody. Recently, I shot that Brandon Flowers show [at the Bunkhouse, March 21]. There was such a response to [my] photos from fans who were getting so much enjoyment out of them. I grew up looking at rock magazines, being a music fan and being loyal to the artists I was into. To give that back, that’s probably the best part. Even if they’re not my favorite artist, I know I’m giving their fans something that they’re going to really cherish and might be lasting 20 years to come. It’s a cool way to be part of the process.

 I can tell you are a genuine music fan. Do you ever wish you were just enjoying a concert?

There are times when I feel like I’m missing out on the excitement of people around me because I am working. Then when I switch sides, I most of the time wish I was shooting. I think I’ve made the crossover where I’m a photographer more than a fan. If I go and I don’t shoot at all, I feel a little bit of an itch. I need to get some shots in!

How do you feel about getting your own photo taken?

I’m not that great with it. [Laughs.] I’m never that comfortable. I’m always telling people, “Oh, don’t worry, you look great!” And they’re like, “I don’t know.” As soon I’m on the other side, I become that person. “Can you do it a little higher? Can you make me look skinnier?”

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