Caught In A Glance: The Photography of Greg Kessler

Greg Kessler has just returned to New York City, after spending time in eleven U.S. national parks. It was in the canyons of Utah and the mountains of Colorado that Kessler searched high, low, above, and beyond to capture numerous eye awakening images to present to stock photography companies. However, Kessler is currently exhausted. The airline has lost his luggage and their is another flight to catch tomorrow, but he’s far from complaining.

Ever since he first developed a passion for the camera, Kessler, 27, always wanted to be called a “Professional Photographer.” It never once entered his mind what occupation he’d consider pursuing if photography didn’t pan out, even after failing his senior year photography class at Syracuse University. It was his upbeat positive attitude from the beginning that has earned him the title – Professional Photographer.

Back in the day, while many young concert attendees had set their immediate goals on sneaking illegal items into shows, Kessler was sneaking in a camera as a means of building his photography portfolio. He would cleverly tape a telephoto lens to the back part of his arm with duct tape and stuff the body of his camera underneath his pants and walk past security. As he explains, “It was a catch 22, they wouldn’t give you a photo pass, unless you had a portfolio and you couldn’t build a portfolio unless you were getting into the concerts and taking pictures, so there is really no way to breakthrough.”

As a nineteen-year-old sophomore art student at Syracuse, Kessler seized his first legitimate break while photographing some of his favorite bands that included Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Phish, and Widespread Panic. After shooting, Kessler would strive to present the developed photos to the musicians themselves, and as a result , he built relationships with some of his favorite bands. Around this time, Kessler became friendly with banjo guru Bela Fleck and three of his photographs were chosen for the album cover of Fleck’s 1996 “Live Art” recording. Kessler earned a cool one hundred dollars while having 100,000 copies of his work circulating worldwide.

After the release of “Live Art,” Fleck became so enamored with Kessler’s work and raw talent, that he offered him the chance of a lifetime – the opportunity to go out on the road with the band and document what it’s really like to be out on tour. At first, Kessler hesitantly refused this gig, thinking as a novice, he wouldn’t follow through with solid results. But after speaking to other photographers in the industry, they simply told him he would be out of his damn mind for not taking advantage of such a fantastic opportunity. Kessler took the gig and confidently ran with it. The photo book was published in 2000 and is now currently available nationwide and on the band’s website. Kessler recalls, “Once I had a book published, things started to happen. It was about Bela taking a chance on me, and I’m really grateful.”

“Greg Kessler has mastered all the necessary elements that go into a great music photograph: form, space, focus, framing, color, and balance. But, his true talents lie in his ability to express the subject’s personality through his shots. Many photographers struggle to interject new ideas and concepts into their work, and their live shots simply capture the action of the event. Kessler consistently succeeds in portraying the emotion and spirit of the world-class performers he photographs.” Robert Massie – Live Music Photographer

Kessler’s ability to candidly portray musics finest in their most natural states has enabled him to build a portfolio that speaks for itself. Permitting the subject to feel at ease with the camera floating in and out of one’s world is no easy task, but Kessler makes the priority of building a relationship with his subjects, as important as framing that perfect shot. Sharing the same passion for photography that the musician’s hold for their music, his work is viewed as a collaboration. It’s no more Kessler documenting just them, as it is both sides expressing something together that is uniquely fulfilling. His candid photographs of The Slip, Karl Denson, Medeski Martin & Wood, Michael Franti, and others, vividly separates Kessler from his peers. As he mentions, “Anybody can take a picture of an actor or a musician and document what everyone sees, but the ability to let them put their guard down and be themselves and that’s what I’m really trying to do.’

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Acting as a fly on the wall, the rush and excitement prior to hitting the stage at Madison Square Garden is brought to life in Kessler’s photo that presents Bela Fleck and the Flecktones with Dave Matthews walking backstage prior to performing at the prestigious arena with 20,000 screaming fans inside. Kessler reflects how Dave Matthews was cracking jokes backstage just a few moments before the shot, which results in the relaxed and jovial faces of the peformers.

Perhaps his favorite candid photo is the one in which he snapped without any room for error. At Jazz Fest 2000 in New Orleans, while witnessing bassist Victor Wooten perform like Eddie Van Halen with his bass rung over his head, Kessler knew he wanted that shot more than anything in the city of New Orleans. Reaching for his equipment, Kessler realized his lens was still on the tour bus, which meant only one thing for an eager photographer – hurry or lose out. By the time he received a laminate from a crew member and returned, there were literally ten seconds left before Wooten swung his bass back over and the show would momentarily end. Kessler framed Wooten, snapped his shot, and perfectly nailed the moment.

The images of The Slip and Karl Denson were shot from sessions that lasted between forty-five and five minutes respectively. Sometimes it’s being in the zone and having to work under pressure that Kessler grows most creative. Occasionally, there is vast preparation involved and other times he just rides with the flow. Prior to working on a session with The Slip, Kessler diagramed poses and possibilities prior to the day’s shoot, while with Denson, he just went for it all at moments notice.

Expanding beyond music photography, Kessler speaks most highly of the work he’s done with Future Man of the Flecktones. Over the past few years, the unique synthe-axe drumitar musician has conducted an orchestra of sixty or so musicians in a musical suite that documents womanhood at its various stages. Future Man hoped to visualize his music, so he hired a South African choreographer to work with the roy-el world ballet, which added movement to his orchestral themes. As the dancers peformed a mix of ballet and tribal poses, Kessler captured hidden moments of interaction between the dancers on film. In conclusion, it helped the choreographers, dancers, and Future Man to visualize their work in a entirely new light. It’s a project Kessler holds most dear and proud.

By far and large, it’s working with musicians that Kessler discovers himself most connected, as he explains how photographer and musician are different, yet similar. “There’s the uncertainty of being self employed, the creativity of every time they go on stage they aren’t sure what’s going to happen, as every time I go to a shoot I’m not sure what’s going to happen. There’s an interesting parrallel between photographers and musicians in what we do, although it is entirely different. ” Working with more traditional jazz musicians is Kessler’s immediate goal for the near future, in a music scene that’s more his tune; as a large-scale music fan, he strives to avoid being boxed into one particular genre of sound.

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A few months back while in a drug store, Kessler noticed Phish posed on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Picking up a copy to flipping through, he noticed something brightly familiar. It was an image that looked just like one of his, one with Trey Anastasio and Mike Gordon jumping on their trampolines, showcasing the whimsical energy of a Phish show. Believing someone had written him off and taken that same exact photo, Kessler looked in the byline and sure enough, saw his name right there. Greg Kessler had his first photograph published in Rollingstone magazine, now serving as another impressive piece for his ever expanding portfolio. Just another unique day in the life of a Professional Photographer.

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