Using all the tools available—light, focus, composition and editing—concert pit photographers make images that captures a moment in time. Their artistry involves getting the “perfect shot” that satisfies each individual’s taste as they evoke the sensation of being up front, along the rail, freezing the action forever.
Concert pit photographers take that responsibility seriously whenever they have the opportunity to stand between the audience and the artist. The majority of those clicking away are as much fans of live music as the thousands standing behind them. (Full disclosure, I’m among this group with my photos appearing in Relix, Jambands and other publications.)
Generally given only three songs in the photo pit or at the soundboard, they must work quickly to obtain the ideal technical combination that produces striking results, and do that with a set of unwritten rules that aim to give everyone a chance to get the shot they’re seeking. The scene can be a chaotic “dance” of people moving to different areas in front of the stage for a perceived better spot, frantically changing settings as stage lights shift from blinding to nearly dark.
The documentary, A Year in the Pit: A Journey Into Music Photography offers a glimpse into this world with over 45 concert photographers expressing their intentions of what they want to do when performers step onstage and what they want to offer fans looking at the results the next day.
Despite being the documentary’s Producer, Photography and Festival Coordination, Adamek admitted that “I didn’t understand how it would become a story except I thought it would be a great peak behind the curtain into a world that is pretty interesting if you are a music fan or a photography fan. And that’s what I thought would come out of it, that anybody who loved music or went to festivals would see this little slice of how this gets done and this little niche would be interesting.”
“The film was filled with great little mini-stories, which I really enjoyed,” said Director, Executive Producer, iPhoneographer and Editor John Woody.
Relishing his role as a storyteller, he’s most pleased that those who doubted that brief interviews with so many participating photographers would sustain a viewer’s interest. “I was told, “These people are going to talk about the same thing,” but it didn’t feel that way. The reaction to the film has been, “Wow! If you really want to know what a pit photographer goes through…””
Woody felt confident that his original vision would bring about favorable results when he pitched the idea to Adamek backstage at the 2018 LOCKN’ festival. The professor emeritus at James Madison University and Apple Distinguished Educator, Woody taught post-production and video and created thousands of hours of content for numerous corporate clients.
“When I became an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2001 that changed everything for me because I started to work a lot with Apple,” he said. “I had a lot of help and assistance in using their products in education.”
With his technical background and ability to tell reality-based stories Woody needed a partner who was more familiar with the concert world and those who chronicle it.
“I started thinking about it and I thought I couldn’t sustain a documentary on my own,” said Adamek. “It would be much better if I brought all my friends in, all these other photographers, because there’s so much great talent out there. As it turns out, he had the same idea as he was reflecting on it.”
Six weeks later, the two were working at the Festy Experience. Adamek lined up photographers for interviews.
Adamek, a veteran wildlife, portrait and pit photographer explained, “I realized all these other photographers are saying things that I knew but I was never able to put it in words. I had my own words to use what my process and my motivation was but I wound up finding out that it’s a very similar process and similar motivation for a majority of the photographers that do concert photography.”
“They each had a different way to voice that. And every time I would interview somebody else, I’d go, “Yes. That. Yes, that’s exactly how I feel, except those words never came to my mind.”
For Woody his approach to shoot the film added to its intimacy and allowed him more access in the photo pit and backstage. “The most important factor was that I had made a decision right from the beginning to shoot with an iPhone. I have been doing that quite a bit before this and testing out a lot of the new pieces of equipment that you can add to it, lenses and stabilizers and all that.
With the knowledge he accumulated over 20 years, Woody turned an iPhone into a 4K video camera with enhanced software. “I was using FiLMiC Pro and using what they call Filmic Extreme settings. I was doubling the quality of those 4k shots as good as a $10,000 camera.”
As soon as Woody got home he used the footage to cut a trailer.
“He sent it to me and it blew my mind. It was so good. I realized for the first time what he was seeing as an outsider,” said Adamek. “For photographers this is just what we do. We don’t look at your own job as being an interesting thing the way an outsider looks.”
“And that’s where my role came into being. I started lining up all of the festivals that we’d go to, and a few concerts, and I started reaching out to photographers.”
Sending the trailer to music festival directors and explaining to them how Woody’s homemade iphone rig for filming worked, they not only received approval to shoot but also attracted the interest of other fests to film there as well.
“I love that idea of a challenge,” said Woody. “It was shot an iPhone to prove to other people, especially teachers, because I’ve worked my whole life with teachers and with students, and teaching that it can be done. If I shot with big cameras in the pit that would have been almost impossible. I was in all of y’all’s faces literally and y’all are so gracious and helpful and allowed me to explore what y’all were doing.”
Altogether, the documentary’s creators attended 14 music fests including LOCKN’, French Quarter Festival, FloydFest and Rooster Walk as well as visited some of the artform’s major contributors including Jay Blakesberg, Bob Minkin, Jeff Kravitz, Michael Weintrob and Ed Pearlstein.
Adamek explained how some fests are represented while others such as Bonnaroo, Coachella, Boston Calling and Governors Ball are not. “It was essentially opportunity. Since I was making those choices, I wanted to go to the festivals that knew me and that I knew several photographers there. I didn’t reach out to you ahead of time, but I knew I was going to see you. You were in my inventory of photographers that I was going to see at LOCKN’ [in 2019].”
“I did my best to try and include everybody that I knew and that I shot with. John worked incredibly hard to get everybody in on this.” Due to technical problems and COVID shutting down the festival world, additional interview subjects didn’t make it into the film.
“Thank goodness for the pandemic,” Woody said, then laughed as if to acknowledge that the shutdown in society forced him to stay home and focus on nothing else but the film. “I love gathering tons of footage and then getting into an environment like my edit room and exploring all the shots. We got through the whole acquisition stage. Then, my job continued and didn’t stop until the premiere.
“I had time to go through each interview. Usually what I do on an edit is I introduce someone and then I go in and I listen carefully and I start to pick the best segments or phrases. Then, I rearrange them and go back and match them to other shots that I do have. If I don’t have the shots, I go look for them. If I do have the shots, then it may require me to have this comment. So, you have to blend it all together.”
His 4K footage received added treatment by a former student, Robbie Carman, who is credited as Colorist and Finishing.
While the desired effect of A Year in the Pit aims to enlighten viewers to the people who do this work, Adamek gained a better understanding of the craft of concert photography while filming it. “From talking to all of these incredibly talented men and women that do this job, it gave me a lot more insight into myself and why I do this job. It was a tremendous learning experience.”
Woody added, “I started to figure out a lot of things about the pit and that really intrigued me. I’ve always been interested in how people approach shooting. So, that’s covered quite well in the documentary. Some people like to be a little to the right [of center]. Some people like to move. Some people like to be in close…but one of the things that I learned the most was the give-and-take in the pit, how professional most people are, and how understanding they are of each other. You might be in there to get a shot for an article or whatever but what I noticed was they’re both equally important because each of those people that were shooting are artists and artists like to help each other.”
After its premiere screenings Adamek received a different perspective from festival attendees. “Everybody who’s seen it and took the time to talk to me were like, “Oh, this is incredible. It’s like going to a festival. I had no idea what was involved in that world. I would just see a picture and think, “Oh, that’s great.”
Summing up his dip into the film world, he said, “It was an incredible experience. I’m never going to make another documentary film that I could imagine unless somebody else came to me. I don’t have the skills that John has and I’m working too hard trying to get my skills as a photographer together in several different genres: music, wildlife, doing my school photography.
“I’ve learned so much about filmmaking and the whole process. I knew none of that before.”
The film has been nominated or awarded in the Feature Documentary Category around the globe at festivals in Paris, London (twice), Sydney, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin and Singapore.
“Now that we’ve gotten laurels, I’m like, “Wow! First time out of the gate I wound up producing an award-winning film,” said Adamek. “Well, that was by accident!”
As Woody put it, he and Adamek didn’t have any “delusions of grandeur of making millions of dollars.” The main accomplishments were to make A Year in the Pit and then make it available for others to view it. Because of that, the documentary’s original version is available for free at https://vimeo.com/692566892.
It will also be screened for three nights at FloydFest 2022.
Ever the editor and storyteller, Woody aims to “tighten it up a little bit more” in the hope that the film may be distributed for network broadcast. It’s among his other music-related projects he hopes to create in the future.