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Photographer Erik Kabik turns the lens back on his years shooting concerts

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Freelance photographer estimates he’s shot around 1,000 concerts during his years in Las Vegas.
Photo: Bill Hughes

If you’ve ever seen a concert in Las Vegas, odds are good Erik Kabik was there, too. For close to 20 years, Kabik, a freelance photographer who also serves as the Las Vegas assignment director for Retna photo agency, has been a fixture in the pit or at the soundboard. And though you can still find him there, his varied résumé these days also includes celebrities, architecture, food and commercial photography. Check out his work everywhere from the walls of the Joint to the pages of local publications like the one you’re reading right now.

How did you get into photography?

Erik Kabik concert highlights

I was going to the Southern Oregon University, and I switched my major from psychology to photography and picked up a Pentax T1000 camera. I was a Deadhead at the time, so I was going down to the Bay Area to see a lot of Grateful Dead shows. I just decided to bring a camera to a show at the Oakland Colosseum. I was 19 years old, and Dennis McNally, the Dead’s publicist, let me into the pit to shoot. So I started calling him before shows, and I ended up shooting a good chunk between 1990 and ’93.

And from that point on, your goal was to be a rock photographer?

I knew I was going to do everything I could to make a living shooting rock bands. When I came to Vegas [in 1995] I was working as a busboy at Mr. Lucky’s. I was working there on the Hard Rock Hotel’s opening night, trying to figure out how to get into the Joint. So I started taking freelance assignments from local publications—What’s On magazine, CityLife, Scope, which became the Weekly—trying to shoot as much music as I could.

How many shows would you estimate you’ve shot here?

I’ve had to have shot about a thousand concerts in Vegas over the years.

What makes for a great subject?

Is it all about the visuals, or something more intangible? Sometimes it can be a really simple shot of an artist, where the light hits them just right and you catch that moment of passion—their hands are on their guitar and their face is down—but you get this beautiful portrait that captures their essence. I have a Dave Matthews shot that I really love that seems to resonate with a lot of his fans, and there’s nothing amazing about what’s happening in it. But it’s that passion. You can feel it when you see that photo.

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Connect with Erik Kabik at erikkabik.com.

You’ve been in the middle of the electronic dance music boom, shooting EDC and DJ sets at the various clubs. What’s that been like for an old-school rock guy?

The first times I was assigned to do it I was like, what am I gonna do? I’m shooting somebody who’s up there with a turntable or pushing buttons, and there’s only so many things you can do with it. But it’s changed my career. It’s just changed everything. These people are rock stars in their world, and the energy they create and bring to the shows is just incredible.

I’ve now got BPM locked in on my Sirius [satellite radio]. On a typical day I listen to the Grateful Dead channel, Classic Vinyl, Deep Tracks, some jazz and now, electronic music is an option for me. I’ll pop it on and recognize some of the music, and it feels good to listen to it.

Any acts still on your to-shoot bucket list?

Bob Dylan. I’ve seen a lot of Dylan shows over the years—he’s probably my single favorite artist of all time—but he typically doesn’t approve photographers. It’s very, very restrictive. I always try, of course. I took a point-and-shoot camera to one of his shows years ago and snapped a few pictures, but it doesn’t feel right to do that at this point in my career. If I can’t shoot it as a photographer I don’t even bother to hold up my cell phone.

Are there also bands you’ve gotten into as a result of shooting them?

A show that really stands out to me is The Black Keys. They did those two shows at Cosmopolitan, and I wasn’t really listening to them before that, but I didn’t want to leave the pit when I was done shooting. And I’m not a huge hip-hop fan, but I love seeing Jay-Z in concert. He’s incredible. I think being a concert photographer has opened up my mind to all types of music.

If I asked to see your best shot ever …

I have a shot of Shakira that she actually used to promote her world tour, and when people ask for one shot, that’s a good one to represent what I do for live music. It was just one of those great moments where the light was perfect, her hair was perfect, the energy was right and I got the shot. But as a rock ’n’ roll photographer, it’s funny that it’s Shakira.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done for a shot?

I’ll give you a self-deprecating, memorable moment from EDC this year. The main stage had these giant platforms on each side, these big, flat areas, but they didn’t want us walking out there. ... But during BT’s set I decided I was gonna lay down and crawl out there military-style with my camera. And I basically threw my back out in the middle of doing that. It was maybe the most painful experience I’ve ever had, and I’m out there looking out over all these people, thinking, how am I gonna get back? So I just breathed for a minute or two and was able to get back off the stage. ... But I’ve learned to be physically conscious and careful if I’m gonna start crawling around to get shots. And to have an exit strategy.

You were a rabid concert-goer before you started shooting concerts. Was it ever tough to concentrate on your job with a favorite act onstage?

Once I got the camera in, it was all business. It’s a separate part of my brain when I’m shooting. I can give you an assessment of the show, the part that I saw up there, but it’s definitely different than just hanging out and catching the show. I’m zooming in and shooting the pickups on the guitars and the amplifiers and really checking out the details on all the gear. It’s sort of my way of being part of the process. I think I would have tried to be a musician otherwise.

You’ve seen the photography industry change a lot during your career. How have you adjusted your techniques as a result?

I shoot differently as a digital photographer than I did as a film photographer. I have more leeway, because I can spend more time in post-production. It’s also really different being able to look down [at the preview screen] and adjust, instead of bracketing. In the old days you would shoot one stop up and one stop down and you knew that one of those three photos was gonna be right. And I still will apply some of those techniques and things I learned in Photo 101 when I’m shooting. I think it’s just a combination of all that, shooting like film but also loosening up, knowing I have a 32-gigabyte card so I can shoot a lot and later I can find more moments than I could have ever found with film, because I have that unlimited capacity to keep going.

Is there a downside to that unlimited capacity?

It’s the time afterwards. That’s the thing most people don’t recognize about my work. When I’m out shooting they’ll ask, “Where are you going next?” The answer: to my computer. Most of my job is sitting in front of the computer. If I’m on a crunch, I can sit down and dump the stuff and do a small edit in half an hour. But usually, I spend a few hours working on a 15- or 20-minute shoot, carefully selecting images and spending a lot of time with each one. It’s like going back to the darkroom for me.

What advice would you give to an aspiring photographer?

Get a business degree or some business experience and bring that to photography. Because at the end of the day, if you’re a photographer you’re running your own business. ... A lot of people can take a great photo, but not a lot of them can get it out there.

You’ve diversified your portfolio more in recent years. Why?

I would love to always be doing rock ’n’ roll photography, but I know that I wouldn’t want to only do that—I think I would burn out. And I see no problem with jumping from genre to genre.

I love the idea of going out and shooting a red carpet and shooting celebrities and shooting architecture and food and doing commercial work. Rock photography is the anchor of the whole thing, but I want to know a little bit about all different types of photography … other than weddings and bar mitzvahs (laughs). I couldn’t handle that pressure.

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