Kyle Gustafson has been freelancing with the Washington Post since 2008, shooting concerts for them and the highest bidder. Gustafson's photos have appeared in the Washington Post, GQ Magazine, Rolling Stone Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, and more.Always interested in music, he can remember tearing out photos of his favorite bands from Spin and Rolling Stone magazines to hang on his wall. Gustafson moved to New York to intern with Epic Records in the late '90s.
His first introduction to photographing concerts came during his time at Epic, where he spent an entire summer going to as many concerts possible with a "crappy" $35 point-and-shoot from a drug store. Taking one or two photos from the crowd at every show he went to, Gustafson started out just trying to remember these events, but ended up documenting them.
After moving to D.C. in the early '00s, he started writing his own music blog, where he was writing reviews of concerts in local venues like the Black Cat. Deciding that visuals were needed to take his blog to the next level, Gustafson tried a variety of digital cameras before settling on a Canon Rebel XT. Armed with a compact flash memory card and the Canon "Nifty Fifty" 50mm f/1.8 lens, he was prepared to take on the D.C. music scene.
Keeping his independence, Gustafson has never been employed as a staff photographer for any publication, always keeping his work on a freelance basis.
"Becoming a staffer at one publication is very tough and limits you from working with other clients," Gustafson said. "Photos staffs at every publication, even one as big as the Washington Post, are constantly shrinking. Being a freelancer means you constantly have to hustle for work, but if you can attract a diverse client base, you can keep busy."
His work as a freelancer has led to some incredible opportunities, but networking with other professionals in the field was what got him the gig. In 2008 while photographing Radiohead, Gustafson began to chat with the music critic at the Washington Post. It had been raining all day, and after the show, he got stuck in nearly three hours of traffic trying to leave the venue.
The rain ended up being one of the greatest things to happen to him, as the Washington Post photographer that was supposed to shoot the show stayed home. The next day he got a call from the music critic he had spoken to the night before, asking if the Post could use his images. It was his first time being published in the print edition of the Washington Post, and the beginning of his working relationship with the paper.
In concert photography, things change and happen so fast, you need to adapt quickly. Gustafson learned this in Toronto one year, when he was set to shoot his favorite band, Oasis, at the 2008 Virgin Festival. He had been approved to photograph the festival, but at the last minute was told he had not been approved to shoot Oasis. Heartbroken, he went to the VIP section of the festival to "drown [his] sorrows in gin and tonics."
During the set, "some nut job from the crowd got on stage and attacked Noel and went after Liam before he was subdued by security." Gustafson acted fast and hopped up on the table with his camera. He got the only photos of the altercation. In the court case about the instance, Noel Gallagher mentioned he had "seen the photos," referencing Gustafson's picture. He was ecstatic that his hero had seen his picture!
Gustafson's number one advice to someone starting out in concert photography is simple: Be nice. "No one likes a pretentious asshole," he said. Carry yourself like a professional at all times and make friends with the other photographers around you. They will be the best learning tool you will find in the field to master the craft and get better.
"I honestly don't know if I've had one lightbulb moment during my career. It's mostly been a lot of trial and error and picking things up as I go. I am completely self taught and I basically learned how to take photos in the dark."
Gustafson's site can be seen here