Photog Portrait: Mike Brooks Prefers the Human Drama of a Sweaty Pit to Big, Arena Shows

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On any given night, Mike Brooks can usually be found prowling from concert venue to concert venue with a set of cameras around his neck, working to capture the evening's music highlights on film. We spoke with Brooks, who frequently shoots for the Observer, on the smoking patio of The Bomb Factory last Tuesday, just as the Dallas Observer Music Awards ceremony was kicking off.

Observer: How did you get started in concert photography?
: I had a friend in a band that invited me to their show, so I took my camera. They weren’t that exciting, but there was this group called Mothers Anthem. I took one good picture, and thought to myself, “Ah, this is cool!” That was like seven to eight years ago.

You haven’t been doing this for a long time, huh?
I’ve been doing photography for a long time; digital cameras made it possible to shoot in low-lights. You can take pictures in small clubs that weren’t possible before, so it opened up a whole new world of concert photography.

So, technology enabled that to happen?
Technology definitely enabled it to happen.

What did you start out shooting, if not concert photos?
Long ago, I used to take a lot of architectural shots — all sorts of photography — and serious amateur photography.

What was your first music gig?
Well, the way I got the job at the Dallas Observer — it was when Pete Freedman was working as the music editor — a friend of mine won tickets to a Jeff Beck concert and they couldn’t go. So, they asked if I want the tickets, and I said, “Yeah, I want the tickets.” So, I went down to the Observer office, picked up the tickets and the tickets said "club entrance."

On a whim, I decided to take my cameras. I had two big cameras and a bag full of lenses. The guy at the entrance said, “I don’t know if you can take that in there.” I said “No, its fine.” I made my way to the press pit, and hunched so they wouldn’t see that I didn’t have a photo pass. I got some good pictures, I sent them over to Pete, and it was also a good story for the Dallas Observer. Some guy won tickets to the concert, and he ended up taking pictures of the concert.

How would you define your style and influences?
I like to think I have a style. If I have influences, they’re not from music photography really — more from sports photography, news photography and journalism. The advent of 35 mm film cameras was really important for photography, because for the first time you can carry around a small camera and capture things live; capture things that weren’t posed. That kind of photography where you’re in the moment, capturing human drama, that’s what inspires me.

When you’re at a gig, where are you usually located? At a distance or deep in the pit?
I could be anywhere. Through the Dallas Observer, I’ve got the chance to cover the Rolling Stones, or people at the American Airlines Center. It’s kind of boring, really, because a lot of the time you’re at the sound booth, somewhere far away. You’re getting the picture, but everyone else is also getting the same picture. The most fun shows are the ones you can get in the crowd, getting knocked around, the sweat is on you — that’s when it really becomes fun.

You’re a more physical person.
Well, the whole thing about music photography, or any kind of photography, is if someone looks at your picture they feel like they were there and they can feel that experience. When you’re right in the middle of the action, you’re taking pictures. You don’t know whether they’re in focus or not in focus. You’re feeling the whole vibe of the moment. If something comes together, you’re like, “Ah fuck, this is awesome, that’s just what it felt like, getting kicked in the head.”

For me there’s this tribal experience that goes on in music photography. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what type of music you’re playing. I can like the music or I can not like the music, but if you have an artist on the stage that connects with the audience there’s this mutual experience being at this place, at this time, and everyone is feeling the same thing. That’s what I try to capture.

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