GARY CLARK JR :: Live Album Packaging & Portraits

I’ve said it so many times that my words seem to echo within my head; Making relationships in the photography industry has been a huge component to the client workload I receive on a regular basis. Every now and again a project falls into my lap that wouldn’t be possible without the help of others and the friendships I’ve created over the past 14 years of pursuing photography as a career.

I received an email this summer from the A&R team at Warner Brother Records, based on a referral from my friend & colleague Adam Elmakias, to shoot live photos of Grammy Award winning Gary Clark Jr performing at Summerfest in Milwaukee. The photos were to be included in the artwork for his upcoming live album release this year. I’ve known Adam for quite a few years now since he first began shooting bands at a young age. We’ve become mentors to each other over the years and done our best to keep in touch through the miles and in-sync with our various projects and adventures, so I was grateful he sent this project my way!

I’ve learned a bunch from Adam about shooting live shows and his methodology truly came in quite handy when shooting Gary Clark Jr a few months back. The Warner Brothers team needed “epics shots” of Gary performing live and to some degree, needed to include the crowd in the photos. This can be a tall order to fill, especially shooting a daytime festival in an partially filled amphitheater. So, I knew I had to get creative in my approach.

Below: four of my shots included in the final album insert artwork



I was given full access to his performance, having connected with both his tour manager and the stage manager at the Marcus Amphitheater on the Summerfest grounds. Not knowing how long Gary’s opening set would last, I was told I would shoot the first two songs in the media pit with other press photographers and then be escorted onto the stage to shoot from either side for the remaining songs. During the first two songs I battled 10 other photographers to get a spot up front and ended up shooting a lot of these:


Needless to say, these are fairly typical live performance shots and weren’t very “epic”. I was beginning to get worried and rather concerned with what I was able to shoot under these conditions, but ended up with what I call an “uncontrolled” accident. During those first two songs I was shooting right underneath Gary, with the stage lighting in it’s typical red and blue awful ambiance. The “accident” occurred when I caught a spot light directly in my lens as Gary was passionately singing into the microphone and I got this awesome light flare, washed out with these cool blue midtones. It’s situations like this that aren’t easily controlled with this type of work, but is one of the shots that just worked out… and made it into the album art. Below are two comparison shots:



Then there are the “controlled accidents”. As you can see in the shot below, I was hustled onto the side stage and didn’t have much else to work with aesthetically. I was given 5 songs to shoot on stage before being escorted off. I didn’t take my first half way decent frame until the third song and was shooting fairly flat and boring work up until this point. Not to mention the crowd was still filing into the amphitheater and there were lots of vacant seats up front.


In order to get truly great shots I really needed to bring together the emotion of Gary’s performance with a dynamically lit photo to make him stand apart from the stage “lurkers” and bland surroundings. That’s where my friend and assistant Kelsey came into play. I armed her with an AlienBee 1600 strobe and had her point it directly at Gary from the opposite side of the stage from where I was shooting. Shooting like this can be a creatively risky undertaking. Not only did I mess up a bunch of frames and exposures, but I’m using a high-powered flash on stage during a performance that was being filmed. With a little sweet-talking with Gary’s tour manager, I was able to use this technique for two songs. That was all I had.


As you can see, it’s really easy to mess-up these type of shots:



Below: Comparing an available light shot with a shot using the Alienbee



Below: A handful of photos from the two songs I actually shot









Although I was hired to shoot the live photos for inclusion in Gary Clark Jr’s album packaging, I knew I wanted to seize the opportunity to shoot some portraits of him before heading home. I always look to these types of situations as portfolio building opportunities. Having it previously approved with the record label was the first step, but it’s always unknown if I would get clearance to work with Gary especially after his show. His tour manager Kris was more than accommodating, but we only had about 5 minutes to work him and about 2 minutes to location scout… in an amphitheater… which is an extremely boring concrete and steel box.

I had a few options in mind, possibly using a dark gray door or a concrete wall. But it wasn’t until Kelsey and I found an old beat-up wooden banquet table laying in a hallway, that I had a plan. We propped the table up lengthwise in a stairwell with the wooden surface facing the camera and lit it with a 28″ Wescott Apollo soft box. Being just the two of us, we weren’t able to do any test shots before Gary arrived. He was such an awesome person and super easy to work with! Below are the portraits we shot:





Huge thanks to Kelsey Kufner for helping me out on this shoot, being an all around awesome person and hanging out with me on-stage listening to Gary Clark Jr & Outkast!


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  • Dean Schubert

    Great Shots Dave!

  • Joanna

    These are really amazing – I love how you used the light on stage. But I LOVE even more the portraits you made of him. I’ve always enjoyed your work!

  • Nicholas Gonzalez

    Incredible work! Truly inspiring.

  • J A

    Great stage shots, and the portrait work is epic! I love seeing what you create; it always inspires me.