Fort Collins photographer Tim Van Schmidt started going to concerts in Los Angeles in the 1970s. He wrote about rock bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and about the early years of punk. By 1980, he'd moved to Fort Collins, where he started writing a fanzine and a weekly music column for a daily newspaper. At first he brought along photographers to help him out, but he soon started shooting photos himself.
In the decades since, Van Schmidt has photographed a variety of artists, including internationally acclaimed stars like Eric Clapton and rising Colorado musicians like Nathaniel Rateliff. In 2016, Van Schmidt was honored by the Fort Collins Music Association with a Lifetime Achievement Award, and in response, he compiled the FoCo MAX!! Colorado Music Photozine, a publication chronicling 550 Colorado performers.
With that massive achievement now online, Westword grabbed a few minutes with Van Schmidt to talk about his career and his philosophy of photographing musicians.
Westword: What's your story? Where did you come from?
Tim Van Schmidt: I'm originally from a small dairy town in northern Illinois. It was literally a cow town, the main annual community celebration being the Milk Day Parade — a far cry from anything like rock and roll.
When I was ten, my parents uprooted us and moved to Arizona to escape the brutal Illinois winters. We moved in just down the road from Barry Goldwater's house in Phoenix. It was there that I went to my first rock-and-roll show, and was hooked on live music from the very first band.
A move to the Los Angeles area cemented the deal: Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead — I saw them all, and I wrote about it. My first article for my junior-high newspaper was a review of Grand Funk Railroad and Black Sabbath at the legendary Forum in L.A. I did my first rock interview for my high-school newspaper at the Whiskey A Go Go on the Sunset Strip. In college I wrote about the punk-rock explosion after personally doing the research in London.
How did you get started shooting shows?
I started publishing fanzines after moving to Fort Collins in 1980. The fanzines hooked me up with freelance writing gigs for various publications on the Front Range, then a weekly concert column in the daily newspaper. I got some pay for my work, but everything was really just geared around
reviewing the concerts. With review tickets came photo-pass opportunities. At first I took photographers along with me, but it didn't take long before I realized I should be shooting the shows myself. I mean, how many times do you turn down a photo pass for Eric Clapton before you become a photographer?
I shot big rock and roll for a number of years using film. It wasn't until I started shooting with a digital camera that I turned my eye toward local and regional musicians. With film, I had to conserve the precious frames. The limitless nature of digital data made it easy to cover everything.
What are the most memorable shows you've covered, and why?
My favorite artist to photograph, hands down, is Tom Petty. He seems to be well aware of the photographers, and he's real good at striking image-worthy rock-and-roll postures.
One of my favorite shoots of all time was the Flaming Lips at the Monolith Festival at Red Rocks. I had photographed them before at Red Rocks, but their gear kept blowing the power, making for a cut-up experience. But at Monolith, the Flaming Lips were in full swing. Before I knew it, Wayne was walking up the crowd in his hamster ball. Meanwhile, huge green balls were floating down from the top of Red Rocks while dozens of fans dressed in Santa Claus outfits were crowding the stage, waving flashlights every which way. It was a delightfully chaotic and surreal moment.
My favorite band to photograph, though, is Gwar. Their stage setting is so wicked. The costumes are from some other world, while the music crushes everything in its path. It was at a Gwar concert that I finally saw the value of younger men growing taller than me. Three big guys came in and stood right in front of me, getting in the way of my shots. But every time Gwar's water cannon came my way, all I had to do was duck behind the tall guys, and they got soaked, not me.
A big shoot I will always remember was doing a Paul McCartney concert in Philadelphia. This was where I learned a valuable rock-and-roll photo lesson: Wait until the singer is done singing and pulls away from the mike before shooting. I didn't do that, and I ended up with a whole lot of pictures with the mike right in front of McCartney's face. Let's just say I learned a lot on the job.
Are you a musician yourself?
I am a guitarist and percussionist, and it was because of the journalism that I came out to play. In my weekly column, I wrote about big stars and local heroes with the same respectful attitude. My contact with local musicians often meant going to their shows. When I witnessed how much fun local musicians were having playing their thing and being supportive of each other, I wanted to join in, so I recorded two singer-songwriter albums. Just after the second one came out, I joined forces with an experimental music band called two fingers and we formed TVS and two fingers. We created our own original sound, fusing spoken word with alternative instruments such as toys, bundt pans and masking tape. We recorded a lot in sixteen years, toured extensively in Colorado and Wyoming, and did two tours on the East Coast. Being on stage gave me a whole new appreciation for what performers do.
When you set out to shoot a show, what are you looking for?
There are several shots that I am always trying to capture when I go out. One, of course, is a nice portrait of the featured performer without anyone else in the frame, for an intimate feel. I always try to make sure that the musician's instrument is in the frame — a close-up of anybody without their instrument is really just a close-up of anybody. I also try to capture a full-figure shot of the performer — shoes and all, to get a sense of the full person. Finally, the biggest challenge of all is to get a band picture with everybody's face in it. That sounds easy, except when you consider all the microphones and equipment in the way, as well as other photographers and production people. Drummers are particularly hard to get into the picture
with everyone else.
Talk about what big projects you're working on and what's coming up.
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Right now I'm working on releasing my photozine, FoCo MAX!! Colorado Music Photozine. It has photos of 550 Colorado bands, all presented in glorious black and white. This is a followup to the Lifetime Achievement Award presented to me by the Fort Collins Musicians Association in 2016. I got to thinking about what I had achieved, and the more I reviewed my archives, the more I realized I had a lot to publish. I've gone back to my roots and have designed the collection as a copy-shop fanzine. All the photos are also on my site, DATATVS.com, in full color and bigger, too.
In the future, I will be working on a collection of photos from my shoots with the big stars. But the biggest project for me — and it will take years — is to create an accessible database out of all of my work. I have tens of thousands of files on some 2,000 bands, many of which have never been published. Of course, it will take a lot of time, because I'm also not done yet. I've photographed a lot of bands, but there are always more, more, more.
The database is where I think my shots of local bands will become the most valuable. While it's cool to have photographed U2, Bruce Springsteen, Roger Waters and the like, there are also a million photos of them out there already. In the case of many of the bands in Colorado, not so many, if at all. I love serving the purpose of documenting these great musicians. It's our cultural history, and fun, too.
Follow Van Schmidt's photography work at DATATVS.com.