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Being a rock music photographer might seem a dream job to some.  Having the best seat in the house–even better than front row seats–to shoot photos of your favorite bands.  All-access passes.  Hanging out with the musicians backstage.  And, getting paid to do it all.  Not a bad gig, right?  Of course, as in any job, there are minor inconveniences. Little annoyances such as getting your back sliced open by a rampaging fan high on angel dust, for example.

“It was at the Country Club in Reseda, in 1988, and I was shooting Napalm Death and Godflesh,” says photographer extraordinaire Kevin Estrada.  “There was a huge gang community that came to the show, and there were two rival gangs there.  A lot of gang fights broke out on the floor, and it was a really intense, scary evening.  One guy had his belly cut open, and he ran through the crowd high-fiving everyone, holding his guts in with the other hand.  He ran outside, and actually died on the hood of my friend’s car.  She couldn’t leave that night because they had it all roped off with crime scene tape.  It got to the point where the photographers started bailing out because it was getting too dangerous.  It came down to just me and a photographer for the L.A. Times, and during Napalm Death he said ‘I’m getting out of here, it’s getting really late, and it’s getting scarier by the minute.  I suggest you get out of here, too.’  I said ‘I’m not going anywhere.’  So it was just me at the end, shooting Godflesh.  And I start feeling this really strange sensation on my back, like a tingling sensation.  It must have been 100 degrees, so I didn’t know if it was just sweat.  Then the tingling started changing to a stinging, like a sunburn.  I put my hand back there and wiped what I thought was sweat, and I saw it was blood.  So I grab my shirt, and I feel it’s in pieces, all slit open.  I jump out of the pit and run backstage to where my friend was hanging out, and she says ‘Oh my God, Kevin, your back is all cut up!’  So we look, and there’s a kid, maybe 16 years old, smoking angel dust and beating people up, grabbing people left and right, head-butting them, and he had an X-Acto knife and he had been slicing my back throughout the night and I had no idea.  Someone eventually got a hold of him, because at the end of the night he was outside, leaning against the wall with a big clump of his hair missing and blood all over his face.”

Estrada is known today as one of the best in his profession and is a virtual gold mine of fantastic stories about the music industry .  Of course, that’s what comes with over two decades of experience in the trenches.  He got his start as a teenager, smuggling his camera into concerts, and selling the photos out of his locker in high school.  “When I was a kid, I was really into music.  I was just a fanatic. I was into Led Zeppelin and Cheap Trick and Aerosmith and all that stuff. I was also into collecting things.  I still have my old comic books and boxes of toys from when I was a kid.  With music it was kind of the same thing.  I would save my T-shirts from concerts, tour programs, magazines, buttons, I would hold on to them.  Then I got to the point where I wanted something to remember a specific concert.  The T-shirt was cool, but I was thinking that a photograph from that concert would be great.  That way I could pull out a photo and remember that exact moment from the show.  I started sneaking a camera in, taking photos at the show, and then going home and reliving the concert in my head.  It kind of grew from there, to where I was going to more and more shows, sneaking my camera in, and I built up a photo archive that I started selling out of my school locker, and selling at concerts to kids that were in line.  That’s how I developed a small business when I was a kid.”

Of course, any time the phrase “sneak in” is used, there’s bound to be a story about getting busted.  And naturally, Estrada has a great one.  “It was at the Palladium in Hollywood, it was summer, it was August, and it was over 100 degrees, and we were just sweating it out.  We were in line, and the way I would get my camera in was to tape the body onto my back, just below my neck.  I’d wear a hoodie, and put the hoodie over it. I had a buddy who was six feet tall and had this huge head of metal hair, and I’d stick the lens under his leather jacket behind his neck, and his hair would cover it all.  So we’re sitting out there in August and we’re just roasting…we’re the only kids in line with a hoodie and a jacket.  We were dripping wet.  So finally we got the camera inside–there were no metal detectors in those days–and I shot the opening band.  I remember it was Black & Blue, who were opening for Night Ranger.  After Black & Blue played, I was walking around the lobby, soaked with sweat, because inside was almost as hot as it was outside.  I’d have to get there early–that’s why I was in the sun all day–I’d have to get there early so I could get up front to get good photos.  So I’m walking around the lobby, and I had to take off my hoodie because I was just melting, so I had the camera wrapped in my hoodie and I was carrying it, cradled in my arm like a football, and some security guy saw it and thought it looked kind of fishy, so he rips the hoodie out of my arm and sees what I have there. He grabs me and pulls me in this office , and he demanded to know how I got the camera in.  I didn’t want to give away my secret, because they would start looking for that in the future, so I just said I walked through the door with it.  He thought I had paid off someone to let me through, and he demanded to know which door guy I paid.  So he punched me in the temple, and my whole world started spinning. I was ready to pass out.  He threw me against the wall, and threw me out, and that was that.  So I didn’t get to shoot Night Ranger.”

Shortly after that incident, something happened.  Something akin to being struck by lightning, but in a good way.  An amazing coincidence, a miracle, a twist of fate, whatever you want to call it.  That mythical Big Break.  “The way it happened is that God shined down some really good luck on me,” says Estrada.  “I was going to a show at the Long Beach Arena, and I forget who the headliner was, but Anthrax was the opening band.  I was smuggling my camera in, and I saw this guy walk through the door, and he had all these cameras hanging over his shoulders, these huge lenses, and he just walks right through the door! And I tapped my buddy on the arm and said to him ‘Look at that guy, he just walked right in with all that gear–I have to ask him how he does that.’  So I go over to him and say ‘I noticed that you walked right in with all those cameras–how do you get to do that? ‘ And he says ‘I have a photo pass,’ and he show me one of those stick-on credentials.  So I ask him ‘Well, how do I get one of those?’  And he says ‘You have to be on assignment for a magazine, or be approved by the publicist or the record label.’  I told him that I’m an aspiring rock photographer, and I just snuck my camera in and I was going to shoot the show from my seat, and he says, kind of annoyed, ‘OK, that’s cool, I’ve got to get going.’  So I stop him again and say ‘Can I give you my phone number in case you ever need help, or need a photographer,’ and he kind of reluctantly took my phone number.  And my friend who was with me said ‘Why’d you give him your phone number, that was really stupid.  He’s already an established photographer.  He’s not going to want to give you his work.'”

“So anyway, a day or two later, my phone rings, and it’s that guy.  And he said ‘Hey, did you happen to get any photos of Anthrax?’ and I told him that I had a really good seat and I got some good photos.  He asked if he could take a look at them, and I told him ‘Sure, but why? Didn’t you get photos?’  And he said ‘Yeah, but my photos didn’t turn out good at all.  I’ll be honest with you–I’m not really a photographer, I’m an editor of a magazine.  I kind of have an interest in photography, and I went down there but blew it, and now I really need photos from that show.”  So I met him, and I also showed him photos of other bands I had shot, and he said ‘How’d you get all these photos?’  I told him that I sneak my camera in and shoot from my seat.  He was really impressed with my work, and he said ‘I told you I’m an editor for a magazine. I’m the editor for Cream Magazine, and I edit Cream and all the special editions.  Why don’t I have you start shooting for these Cream special editions?’  And I stammered “Uh…yeah…OK!”  I just melted right there, because I had stacks of Cream Magazines in my house.  It was just like winning the lottery for me.  I didn’t even get the chance to shoot for some local, little rag.  I couldn’t even get my foot in the door with them.  And that was my big break, shooting for Cream Magazine.  From there, I went on to shoot for Hit Parader and Circus and Rip.”

If Estrada’s story ended there, it would be an amazing tale, but it gets better.  “The band that propelled me from Circus and Cream to Rolling Stone and Spin was Nirvana.  I had hooked up with Nirvana in 1987, I think, four years before Nevermind came out.  I got to know those guys really well.  When the Teen Spirit video came out, you can see me and my friends in that video.  Kurt made sure I was there, gave me close-ups and all that.  When that broke, I was the guy in L.A. who had loads and loads of Nirvana photos.  Everyone was scrambling to shoot this new band, but for me, I’d been shooting them for three-and-a-half years.  So that’s what propelled me from the kinds of rock magazines you see in the 7/11 magazine racks to where I am today.”

Estrada has been around long enough to witness the revolutionary change from film to digital, and he has mixed emotions about it.  “All those kids who have grown up not knowing what it was like to use film…with digital, you pop off a thousand shots in a night, and of course you’re going to have two or three good photos.  It’s a whole different concept the way photography is approached–at least the area of photography I’m involved in.  The good part is the cost–you never have to buy film or process, the ease of emailing photos, and you get more photos.  Instead of coming home with 90 photos, you’re coming home with 900 photos.  The bad part is that your camera is way more expensive than a film camera, and every two years it’s outdated, just like a computer.  And then there’s the nightmare of archiving your photos.  In the old days, you’d have filing cabinets, and you’d file the photos alphabetically, and that was it.  Now, you put it on a hard drive, and you risk that hard drive failing, which has happened to me.  So there’s always the risk that your photos are going to disappear, unless you’re constantly backing up and re-backing up your hard drive.  I get a lot of photographers ask me ‘How is it that you can make a living at this?’  They have day jobs, or they do it as a hobby.  And I tell them I’ve been really blessed, had a lot of luck on my side.  But I started in a different time.  It’s a whole different world now.  Back then there were seven or eight of us music photographers, and now there’s 500 people who say they’re a music photographer.  Everybody with a digital camera is a music photographer.  Everybody with a music blog is a music photographer.  There’s way more people doing it, so it’s way harder to make a living doing it.  Luckily for me, I have relationships with labels and bands, and they use me over and over.  Iron Maiden hired me to shoot the L.A. shows, I did the new publicity photos for KISS, I just did a session with Steven Tyler, so I’m still working and I’m diverse.  I did sessions with J. Lo and Fergie, but on the flip side, I still work with Motley Crue and Slayer.”

Most people envy the life of a rock star. Estrada has a slightly different take on it. “When I was a kid, all my friends wanted to be Eddie Van Halen. I wanted to be the guy photographing Eddie Van Halen.”

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