Concert shutterbug logs 1,000
shows and counting for the AJC.
Photo: Hyosub Shin, email@example.com
From one wall, Bono, Kid Rock and Eddie Vedder clutch microphones, scrunch their eyes and sneer down at their viewer.
On another wall, across from the dozens of perfectly focused, meticulously edited images of live, sweaty rock ’n’ roll shows, hangs another photo.
It’s good, but a little less precise. It’s raw, too, with Mick Jagger in motion, preparing for another strut-walk.
And then you see the flaw: the time/date stamp in the lower right corner — the kind of thing that dads on vacation do to preserve a moment.
The shot is from 1994, when the Rolling Stones performed at the Georgia Dome on their “Voodoo Lounge” tour.
Robb Cohen was there, in the photo pit for the first time as a professional. Armed with only a point-and-shoot camera, the rookie had “lens envy” as he glanced at the mega-cameras slung over the shoulders of the media pros surrounding him.
And he had no idea how to turn off the time/date stamp.
That hasn’t been a problem for Cohen in the ensuing decades, during which he estimates he’s shot about 5,000 artists in concert, including six Super Bowls, Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction among them.
The walls in his home office only have room for a few dozen images and a rack of hundreds of photo passes — but they’re enough to make those walls talk.
This month the 6-foot-2-inch shutterbug submitted his 1,000th photo gallery to the AJC — Madonna at Philips Arena on Jan. 20. Cohen has freelanced for the AJC since 2003, and his handwritten list of concerts he’s photographed for the newspaper and its websites reads like a musical alphabet.
From Aerosmith to ZZ Top, Buckcherry to the B-52s, James Brown to Janelle Monae, Cohen has caught many of the top acts from the last 20 years in action.
“The feeling of being in front of the stage, an amazing performance going on and 19,000 screaming fans behind you — it’s a real rush,” Cohen said. “It’s a privilege to do this, and I’ve always treated it as a privilege.”
A Baltimore native, Cohen came to Atlanta in 1972 to attend Emory University.
Photography was an interest — both of his parents were artists — but school was about pre-law and marketing classes.
Still, music tugged at him and Cohen served as concert chairman at the university for two years, helping to bring acts such as James Taylor and the Marshall Tucker Band to Atlanta.
In the ’80s, Cohen managed several Atlanta bands, including The Montanas, Borneo, Arms Akimbo and The Tempted. He handled marketing and booking for The Masquerade in the late ’80s.
Cohen wasn’t a photographer then — unfortunate since then-unknowns with the names Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails frequented the scrappy Old Fourth Ward venue.
When he finally did start fiddling with a camera in the early ’90s — to this day he’s never taken a photo class — his desire to shoot concerts was simple.
“I wanted to get into shows for free,” Cohen, 61, said with a chuckle.
First three songs
There is a perception among some concert goers that professional photographers are granted unlimited access to artists and thus spend the hours before a show sipping Perrier backstage with Katy Perry.
Members of the media approved to document a concert — typically only a handful with legitimate assignments — are corralled in a waiting room until about 15 minutes before showtime and then led to their shooting area by a venue or promoter representative.
Many big-name acts require photographers shoot from the soundboard — at Philips Arena that’s about 100 feet from the stage, so Cohen is always armed with two Canon camera bodies and a Canon 400 2.8 lens for that setup.
Once the concert begins, the industry standard — a mantra Cohen jokes should go on a vanity plate — kicks in: First three songs, no flash.
And then the photographers are ushered out of the building.
Of course, plenty of artists have quirky demands. When Lady Gaga played the Fox Theatre in December 2009, photographers could only shoot the last song of her encore. Perfect if you’re a Lady Gaga fan, but a nightmare if you’re a photojournalist trying to make a deadline.
When Garth Brooks made his heralded return to Philips Arena in September 2014, he granted photographers 60 seconds to shoot from the back aisles of the arena.
“Sixty seconds is not a lot of time,” said Cohen. “Especially when people are still trying to get to their seats, they have beers in their hands, everyone is standing up holding their phones over their heads.”
Ah, yes. The ubiquitous phones.
There is irony in the reality that professionals such as Cohen are limited to “first three songs, no flash” and often required to sign restrictive photo release forms before receiving a photo pass, yet fans take hours of photos and video and even Periscope entire concerts (extremely murky legal ground, by the way) on their smartphones.
“It is crazy that ... their phones are transmitting video or stills on Facebook before we even leave the venue,” Cohen said. “It doesn’t really make a lot of sense.”
After being escorted from the venue, Cohen spends the rest of his evening combing through thousands of digital images, editing them and researching the artist to provide caption information.
Even before a concert, Cohen will often study music magazines to peruse photos of the artist from previous tour stops to get an idea of the staging and production setup.
“When a band hits the road for 50 dates, you don’t see a lot of different shots from city to city,” he said. “But I try to put my stamp on it. I want to have the best shots of anyone on that tour.”
Photo: Hyosub Shin, firstname.lastname@example.org
The bucket list
When he’s not taking concert photos, Cohen is often traveling the country shooting conventions and events for organizations including Herbalife International, the American Pharmacists Association and the National Association of Broadcasters.
He lives with his wife of a decade, Susan, on what he affectionately calls “the ponderosa,” about 3.5 acres in Loganville stocked with 31 egg-laying hens, two horses (Tex and Bo), a pair of cats (Kyle and Freddie, as in Freeman) and two majestic Akitas (Miko and Chipper, as in Jones). Yes, the Cohen household roots mightily for the Atlanta Braves.
Photo: Cohen talks on the phone as he edits photographs at his home office in Loganville. Hyosub Shin, email@example.com
His downstairs office is crammed with testimonies to his 20-plus years as a photographer — covers he shot for concert industry trade magazine Pollstar, images that landed in Guitar Player and People magazines, a 2004 Nickelback calendar.
And then there is his prized Kenny Chesney picture framed above his desk.
It’s isn’t a photo of Chesney, actually, but of Cohen. Taken by Chesney.
In September 2007, Chesney was performing at Lakewood Amphitheatre and Cohen was entrenched in the photo pit in front of the stage.
“He’s singing, and he starts pointing at me in the crowd,” said Cohen. “I didn’t know what I had done, but he kept pointing at my cameras. I wasn’t thrilled about handing him a $4,000 camera, but what, am I gonna have an argument with the guy? He stooped down, never missed a beat singing and started taking pictures of me.”
Moments like that make up for 60 seconds at Garth Brooks.
Memories of special moments like that are many. At the top of his list: Watching U2 at the 2002 Super Bowl, a video screen behind them scrolling the names of those who died on 9-11. The joy, for this longtime Doors fan, of photographing Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger with Ian Astbury at Chastain Park Amphitheatre in 2003 (pictured). Capturing beautiful photos of Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons together at Philips Arena in 2008, three years before Clemons’ death.
Despite all the big-name acts he’s shot over the years, there is one artist who remains on Cohen’s bucket list.
The Purple Enigma himself, Prince.
“He’s such a phenomenal performer,” Cohen said. “I’m bound and determined. I’m not gonna give up.”
Check out some of our favorite Robb Cohen shots from every year since 2003, along with a look at artists we've lost and the Georgia musicians Cohen has captured with his lens.
Robb Cohen 1000: 2003-2005
Robb Cohen 1000: 2006-2008
Robb Cohen 1000: 2009-2010
Robb Cohen 1000: 2011-2012
Robb Cohen 1000: 2013-2014
Robb Cohen 1000: 2015-2016
Robb Cohen 1000: Artists we've lost
Robb Cohen 1000: Georgia musicians
Robb Cohen 1000: Photos passes
ABOUT THE STORY
When Robb Cohen casually mentioned he would be shooting his 1000th photo gallery for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, we thought it was a good opportunity to revisit some of the highlights of his career capturing the biggest names in the music industry in action. The hardest part was culling through the tens of thousands of images he’s submitted in that time to select which ones to publish. To see more, go to www.robbsphotos.com.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor