He may not be a household name in the arts community yet, but among bartenders and concert security in the Brainerd lakes area and the Twin Cities, everyone knows Tom Smith.
And for a few seconds at a Rolling Stones show in 1981 in Detroit, 92,000 people knew who he was. Smith worked his way to the front row, which is generally where you want to be if you are a freelance concert photographer. But the stage was so high at the Pontiac Silverdome that Smith couldn't get a good shot.
So he got a little boost.
"There was this guy who was 7-2 and he said, 'You wanna stand on my shoulders?'" Smith said. "For some reason I said, 'Sure.' The Stones just started doing 'Jumping Jack Flash.' For one moment I was eye-to-eye with Keith Richards. I could've reached out and grabbed Keith Richards. He smiled, I got my shot, then I said, 'Get me down!'"
Through June 6, area music and art fans will get a chance to know Smith. His photographs, spanning 24 years of rock shows across the country, are on display at The Crossing Arts Center in downtown Brainerd. Some prints are for sale as well.
Smith is now 42 and living in Crosby, where he is a waiter. He estimates he's taken about 6,000 concert photographs, many of them in the Twin Cities, his former home. But the Crossing exhibit marks the first time he has displayed his work. Smith credits the idea to his friend, John Lound, who also did digital touch-ups on some of the photos.
Anyone who's ever smuggled a camera into a concert and then cringed when they got their film back will be impressed by Smith's shots. The keys are a good seat, patience and a little bit of luck, he said.
"Work with what you have, wait for the picture," Smith advised. "Bands play for one and a half to three hours. There are all kinds of lighting scenarios."
Although stealthiness is an important skill for shooting from the crowd, aggressiveness can pay off as well. During their "War" tour in 1990, U2 played at Minneapolis' Northrup Auditorium, a venue with an orchestra pit in front of the stage. The pit was empty, so U2 frontman Bono invited audience members to fill up the pit. Smith hurdled a gate and got there first.
"In the Olympics, it would have been a 9.8 jump," he said. "I was almost on the stage for the rest of the show."
Smith was raised on rock 'n' roll. He grew up attending shows at the restaurant ballroom owned by his parents in Austin in southern Minnesota.
"I saw Johnny Cash when I was 4 years old," Smith said. "I remember seeing Fats Domino with three diamond rings on his fingers, and Count Basie, the jazz great. The entertainment bug hit me and I fell in love with the music."
Tom Smith decided to make a collage of INXS after seeing photo collages at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. (Dispatch Photo by Clint Wood)
At age 17, Smith received a Polaroid camera from his grandfather. Since then, he has used more than 50 different cameras. Although he keeps tabs on new digital cameras, he is content with his old screw-mount Minolta. He taught himself to be a photographer. The process wasn't always smooth.
"I had concert tickets to Cheap Trick and I brought a camera. I shot all night and didn't get one good picture." It was a sobering experience for someone with a photographic memory (no pun intended), Smith said. "I can still see (the shots). That's what kills me."
Smith had plenty of chances to perfect his skills over the years, starting with the punk rock explosion of the late '70s and early '80s.
If you go
What: Thomas E. Smith IIIs Rock n Roll Carnival
When: Through June 6
Where: Crossing Arts Center, 617 Laurel St., downtown Brainerd
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays
"When I was young, I always loved a wide variety of music," he said. "People say they hate disco -- I loved it. But I was really into punk rock and new wave in the early '80s. I never put safety pins in my cheek or wore a wild jacket, but I was at all the shows. Guys didn't care if people were sticking a lens in their face."
The flashy stage shows of the music video era in the 1980s were a photographer's dream. Smith has seen Prince nine times, the Rolling Stones eight times, Tina Turner seven times, and David Bowie and Blondie four times each. Other photogenic favorites include Madonna and Billy Idol.
He's cultivated several relationships in the music industry. In 1982 and 1983, Turner played a trio of shows at First Avenue in Minneapolis. After the first show, Smith gave Turner a photo of the Stones, after the second show he gave her a photo of herself. At the third show, Turner took a moment between songs to announce, "Tina loves Tommy Smith!"
At a David Johansen show, the singer recognized Smith and said, "Hey, you're always taking my picture!" He beckoned for the camera, which Smith handed over. Johansen snapped a shot of Smith and handed it back.
Smith also has had brushes with fame in his various restaurant jobs. He has waited on Twin Cities legends like Prince and Morris Day and the Time. But he stresses he never photographs musicians outside the concert setting.
"When they're on the stage, that's when they are working," Smith said. "I don't intrude on their personal lives."
Smith doesn't make it to as many concerts as he used to, in part because of ticket prices. But he said there are still good values to be found. Last summer, for example, he saw Sheryl Crow, Michelle Branch, Shawn Mullins and the BoDeans at Canterbury Downs in Shakopee for $30.
Recently, Smith has taken up new art forms. After seeing photo collages at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Smith said, "Hey, I can do that." Collages of INXS and Blondie are part of the Crossing exhibit. The exhibit also includes pastel paintings, an art form he took up three years ago.
His ultimate dream project is to compile of book of photographs and concert anecdotes. Someday, he'd like to quit his day job and become a full-time photographer.
"I live for this stuff," he said.
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