One of Aspen’s most electrifying art galleries isn’t an art gallery at all.
It’s the Belly Up, the 450-capacity Galena Street music venue, where owner Michael Goldberg has collected dozens of his photographic portraits of the artists who’ve graced its stage.
The collection serves as both a retrospective of musicians who’ve played the premier Aspen club, and as a showcase for Goldberg’s formidable photographer’s eye. Most nights, you’ll see him stalking the club with his long lens camera around his neck for a few songs.
His aesthetic taste tends toward close shots that capture an artist’s personality, catching them in quintessential and expressive moments. There’s Damien Marley’s pained squint, raised hand and flailing dreadlocks. Chris Isaak’s intense mid-croon wince. Snoop Dogg’s glassy-eyed smirk. B.B. King’s open-mouthed concentration as he wails on his guitar, Lucille. There’s Slash in his iconic pose — all hair and hat and rock’n’roll attitude.
“I like to shoot tight on an artist and I like to capture their face,” Goldberg explains. “What’s really the most fun is trying to get that close-up of a face that captures their uniqueness and at the same time captures the whole movement of what they’re doing.”
Goldberg’s interest in photography began in his years of business travel in the aviation industry, which took him around the globe to some of the world’s most exotic and far-flung locales. Much like the musicians he shoots at his club, his interest in travel photos was driven by drive his fascination with his subjects.
“I don’t profess to be a professional,” Goldberg says. “It was kind of like [shooting musicians at] the club. It’s there and it’s amazing, so why not take advantage of it?”
While he’s not a pro, his work has been appreciated like a pro’s. Along with lining the walls of Belly Up, his photos have landed in magazines and in albums. A Goldberg shot of California folk rocker Brett Dennen graced the April 2009 cover of Pollstar magazine, and a photo of Lez Zeppelin went on the back of their self-titled album.
Yet it’s the collection inside the club, and sharing it with musicians, that Goldberg prizes most.
“What I like more than anything else is going to sound check and watching the reaction of a band or artist walking through the room looking at the walls,” he says. “Just the representation of what we’ve had there is the most satisfying aspect of the photography.”
Shooting musicians in the club has some unique challenges. The lighting is constantly changing. The subject is often moving. And it’s dark.
At times he asks his lighting technician to factor in more blue light, or other elements, during some songs to allow him to get his sought-after shot. And he’s picked out digital cameras that work in dim light.
“I tend to be a gadget guy,” he says.
These days he’s shooting with a Canon 1DX, which offers the superior low-light capability he needs to shoot in the club.
“I think about how I can make myself invisible, so also a lot of what I use is a long lens,” he says.
Curating the collection, he groups together close-up portraits separately from wider full band shots. Pretty girl artist photos go in the men’s bathroom. Handsome men are gathered in the women’s room. The Benevento/Russo Duo, a New York based alt-jazz outfit, actually asked for their portrait to be hung inside a women’s stall.
Dealing with the limits of wall space in the club also is a factor. The photos serve as a document of the artists who have played the club, as well as its dominant decor. Choosing what to rotate out of the club as he adds new photos can be tough, Goldberg says.
“When you take them down, how do you explain that to a returning artist?” Goldberg says.
While the tighter shots have become Goldberg’s visual signature, the club supplements Goldberg’s hand-shot work with photos from mounted cameras. One of those, planted on the ceiling above the stage, captured an overhead shot of Widespread Panic, from their run of acoustic shows at the club earlier this year. That group shot deposed a close-up one of Jack White, from a 2008 Raconteurs show, at what some might consider the club’s most prominent wall space near the entrance.
“It’s not quite as challenging as holding a camera and trying to get the right shot,” Goldberg says of curating the club.
A handful of large portraits have stayed in prominent stage-side position for most of the club’s life, including one of Jimmy Buffet. While his collection rotates often, Goldberg says some portraits are at home right where they are.
“Some have been up there four or five years,” he says. “I have a hard time moving them, first, because they’re important artists that have been here a lot and, secondly, because I really like the pictures.”