Living

With new gallery and upcoming book, Kirk West shares career as rock photographer

In one corner, there’s Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Garcia and Bob Marley.

Nearby, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are hanging with James Brown. They’re looking directly at the Allman Brothers Band across the room.

If all this sounds like the coolest place in town, well, it might be, even if it’s only pictures of the famous musicians on display at Gallery West and not the stars themselves.

Kirsten West opened Gallery West in January as a venue to feature the photography of her husband, Kirk, who has more than 40 years of pictures from a wide range of music genres, from rock to country and blues.

“I retired, and Kirsten basically got tired of me sitting around the house,” Kirk said with a chuckle. “I can instigate (stuff), but she makes it happen.”

Kirsten said the idea for a gallery came in 2013 from a friend, who suggested that Kirk hold exhibitions at a couple of “hippie festivals.”

Then they held another one in New York City in a restaurant adjacent to the rear of the Beacon Theatre, where the Allman Brothers play an annual show.

“I did a pop-up gallery and I sold 300 pictures in three weeks,” said Kirk, a former road manager for the band.

The Wests have a long history of creatively disseminating the history of the Allman Brothers -- and music in general. After all, they were the ones who got the project going on transforming their Vineville Avenue home into a museum dedicated to the band. Decades ago, the Big House was home for the families of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley and the band’s de facto headquarters.

The gallery is just the beginning of introducing Kirk’s photography to a broader audience, not the end of it. Last year, he launched a Kickstarter project to get funding for a book he intended to self-publish covering his time with the Allman Brothers, including candid and backstage photos, performances, portraits and other shots.

The campaign, however, was so successful -- donations totaled about $90,000, far exceeding the $60,000 he had sought -- that several major publishers asked to have the project turned over to them instead. He ended up signing with a California-based publisher that specializes in coffee-table books about music.

The book, called “Les Brers: Kirk West’s Photographic Journey With The Brothers,” will likely come out by September and should be available at major retail booksellers as well as online for $65. Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes wrote the foreword to it, and Alan Paul, author of “One Way Out,” wrote the afterword.

“(The book) idea came a couple of years ago,” he said. “I was working with Alan Paul on his book. I was the photo editor. ... I got digging into it and the buzz started getting out. I didn’t know anything about Kickstarter, but I had a partner who built websites and had a background in (publishing). This was a whole other animal. It took off. I was amazed.”

The book won’t only be shots of the band in concert. There’re all sorts of candid, behind-the-scenes shots, including band members at their homes.

The Wests noted a particular shot of former guitarist Dickey Betts, who had grown a full beard and was decked out in camouflage for a hunting trip.

“(It) looks like he’s on ‘Duck Dynasty,’ ” Kirsten said.

Kirsten said the Wests are planning a book-signing tour once it is published. She also said “Les Brers” won’t be Kirk’s only book. She had already wanted Kirk to publish books on other music subjects, such as his blues photos as well as a “best of” book on his work when the publishing company suggested the same thing.

“This will be the first of three books,” she said.

‘MARRIED TO EACH ONE’

There are a couple hundred or so photographs on display at Gallery West, featuring a broad range of styles, techniques and formats. Some are color, others are black and white. Some were shot on film, while others are digital.

But all of the photos at the gallery, including those projected on a TV monitor in the back, are but a mere drop in Kirk’s total work.

For “Les Brers,” he had the monumental task of going through nearly 20,000 Allman Brothers prints and negatives and selecting about 1,000 for the book, more than he had planned when he launched the Kickstarter project.

He said he’s now at 1,200 photos and can no longer decide by himself which ones to excise.

“Personally, I can’t do it by myself anymore,” he said. “I’m married to each one.”

Kirk is asking a few close friends to weigh in with their thoughts. He asked a couple of women to tell him which of Gregg Allman’s photos have the most sex appeal.

Initially he was going to devote one of the chapters to funny outtakes, bloopers and other similar photos, but given the size of the book, those photos may be going out instead as a DVD to those who contributed at a certain level with Kickstarter.

Kirk said he was a fan of the Allman Brothers going back to their initial incarnation. A budding photographer at the time -- his grandmother started what was then a hobby while growing up in a small farm town in Iowa -- Kirk attended shows with Oakley and Duane Allman before they died, but he never photographed them. He didn’t start shooting the band until 1973, but he stuck with them through the decades before photographing their final show in October.

He had decided a few years earlier to turn his photography from a hobby into a profession.

“I went to Chicago after high school, and I’d take my camera to concerts,” he said. “I was just a hippie with a camera who shot stuff. I was getting really loaded. But I figured out that you can’t be too high and take good pictures. ... Once I straightened out my life, I got a good camera. I figured out that I might be able to make a living with it.

“It kind of evolved. I did product photography, I did weddings. If I was making a living with my camera, that’s what I wanted.”

Over the years, he became the band’s photographer and shot several of their album covers. In the 1990s, after the band reunited, he was asked to become the assistant road manager. The road manager at the time often got into arguments with band members, and it was up to him to smooth things over.

“I was the go-between (for) the manager and the band,” he said. “The manager thought he could get them to do what he wanted by raising his voice. Dickey once said to me, ‘If he yells again, I’m going to cut his tongue out.’”

Kirk was later promoted to tour manager. Ironically, one of his duties was to limit access to other photographers who wanted to shoot the band. He said there were photographers in different cities he knew he could trust not to interfere with the band backstage or while they were performing, so those were the ones he worked with.

These days, because music acts have so many restrictions on photographers at concerts, West said he isn’t actively going to shows in order to add to his portfolio. He’s content to sell the ones he’s already shot.

The idea, he said, is to make them accessible to a wide audience, which is why customers won’t have to break the bank to buy something that captures their eye.

The photos range from an unframed 8-by-10 for $50 up to a framed 16-by-20 for $250.

“If you look at prices, we’re cheap,” West said. “I want (the photos) in people’s houses, on their walls, brightening up the place.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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