December 07 2015
When Gene Shaw ’82 arrived at Elmira College in 1978, his official field of study was marketing, but his real passion lay elsewhere. At seventeen, he altered his birth certificate to get a job at an 18-and-up rock club where he mingled backstage with artists and got his first taste of the rock ‘n’ roll life. This life would eventually lead him to some of the most hallowed venues in the world with some of the most recognizable names in music, but not as a performer. Instead, he would go on to capture these musicians—both on and off stage—with his camera.
Though his interest in photography was first sparked in the bustling streets of Brooklyn, Gene says his time at the relatively remote Elmira College campus, where he met his wife Marcia Torke ’83, allowed him to step back and find his path. “I was able to become myself there because I was able to relax and look inward, whereas I find a lot of times in [New York City] it can get too busy. In a more laid-back environment, you ponder the world rather than having it flashing in front of you 24/7.” He also credits media artist and Elmira College professor Jan Kather with showing him the importance of attention to detail when it comes to capturing the essence of a person. This proved critical in his later work, which required convincing celebrities to “become themselves.” One of the most difficult challenges of photographing celebrities, Gene says, is getting them to shed their public persona and display who they are inside.
Gene’s portfolio includes photographs of music icons like Peter Gabriel, Bono, and Prince, but perhaps his most notable long-time subject is legendary guitarist Eric Clapton, of whom he recently published a book titled Journeyman: Eric Clapton, a Photographic Narrative. The book includes photographs spanning 30 years of the musician’s life and career, but it also serves as a sort of memoir for Gene. In it, he recounts growing up in Brooklyn, describes living on the road with various rock groups, and notes the important role his family and his faith have played in all of his success.
Gene Shaw.Eric Clapton. London,1991. ©Gene Shaw 2015
Gene has spent a great deal of time surrounded by rock stars, but the rebellious diva attitude has hardly rubbed off; he still finds time to feed the homeless with his church group on Saturdays and does pro bono photography work for the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Since his agent and friend of 21 years Virginia Lohle passed away from breast cancer, he has been giving back to the community in her memory by capturing their events. “Cancer is a really nasty disease and it is killing a lot of people around me, so I try to do as much as I can to help fight this disease.”
As far as making it as a photographer goes, Gene says that it is more important today than ever to be tech savvy. He also emphasizes the importance of going out and making real, face-to-face connections with others in the field, whether it is photography or not. “You have to ask those questions: ‘Are you looking for anybody?’, ‘Can I come in and work for you?’, ‘What are you looking for in an employee?’. I think it is essential to come out of your shell. You are basically selling yourself as a product, but the most important
thing is honesty. Don’t make promises you can’t deliver because in any small industry, everyone within it knows each other and talks. Anything that you get into should be a career path and not just a job. Whatever you are going to do, I think that it is really important that you do it with passion.”
Gene Shaw. Prince.
New York,1984. ©Gene Shaw 2015