Marshall Peterson knew he felt the most alive in foreign cultures, so a decade ago the Seattle schoolteacher caught a ride south and went to Mexico, not sure what he’d find. He took a little digital camera to document whatever it was.
Recently, he found himself back in his hometown of Spokane at the opening of an exhibition of concert photographs he made in Guadalajara, where he stopped and stayed. He worked for rock bands to document performances, fans, the scenes behind the scenes – striving to show the whole picture, he said, of a time of change in Mexico’s “cuna del rock,” or cradle of rock.
The exhibit, in ground-floor space at the Spokane Public Library’s downtown branch, opened Jan. 9. Peterson will host an exhibit “closing” Feb. 1 as part of Visual Arts Tour events.
He eventually got a bigger camera than the Sony he left the States with. But that little digital provided a start. Some friends were starting a rock fanzine, and Peterson volunteered to take concert photos. The fanzine lasted only a few issues, but Peterson kept shooting concerts.
His photos improved. While many photographers shoot concerts, he said, few specialize in concert photography. “I found a niche,” he said.
And he found himself backstage and on stage at performances by hundreds of bands, including local stars in the city of 6 million and national and international acts. He was paid in passes, rides to shows, backstage access. He worked at a hostel for money.
“The camera is in some ways like this really cool car or spaceship … that takes you to these unimaginable places,” Peterson said.
It was a time when more non-Mexican musicians were venturing into the country. Because many concert promoters in Mexico had a reputation for being unreliable, Peterson said, U.S. bands that traveled to Europe historically steered clear of Mexico.
But a few bands ventured south in the past decade, “like crazy people,” and found trustworthy contacts, Peterson said. They reported back to other musicians in the States. Among the U.S. stars Peterson photographed, alongside Mexican stars: the Flaming Lips, Moby, the Dandy Warhols.
“We saw bands we’d never seen in the history of Guadalajara,” Peterson said.
Peterson said his experience as a musician helped him establish access to the stars. He started playing drums as a child and continued through college at the University of Washington, where he worked professional gigs.
“I think I was especially sensitive to when not to talk to them, and not to ask too much, to be a fan but not too much of a fan. Really, once I got myself in their club … everyone was like, ‘This guy’s awesome, he’s trustworthy, he’s fun, and, oh, his photos are turning out nice.’ ”
With help from faculty at the University of Guadalajara, Peterson put together a book of concert photos, “Rock Tapatio,” which received funding and other support from mayor’s offices and governor’s offices and a national arts grant that helped pay for publication, Peterson said.
The library gallery space is free to use for artists, said Eva Silverstone, library communications manager. Unless the library has a traveling exhibit or other work it wants to display, it’s first-come, first-served. Most exhibits stay about a month. It’s grown more popular in the past few years, she said: “I think the entire year is booked right now.”
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