Photographing live performances is no easy feat. Even in the dawn of digital photography and high-res smartphone cameras, capturing an unforgettable moment can end with a split-second snap of the camera and a blurred image of the now-missed moment. Many event photographers have honed the skill of capturing these moments with years of practice, and for the past 20 years, Dan Dion, one of San Francisco’s premier performing-art photographers, has been the man behind the lens capturing world-famous musicians at the historic Fillmore.

You cannot even begin to imagine the collection of photographs Dion has in his arsenal. Thankfully, you can see it in person at Madrone Art Bar, where he has opened his library of photos from the two-decade span of his career at The Fillmore and other SF music venues.

What started as work in his girlfriend’s father’s studio as a high school senior portrait photographer turned into a career many would kill for. He’s photographed thousands musicians and comedians backstage, in dressing rooms, and during live performances.

How does one start a career as a live-event photographer? For Dion, it was simple. In 1994, when the historic Fillmore reopened after being destroyed by the ’89 quake, he approached the folks at the revived venue and offered to photograph the performers at the historic spot, where legends the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Elton John, Miles Davis, Carlos Santana, and countless others have performed. Dion always had impeccable timing, a trait you can witness in each act he’s photographed, each moment he’s captured in the blink of an eye.

One photograph stands out… a moment he captured in a beautiful blue wash of Shane MacGowan of the band The Pogues between songs, his faint image along with the ambers from his cigarette (pictured right). “Virtually everything that I am showing, I wanted the shots to be good on their own. I don’t want it to just be of a famous person. While I have plenty of shots of famous big names, I like the photos that have something more,” shares Dion. Like the Pogues photo and ones of BB King, Emmylou Harris, U2, and Depeche Mode, Dion captures what he calls a “Dionysian moment.” All display that same style, character, and moment. “It is when they stop performing at you … when it’s not part of the ‘show’ and just feeling the music—that’s the shot.”

Dan Dion also treasures backstage opportunities to shoot with the artists either before or after their performances, like in his iconic photos of great artists like Beck with his signature look, Rufus Wainwright waiting backstage, and John Lee Hooker behind the bar. One could consider Dion the luckiest man alive, having been in the presence of music’s greatest. Always professional and rarely phased by the immense personalities he shoots, Dion shares that his craft comes before fanfare. His other love, photographing stand-up comedians, illustrates how he is playing with the celebrity image. “I like it when my rock stars look like comedians and my comedians look like rock stars.”

Photos: Beck, Rufus Wainright, Shane MacGowan, and John Lee Hooker. By Dan Dion.

Learn more about Photographer Dan Dion by visiting his website:

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This article was published in:
Music Issue - Released January 2013
Issue 1 / Version 3 | Buy print copy here
Issue 11
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