Concert photographer Gene Ambo talks new book, industry advice and Metro Chicago’s history – The Columbia Chronicle


Photographer Gene Ambo recently released his book, Heavy Metro: Access All Eras, which highlights many of his favorite bands that have performed in classic Chicago. Jared Callaway

Gene Ambo had no intention of becoming a concert photographer. He started photographing friends’ bands because he said it was “much” more interesting than photographing cemeteries, “L” tracks and girlfriends.

Because Ambo didn’t access to superstar acts, he found his niche with Metro Chicago, 3730 N. Clark St., filming for up-and-coming bands like Metallica in 1983 and Motörhead in 1985.

“In my little world … I had everything I needed,” Ambo said.

Ambo’s new photo book, Heavy Metro: Access All Eras, celebrates the iconic Chicago venue owned by Columbia grad Joe Shanahan, with a portion of the proceeds supporting Metro Chicago through funds from Save Our Stages, a COVID-19 relief fund for small business locations.

Gene Ambo, a world-renowned Chicago photographer, released his first book in July, which includes photos from Metallica, the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. Bianca Kreusel

“The success of Gene’s book is because it chronicles the Metro. The community-focused spirit of the space stems from people’s ability to celebrate music,” said Shanahan. “People came without knowing which band was playing. If a band like Metallica was trying to find a place to play, they would be thinking about where people are going, and that Metro would come to mind.”

Ambo said his Awareness of making a living in the field of photography was solidified when he photographed by Madonna during her Who’s That Girl Tour in 1987 at Soldier Field.

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“Soldier Field was such a big deal, and at the time she was one of the biggest artists in the world,” Ambo said. “I felt like, ‘If you can do this, you can do pretty much anyone.'”

While the first digital camera was invented by Eastman Kodak in 1975, Ambo said he prefers movie as Photo medium instead of digital photography because he likes the quality of the film better.

“The reactions… there is no lag in the shutter. You get instant results,” Ambo said. “[Film is] much more expensive, obviously, and that was the common denominator of Going digital because everyone wanted cheap production.”

Metro founder Joe Shanahan talks to Gene Ambo as they relive memories of the 80’s when Metro first opened. Bianca Kreusel

Ambo said the likelihood of an aspiring photographer reaching the top of the field is more difficult today than it was in the past because digital cameras have transformed the industry by making photography more affordable and accessible.

“There are so many people doing it for free right now, it’s hard to be competitive and actually make a living,” Ambo said. “People are going to go out there and have their night off and spend all their money on it and give it all away with no restrictions.”

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An autodidact, he said learned by observing and working with other iconic concert photographers and visually inspecting their photos.

Early on, working with superstar concert photographers was key to Ambo’s growing knowledge base.

Since opening in 1982, Metro has been known for hosting local, regional and national up-and-coming bands and musicians. Bianca Kreusel

Despite the new Although there are obstacles to becoming a concert photographer superstar, Ambo believes it is still possible for new concert photographers to become successful in this field by getting the exclusive right to shoot a specific band.

The careers of South Side Ambo and Shanahan began almost simultaneously. shanahan, the founder and owner of Metro Chicago, Smart Bar and Gman Tavern opened live music Venue 1982.

Metro nurtured both Shanahan’s and Ambo’s professional growth.

Shanahan’s achievements in concert hall history are highly regarded by many different bands. 2013 he has received an honorary doctorate from Columbia College Chicago presented by alum and WXRT radio host Marty Lennartz.

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The Metro stage has seen many legendary acts such as Nirvana and Green Day. Jared Callaway

Shanahan said he left Columbia in his mid-20s to open Metro and credits friends from school with helping start his club, emphasizing how much Columbia means to him.

For Shanahan, the most important thing was the creativity it took to develop his vision, in addition to giving people like Ambo a place to flourish. He said The impetus for building Metro Chicago reflected his interest in hosting community-centric music events to showcase the many styles of music available in Chicago.

“I think the unholy marriage of commerce and art has always been very difficult to reconcile,” Shanahan said. “How does it make financial sense?”

Shanahan advised students who are Consider becoming a concert hall owner to take more business and math courses to ensure a smoother ride instead of learning the hard way.

For information on how to purchase the book, click “Heavy Metro: Access all eras.” Click Save our stages to donate to the fund.



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