© Kirk West, Oct 19, 1978, Tom Waits, Park West

During his 25 years in Chicago, Kirk West photographed legendary blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll musicians. His intimate photographs of candid moments have rarely been seen by the everyday music fan.

After retiring in 2010, West finally took the time to painstakingly sort through everything he shot from 1968 through the early 1990s. He says he spent about a year organizing and scanning pictures from that time. Many of those never-before-seen images are collected on his recently launched website, KirkWestPhotography.com.

West fell in love with music in Nevada, a small town about 30 miles north of Des Moines. A Chicago radio station 300 miles away broadcast blues musician Paul Butterfield, and the early exposure, combined with Everly Brothers songs spinning on his mother’s record player, lit a fire under West, drawing him into the world of music.

After high school, in the summer of 1968, West packed up his 1951 Henry J hot rod and left Nevada, bound for the city lights of Chicago. He soon gave up his hot rod for a professional camera and began building relationships with every major show promoter in the city.

"The world of music photography at that time was completely unregulated,” he said. “I bought a ticket and took a camera. … I couldn’t play music, but this put me in the music.”

Armed with a combination of naivete and courage, West worked his way into opportunities that allowed him to capture striking moments of celebrated musicians. “My attitude has always been if you act like you’re supposed to be there, more often than not, people won’t bother you,” he said.

West spent much of his time in the blues clubs of Chicago, but also photographed artists as varied as Ministry, Van Halen, Merle Haggard, The Police, Bob Marley and the Rolling Stones. Whenever possible, he turned away from the stage spotlights and ventured behind the scenes. “The difference between onstage shooting and offstage shooting is knowing how to be invisible,” he said. “You’re in their space; they’re not performing.”

This fly-on-the-wall approach, combined with what West calls his “country upbringing,” allowed him to connect with people in a nonthreatening way – one of the greatest challenges for a photographer.  (Raymond McCrea Jones, CNN; +)

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