Jason Nelson has always been pretty rock 'n' roll. Usually sporting a heavy-metal hoodie and at least a half-dozen facial piercings, Nelson, of New Castle, Pa., spends his days as an assistant manager at the Hot Topic clothing store in Niles and his nights rubbing elbows with rock gods. When he's not posing for pictures with Gene Simmons, he's down in the trenches, capturing the energy of the music he loves with his camera.
Nelson has gone a long way - from the mosh pit to the VIP section. He has shot photos for Ozzfest, Warped Tour, the Virgin Mobile Festival and countless hard rock bands like Nine Inch Nails, Tool and Jane's Addiction, and even pop stars like Taylor Swift, Keith Urban, the Jonas Brothers and Miley Cyrus. His photos have appeared in magazines such as Rolling Stone, Newsweek, People, Globe, National Enquirer, Revolver, many European heavy-metal magazines like Metal Hammer, and even Country Weekly. He is also a staff photographer for a Christian hardcore metal magazine, Kingdom Extreme. He is now a house photographer for concert venues in Pittsburgh and has seen a lot of famous faces come and go.
A graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh with a degree in specialized technology, focusing on photography, Nelson went on to work in a photography studio for seven years, shooting weddings in between, but always wanted to do something more involved with music.
Photos special to the Tribune Chronicle by Jason Nelson
"As I worked there, I wanted to do concert stuff," he says. "I'd go to shows and take pictures and next time the band came, I'd show them the pictures I took. I'd talk to the roadies, I'd talk to the band managers, and as the bands got bigger, I got to know them."
Nelson used his networking skills to score an early contact in the rock scene. He met the tour manager for System of a Down - before they were big, he notes - and started talking to her. She went on to tour with the Tool and A Perfect Circle, two other bands Nelson was a big fan of. "She knew everybody in the business, and it kind of snowballed from there," he says. "She took a kid with a camera, and now he's published in major magazines."
Nelson also volunteered his skills at Pittsburgh newspapers. "I offered to do shots for free in order to get into the shows," he says. This strategy would eventually lead to his gig as a house photographer for Mellon Arena and the Post-Gazette Pavilion in Pittsburgh. A company who organized red-carpet events saw Nelson's work for Mellon Arena and got him into the gossip magazines. "Now, I even have an agent," he said.
Of course, after almost 10 years on the scene, Nelson has a lot of great stories. A favorite story is about an antique toy monkey he found in a shop. He dubbed the toy "Zippy," and sent him to pose with musicians on tour. "It was this monkey, almost 50 years old, and I wanted to take pictures of him with all these famous people because I don't like to be in pictures myself." During the Ozz-fest tour in 2005, Zippy went on a ride on the tour bus for the band Soulfly and posed for pictures with Brandon Boyd from Incubus, the band Slipknot, and Ozzy Osbourne's son Jack. Zippy even got to meet a movie star. "Robert Downey Jr. looked at me like I was crazy," Nelson said.
Recently, he was shooting Taylor Swift in Pittsburgh. "I was waiting backstage, and a woman walked by," Nelson said. "I thought, 'That's Kate from "Jon and Kate Plus Eight." My escort said, 'that's Kate!' and she went 'shhh,' and pressed her finger to her lips. I said, 'Hey, I saw you on The View, and I thought you were good,' and she was surprised at what I looked like. She took (her daughter) Maddie and pushed her away."
Nelson has also shot some pretty notable photos. He took one of the last photos of Pantera guitarist "Dimebag" Darrell Abbot alive onstage before he was shot and killed during a show in Columbus. Nelson shot a gig for Abbot's side project, Damageplan, a few days before the shooting. That photo ran in Rolling Stone and Newsweek, where it was selected out of 2,700 submissions of photos of the musician.
Nelson's photos have also stirred up some controversy. During a Keith Urban show at the annual Jamboree in the Hills, a fan ran onstage and offered a viking-style helmet to Urban, who was fresh out of rehab. Drenched in sweat from the show, Urban donned the helmet, and Nelson quickly snapped a photo, which was used by tabloids to start rumors about Urban's sobriety. "I thought, 'I'm done,' and it ran everywhere. The Enquirer ran it because he looked like he was partying," Nelson said.
But that readiness is an essential part of photography according to Nelson. "You have to be ready at all times, you can't have the camera on one person at all times," he said. "You have to look for something you wouldn't usually see at a show."
It also takes some adjusting to go from the crowd to the sidelines. Having gone to dozens of hard rock shows, Nelson knows how the crowd can get unruly. "Once I get to the front, if there's crowd surfers, they warn you," he said. "You get your own guard because you have several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment." The pop shows may be a bit tamer, but Nelson said, "Country is where it's at right now." He admits enjoying himself at country shows, piercings and all. Nelson said, "I don't really change for anybody, unless I'm at a celebrity event where I'm in a suit."