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

By Robin Sluzas, Staff Reporter

Photographer Gene Ambo recently released his book “Heavy Metro: Access All Eras,” which highlights many of his favorite bands that have played at the classic Chicago venue. Jared Callaway

Gene Ambo did not plan to be a concert photographer. He began taking photographs of friends’ bands because he said it was “a lot” more interesting than taking pictures of cemeteries, “L” tracks and girlfriends.

Because Ambo did not have access to superstar acts, he found his niche at Metro Chicago, 3730 N. Clark St., shooting up-and-coming bands like Metallica in 1983 and Motörhead in 1985.

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

Ambo’s new photo book, “Heavy Metro: Access All Eras,” celebrates the iconic Chicago venue, which is owned by Columbia alum Joe Shanahan, with a portion of the proceeds going to help Metro Chicago through funds from Save Our Stages, a COVID-19 relief fund for small business venues.

Gene Ambo, a world renowned Chicago photographer, published his first book in July, which includes photos he took of Metallica, the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana. Bianca Kreusel

“The success of Gene’s book is because it chronicles the Metro. The room’s community-oriented spirit results from the ability of people to celebrate music,” Shanahan said. “People came without even knowing what band was playing. If a band like Metallica was trying to find a place to play, they’d consider where people go, and the Metro would come to mind.”

Ambo said his awareness about how to make a living in the photography field was solidified when he photographed Madonna on film during her “Who’s That Girl Tour” at Soldier Field in 1987.

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

While the first digital camera was invented in 1975 by Eastman Kodak, Ambo said he prefers film as a photo medium rather than digital photography because he likes the quality of film better.

“The reactions … there’s no delay in the shutter. You get immediate results,” Ambo said. “[Film is] much more expensive, obviously, and that was the common denominator of changing to digital, because everybody wanted cheap production.”

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

Ambo said the likelihood of an aspiring photographer reaching the pinnacle of the field today is more difficult than in the past, because digital cameras changed the industry by making taking photos more affordable and accessible.

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

A self-taught artist, he said he learned from watching and working with other iconic concert photographers and by visually inspecting their photos.

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

Metro is known for hosting local, regional and national emerging bands and musicians since its opening in 1982. Bianca Kreusel

Despite the new barriers to achieving concert photographer superstardom, Ambo feels it is still possible for new concert photographers to become successful in the field by obtaining the exclusive right to take photos of a specific band.

Both Ambo’s and South Side native Shanahan’s careers were launched almost simultaneously. Shanahan, the founder and owner of Metro Chicago, Smart Bar and Gman Tavern, opened the live music venue in 1982.

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

Shanahan’s achievement in concert venue history is held in high esteem by many different bands. In 2013, he received an honorary degree from Columbia College Chicago presented by alum and WXRT radio host Marty Lennartz.

The stage of the Metro 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 the school with helping to get his club started, emphasizing how much Columbia means to him.

For Shanahan, the creativity it took to build his vision was what mattered, in addition to giving a place for people like Ambo to thrive. He said the impetus to build Metro Chicago reflected his interest in producing community-centered music events to present the many varieties of music available in Chicago.

“I think that the unholy marriage of commerce and art has always been a really hard thing to balance,” Shanahan said. “How does it make sense financially?”

Shanahan advised students who are considering becoming concert venue owners to take more business and math classes to ensure a smoother ride, rather than learning the hard way.

For information about purchasing the book, click “Heavy Metro: Access All Eras.” Click Save Our Stages to donate to the fund.