"I don't capture aesthetics, I capture emotion," says Keith Skrastins.
But what happens when a photographer transmits as much emotion through the lens as he captures? He becomes one for whom every snap of the lens is like a pump of blood through the heart and every developed image is a breath exhaled.
Such is the zeal of 28-year-old Skrastins, arguably the only local music photographer who will lie in puddle of beer and remain perfectly still in a rowdy mosh pit for minutes at a time, camera poised, to get the perfect shot. Skrastins has produced documentaries, short films, concert stills, musician portraits and album artwork all in the name of Calgary music. He has worked with such names as Matt Blais, Noel Johnson, the Nix Dicksons and Black Phoenix Orchestra. He also just successfully wrapped up an art showcase exhibiting photos from last summer's Vulcan Fest Music Festival at Revolution Art Gallery in Kensington.
But before the art showcases and local renown, Skrastins's story, like many stories worth telling, resembled a million mismatched paper scraps that somehow happened to be torn out of the same book. Told in anecdotes, verses and hooks, in cigarettes and playground sand, in now-defunct online magazines, his story dovetails only recently. The point of convergence? Music-- specifically, indie-rock music produced in and around the Calgary area.
"Artistically, I'm quite a late bloomer," says Skrastins. "When I found my true medium, I was 24. My photography is the true outlet. But my true the documentation of moment, especially music industry, and that's all it is. After that, I picked up my dad's 35mm camera and I'd blow my paycheque on film and development. I used film for about two years because I wanted to make sure before I bought a digital that I could actually work a camera properly and have a high usability on film."
Keith found this "true medium" only four years ago, but today it is the close, almost familial relationships formed with his subjects from which he derives his real artistic fervour.
"Photography, I really love it, but I love the aspect of people and helping people out," he says. "If a band calls me at four in the morning, it's not always about a photo shoot. It's, 'Can you help me out with this, I can't get home because I drank too much.' "
But unlike many of a similar trade who would envy the list of what he would rather refer to as family than clients, his passion is not measured in paycheques or the word count on his resume, but in rolls of undeveloped film and 20-hour workdays. Although he is regularly commissioned by a plethora of clients, he chooses to take on a maximum of one or two at a time that he follows and shoots regularly. This unconventional approach is key to the development of his craft.
"You really have to know who you're shooting . . . and that's why I stick to the select [few] bands," he says. "I know how they operate and I know how to make them look best . . . I shoot most any band, but my best shots are with the ones I've been following for the majority of my time."
"The reason why I get so many awesome shots of live shows is because I know the set lists, I know the musicians' movements."
Surprisingly, Skrastins does the majority of his work at no cost to his clients, a practice that he follows in order to advance what he terms the "YYC movement," or the Calgary collective of all things artistic.
"Art is for everybody," he says. "Instead of charging what I could charge and exploiting the wallets of these musicians when the money could be going somewhere else, I'd rather exploit myself . . . I know no matter how much I do, it will all come back to me one way or another."
"It's never been about the money, about the fame or success-- I've gained those things by being genuine and charitable to people," he continues. "To me it symbolizes the family aspect of music and of the arts. I'm doing it to help out the YYC, the YYC movement."
Skrastins's altruistic take on the usually hyper-individualistic music industry is not only refreshing, but is a viewpoint that he sees as fundamentally necessary-- at least in the context of the Calgary local music scene.
"The YYC movement will not succeed singularly," he says. "The only way it will succeed is collectively."
Skrastins's story, like the film from his camera, is still being developed. His snapshots of the YYC movement are not only significant in producing tangible memories of unforgettable shows and late-night jams, but in documenting, in permanence and in local music history.
"An exposed piece of film," as Skrastins says, "is something you can never take back."