Expect the Unexpected.
"Here's the best song from the best album of this year," the DJ said. It was 1997, and I was on my way home from work, listening to the radio. The DJ's words pricked my ears because, for years, I had been craving new music. But as a lifelong (and eccentrically strict) Beatles and Billy Joel fan—I listened to almost nothing else!—finding new music that appealed to me proved to be difficult. I didn't like rap. I didn't like punk. I didn't like country. I despised the vapid popular hits.

Well, the music started playing and—honestly, I'd never before fallen so quickly in love with a song. The song was "Brick," by Ben Folds Five, and it deeply resonated with me. It compelled me to change course: instead of going home, I hurried to the nearest record store hoping to find the album the DJ so highly praised. Minutes later, feeling triumphant and excited, I emerged from New World Records with Ben Folds Five's Whatever and Ever Amen.

One year before, my girlfriend had dumped me. I hadn't yet gotten over her; I still felt heartbroken and deeply disappointed by the breakup. But the brilliant songs on Whatever and Ever Amen—songs including "Song for the Dumped," "Selfless, Cold, and Composed," and "Evaporated"—struck a chord deep within me and salved my heart. I rapidly fell in love with Ben Folds's music and bought all of his albums; with them, I fed my soul. His music became—like sunbeams to a rose—a vital part of my being.

Five years passed, and in 2002, Folds was doing the Ben Folds and a Piano Tour and was scheduled to perform in nearby Rochester, New York. He was also scheduled to headline—four days later—Thursday at the Square, one of a series of free summer concerts in Buffalo. I thought, "Wow! Ben Folds is coming to my neighborhood. I wonder if I could meet—maybe even photograph—the guy whose music changed my life!?" The more I thought about it, the more I fancied the idea, and the stronger my intention to meet Ben Folds grew.

My photography teacher, Art Hand, once gave me some powerful words of wisdom that apply not only to taking photographs but to life itself: "Be as aggressive as you can until you get kicked out." With that in mind, I snubbed the Rochester show's "No Cameras Allowed" policy, and snuck in three—a Holga, a Diana, and a Contax G2. From the front row, I took LOTS of pictures. No one kicked me out; in fact, the security guards amicably asked, "Who are you, the official photographer?" I said, "I sure am." They said, "You're doing a good job."
After the Rochester show, while he was busy signing autographs, I met Folds. He noticed my cameras. He took particular interest in my Holga, a cheap plastic toy camera upon which I had glued—for laughs—the Leica logo. (Leicas are prestigious cameras that are incredibly expensive.) Folds pointed to my Holga and said, "Nice camera. I have a Leica, too." Turns out, photography was his passion, his hobby. "No kidding!" I said. "Well, this camera is a piece of shit." Perplexed, he examined my "Leica," and then laughed. "Clever," he said.

Four days later, armed with my cameras, my portfolio, and my photos of the Rochester show, I arrived early at the venue in Buffalo with the hope that I might meet Folds again and persuade him to let me do his portrait. I didn't have to wait long; he suddenly appeared for sound check, his Leica slung over his shoulder. He recognized me and smiled. "You're the guy with the fake Leica." I said, "Let me show you what this fake Leica can do."

Folds looked at my photographs—and they blew his mind. "You made these images," he asked, "with that?!" He was stunned; he had never before heard of using plastic cameras such as Holgas or Dianas. He decided to skip sound check because he wanted to talk to me, to pick my brain about photography and learn more about plastic cameras. And, he agreed to let me photograph him. After the impromptu photo shoot, Folds asked a question that made my jaw drop. "Would you like to shoot the Roseland Ballroom gig in New York?"

Ben's manager called me a few days later, and suddenly I was doing business with Epic Records. Then, on 13 June 2002, I was amazed to find myself on stage with Ben Folds at New York City's Roseland Ballroom—making images for his new album, Ben Folds Live.

My intention to meet and photograph Ben Folds blossomed into a life-changing adventure that didn't end in New York. After the Roseland Ballroom show, Folds employed me to print his negatives; and, as his guest and cohort, I've often been backstage and onstage, "on tour" at many shows—in Toronto, in Cleveland, in Richmond, in Los Angeles (twice), in Las Vegas (twice), and elsewhere.

I'm grateful to have been both a teacher and a friend to such a talented human being. Here are some of the images that emerged when my passion for photography—and for my favorite music—collided.

Photos of Ben
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On stage with Ben Folds at the Molson Amphitheatre, Toronto
Photograph by David Leyes