The healing arts

For Cedar Cultural Center photographer, shooting musicians is therapy

It was back in his garage band days at Anthony Middle School that Bryan Aaker decided as much as he loved music, he wasn’t destined to be one of the guys on stage.

“I decided early on that I didn’t want to know how music worked from the perspective of being a musician,” Aaker said. “I wanted to perfect the listening part of it. I’ve been trying to get there for many years.”

A couple of years ago, Aaker got into the equivalent of graduate school for serious listeners. Since 2005, the Kenny resident has been staff photographer at the Cedar Cultural Center, one of the Twin Cities’ great music
institutions.

Head to almost any concert at the Cedar Cultural Center and you might see him, the guy with the longish gray hair and moustache hanging out at the back of the crowd, snapping photos.

He was there in April when Konono Number One arrived from the Congo and back the next night for Frigg, a Scandinavian string band. At the Cedar, it’s free jazz one night and quiet folk music the next, and Aaker sees it all.

“I’ve shot pretty much every show there since June of ’05,” he said.

For Aaker, 55, the volunteer gig at the Cedar isn’t just a chance to take in a bunch of free shows; it’s also physical and emotional therapy.

More than 20 years after a spinal injury, Aaker must control near-constant pain with medication. For a few hours a night at the Cedar, he said, it’s easier to cope.

“I think there’s endorphins at work every time I pick up my camera at the Cedar,” he said.

Seizing the opportunity

This isn’t Aaker’s first music-related job, but the last one was a bit different. Back in 1986, he worked for a coin-operated machine business based in Bloomington.

“My job was a music programmer for 492 jukeboxes around Minneapolis and St. Paul,” he said.

Aaker traveled to bars and clubs around the Twin Cities to update the music on his company’s machines. He also swapped out old and broken jukeboxes, a job that required some heavy lifting, like moving pool tables to clear a path to the door.

“I just bent over wrong one day,” he said, and that was it. Career over.

The repair work involved three surgeries spread over nearly five years. Eventually, doctors had to fuse several of his vertebrae.

During his treatment, Aaker’s wife, Judith Napier, who works in the health care industry, accepted a position in Chicago. That’s when photography, until then just a hobby, became Aaker’s full-time job.

“I switched roles with my wife, and I was a stay-at-home dad, working weekends,” he said.

On weekends, Aaker was an event photographer, shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs.

In 2005, the couple returned to Minneapolis, eventually settling in Kenny, Aaker’s childhood home. Around the same time, the back pain supposedly cured by his long-ago surgeries returned. The pain was debilitating, he said.

Aaker, feeling frustrated, explained the situation one day to Bill Kubeczko, the Cedar’s artistic director. The two had long ago bonded over their mutual admiration for jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

“I sat down and explained to Bill [Kubeczko] that I was struggling, health-wise,” he said. “He suggested that I bring my camera to the Cedar and try to find a spot where I could maybe forget about that and focus on photography.

“I grabbed it, and it’s just been a blessing.”

Capturing the music

Aaker said he typically shoots several hundred pictures during one performance. If eight or 10 of those meet his standards, it’s a good night, he said.

Every once in a while, one of those pictures will be something special. But it’s hard for Aaker to explain what happens.

“It’s got nothing to do with me or the camera,” he said. “It’s really capturing the musician in his state of communication, whether it’s just a tilted head or some of the lighting shining through a guitar or bass.”

Aaker saw that quality in one of his favorite photos, a shot of the Finnish accordionist Maria Kalaniemi taken during last year’s Nordic Roots Festival. Kalaniemi’s eyes are closed, and her mastery of the instrument is evident in the calm expression on her face.

“I just thought her hands were so beautiful on top of that accordion,” Aaker added.

Brian Corner, the Cedar’s director of publicity and outreach, said one of Aaker’s live concert photos was used for a fundraising CD the center put out last year. They have appeared on a number of Cedar publications, as well, and help to reconnect both performers and audience members with memories of great nights at the Cedar,
Corner said.

“It’s great to be able to have an in-house photo of a past performance here,” he said.

The Cedar has free use of all the photos, so they could keep appearing for years to come.

“Who knows? Maybe someday someone will want to write a history of the Cedar,” Corner said.

Whatever the long-term impact of her husband’s work, Judith Napier said she sees a difference in him now.

“He is much more able to focus on something beside the pain,” Napier said.

“He comes home quite excited,” she said. “He wants to look at his pictures right away. It is powerful, from that standpoint.”

For Aaker, it was just a simple conversation with a fellow music lover that made all the
difference.

“That’s all it takes, is for someone to give you an opportunity to try something new, and it can open up a whole world for you,” he said. “Even at the age of 55.”