If you spot Phierce Photo‘s owner, operator, and lead photographer Keith Griner working a show, he looks like a soldier going into battle—a holster of lenses wrapped around his waist, multiple camera bodies hanging off his shoulders, sometimes shooting into the air on a monopod for a quick aerial snap. If you blink when you see him in the crowd, you’ll miss him, at least for a second. Next thing you know, he’ll be up on stage taking artful shots of a drummer or in the pit capturing the emotion on a guitarist’s face. You might not spot him again that night, but by the next morning, his shots will surface—brilliant, striking depictions that come as close as any to capturing the joy and energy inherent in the live concert experience. Without fail, Phierce Photo churns out explosive image after explosive image, an unending stream of photographic “wow” factor.

Keith’s relentlessly positive perspective, ever-restless personality and unwavering determination to perfecting his art have allowed him to rack up quite an impressive resume of photography gigs. He’s worked directly with some of the scene’s biggest live acts, including Umphrey’s McGeeGreensky BluegrassPretty LightsThe RevivalistsThe FlooziesPigeons Playing Ping PongLettuceThievery CorporationBlues TravelerSpaffordThe Main Squeeze, and countless others. He’s been a staff photographer at events like Suwannee HulaweenNorth Coast Music FestivalPeach Music Festival, and Brooklyn Comes Alive and served as the lead photographer for Summer Camp Music FestivalCountry Jam ColoradoWE FestMempho FestResonance Music & Arts Festival, and Fool’s Paradise. He’s also the house photographer at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN.

[Photo: Keith Griner]

Most recently, Keith took a major step forward in his career, being personally hired by Kid Rock as an official tour photographer and videographer for his recent Midwest arena run. With bigger gigs like this one come better pay, more exposure. He adds:

A pretty common misconception about music photographers is that they must be making good money if they’re working so closely with the bands, if they’re given all this access. But that’s totally not true. It’s insanely difficult to make a living doing music photography. Almost everyone supplements with other kinds of work. There are only really a handful of guys, particularly in the jam scene, who make a living doing this—the photographers who are really great.

[Photo: Keith Griner]

While Griner is now on a trajectory toward that rarified company of greatness, Phierce Photo wasn’t always one of the live music world’s most striking image imprints. Up until just over ten years ago, Keith Griner didn’t even own a camera. The idea had never crossed his mind. “I didn’t always have a passion for photography. I didn’t have a camera. I didn’t have anyone in my family that had a camera I played with. I didn’t have a cousin or something that showed me the ropes. That isn’t part of my story.”

[Photo: Keith Griner]

Today, he has been clean and sober for a decade and counting, and his path to finding photography has run parallel to his road to recovery since its very first steps. He explains:

An important part of my story is that I’ve been clean and sober for ten years. And the reason that’s such a big thing is that I deal with life differently today than I used to. My perspective is different. No matter what the situation is. I try to find the positive out of hard things in life. Any type of negative feeling, I try to learn something positive from it, or spin it into something positive…

In the Fall of 2011, looking for something new to occupy his now-sober mind, Keith bought his first point-and-shoot camera–“Just something to take on vacation, something to document my life a little,” he explains. “Bought it on Black Friday that year. Then on New Year’s Eve, I went to Umphrey’s McGee in St. Louis at The Pageant and took my camera along with me. I had an absolute blast taking pictures from the crowd. For all you Umphrey’s fans that were there, I was Joel side.”

[Photo: Keith Griner]

As those who have succeeded in kicking an addiction know, one of the most important things when trying to move forward is occupying your time and thoughts, filling the hole once filled by a life you no longer lead. “Being that I had so much fun taking pictures at the New Year’s show, the thought entered my mind that maybe I should fill that big empty void with something positive–like learning photography,” Keith muses excitedly. He continues:

In February of 2012, I was in a position to buy an entry-level SLR—I think I bought, like, a Nikon 5100, something like that—and in all of my free time, I started studying photography. Taking it out, practicing on whatever. There were two bars in Columbus, Indiana, where I’m from, that had music every Friday and Saturday night, and I started taking my camera there and just practicing. That’s kind of where the whole passion started to develop.

The role of “photographer” also meshed well with Keith’s personality. “Photography has become an important part of me keeping myself busy while I’m at the shows and festivals,” he explains. Continuing, he adds:

Anyone who knows me knows I’m pretty restless [laughs], so to be able to go do this, and go do that, and go shoot this, and focus here, and focus there is a really important aspect of the whole experience for me. It gives me something wonderful to focus on, capturing those moments…I was always taught in recovery that you can do anything if you’re mentally and spiritually fit and have the right intentions of being there. And now, often, my intention of being anywhere is to capture it for others to see and relive.

[Photo: Keith Griner]

As fate would have it, a combination of Keith’s path of recovery and his budding enthusiasm for learning this new craft would land him his first break. He elaborates:

Something I learned early on in recovery, when I started going back to concerts, was that there was a support system within the jam band scene. You know, The Grateful Dead always had the Wharf Rats. Phish has The Phellowship, Umphrey’s has Much Obliged. String Cheese Incident has The Jellyfish. There are others as well. What happened was, I met somebody at one of those recovery tables that knew someone else in recovery who had a little media outlet in Alabama, Jams Plus Media. He connected me to them, and that was how I started securing photo passes. Umphrey’s ended up giving me my first-ever photo pass through that outlet. That’s just one of many ways that recovery played an important role in my journey.

But before Keith went into recovery, it wasn’t so easy to see the positive in his current situation. To enter recovery and find his calling—to change his perspective; see the light—Keith had to wade through times of darkness. As he explains, deep in thought:

I can’t speak for others, but I can tell you that my life right before going into recovery was full of hopelessness and despair. Everything that I was doing just prior to recovery was not fun, and this had become a way of life. I didn’t discriminate. I wanted to do whatever was available, and more of it. That’s the kind of person I was. I’ve lived on the streets. I’ve taken myself through lifestyles I never imagined and depths that I never thought I would see.

Immersing himself more and more in photography allowed Griner to re-enter the world of live music without being tempted by old demons, as his M.O. changed from “what can I consume?” to “what can I capture; what can I create?”

[Photo: Keith Griner]

“I know that there are people out there who can relate to that feeling, people who are going through that same thing,” he explains. “I was able to pull myself out of those things through my program of recovery. Living that one day at a time, I’ve been able to achieve things I truly never thought were possible. So the one message I always try to convey to other people is a message of hope.”

[Keith shooting Oteil Burbridge at Fool’s Paradise 2017 via Jeremy Scott]

When asked about what he would see as success—what his goals are for his work–Keith replies unwaveringly. “I want to continue meeting new people, working with new people in this industry. … I want to earn the respect of the photographers whose work I respect, and form relationships with people where we help each other out, bring each other up instead of pushing each other down. I want to pass on the things I’ve learned to other people who are still learning their way,” like explaining why you shouldn’t work for free (“the band wouldn’t perform for free”) or why you should just bite the bullet and pay a little more for a camera that will deliver results (“You’re not gonna enter your Buick LeSabre into a cross-country race, even if it works fine for getting around town”).

“I want my business to continue growing,” he trails off. “I hope I can continue to approach things with a positive perspective, continue with my path of recovery, and see how far it can take me.” Considering the jaw-dropping quality of his work and the virtually unthinkable distance he’s climbed to get to where he is today, it would be unwise to bet against him.

You can view a gallery of Phierce Photo by Keith Griner’s images below. For more, or to retain Phierce Photo’s services or images, head to www.phiercephoto.com.

Follow Keith Griner on Instagram @keithagriner.