Around the turn of the millennium, Jay Hale started thinking about putting out a book of his concert photography. Though he’d been shooting shows since moving from Georgetown to Boston for college in 1995, his friends suggested that he wait until he had built up a larger collection. Nearly two decades later, it appears that Hale’s time has finally come.
The Middle East, in collaboration with Out of the Blue Too Gallery, is currently hosting “Get Off the Ramp! 22 Years of Photography at The Middle East by Jay Hale.” The exhibition, which features 18 of Hale’s favorite photos from the hundreds of concerts he’s shot at the Cambridge club, officially opened with a reception on Dec. 13 and runs through Jan. 31. It’s fitting that the venue showcasing Hale’s camerawork is the same one where he first cut his teeth as a concert photographer, and which still holds a privileged place in his heart.
“Something about that room, the low ceilings, the lower stage. There’s something special about that club,” says Hale. “I guess it really hasn’t changed very much in over two decades; every time I come in there it almost feels like I’m back home.”
Hale had little experience shooting concerts before he enrolled at Suffolk University, so he had to learn on the fly. At Lollapalooza in 1996, a Globe photographer taught him how to manually load film so he could get some decent shots of the Ramones. Soon enough, he was regularly covering bands for his college newspaper, the Suffolk Journal.
“Seeing that every week I could get something published in this college newspaper that was going out to a couple thousand people . . . the more I got involved, the more I really took a shine to it,” says Hale.
The band Hale has shot more than any other — about 50 times by his count — is Boston’s own Mighty Mighty Bosstones. He also shot the cover of their “Live From the Middle East” album and worked as photo editor for saxophonist Tim “Johnny Vegas” Burton’s short-lived punk/ska magazine Rude: International.
Bosstones lead singer Dicky Barrett remembers Hale as hard-working, enthusiastic, and “just one of life’s good souls.”
“It’s tough to talk about Jay. I wish there was some darkness or an edge, but he’s just a terrific guy,” says Barrett. “If you find the person who has any [dirt] on him, I would like to meet that person, because I don’t believe they exist. I love [Hale] dearly.”
One of Hale’s favorite memories came on the release date for “Live From the Middle East.” Tower Records inducted the band into its walk of fame, and for the induction ceremony the Clash’s Joe Strummer made an appearance. The Middle East hosted the after-party, and it fell to Hale to make sure everyone who wanted a photo with Strummer got one. Hale says Strummer was personable, but even he had his limits.
“I had just taken a photo that’s in the exhibit of Joe Strummer and Dicky,” says Hale. “I snapped like one more photo and Joe, who had been so patient all evening, kind of turned to me and goes, ‘I think that’s enough photos for the evening, what do you think?’ And I just said, ‘Joe, whatever you want,’ and I put the lens cap back on my camera.”
Then there was the time Hale went to interview Jerry Only from the Misfits, and found him in the Middle East women’s bathroom with a hair dryer.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, Jerry! Jay Hale. What the hell are you doing in the women’s bathroom?’ And he kind of puts down his hair dryer and goes, ‘It’s the only bathroom in this place with a power outlet where I can do my hair.’ So I guess you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
According to Hale, the best show he ever shot at the Middle East came from another local favorite: the Dropkick Murphys. It was an afternoon release show for their first album, “Do or Die,” and Hale still remembers the date: Feb. 8, 1998. As he shot their soundcheck, he heard increasingly outlandish rumors about the long, unruly line forming outside, and when the show finally started, Hale could tell that this band was going to be huge.
“The crowd was pulsating,” says Hale. “I don’t how many people they let into this show, but I have never seen that room so packed before. It was insane.”
After Rude: International folded, Hale started his own local music magazine, Fat City, though the mid-2000s independent music industry implosion forced the shuttering of that publication. He currently works as an editor for Harvard’s alumni association, leaving social media as the main outlet for his concert photography. He still hopes to publish that book eventually.
“I definitely have the content for it, it’s just getting off my duff and doing it,” he says. “There’s stuff I’ve been sitting on that I want to keep extra special for when I launch a project; I think a book would be a great venue for that.”
While the 45-minute drive from his new home in Littleton to Cambridge keeps him from shooting as many Middle East shows as he used to, he still considers it a trek worth making.
“I can be away from covering shows for months at a time, [but] once that first band takes the stage, something clicks and I just go, ‘God, I forgot how much fun this is,’ ” says Hale. “You just get swept up in an emotion.”