Having visited the National Portrait Gallery’s Beatles To Bowie exhibition in London, it struck me that the “band photo” really hasn’t moved on much in 50 years. Photographers shooting The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and solo artists like David Bowie, Dusty Springfield, Jimi Hendrix, Helen Shapiro and others in the 1960s really pioneered the rock photography seen today in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine and other music press around the world. My question is when will it change again? With someone revolutionise it again?
There were some seriously good snappers knocking around in the 1960s – David Bailey, Brian Duffy, Fiona Adams, Gered Mankowitz, Tony Frank, to name a few. Each of them created set-ups that have been copied a million times since by bands in the 1970s through to now. So many of today’s rock photographers have borrowed from those times, intentionally or otherwise. The evidence is clear to see.
For me, the greatest difference between the photography of the 1960s and that of the 1950s was realism. In the rock ‘n’ roll days of Elvis and his contemporaries, shoots appeared highly staged affairs – almost like movie posters. You learned nothing of the personalities of the subject. Everything was set up before the shutter had even clicked.
Cliff Richard and The Shadows began to move away from that in the latter part of the decade, and by the time the swinging 60s had rolled around, things were looking decidedly more edgy. Bands and artists were taken out of the studio and placed in real-life environments – dilapidated buildings, wistful forestry, busy street corners, industrial areas, back alleys, or placed indoors around cafe tables in an aesthetically pleasing fashion, or even in their own homes. That put the focus more firmly on the individuals in the photographs than the techniques used to capture the images they populated. Sure, there were candid shots of performers in the 1950s, but few of them emerged as publicity shots, if at all, at the time.
Having been in a band myself, I’ve been the subject of such shoots. The ideas have been around for 50 years, but that didn’t stop us – my fellow bandmates and I – feel incredibly uncomfortable. Maybe we weren’t as cool as Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Daltry and Townsend. But looking at these great images, I wondered if the subjects then – before they’d become global icons – felt the same. I mean for them, it was a massive step outside the norm.
Did they feel awkward standing in pre-arranged positions, trying to look tough? What did they think about as the camera clicked? Were they thinking, “I’m gonna be a star, the chicks are gonna be all over me, oh yeh baby”, or was it more, “I wonder what’s for dinner tonight? Damn, I forgot to hang out my washing this morning.”
Who knows? But whatever it was, now we all agree it worked. And, in a way, the sharp move away from tradition in their photos was perfectly mirrored in their music, which sent post-War baby boomers wild with excitement while their parents clamoured to stem the spread of the virus.
Looking at the images, I was truly mesmerised. Some of the shots were a little cheesy, but many showed a side of these now incredibly famous individuals that I’d never seen. One particular shot by Mankowitz of the Stones in 1967, after a long night of recording, showed a band full of love for each other. They were fresh-faced, loving their lives, and why not? The improvised Vaseline on the lens to create a dream effect in the early morning might have added to that feel, but all fantasy aside, there was real feeling in that moment. I’ve never seen a picture of the Stones looking happier.
Another emotion-packed shot by Bailey demonstrated not love, but tension, between John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the height of their powers. They will forever be among the greatest songwriting teams the world has known, but outside the music, their fractious relationship is well-documented.
Today, as a relatively inexperienced photographer, I’ve photographed musicians as well, and found it difficult. But I’ve learned with any portraiture that “the moment” Mankowitz captured in that Stones shot is all important. Photographers work hard to catch it – through conversation, patience, skill, timing, experience and, perhaps most importantly, relationship. Time spent with your subject is absolutely invaluable. It’s impossible to just point and click and expect the camera to do the work for you – no matter how much you’ve spent on it. That’s the true skill of photography.
One of the biggest challenges is achieving that with someone that hates being photographed – not often the case in the world of rock photography, where egos often outsize imaginations. But I’d love a Mankowitz, a Bailey or a Duffy to have a crack at photographing my Mum. I’ve known her for 37 years and still can’t get her to relax when there is a camera around. But I’m pleased to say that on odd occasions, I’ve captured great moments with her, and that’s more special than anything.