Rock’n’roll is such a dramatic art form, the images we took still shape the way we experience music,” says legendary rock photographer Mick Rock. And not even the ubiquity of the music video, prompted by mtv in the early 80s, can compete. “There’s something about the static image that imprints itself on the mass psyche,” he insists. “Think of Iggy [Pop] and most people will think of Raw Power. Think of Lou [Reed] and it’ll be Transformer.” Of course, the man who captured glam rock in all its gaudy glory would say that – he shot the covers.
But there’s little doubt that the defining images in rock tend to hail from bygone eras. Some insist that’s because today’s rock stars are one-dimensional and lack charisma. But talk to half a dozen of the finest rock photographers from the past 30 years and, while some support that view, all are in agreement that something far more sinister has been going on. It’s the business itself, they say, that’s been largely responsible for flattening rock’s visual landscape. And, charismatic or not, that includes the bands themselves.
“I used to do a lot of work with the Stones,” says Michael Putland, ex-Sounds photographer and one-time boss of photo agency Retna. “So when they were here in 2006, I called their office and said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great to photograph the gig the way we used to? None of this first three songs and you’re out nonsense.’ Great idea, they said, but they’re a corporation now. They need permission from 1,500 people. Of course it didn’t happen.”
Robert Ellis, who cut his teeth shooting for the rock weeklies during the 70s, is in no mood to mince words. “Music photography is virtually being destroyed by the music industry,” he claims. Like Mick Rock, Jill Furmanovsky, Ian Dickson and even post-punk photographer Steve Gullick, Ellis now enjoys a neat sideline selling high quality prints of his classic shots. But when it comes to jostling for position in the photographers’ pit, he tends to avoid what he calls ‘an unmitigated disaster area’.
Hampered by restricted access, harassed by security guards, and handcuffed by contracts – from both artists and magazine publishers – photographers feel robbed of their own work. In such circumstances, it’s little wonder they question whether, as Putland says, “the role of a rock photographer even exists any more”.
With the rise of digital hardware, not to mention the sea of mobile phones pointed at the stage, more photographs are taken at rock gigs now than ever before. Quantity, however, does not equal quality. “When was the last time you saw a set of wonderful live pictures?” asks Putland. Oasis, perhaps, I respond. “Exactly. And why was that? Because a lot of those were taken by Jill Furmanovsky, who knew the band and was given great freedom. It’s all about access.”
“I was sent to a stadium in Madrid to photograph Madonna in the mid 90s,” says Furmanovsky. “I knew I’d be restricted by the first three songs rule, which was already in place by then, [The three-song rule, which is now standard practice, dictates that no professional photographers are allowed after the third song of a set] but I had no idea I’d be expected to shoot from way back where the mixing desk was. I was packed in with all these press photographers up on ladders with lenses that looked like missiles. I couldn’t work like that so legged it and went down the front and shot from among the crowd. Distance is a major obstacle in shooting the big artists.”
Ian Dickson blames the prs. “The message that you can’t have sweaty pics of Madonna came from them, and to me, that’s the complete antithesis of rock n roll. They’ve completely sanitised it.” Others insist the problem goes deeper than that. “The bean counters – lawyers, accountants and managers – have been in control since the early 80s,” insists Robert Ellis.
It’s especially revealing, Ellis adds, that Madonna left Warner Brothers last year and signed a huge deal with concert promoter Live Nation to handle her work. “There’s been an explosion of live performances in the last 15 years,” he says. “Now it’s the live experience that’s dictating an artist’s career, not records.” Consequently, the iconography associated with the old record sleeves – which had already received a battering when vinyl albums got shrunk down to cd size – has diminished in importance. By rights, concert photography ought to have entered an exciting new phase to reflect this change. Instead, the despised three-song rule was introduced, and has for many years become the norm. That its arrival roughly coincides with claims that rock’n’roll has lost much of its surprise and sparkle is likely no coincidence.
“Actually, things began to change in the early 70s,” Ellis continues. “Flash photography had been prompted by the American market which demanded high quality images, and bands soon got pissed off with that going off in their faces all the time.” By mid-decade, artists such as the Stones and Eric Clapton were instructing photographers to restrict their activities to the first three songs.
What had started out as an attempt at image control by some of the bigger artists was subsequently adopted, or so the argument runs, by live music venues themselves. Not wanting to run the risk of upsetting the big stars and driving them away, venues enforced the three-song ruling as an industry standard. While venues maintain it is a policy they implement on behalf of artists’ management, managers argue that it is a ruling upheld by the venues. To get that ruling overturned seems to require such a degree of negotiation that few bother to try. The result is everyone’s loss.
“It’s crazy,” says Jill Furmanovsky. “Everyone knows that it’s during the last three songs that all the action really takes place.” That’s when, for example, Pennie Smith would have taken her stunning, poll-topping shot of Paul Simonon smashing his bass down onto the stage (as featured on the cover of The Clash’s London Calling album). Or when Robert Ellis took his band-defining shot of ac/dc’s Angus Young, shirtless, hair flying and bent manically over his guitar. And when Michael Putland caught all the drama of a live Who show with a shot that simply featured Pete Townshend’s hand and his guitar flying into the air. “One of my best,” he maintains, “but it would be impossible to capture that under today’s circumstances. I admire photographers like Steve Gullick. He does remarkably well under the circumstances.”
I catch Gullick, who’s been in the business some 20 years, on his way to a shoot in Glasgow. While most of today’s rock photographers have day jobs in order to make ends meet, Gullick’s reputation as one of the finest portraitists of his generation has enabled him to survive – despite everything the industry stacks against his profession.
“It’s fucking tough,” he says. “The music industry is in dire straits, so there’s less money around. I’ve fallen out with various publishers over the years, not least because I refuse to sign contracts that give them sole rights to syndicate my images, and I’ve just found out this morning that they’ve stopped making my favourite film stock.”
Gullick doesn’t do digital. “I don’t wanna sound corny, but digital pictures have no soul. When you shoot on film, the light interacts with the emulsion on the film. There’s a physical reaction. Digital is cold. It can’t deal with light properly.”
Like his peers, he has little time for big name stars at tightly policed events. “I used to do a lot of live stuff,” he says. “But I’ve no longer got the patience to put up with the pain in the arse restrictions. When I do live stuff, it’s more likely to be a small pub gig.”
Gullick has earned his reputation via a combination of perfectionism (“I always aim for a picture that I can hang in an exhibition”) and choosing his artists carefully. “My choices are always dictated by the music,” says the man who specialises in left-field artists such as Nick Cave, Bjork and Joanna Newsom. “I enjoy innovative music and it’s generally part of the package that people who create that are fairly individual themselves.”
It’s empathy with a performer that has guaranteed Mick Rock his place in history, too, though by his own admission it almost cost him his life. “My interest was totally with the artist,” he says. “Inspired by Syd Barrett, I picked up a camera in 1969 while on an acid trip, and from Syd and David [Bowie] to [Thin Lizzy’s] Phil Lynott, I identified so strongly with those characters that it got me into a lot of trouble later on when I developed my chemical habits.”
These days, the now-recovered Rock himself has become something of a celebrity. “When I go to launches, they shoot the photographer,” he laughs. “But when people ask me why I got all the best glam rock photos, I have to say that back in 1972, I was the only one shooting Lou and Iggy.” It was, however, Rock’s relationship with Bowie that sealed his reputation. “David was very sophisticated visually himself,” he concedes. “But it also helped that I could shoot when I wanted. That’s why the pictures were better back then. I’d got to know David’s moves so well that I could anticipate what he’d do next. That was crucial.”
Ian Dickson agrees. “The most important thing is anticipation. If you see the shot in the viewfinder, it’s too late.”
If concert photography has largely been strangled by restrictions (though check out ace Mexican snapper Fernando Aceves on Jill Furmanovsky’s rockarchive.com for someone who bucks the trend) the staged publicity shoot still offers the opportunity for a photographer to unleash his or her creative talents. But with the music industry in freefall, budgets have been hit hard, and opportunities are severely limited.
“I always get budding photographers coming to me for advice,” says Ian Dickson. “And the first thing I tell them is don’t become a music photographer. There’s no future in it. Or if you do, opt for studio-based photography.”
Jill Furmanovsky is rather more hopeful. “We get a lot of letters,” she says. “And we say, go to your local pub and help out your local band. You might be lucky and find out that they become the next Arctic Monkeys or Razorlight.”
LA based music photographer, Autumn de Wilde, concurs. She advises those early on in their careers to: “Start with bands that aren’t famous and grow with them.” De Wilde, who has documented the careers of Elliott Smith, The White Stripes and Beck, among others, also advises more established photographers to consider pro bono work with upcoming artists they feel passionate about. Death Cab for Cutie were one such band that de Wilde shot for the love of it, so she could “record their development and remember”. And if it turns out that your artist becomes the next Rolling Stones, she adds, pragmatically: “Well then you have a major investment on your hands.”
Failing that, there’s always the ever-lucrative paparazzi of course….
This article first appeared in M, the magazine for the 60,000 composer, songwriter and music publisher members of the Performing Right Society