Let’s face it: it is rare to become a fan of a band simply because the music is pretty good. While, of course, the music is a massive catalyst in such a decision, we become invested in our favourite artists for a myriad of reasons – and often, the visual chops of said artist is one of these. Think about it – it is difficult to picture the early Beatles without their Pierre Cardin-designed collarless suits, glam-era David Bowie without glittery, flamboyant catsuits and bright-red platform boots, The Sex Pistols without their Vivienne Westwood designed garb, The Cure’s Robert Smith without his teased hair and copious amounts of eyeliner… But of course, it’s a little difficult to be fascinated by a band’s visual presentation without seeing them first. And unless you’ve been lucky enough to see one of the above in real life, it is at this point that the world of rock photography enters the picture. (Pun intended.)
When I mention ‘rock photography’, I do not mean the kind that consists of the unimaginative awkwardness equal to that of your Grade 5 school photo. I mean the kind that appears to effortlessly capture the spirit of what music is all about – think the cover of Patti Smith’s Horses, the freezeframe of Joe Strummer about to smash his guitar that eventually became the cover of London Calling, that photoshoot of Bowie and his lightning bolt makeup… So today, I’m going to name and showcase a few of my favourite rock photographers – the masters of capturing the spirit of rock’n’roll – and I’ll say a few words about them, too. Though, as they always say, a picture is worth a thousand words…
Most famous for photographing: David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Syd Barrett
Contrary to what regular readers may assume, I didn’t discover Mick Rock’s photography via his extensive Bowie work, but through his photoshoot for the cover of Syd Barrett’s debut solo album, The Madcap Laughs. There is something so mysterious and magical about these photos – Syd (wearing smudged kohl and a pair of old velvet flares) sits among his hazy and delightfully cluttered flat, somehow effortlessly capturing the spirit of his work.
But it was his Bowie shots that made him my all-time favourite photographer. The pictures he took of Bowie throughout the early ’70s are glittery, glamorous insights into the heady worlds of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. Each shot manages to translate the theatricality, the otherwordliness, the arty intellectuality, the freakish beauty of his work into what are (in my opinion) some of the greatest photos of all time. Of course, Bowie (well aware of the value of utilising both sound and vision) was photographed many times by countless photographers – but very few others managed to instinctively get what he was all about and freeze it within a few frames of film.
But then – then – I discovered that he took pretty much every famous picture of every iconic glam artist, too! His shots of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and Brian Eno – alongside the Bowie ones – take the dangerously dark glamour of the movement and turn it into something we can still find infinitely fascinating and a little rebellious today. And apart from this, he also took a myriad of other incredible pictures of every other artist of the time you can think of – Queen, The Stones, Blondie, The Ramones, The Runaways, The Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux… No wonder he is referred to as “the man who shot the ’70s”!
Most famous for photographing: New York punk, John & Yoko – but also every other artist you can think of
Even if you don’t know who Bob Gruen is, you most certainly know his work – he was the guy who not only shot that famous image of John Lennon wearing his ‘New York City’ shirt, but who actually gave John said shirt in the first place! Gruen shot almost every other iconic artist of the era as well, seemingly turning up at every show that passed through New York (where he is from). Among his other famous shots include a “multiple image” of Tina Turner and a picture of Sid Vicious with hot dog mustard all over his face, but he’s also photographed everyone from Led Zeppelin to KISS to Dylan to Green Day to the Beastie Boys to Sly Stone to Elvis Costello to [insert first artist off the top of your head here]…
Asides from this, Gruen was a regular at New York’s most iconic venues, CBGB and Max’s Kansas City – so consequently, he also shot a who’s-who of New York underground music throughout the ’70s and ’80s! He photographed native artists like the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, Devo, Plasmatics, Television and Blondie – on top of non-natives, like Nina Hagen, the Pistols and The Clash – performing to their equally-fascinating audiences, juxtaposing their fashions and reactions alongside the artists themselves. In a way, Gruen is to punk what Rock is to glam – he effortlessly captures the sweaty, intimate passion that defined much of the New York scene in a way that few others have mastered. But everything he’s shot has this too. His images never fail to remind you what rock’n’roll is all about…
Most famous for photographing: The Stones, Lennon & McCartney
It’s probably kind of a stretch to refer to David Bailey as a “rock photographer” when most of his legacy stems around his relationship with models such as Jean Shrimpton and the like. But perhaps it is his background as a fashion photographer that makes his pictures of a few of the biggest stars of ’60s rock so interesting and great.
My favourite of his many photoshoots is the one he did with John Lennon and Paul McCartney at the beginning of 1965. The pair are photographed in the richest tones black-and-white film can produce against a starkly cold, white background – and though the photos are obviously staged, there is a candidness to the pictures, something that seems to transcend whatever a normal photo can capture. But perhaps Bailey was always more famous for picturing The Stones; asides from shooting Mick Jagger a number of times, he also took many of the band’s album covers, including their self-titled sophomore effort, US release The Rolling Stones, Now! and most famously Aftermath. Other musicians he’s shot include Marianne Faithful and Alice Cooper.
Most famous for photographing: British punk and new wave
While Bob Gruen was capturing New York punk, Janette Beckman was busy photographing the various circles among the British musical underground at the same time. Like him, she managed to shoot a who’s-who of her scene, her work encompassing artists like Siouxsie Sioux (the subject of her first photoshoot), Public Image Ltd, The Jam, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Undertones – even The Who! She also captured a number of American artists who passed through town, too, such as Lydia Lunch, The Cramps and Debbie Harry. Beckman also shot a number of images of young people in Britain at the time, illustrating the assorted tribes – punk, mod, ska, and so on – that found themselves scattered around the country at the time, and later went on to shoot a bunch of hip hop groups in the ’80s.
In contrast to Gruen and Rock, her images rarely show her subjects performing onstage – instead opting for staged shoots and backstage candids – but this doesn’t stop her from capturing the spirit and ethos of the movements around her. Her shots capture the passion and philosophies of the artists in fascinatingly inventive ways – the way she captures the feeling of the music is perhaps only precedented by Mick Rock. Her work is quirky and endlessly interesting, an incredible document of much of the greatest music of the time.
Most famous for photographing: candid shots of a who’s-who of ’70s rock’n’roll
Unlike the other photographers in this list, Brad Elterman did not become an official photographer until a few years into his career. This is illustrated by my favourite story about him – of how, in 1976, he was denied a photopass into Bowie’s recording studio during the making of Station to Station, so instead opted to wait outside the studio and ambush Bowie and his crew as they left that night. Despite this, though, he still managed to photograph a heap of major faces in ’70s rock’n’roll, and in a way that many of his official counterparts would be incapable of.
Elterman’s shots are candid and compelling in a way that more professional photoshoots are not. He so easily shows the emotions and lives of his subjects – his pictures are relaxed and fun, and they capture a certain realism about the whole thing. He’s photographed everyone from Joan Jett to Bowie, Dylan to John and Yoko, Michael Jackson to Joni Mitchell, and there is just something so special about each! There is no-one who has shot the rock’n’roll world with his unbelievably unique eye before or since, and it is this that makes his work so great…
And so, who are your favourite rock photographers? What are your favourite pictures of rock music? Be sure to tell me in the comments!