Neal Hamilton remembers the night his heart stopped. He was the official photographer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Little Richard was in town performing a full show with a 10-piece band in the Rock Hall's Fourth Floor Theater.
"I'm down front taking pictures at the edge of the stage," recalls Hamilton. "He's playing piano and looking right at me." Then the legend abruptly stopped. "Now I'm nervous."
A piercing silence fell across the stage as the whole band quit playing.
"Oh hell, what just happened?" Hamilton remembers thinking. "I'm thinking he's going to scream at me for taking pictures."
"What kind of camera is that?" Little Richard asked.
"I told him. Then he said, 'Make sure you get my good side,' and blazed right back into the song. He didn't miss a beat."
Luckily, Little Richard had a sly sense of humor. But Hamilton knew there was good reason to panic. In his 10 years with the Rock Hall, he had encountered his share of mid-show hissy-fits and calls for security to bounce photographers out of the photo pit simply because the artist was in a bad mood. (Hello there, Nikki Sixx!)
Photographers who shoot musicians for a living tend to chuckle when starry-eyed people gush "You have such a fun gig!" or "Your job is so glamorous!" and inevitably ask what it's like backstage.
In almost every instance, the truthful answer is How would I know? Rock photographers are often lucky to get five minutes in the photo pit before being escorted out of the building by security. They can tell you more about controlling managers and publicists, crazed crowds, jumping through hoops to get access to a show, and artist rules or house policies that make it nearly impossible to pull out a decent-looking shot. But dressing-room parties? Not so much.
The Akron Art Museum is now hosting the largest show in its history: Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present. Curated by the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the exhibit features more than 175 sweaty, glittering, intimate images of famous faces, from Elvis to Eminem. Hanging on the wall, they look so inevitable, so essential to our sense of who these stars are, that it's hard to imagine how difficult many of them were to get.
But Northeast Ohio photographers who have spent time in rock's trenches know better. They'll tell you that the path to a great rock-star photo is fraught with obstacles, along with, yes, a lot of fun and joy. To complement the Akron museum's show, We Gallery will feature the work of 11 area photographers who chronicled the area music scene over the years. That show, Visual Music: Northeast Ohio Photographers Look at Rock and Roll, opens on November 6.
The images on display may be all about glamour, but the stories behind them were usually something quite different.
Back in the 1950s, a photographer could wander backstage and snap a photo of Elvis Presley necking with a willing fan. In the late '60s, San Francisco photographer Jim Marshall could walk into the dressing room at Winterland and capture an exhausted Janis Joplin sprawled on a sofa, clutching her signature bottle of Southern Comfort. And in 1964, Cleveland-based commercial photographer George Shuba could spend a day at a downtown hotel, shooting freely as the world's biggest celebrities cozied up to the local media.
In those days, it all happened so casually. In September 1964, Shuba was visited at his studio by an acquaintance who was promotion director at local radio station 1420-AM WHK.
"He said, 'How would you like to shoot the Beatles?" recalls Shuba. "I said, 'Sure, a gig is a gig, as long as it pays.' After he left, I turned to my partner and said, 'Why are we shooting bugs? Radio stations do crazy things.'"
That led to several tumultuous days — and a decade-long adventure — for Shuba.
On September 14, 1964, he headed out to what is now the I-X Center to meet the Beatles' propeller aircraft, along with hordes of fans revved up for the quartet's first Cleveland appearance. That evening, he shot the Beatles' concert at Public Hall. Amid the tumult of kids rushing the stage, Shuba fell to the ground and accidentally exposed a couple of rolls. "I was too busy trying to protect my life," he says.
With no competition, and managers not yet paranoid about where and how photos would be used, Shuba found easy access. He would ask Cleveland Press rock writer Bruno Bornino and Plain Dealer music reviewer Jane Scott if he could take photos for them. They were glad to use his stuff, since the papers didn't consider rock music important enough to assign a staff photographer. But they couldn't pay.
"I went to radio stations and said, 'If I get stuff in papers, will you pay me?'" recalls Shuba. "I was playing both ends against the middle."
Shuba parlayed his coverage of the Beatles — and another upstart band called the Rolling Stones, who performed at Public Hall several months later to much less fanfare — into a gig as the photographer for the Cleveland-based syndicated TV program The Upbeat Show. Most of the bands were hungry for exposure outside of the teen-magazine ghetto, during a time when there was no rock-music press.
"I had free rein," says Shuba. "I walked in like I was somebody, like I knew what I was doing."
Janet Macoska, who later became one of the most successful Cleveland-based music photographers, recalls the era's casual attitude well.
"I was the precocious baby photographer," she says. "I had taken a camera out of my parents' closet, and I would call up [WKYC] disc jockeys like Jerry G and Big Jack Armstrong. They let me come down and hang out at the station. I always had my camera with me, so when artists came in, I would shoot pictures. My first published shot was a picture of Sonny and Cher answering phones when they came in the station in 1966. I got $2 for that."
By the early '70s, Macoska was writing and shooting for Cuyahoga Community College's student newspaper. It was a good time to be starting out as a serious music journalist, with access still easy and interest in rock music exploding.
"There was still an innocence in the '70s, where you could approach bands and ask to do photos and stories," she says. "I would show up at sound check or outside the stage door and ask if I could do an interview. You would go to a show every night, sometimes two a night. So you could hone your craft pretty quickly. You saw a huge diversity of bands — Suzy Quatro, Queen, Marshall Tucker, Foghat — all in one week. If you made mistakes or didn't know how to work with lights, you figured it out pretty quickly."
It was also a time when bands came to Cleveland in awe of the reception they received here. Thanks to the support of 100.7-FM WMMS, artists like Quatro, Slade, Todd Rundgren, and David Bowie were embraced here long before anywhere else, if they ever were embraced at all. So they arrived in Cleveland with a friendly attitude. Macoska got her first big break from one of these acts: the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, which had come from Great Britain to become one of those only-big-in-Cleveland groups that proliferated in the 1970s. After catching them on one of the late-night rock-concert TV shows, Macoska shot their first Agora gig and did an interview for the Tri-C paper.
"They really appreciated the article and photos, because this was some of the first press they got in America," she says.
"Alex took me under his wing and said, 'If you come to England, stay at my house with my family.' By 1977, I was going to England every summer and staying with his family. He called up his photographer friends and said, 'I'm sending Janet over. Tell her everything you know.'"
Up through the
mid-'70s, if you wanted to shoot an artist, you simply got a publication — any publication; a school paper or underground rag would do — to say you were shooting for them. You called up the local record-company publicist, and you got a photo pass that gave you access to the entire show. If you didn't have a willing magazine, you could always just walk in with your camera and work your way down as close to the stage as possible.
But in the second half of the decade, big money flooded the music business, and bands and their management suddenly wanted more control. By the early '80s, virtually all of them banned fan cameras and required media photographers to have photo passes. Soon, even professionals with photo passes were being told they could shoot only during the first three songs or without using a flash, or that they could use only those photos approved by the artist. Sometimes they were required to sign onerous contracts they hadn't been told about ahead of time.
The transition was gradual. The advent of MTV in 1981 brought a flood of new pop bands that at first were open to the exposure multiple cameras provided. Linda Woods began working for Scene as a teenager in the late '70s, photographing artists like Iggy Pop and Queen at Playhouse Square's Allen Theatre.
"You saw all these bands, and you didn't know who would be famous," she says. "It was a fun time. Everything was just taking off. Haircut 100 and ABC, and U2 and the Police — you saw them all."
Back then, artists like the Cars, Boston, Pat Benatar, Talking Heads, the Police, and U2 were playing the Monday-night concert series at the old 1,000-capacity Agora (at East 24th Street and Payne Avenue) virtually every week. Permission to shoot wasn't usually the problem there; the venue's setup was: The club had a notoriously low stage with the audience pressed right up against it.
"It was physically hard to be up in the front of the Agora," recalls Woods. "You had to get up there a couple of hours ahead, unless you wanted to fight with people. You had to stand there for a few hours, and sometimes it would be hot because there was no ventilation." The place was gutted by fire in 1984 and moved to its current location the following year.
The mid-'80s ushered in the superstar era, when artists like Prince and Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Men at Work exploded with multi-hit albums and began to headline arenas. And since MTV had made image increasingly critical to success, artists and their managers wanted complete control over what got printed and what was destroyed.
Like many photographers who came up in the open atmosphere of the '70s, Macoska found these restrictions discouraging.
"I got into music because I loved music," she says. "But it wasn't fun when Joan Jett's manager Kenny Laguna says, 'You have to send all the photos to me and you can only use the ones I like.' And they would come back to you with a pinhole in each one he didn't like. There were actually publicists who would stand in front of us and threaten us with being thrown out if we clicked the camera before they told us we could."
She recalls traveling to Pittsburgh to shoot Daryl Hall & John Oates, who refused to approve any of her photos because Hall decided he didn't like the jacket he was wearing. And she remembers Duran Duran forcing photographers to sign contracts giving the band unlimited right to use any photos taken — without any compensation to the shooter.
By then, even photographers who took the glamorous staged shots of stars for Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair were being micromanaged by artists' handlers. They demanded control over everything — from choice of clothes and stylists, to the photographer and setting, to which photos would be used. A picture like Jim Marshall's unguarded shot of Janis Joplin was becoming a rarity — and if you got it, you weren't allowed to let it see the light of day if you hoped to keep working.
The '90s added new wrinkles, including one ploy that had been pioneered by the Jacksons and Prince in the '80s: requiring photographers to stand hundreds of feet from the stage, back near the soundboard. By then, it was unthinkable for a photographer to show up at the stage door and be let in; breaking into the professional ranks like Macoska had was unheard of.
But for those shooting for the love of it, there were alternatives. Jay Brown dodged access issues and prima donnas by working almost exclusively in small clubs. He started out in Pittsburgh while in college in the early '80s, then spent 12 years in Columbus, where he shot "Hüsker Dü-type bands." He moved to Cleveland and mostly shot at Pat's in the Flats and the Beachland, developing a distinctive style of bouncing flash off the ceiling for a natural look in poorly lit clubs. But he didn't have to deal with the no-flash restrictions some of the big-name artists imposed.
"I prefer shooting in smaller clubs," he says. "The bands are more receptive. There are usually no security hassles. You ask the bands if you can take their picture, and 99 times out of 100, they're OK with it."
Hanging out in small clubs also insulated Brown from the notorious "three-song limit" that virtually every major band was imposing on photographers by the late 1980s. "I really hate it," he says. "I like to watch bands for a few songs before I shoot, to get a feel for what the band is doing. Usually the best shots are at the end of the show."
The flipside of club life: more drunks, more violence.
"When I'm up front, I realize I'll get knocked around a lot, but occasionally I can tell they're trying to knock me over," he says of the mosh pits that were common at shows he attended. He recalls a Columbus concert by Detroit garage rockers the Greenhornes. "Some kid was bashing me around, and I told him to knock it off. He did it again, and I whacked him with my camera.
"Fast-forward five years. I moved to Cleveland and started taking pictures at Pat's in the Flats. And this same guy came up to me and said, 'You may not remember me, but you hit me with your camera at the show.'
"I was mortified. I was like, 'I'm so sorry, I don't normally do that.' He's like, 'No, no, I was being an asshole.'"
left the Rock Hall about five years ago, and today he focuses on creating murals for places like Quincy Park and Asia Plaza. His company, Paint It Loud, specializes in vivid, fanciful rock-star portraits. He still loves music, but he doesn't miss run-ins with Roger Waters and other prima donnas who crossed his path.
Linda Woods is a lab technician at University Hospitals; she hasn't shot concerts since the early 1990s. "It was good fun," she says. "The only reason I left is because you had to put a lot of work into it. I realized I couldn't make a living doing it unless I was doing it full time. I started to get a little disillusioned. When you're in your mid-20s, you want to see what else is out there."
The demands of family have mostly kept Jay Brown out of clubs for the last couple of years. He has moved on, although he'll drop in to hear and shoot a favorite band every now and then.
George Shuba went back to studio photography and is now semi-retired. He gave up on rock music back in 1975. When he first shot the Stones a decade earlier, they were crabby and uncooperative because of a poor turnout at Public Hall. By the time he quit, they were filling the old 85,000-capacity Stadium and things had gotten crazy.
"There was a no-man's zone in front of the stage — maybe 15 feet wide, and the stage was eight feet tall, so I was way back by the fence with the crowd behind it. I was getting pinched and prodded. One of the security guards lifted me up, and I shot the crowd with a wide-angle lens. I look at the faces and wonder where these people are today."
After 20 years in the business, Macoska also found herself burning out by the late '80s. She recalls eating pizza one day with a friend in Lakewood, as an evening date with a Loverboy concert grew near.
"I said, 'I can't do this anymore,'" she recalls. "I couldn't deal with getting to a show and finding out what the limitations were, and there were contracts thrust at you that you didn't know were coming. It was another insult every night. I was as good at my job as they were at theirs, and I wasn't making the money they were."
Today, she's happier being a face in the crowd.
"Recently I went to Pittsburgh to see Paul McCartney as a fan, not a photographer," she says. "We could see the photographers by the soundboard. The newspaper photographers had their 500 mm lenses on a tripod. I saw other photographers who were not as well equipped, struggling to get anything. I felt so sorry for those photographers. I won't ever shoot another show if that's the way it's going to be."
Anastasia Pantsios is a staff editor and photographer for Scene. She began her photography career with Cleveland After Dark in 1971 and has chronicled Cleveland's music landscape ever since.
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