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Apertures & alcohol: the evolving art of music photography according to Rankin and friends

WeTransfer Studios and Rankin have teamed up to launch The Backstage Sessions, a series of films exploring the stories behind the most iconic rock ‘n’ roll photos of the 21st century and their creators. The Drum spoke to Rankin and his subjects – David Montgomery, Gered Mankowitz and Kevin Cummins – to find out how they view their industry now that it is shot primarily through a digital lens.

It was an off-chance but typically cool meeting that led to Rankin and WeTransfer’s partnership. “I met the guys last year in Cannes and I was really impressed by their approach to creatives,” he recalls. “Damian [Bradfield, the brand’s president] was there speaking to me about working with Giles Peterson on their radio station and explained how they’re pushing the idea of music.

“I’d had an idea for a while to make a series of films about music photographers and he jumped on it.”

The resulting shorts – The Backstage Sessions – are what has brought four of the most predominant rock‘n’roll photographers on the phone together for the first time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, when you conference call creatives who between them have shot David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Debbie Harry… it’s hard to get a question in edgeways. What is made clear through the joyfully cluttered conversation though, is that their styles and experiences – though shared – are entirely disparate.

Montgomery, a true Brooklynite who once shot Hendrix against a backdrop of fire, admits he was, and still is, whimsically relaxed on a shoot. “I never know what I’m going to do, even if I do know what I want to do,” he drawls. “Until you look in the camera… it’s kind of magic really.

“I once flew to California to photograph Fleetwood Mac, probably 30 years ago, and I walked in the room and saw Stevie Nicks and I fell madly in love with her on the spot. I couldn’t think straight. I took possibly one of the worst pictures of my entire life.”

Cummins, on the other hand, is the planner of the group. “When you’re photographing a musician or an artist of any description you have very limited time, so you have to go armed with an idea just in case,” he says. “You always have to have two or three things you can fall back on.

“We’ve all done jobs when you go to a hotel to photograph someone and you’re told you’ve got five minutes. And as soon as you say hello to the musician and have a chat the PR will say, ‘Right, you’ve now got four minutes and 20 seconds’.”

Mankowitz, who recently published his rock‘n’roll works in a book, interjects at this point. “I don’t know how you cope with that,” he says. “I can’t bear that – it’s awful. That’s something I learnt back in the mid 60s – I don’t want to be waiting in lobbies for stoned, hungover, lazy pop stars. That doesn’t sit well with me and I don’t think I’m very good working under those conditions.”

But Cummins is pragmatic. He remembers preparing for a studio session with New Order – preparing for 12 hours the day before, in fact.

“When the band turned up it took 15 minutes,” he says. “And they thought the shoot had taken 15 minutes, but it had really taken 12 hours with stand-ins the day before. They don’t need to know that happens – they think, ‘Kevin works really quickly, let’s use him again’.”

It’s pretty unlikely it would take Cummins 12 hours to prepare today purely because he wouldn’t need to send off film to get processed every few hours. There’s no doubt that the advent of digital has changed the photographic landscape, and while it may not have affected the finished product entirely, it has disrupted every photographer’s studio experience.

“It’s a bit irritating when people want to look at the back of the camera straight away – I tend not to let them do it,” says Cummins. “Digital’s great because it gives you more latitude. But it makes the job slightly lonelier because in the old days you could sit in the pub near one of the labs in the West End with a bunch of other photographers waiting for your film to be processed.

“Now you just do your job and go home and sit on the laptop for the rest of the day.”

For Mankowitz, digital photography has cut through something greater – the trust between photographer and subject. In a pre-Polaroid world the artists he shot had no idea what their photos would look like until they had been processed, and had no choice but to go along with the direction of the photographer (“Although,” Montogomery notes, “a great majority of stars went to art school for about 10 minutes, so they thought they knew more than we do.”) Nowadays, “everyone expects to see everything straight away,” according to Mankowitz.

“Nobody really has any respect for the craft or the skill. Tech is a wonderful thing, but in many ways it undermines the craft of true photography.”

All the photographers agree that digital’s hydra-like offspring – social media – has also contaminated the purity of rock‘n’roll photography. Thanks to the demands of an up-to-date Instagram page, bands and artists are no longer employing the services of the professionals as much as they used to. It also means that the artistic elusiveness created by an innovative perspective, or mind-bending use of lighting, or a literal smokescreen, is lost in the harsh light of the ‘gram’s standard set of filters.

“We were helping to build and form the way people saw their artists,” Cummins explains. “People would hang those pictures on the wall almost in the way you would hang an icon on the wall. People would grow up with their bedroom walls full of pictures of various musicians and now they don’t. Now they have Pinterest boards.

“And now bands shoot their own pictures – it’s stuff that really we weren’t allowed to do: taking pictures in the dressing room pre-gig, for instance, was quite sacrosanct. Now they do it as a matter of routine. So I think we’re in danger of losing the mystique of rock'n'roll because there’s too many pictures.”

The animated, anecdote-fuelled conversation between Rankin, Montgomery, Mankowitz and Cummins ends on a slightly dim note when they’re asked about the future, and who will carry their torch into the next 50 years. Like many industries formed in the analogue world, there just isn’t the same amount of money going around any more, which means there isn’t the same amount of working photographers.

“It’s very hard for a young, music-orientated photographer to earn a living,” laments Rankin. “During the 90s my career was based on making money from the music business, which shifted into advertising in the early 00s. Now those opportunities we had are just not there.”

For Cummins, the opportunities are not there because the media is not there. “There’s no real outlet for [music photography] any more,” he says. “If you think back to 15 years ago there were loads of music magazines. Now, none of them exist.”

What the photographers don’t mention – ­­or perhaps aren’t aware of – however, are the hidden photographers behind many an artist’s social media pages. Beyoncé’s Instagram wall is clearly heavily curated, assumedly with help from other creatives, while Taylor Swift apparently hired a photographer purely for her own Instagram back in 2014. This snapper’s anonymous exposé exposed the painful, laboured process behind TayTay’s outwardly spontaneous posts.

“When I started it wasn’t acceptable to do any one type of photography,” recalls Mankowitz. “I think young photographers have to be prepared to do other things – they can’t just be focused on one genre of commercial work anymore.”

So then; perhaps the money for music photographers is still there – it’s just hidden within a new sub-genre of behind-the-scenes, social media-led commercial work for artists and musicians. It may not come with the fame or glory that Rankin, Montgomery, Mankowitz and Cummins have enjoyed, but it certainly will pay. And as Beyoncé’s reveal photo of her newborn twins proved, social images still have the power to become iconic.

Whether or not it will progress the art of photography as a whole, on the other hand, remains to be seen.

WeTransfer Studios presents a video series with prolific music photographers, David Montgomery, Kevin Cummins and Gered Mankowitz - discussing their most recognisable pictures of icons like Jim Hendrix, David Bowie and The Rolling Stones. This short documentary series curated by Rankin, produced by creative agency The Full Service premieres today (26 September) on WeTransfer.