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Jill Furmanovsky: Photographer & Rockarchive Founder Discusses Rock's Greatest Moments (Part I)
Rock photojournalist Jill Furmanovsky may describe herself as shy, but she has the bravery of a war photographer. After all, it takes guts to spend four decades on the frontlines of Britain’s concert venues. Hunched down in the trenches of the photo pit at the front of the stage, Furmanovsky has been struck by the shrapnel of spit at punk gigs, had her film confiscated by David Bowie’s henchman, and been subsumed by avalanches of dry ice at Pink Floyd shows. In 1978, she required stitches to the head after a snowflake machine misfired on stage and launched a heavy steel canister into the photo pit. She still has the battle scar.
The intrepid rock photographer has also ventured behind enemy lines on more than one occasion. Case in point: After she was barred from photographing a Led Zeppelin rehearsal, Furmanovsky later snuck backstage at one of their 1979 Knebworth concerts, clambered up a gantry, and snapped photographs from behind a spotlight operator.
The courageous photographer has amassed a stunning body of work that has cemented her reputation as one of the great rock photographers. Yet, as Furmanovsky freely admits, she wasn’t considered a star photographer at the beginning of her career. When she started out as a freelancer, she was jostling for commissions with established staff photographers at British weekly music publications such as Sounds and Melody Maker. Indeed, her first editor at Melody Maker refused to give her a byline for her photos and cover shots. Coming up through the ranks wasn’t easy for a woman in a male-dominated profession.
It wasn’t the first time Furmanovsky felt like an outsider.
Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Furmanovsky and her family emigrated to London in 1965. The young teen, uprooted and insecure, found an avenue of escapism in the form of Beatlemania. Within two years of arriving in England, she had photographed her first rock star: a snapshot of Paul McCartney outside his London home. It didn’t occur to her at the time that she might end up doing this for a living. Indeed, Furmanovsky’s start as a professional photographer was almost accidental. Following a brief course in photography at Central School of Art and Design, the young student snuck a camera with a telephoto lens into a 1972 Yes concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre. In a moment of gumption—the first of many, as it turned out—Furmanovsky marched down to the photographer’s pit and was surprised that she wasn’t stopped by venue security. Within two weeks, Furmanovsky had talked her way into becoming the theatre’s official photographer.
Those early dates of photographing hundreds of shows by the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Faces, The Who, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Isaac Hayes, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington led to an opportunity to tour with her favorite band, Pink Floyd, on The Dark Side of the Moon tour. It was the beginning of a relationship that endures to this day. Her lens chronicled the making of Wish You Were Here, part of the 1980/1 tour of The Wall and the band’s final tour in 1995. She was also present at rehearsals for the Pink Floyds Live 8 appearance 2005, the very last time the original band would play.
Yet it was punk, rather than Pink Floyd, that gave Furmanovsky’s career a boost. Her stature continued to rise during the 1980s when she branched into studio photography, creating artistic photo shoots for the likes of Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, Siouxsie Sioux, Annie Lennox, The Smiths, The Cure and countless others. In 1992, Furmanovsky’s stark black and white portrait of a serene Charlie Watts won the Observer’s Jane Brown Portrait Award. In the early 1990s, Furmanovsky’s career seemed to be quieting down due to the demands of motherhood. But a pair of Mancunian brothers thrust the photographer’s work into the foreground once again. As the “unofficial official” photographer of Oasis, Furmanovsky has chronicled the band’s fascinating career for many years. In the late 1990s, Furmanovsky helped found a collective of famous rock photographers called Rockarchive. In addition to providing an outlet for the photographers to sell their work (available here at Rock Square), Rockarchive aims to boost the profile of rock photography.
Furmanovsky’s experiences have ranged from the sublime (Bono once leaned down into the photographers pit to kiss her in front of 80,000 people) to the ridiculous (her lens once ventured up close to Gene Simmons’s forked tongue). But through it all she has retained a wry sense of humor and graceful modesty. Rock Square recently called Jill at her London home for an extensive conversation about her storied career.
When you first started shooting, your photos were in black and white. So many of your photos, even to this day, are black and white rather than color. What dictates your choice of when to use black and white rather than color and why are you so drawn to black and white photos?
Up until Smash Hits & The Face magazine began in the late ’70s/early ’80s, the music press in the UK—Melody Maker, NME, Sounds, were printed in black and white. Nobody wanted any color. Black and white was also cheaper because you could process your own film, whereas with color film you had to go to a lab. Another drawback with color slides was that you’d lose track of them once you handed them over to the paper. Often you’d never see them again because the printer would lose them. The only way to be sure to keep your images was to shoot black and white and to provide the newspapers with prints.
Artistically, by removing the color element from portraits, you get a stronger graphic image and very often color is of superfluous interest when it comes to a portrait. For the mood or vibration of a picture, black and white seems to have a more emotive effect on people.
That’s very true of your famous picture of Charlie Watts. It wouldn’t have the same impact if it was in color.
Yeah. Or Pennie Smith’s picture of The Clash for the London Calling [album] cover. I don’t think it would have anything like the impact it has in color.
It is the nature of digital photography that everything is shot in color. Coming from the film era I find there is a falseness to desaturating a color image and turning it into black and white, although I do it on occasion. Leica have recently brought out a dedicated digital black and white camera, which is tempting though too expensive at the moment.
When you started out as a photographer at The Rainbow, you had great access to shooting great musicians on stage. What are some of your most vivid memories of those formative years as a photographer?
I remember Chuck Berry walking through the packed auditorium to collect his money in cash from the box office, and Liza Minnelli’s breasts popping out of her costume during a dance routine while Peter Sellers giggled in the wings! But what I remember most fondly was that I had the chance to shoot the whole concert rather than just three songs, and not just one concert, but a series of concerts. I saw several nights of Van Morrison and the Caledonian Soul Orchestra, for example, which was one of the greatest combinations he ever had. It was a chance to shoot extremely well and get into the deep meditation that live photography offers. At The Rainbow I could also attend rehearsals. Pink Floyd, for example, used to rehearse there before a tour. Also, The Faces, Wings, The Who’s Tommy Opera and even Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Were the Monty Python guys funny offstage, too?
I remember a giant hammer that John Cleese hit someone over the head with. And there was a dead parrot around somewhere as well. They seemed to be having a lot of fun!
In one of your early photos, the usually sedate Van Morrison is kicking his leg out on stage!
It’s a rare action shot of Van. He probably only moved his leg once over the six concerts!
Most acts now stipulate that photographers can only shoot during the first three songs of a concert. How did that “three song” rule come about and has it diminished the fun of rock photography?
In a word ‘Yes.’
To really capture good live images you have to shoot the whole show. At the very least the last three songs would be much better than the first three! Sadly, you only get a chance to do that these days if you’re working for a band and they give you thorough access—that all important AAA pass!
The restrictions seemed to start in the early ’80s. Before that, I’d only had one other awful experience—with David Bowie on the Ziggy Stardust tour. Although I had an all access Rainbow pass, I was told that the management of Bowie didn’t want him photographed except by their own bloke. I thought, “Fuck that, I’m just going to carry on doing my job,” and I did. After a song or two, a security bloke leapt off stage and ripped the film out of my camera. I was absolutely traumatized. I went backstage afterwards and complained to Bowie’s manager. He was a larger-than-life character with a girl on each arm. He laughed at my protests and offered me a bottle of champagne as compensation, as if anything could compensate for that! A number of years later, Mick Rock, who is part of our collective at Rockarchive, said, “Oh, that was me. I just didn’t want any other photographers there!”
In my book, The Moment, David Gilmour says there’s a big difference between just one friendly photographer that you know shooting a show discreetly, and maybe 50 photographers standing in front of you, snapping away. I can understand that from a band point of view, especially at festivals when there are battalions of photographers. There was one positive side effect of the three songs rule for me: In 1999, I photographed The Rolling Stones at Wembley Stadium—usual three songs and out. I decided to make just one image out of the images I shot during the three songs—a “joiner image.” That launched a period of “joiner” images that punctuates my work to this day, but initially it was a reaction to the three song restriction.
Your own musical tastes must have developed so much during those years because you had such wide exposure to so many bands and artists. Do you recall some of your exciting discoveries at the time thanks to your all access pass at The Rainbow?
Van Morrison was certainly one. I didn’t know about him before I started working at the Rainbow. I saw a lot of artists that I wouldn’t normally have bought tickets for, or rather couldn’t have afforded to buy tickets for—B.B. King, Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, Neil Young, Santana, and so on. Others I wouldn’t have gone to because the music wasn’t to my taste, but there were some surprises. Slade were brilliant live. I remember how impressed I was with them even though I didn’t like their music particularly on record. Another artist I didn’t know about who blew me away was Bill Withers. He played all of those incredible songs like “Aint No Sunshine” with just an acoustic guitar. I think his P.A. blew up or something. Unforgettable. I also saw Duke Ellington there shortly before he died and then there was Eric Clapton’s comeback show after he had been in rehab for drugs. He played “Layla” for the first time and it was sublime.
In the movie Almost Famous, there’s a scene in which the character Lester Bangs, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman, offers advice to the young journalist. He says, “You cannot make friends with the rock stars. That's what's important. If you're a rock journalist: first, you will never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company. And they'll buy you drinks, you'll meet girls, they'll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs... I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock 'n' roll and strangle everything we love about it.” So, first, would that be good advice to a rock photographer? And did you become friends with some of the rock stars and, if so, were the friendships genuine?
I can’t imagine there will ever again be the situation where you’d have the power of journalists like Lester Bangs, Nick Kent or even Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons from the punk era, or a DJ as influential as John Peel. So that’s probably gone. But, “they’re not your friends” is certainly true.
However, if you could accept that, you could have a genuine—though temporary—intimacy with musicians on the road, like you get when you meet people on holiday. The reason was that bands used to do these long tours. There was no Internet or no mobile phones, so they were somewhat cut off. You’d go out on behalf of NME or Melody Maker to do a cover feature with a journalist. They were really happy to see us because they might be sick of each other, or there might have been tensions going on after months on the road. I brought Marmite, tea bags and the latest copies of NME or Sounds. On the road we were all foreigners in a foreign land, holed up in hotels and dressing-rooms or travelling overnight on a tour bus. Within 24 hours we’d all be close mates. And then you might never see them again.
Didn’t you become friends with stars such as Chrissie Hynde?
Chrissie is certainly a friend of mine. She’s influenced me hugely in a whole number of areas of my life, but she’s not as close as the people I went to school with and vice versa for her. What you refer to are close working friendships.
Well, a little bit, but not much. I think that has a lot to do with me. I’m very private, too. Nick Mason and I go back a long way and feel comfortable whenever we work together. Noel Gallagher is probably one of my closest musician friends. I’ve known him for so many years. I know his mum. I’ve known his children since they were born and even been to his wedding. But I wouldn’t go hanging out with him other than on the road—I wouldn’t dream of it.
There’s an old adage, “Never meet your heroes; they always disappoint.” Has that been your experience?
I think that’s a good point. I didn’t want to meet Van Morrison for a while because everyone said, “He’s so unpleasant.” And then recently I met him backstage at a festival and he was quite sweet. I chatted with him for a little while.
Maybe I don’t particularly have any heroes. I think a lifetime of shooting very famous people means that I never will have any again. Most of the people I look up to aren’t famous.
Are there any other artists who surprised you by how different they were from their reputations?
One generalization is that the really, really good artists are very easy to work with and the less talented (and therefore more insecure) are more difficult. Charlie Watts, Annie Lennox, Debbie Harry, or Stevie Wonder—who was terribly nice, a very delightful man—those were all really easy to work with. Some are just plain moody so you have to be on your toes and ready to do a U-turn—Morrissey, Liam Gallagher are two. And then many musicians are just shy—bands like Pink Floyd shunned photo-shoots but didn’t mind live shots.
One wry observation: During the self-conscious 80’s, when bands were either heavily introverted, like New Order, or constantly looking in the mirror like Wham, Japan, or Duran Duran, those guys were so into themselves they didn’t see me struggling to carry equipment and rarely offered to help me carry a tripod etc. Whereas the heavy metal bands, like The Scorpions, Def Leppard, Thunder and others of that genre, were great for that! They were macho but they were gentlemen.
You had extraordinary access to Pink Floyd on the Dark Side of The Moon tour and also during the recording of Wish You Were Here. Given that the Floyd have taken such care over presenting their music, both on vinyl and on stage, with surreal images, why do you think they allowed so much access to the band behind the scenes? Wasn’t there a risk, on their part, that photos of them, say, playing golf might shatter their careful presentation?
I had an earlier acquaintance with Floyd before that tour having met them in 1972 at the Dome in Brighton when they played the first version of Dark Side of The Moon. I think they allowed me to shoot then because I was a young girl and therefore non-threatening and probably quite attractive. I didn’t chat with them or try and get friendly with them but they probably thought, “Ah, let her take some pictures, she’s harmless.” And then the manager bought some, which proved I could do a professional job. That was followed by seeing and photographing them rehearse at the Rainbow. I chatted a little with Nick Mason on that occasion.
For the Dark Side Tour in 1974 I did have access to absolutely everything—them playing golf, squash or backgammon, backstage, on stage and traveling too. However, I was under orders from Storm Thorgerson [the band’s album cover designer at the design firm Hipgnosis]. Bear in mind that Storm is almost a member of Pink Floyd—playing visuals, rather than music, but an integral part of their mystique. When Storm Thorgerson invited me to go on that tour, I was able to have that access because the band knew that the work wouldn’t be published without their permission, and it wasn’t.
At that time, did you have a sense of the personality clashes within Pink Floyd and did you foresee that that might present trouble down the road for them?
Well they certainly seemed to be having a jolly good time on the road. I think those tensions were more visible in the studio. I spent a day at Abbey Road during the Wish You Were Here sessions and recall some sort of discussion in the studio about “Well, I wrote that bit, and you wrote that bit” between Gilmour and Waters. Some bands operate in a democratic process where they say, “Well, we’ve all done something to contribute to a song, so let’s just share the publishing.” But this wasn’t a band like that. This was a band with territory. However, whenever they played together, up to and including Live 8 in 2005, any tensions went out of the window or the music overcame them. That music is mighty powerful!
You must have seen some pretty wild stuff backstage, particularly in the 1970s.
I must have been blind. I didn’t see enough of it, actually! I’m not joking. You’d see the guitarist handing a girl his room key, or some people having a spliff in the back or doing a line. Maybe it was because I didn’t go out with the right bands. Remember, I didn’t go out with The Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin! Or maybe I just went to bed too early!
Only once did I have trouble with a musician on the road. I was with a band—I won’t mention which one—where people were running around the hotel corridors at night and visiting each other’s rooms, which was quite normal. The bass player of this particular band came into my room for a drink from the mini-bar, tried to chat me up, which didn’t work, and then passed out on my bed. I had to call the tour manager and ask to have him removed. He sent the roadies along and they carried him out!
Some of your photographs of punk bands such as The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Clash are charged with aggressiveness both from the stage and the audience. Did those shows feel dangerous—and did you feel threatened?—or was it all just show on their part?
It was scary for a while in the early days of punk. Sid Vicious was one of the scariest people I ever saw in my life. He always looked like he was about to hit someone and he wore chains. Although Chrissie Hynde would say to me later, “Oh, he was a pussy cat. He used to come over to my flat and he was so sweet and he’d make tea.”
As well as being scary, the audiences could be disgusting. I used to wear a plastic raincoat to clubs like The Roxy because people in the audience used to gob. American bands were shocked. They didn’t know about gobbing. It seemed to originate from U.K. bands. So if you went to a gig, like The Clash, and there was pogoing going on, you could be pogoed upon and also spat upon.
I’ve been in scarier situations than at punk gigs—like at festivals where the barriers are about to crash down—but with punk there was an air of menace and it was for real. It only lasted a short time and then it became commercial. Then it stopped being scary.
You photographed Led Zeppelin very early on and then at the very end of the band’s career at Knebworth. What was the contrast between the early days and their latter days?
I was not in the inner sanctum for Led Zeppelin by any means, but I was a fan. The first time I photographed them was in Brighton at the Dome in 1972. That was thanks to their P.R. man, B.P. Fallon, “The Beep,” who went on to work with U2.
I was very excited when Storm asked me in 1979 to shoot some pictures of Led Zeppelin for the program they were designing for Knebworth. But I got turned down because the band allegedly said, “We don’t want no chicks around when we’re rehearsing!” I was so upset. I didn’t care about the women’s lib thing, I just really liked Led Zeppelin and wanted to work with them. But I went to the gig at Knebworth all the same, and I kind of got my back on them by being a “chick” backstage. I took some funny pictures of larger-than-life manager Peter Grant, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones hanging out and then saw a posse of girls in mini skirts and long hair—all that girly stuff—being rounded up to watch the gig from the side of the stage. I managed to hide myself amongst these girls and be shepherded on stage, which gave me a chance to find my position to shoot.
Do you have other stories of similar “acts of subterfuge” you resorted to over the years to get access to shoot a show when you didn’t have a pass?
That Led Zeppelin incident has been repeated time and time again throughout my career, both before and after. In a peculiar way, I kind of like it. I get a slight thrill when they say, “You can’t shoot.” I think, “If it’s a public place I shall be taking photographs.” Here is a typical story: I did a very nice shoot with Tom Waits in California in 1999 for the cover of Mojo. Six years later in 2004, he played some gigs in the U.K . He hadn’t been there for years and tickets were hard to come by, so I applied for a photo pass and was told I could shoot three songs from the mixing desk. That was offensive to me, so as soon as the lights went down, I escaped the press corps and hid amongst the handicapped people in a cordoned off area until the coast was clear. Then I ran all the way down to the front and shot the gig from the side of the stage until, finally, I got booted out. But I got the best shots and also a thrill out of saying “Up Yours!” What struck me that night was that the so-called “press photographers” were not really passionate about the show, they all meekly left after their three songs.
Don’t get me wrong, I prefer to be invited to shoot gigs! I’m a bit old for those adventures now and ideally I’d like an AAA pass to every good gig in the universe but, sadly, I still have to apply unless I know the artists. Glastonbury Festival is now the only place where I can wonder about backstage, onstage and everywhere as I did at the Rainbow, thanks to a long association with the festival and the goodwill of Michael and Emily Eavis.
You had to sneak around to get photos of Jeff Buckley, too. Your shot captured the sheer handsomeness and romance of the man—from those photos, it seems as if he was a natural when it came to be photographed. True?
You know how, once in a while, you come across a bright light, a brilliant talent? Jeff Buckley was recommended to me by Daniela Soave, a superb journalist who worked for Record Mirror. She had an ear for things that were up and coming. In fact, she was the first to tell me about Oasis. She told me about Buckley; she said it was unmissable. At the time, my daughter was quite young and I wasn’t going out much at night but when she spoke about him, I thought, “Well, I have to go.” So I went. I think all he had released at the time was Live at Sin-é. In fact, the press hadn’t really picked up on him. He came to do a kind of Live at Sin-é type performance at a little club, Bunjees in London’s Soho.
Before the gig, I approached Jeff, who was hanging about in the bar looking gorgeous and was very pleasant too. I asked if I could take his portrait and he said, “Sure, come find me after the show.” Then, as the gig was about to begin, this officious manager informed me that I could only shoot three songs. I thought, “Fuck off! This guy’s only released one EP. And you’re already telling me that I’m only allowed to shoot three songs!” So I ignored him. What was he going to do? Lift me up and throw me out of the door? But I thought he was ridiculous.
After the gig I did approach Jeff when he was packing up. He’d been absolutely jaw-droppingly brilliant and I was lost for words. We took a few pix including one that became classic, and thereafter he always greeted me warmly.
I went on to photograph him at a few places, including backstage at Glastonbury with one of his idols, Chrissie Hynde, and at The Garage in Islington. At the latter, his manager did prevent me from shooting more than three songs by confiscating my cameras, thereby robbing the world and Jeff too of some incredible images. It broke my heart.
As I once said at a music business award ceremony (where I won an award for my photography), “It’s not just those clutching guitars that are artists round here!” I was thinking of what happened to me with Jeff’s manager when I said it.
Want to hear more? Check out Part II of our exclusive interview here.
View limited edition fine art prints by Jill Furmanovsky and other rock photography greats at Rockarchive by clicking here.
- Photographer Jill Furmanovsky Captures Rock’s Greatest Moments – Past & Present (Part II)
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