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Photographer Jill Furmanovsky Captures Rock’s Greatest Moments – Past & Present (Part II)
In her four decade career as a rock photographer, Jill Furmanovsky has amassed a portfolio that is a Who’s Who of rock ’n’ roll (including, of course, The Who). The London-based photographer has also started her own Who’s Who of rock photography, a collective called Rockarchive. It’s an outlet for the photographers to sell their work (available here at Rock Square) and also boost the profile of rock photography. In this, the second part of a two-part phone interview, Jill talks about her position as the “official unofficial” photographer of Oasis, the golden era of rock photography, and which artists are still on her “wish list” to shoot.
Rock stars probably aren’t used to being on a set, like actors or models, and they’re probably quite antsy and impatient. Have you learned any tricks to get them to focus on the task at hand?
Yes, I work quickly! I know that Oasis liked working with me because my shoots took minutes rather than hours. You do get bands like Madness, for example, who know how to pose and are happy to do so. But you still have to work quickly or they get bored.
Bands in the ’80s had a better understanding that the studio was an important place because they would get maybe four pages in The Face or something if they helped the photographers. Also, when the subjects come to the studio, they come into your house and are usually polite like visitors are.
For me, it was easier to communicate with them because they were my age, or maybe even a bit younger. It wouldn’t have been possible for me to direct a shoot with the likes of Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd when I was very young and hardly knew what I was doing. But by the time punk came along, we were on an equal playing field. That lot couldn’t play their instruments and I couldn’t shoot pictures very well. We were on a par all learning together. So it was easier to deal with them.
When punk began at the end of 1976, I worked for Sniffin’ Glue magazine, which wasn’t really a magazine, anyway—it was a stapled together fanzine edited by a brilliant young guy called Mark P. After that my status started to go up a bit. So I have punk to thank for helping me progress professionally, because although I did all that work with Floyd, it wasn’t published—at least not until much later.
In studio photography, you’re probably looking for photos that capture an insight into the person behind the rock star persona. By contrast, many rock stars wish to hide behind a persona rather than reveal the person beneath. How do you navigate those two opposing agendas?
I’m thinking of a shoot I did with Björk, who is brilliant to work with, but I remember saying to her, “Please give me a little bit less.” The problem is, if you have someone over co-operating it prevents some sort of insightful photography. That’s why I loved working with Oasis so much, because they just let me document. I documented them with a large camera, a small camera, on stage, backstage and in a studio. By photographing what was actually there but in an artistic way, I helped create an image with them, one which was also authentic. Whereas artists like David Sylvian of Japan, Boy George, or Siouxsie from Siouxsie and the Banshees—they are all in disguise or masked. It’s lovely to shoot, and you can do an awful lot with it visually, but it’s more of a fashion photographer’s area than mine.
Where does Sting fit into that spectrum with the shoots you’ve done with him?
Sting cooperates and he is enchanting to be with, but he has an element of the actor about him. In my book The Moment, we had a bit of a laugh about a particular photo I like of him taken with a telephoto lens. I said to him, “You were unaware of the camera in that picture, that is why I like it.” He said, “No, no, I could see out of the corner of my eye!”
What do you recall of your experience of photographing Kate Bush when she was a teen?
It was like photographing a schoolgirl. She was a schoolgirl. She giggled. She was quite posh. She’s extremely pretty and she was highly protected by the people at EMI. I never photographed her live, which I regret, mainly because she hardly did any shows and I was always off on the road photographing someone else. I did photograph her when she sang with David Gilmour at the Festival Hall [in 2002]. She had her little boy with her and she’d call him in her unmistakable high voice, “Bertie! Bertie!” He was running amok backstage.
You became the unofficial photographer for Oasis, a band that famously didn’t move about the stage. Unlike, say, Robert Plant, Liam would stand in one spot behind the microphone. Was it a challenge to capture exciting shots at their shows?
Yeah. I first saw them just at the point when they were selling out places like the Cambridge Corn Exchange, in 1994. I went to that gig and I thought, “What the fuck is going on?” It was an incandescent show and the audience was going berserk, but strangely, nothing seemed to be happening on stage visually. Liam would do that thing singing with his hands behind his back and looking pissed off. When he wasn’t singing, he’d go and sit on the drum riser and Noel would smile a bit and do some short guitar solos. I became intrigued as to how to capture this tremendous tension and excitement when nothing whatsoever was happening—compared to a band that puts on a show for you. I must have succeeded because after they saw those pictures they brought me aboard their comet, which was in its ascendance.
Oasis seem, to outsiders at least, an unruly bunch—did photographing them feel akin to herding cats? How did you manage to get them to work with you?
It was at the right time of my life to take on such a project because I was experienced in all areas of photography., When I began shooting at the Rainbow I was 18 years old. During punk I was mid-twenties. But by the time I got to Oasis, I was 40 and Liam and Noel were 21 and 25. Liam and I share the same birthday. There is 19 years between us! Maybe they felt less threatened by a woman, and an older woman, which I was then.
One of the interesting things about Oasis, which is quite a contradiction, is that they have kind of a macho image with all those fans from Manchester. But they really like working with women. I think it’s because of Peggy, their mum, whom both Gallagher brothers adore. Their tour manager was female, the truck driver was female, one of the managers was too. Johnny Hopkins, their P.R., thought I might work well with them for that reason and he was right.
I didn’t have much of a problem with Oasis except, like everyone else, with Liam when he went off on one. On the whole, I am still very fond of him. He was a dream to photograph and he can be hilarious. I’ve yet to do a proper book on Oasis but I think it’ll be fascinating when I get around to it. The dynamic between brothers is always interesting—it doesn’t matter who the brothers are.
Since Oasis has split up Liam has become a more reliable front man for Beady Eye than he was for Oasis, and Noel’s new work with the High Flying Birds has revealed a far wider capability in him, both as a songwriter and a performer.
Do you foresee an Oasis reunion at some point?
I think so, whether it’s a charity gig or something similar that gives them the incentive.
Nowadays, you can’t go to a concert without seeing thousands of iPhones snapping photos and video. How has it changed the concert-going experience for both the bands and the audience members?
Muse, who I did some photos with at Wembley stadium a few years ago, actually get the audience to pull out their iPhones and create a visual effect. That was quite inspired, but on the whole, I think it’s a shame.
I think the kind of an experience of listening to music doesn’t gel too well with trying to record it at the same time. My experience as a rock photographer is that I went to some classic concerts in my life, but I hardly remember anything about them because, when you’re concentrating on taking pictures, you’re not really listening. So I can only assume that those people going to concerts are only partially listening because they’re trying to record it. It’s a bit like tourists going to see the Grand Canyon. They’re not really seeing it, they’re trying to photograph it. I have very ambivalent feelings about how healthy that is in terms of actually having genuine experiences.
Do you feel there was a “golden age” for rock photography? After all, we’re in the “long-tail era” in which few artists have the cultural dominance artists once had. The artists and their reach and their importance got smaller. There aren’t many bands coming up through the ranks that can change a generation or fill a stadium. And there aren’t many bands creating music that is truly breaking new ground or new sounds no one has heard before.
Talent continues undiminished, but it could be argued that the rock ’n’ roll era is over if one equates [it] with the Impressionist era or the Cubist era or the Hollywood era for that matter. For example, when you think of the Impressionist painters, you think of Monet, Manet, Pissaro, Matisse, van Gogh. There are still people now making Impressionist paintings, but that particular era died with its innovators.
The rock ‘n’ roll era’s most incendiary period was the 1960s or ’70s. Now the original protagonists are already gone or dying out, whether it’s Elvis or James Brown, Led Zeppelin or The Rolling Stones—they all hark back to the last century. We are in the “digital era” now, which doesn’t mean there isn’t still great music coming out or less talent. However, anything to do with going back and trying to recapture is pointless. By all means study the past, but embrace the new technologies and try to inspire the next generation. That will be ground-breaking, that may change a generation in a new way.
Finally, what is on your wish list to shoot?
Lots of new artists—Ed Sheeran, Ren Harvieu, Alt-J, Drake & Jacob Banks, are just a few interesting new artists from a long list, but I must confess that I keep hoping Bob Dylan will ring me up and ask me to go on the road with him for a day or two. Is that too much to ask?
View limited edition fine art prints by Jill Furmanovsky and other rock photography greats at Rockarchive by clicking here.
Missed out on Part I? Check out the first half of our exclusive interview here.
- Rockarchive Presents: An Interview with Celebrated Rock Photographer David Corio
- Jill Furmanovsky: Photographer & Rockarchive Founder Discusses Rock's Greatest Moments (Part I)