Gary James' Interview With Rock Photographer
He was in the right place at the right time with the right stuff. Gered Mankowitz was born in London, England and came of age when the whole British music scene was exploding all around him. Gered picked up a camera and photographed it all! His story is a fascinating commentary on what it was like to be part of The British Invasion of the 1960s.
Q - Gered, you dropped out of school and this fellow Tom Blau offered you an apprenticeship because he saw you had a gift for taking photos. If he hadn't given you an opportunity like that, would you have been able to make a career out of photography?
A - Well, that's a really interesting question. I don't know. As a child I was very tall and I wanted to be an actor. I loved acting and I loved the theatre. I really wanted to be an actor, but my father, who was in the theatre, he was really opposed to me being an actor. I don't know whether it was because he didn't think I'd be a very good actor or he just didn't think the actor's life was a healthy option. He was always trying to guide me away from being an actor. When I became interested in photography, which is when I guess I was about eleven or twelve, he was very encouraging and amongst other people he knew was Tom Blau and Tom Blau owned this photo agency called Camera Press, which still exists and was a very big deal in those days. There weren't that many independent photo agencies. In his career through the '50s he had photographed my father and us as small children doing family photographs for magazines. He knew me I suppose from about the age of six or seven and I wouldn't say he was a close family friend, but he was more than just a visiting photographer. He took an interest in my interest in photography. I think that without him nurturing that interest, probably encouraged by my father, (laughs) I probably wouldn't have become a photographer because photography wasn't really a career option. It wasn't an everyday option. It wasn't particularly glamorous. It was primarily oriented around newspaper and magazine journalism. The pinnacle was Life magazine I guess. There weren't that many opportunities. I think the short answer is I probably wouldn't have been a photographer, but I don't know what I would've been if I hadn't been a photographer.
Q - Before you were photographing musicians, you were in Barbados. What were you photographing down there? Maybe girls in bikinis? That would be a dream job!
A - There was only one girl in a bikini. I photographed Miss Barbados. What happened was I served my apprenticeship, but I was still only fifteen and my father decided; to be honest it's a family mystery, we really don't know why he did this, but he decided to move the family to Barbados in about 1960. I was considered too young at fifteen to be left behind and he didn't want the family split up. So he took us all to Barbados. I don't know what his long term intention was. I don't want to get into the specifics around the reasons for him doing this, but I went from being apprenticed and having a very intensive few months in having to learn about processing, about printing, about different types of cameras. I found myself in Barbados and encouraged to take photographs of everything and anything that I could. I set up a darkroom based on the darkrooms at Camera Press which looking back was a compete absurdity because Camera Press' darkrooms were great big commercial darkrooms producing hundreds of prints a day. I was a little kid struggling to try and take some photographs of some different things, producing maybe six prints a week. But that's what I did. I tried to photograph different things. I was introduced to a couple of people. One of them was an architect called Jimmy Walker who'd become quite famous on the west coast, the Sandy Lane coast of Barbados. He'd designed and built the Sandy Lane Hotel which was sort of the first of the super luxury hotels to be built on the west coast. He'd built a lot of villas and he asked me to photograph some of the villas that he'd designed and I did that. I didn't know what the hell I was doing, but I seemed to get away with it and I illustrated articles that my father wrote for magazines. We became sort of the in-house P.R. company for a hotel called Sam Lord's Castle. I photographed Miss Barbados on the beach at Sam Lords Hotel and I don't know how I got away with it to be honest, but I did. It was a fantastic, if somewhat chaotic, beginning to a career.
Q - At some point in the early 1960s you must've moved back to England to get into Rock photography.
A - I moved back to England and I got another job with a show biz portrait photographer called Geoff Vickers and Geoff, amongst other things, photographed theatrical productions and so that was leading me back into the theatre as a photographer, which suited me fine and I photographed an American musical that was brought over to England called Fiorello, which was a musical based on the life Fiorello La Guardia, the mayor of New York. I photographed that show and my pictures were used for the front of house pictures at the Piccadilly Theatre in London and I became the youngest ever photographer to photograph a West End show. Through Geoff I started photographing young actors and quite rapidly two of the young actors I photographed were also singers. They were called
Chad Stuart and Jeremy Clyde. I started photographing them and became very close with them and they were signed to a little, independent record company by an A&R man called John Barry. I did their first album and I started doing photography for John Berry and also for Ember Records, the little, independent record company and suddenly I was in the music business at a time, I guess we're talking about 1963, at a time when it desperately needed mold breaking images. Youth was suddenly becoming the key to everything for all these people. It was the young. Suddenly they had money, influence, creativity and they had energy. They were suddenly appearing all over the place, these young people like
Andrew Loog Oldham and The Beatles generating fantastic excitement and energy and money. The establishment wanted a piece of the action so they needed to try and relate to young artists and they used young photographers and young designers to help them with that process. I was lucky enough to be part of that movement. I was about seventeen I guess when I started working with Chad And Jeremy. Suddenly I was in the music business, which was a part of show business. That was absolutely perfect for me.
Q - How much competition did a guy like you have to take photos of these emerging Rock 'n' Roll stars?
A - Well, I had pretty powerful competition in the form of David Bailey, who although he was a Vogue photographer, he was a fashion photographer, he was very much together with a couple of other famous British photographers called Terry Donovan and Duffy. The three of them were sort of the dominant force in the new British, angry, young photographer movement. David Bailey photographed The Stones for their second album and he was a figure that was pretty God-like in the burgeoning photography world. I mean, he was somebody we all looked up to. He was a lot older, ten years older than me. That made the huge difference. The difference between somebody of seventeen and twenty-seven is just absolutely huge. He had all that experience. He was extraordinarily talented. I think I definitely felt that he was the competition, but there weren't really any young photographers that I can think of. There was a famous photographer called Terry O'Neill who was a very brilliant photojournalist, but even Terry is four or five years older than me. So, I don't remember any kids like me really. I think I was the youngest, but who knows? I was described as a teenager who shot Rock 'n' Roll.
Q - You liked black and white photographs over color photographs. Would that be because black and white photographs were easier to sell?
A - Well, not so much easier to sell. There's two answers to this. In the '60s the media was much smaller than it is now. It was dominated by black and white reproduction, which was cheaper, easier and not as complicated as color reproduction. Color reproduction put the cost of publishing anything way up. So, newspapers were entirely 100% black and white. Magazines were usually 80% black and white with maybe 20% of color. So, from a commercial point of view, black and white was he most viable format, but I also did shoot color. I shot color of nearly everything, but the other problem with color is that it didn't survive because black and white film was shot as negatives and prints were produced. In most cases I held on to the negatives so my archive is dominated by black and white negatives that were mine and I kept and looked after and produced prints of for my clients or for publication. The color transparencies, the few that I did shoot, the majority of those were actually given to magazines or record companies to reproduce from and then were lost or disposed of or just filed away and forgotten. And so fifty years later my archive is predominantly black and white, but it's not really because I preferred black and white, it's the logistics of the time coupled with the fact that one probably shot 80% black and white from a commercial point of view.
Q - Did you ever take movies of any of the people you photographed?
A - No. I wasn't interested in that. It wasn't feasible or viable. I wasn't an enthusiastic cinematographer in that way, that say a Warhol was or a few others might have been. But I always imagined that I was going to become a film director. I thought photography would be a route to becoming a film director, but it never occurred to me to shoot movies. It seemed far. From a cultural point of view we were way behind the Americans in shooting home movies. You guys were shooting home movies through the '50s. It wasn't something we did over here. I don't remember ever having a movie camera with the family. We had a few little snapshot cameras, whatever the 1950s version of the Kodak Brownie might've been. But I don't remember anybody ever having a movie camera.
Q - You say The Stones were happy to work with you because you photographed them as the were. Does that mean you didn't pose them in photos?
A - No, not quite. You have to pose people. People have to pose for my sort of formal portrait. You don't get these things by accident. You have to pose. That's not it really. I photographed them as they were in as much as of course I had to create compositions. I had to make photographs that were visually interesting and acceptable and workable and commercially viable, but I didn't want to or feel any pressure to change them, to criticize what they were wearing or suggest that they smiled. If they smiled they smiled because something was funny, not because I asked them to smile for the camera. I took a much more naturalistic approach whereas pictures taken by Bailey around the same time are probably more skilled technically, but they're also more posed. You feel that they have a polish to them that is generated by the photographer's skill. I was a kid. I was still learning my craft. I had a great eye. I was very confident technically, but I wasn't polished and so my pictures have a naivete and innocence and capture something of the band as they were without trying to augment it without too much style or artifice.
Q - I take it The Stones didn't give you a hard time when it was their photo session time.
A - No, not at all. They were 100% co-operative. Brian could always be a little tricky, but I don't remember an occasion when the band weren't seemingly delighted to work with me and happy to have me around for the three years or so that I worked with them. It was never a battle. Never.
Q - You went on tour with The Rolling Stones?
A - At the end of '65 on what I think was their fourth American tour.
Q - You were taking photos of The Stones when they were on stage or backstage or getting off the plane?
A - Well, certainly at the gig I was photographing the gig as I was photographing backstage. To be honest with you, I don't know which pictures are which. From all that tour there are very few images that I can tie down to a particular date. But I was on the whole tour from the beginning to the end.
Q - Did you get to know Brian Jones on a personal level?
A - I knew them all on a personal level. I consider them all to be friends of mine. Brian was the hardest to deal with because he was somewhat schizophrenic and he could be charming one minute, very polite and good company, and then he could turn completely the opposite direction in a matter of nano seconds. So he was quite tough. In '65 I wouldn't say he and I were close, not nearly as close as I was with Keith or Charlie, but yeah, we had some conversations. I think I got to know him a little bit in as much as he would let me. He was cagey. As I say, he was a different human being.
Q - The pictures you were taking on that '65 tour were being used for what?
A - (laughs) That's a moot point because in a way I think the reason The Stones took me on tour was because they thought it was the process of becoming an established group to have their own photographer with them. The actual commercial viability of the operation was very shaky. I was sending my material back to my studio in London and they were processing it and delivering the proofs to Andrew (Loog Oldham, Stones' manager) in London and I never saw anything until I got back to London. I can't tell you how much of the material was ever seen. I don't think it was very much.
Q - I know I've seen your photos on the covers of books about The Stones.
A - That was later. In a way the real interest in the work didn't really kick off until the early '90s, 1991. One of the reasons I never went on tour again was because from a photographic point of view it didn't really fulfill my ideas of what sort of photography I wanted to do. It was difficult photographing them 'live' because of many of the concert's lighting was absolutely awful and in some places I couldn't get an exposure. It was just terrible. So it was a bit frustrating. In the end I don't know whatever I really felt that I'd achieved very much. Looking back with hindsight, I think I did a pretty good job. I've got a new book which is called Backstage which is about to come out which is just my backstage images, most of which are from that '65 tour. I think there's some pretty amazing material there, but at the time I didn't feel that going on the road with a band was a rewarding or fulfilling activity and therefore that was the last concert I did. That was the last tour I did.
Q - Did The Stones have their own place when you toured with them?
A - Well, that was the first tour they had their own plane and it was a beaten up Martin twin engine, piston aircraft. I think it was about a thirty-five or forty seater, very slow. One of the engines invariably conked out. (laughs) But it was fun. I didn't know any better. For them it was a big leap, but because of that it meant that the routine on the tour was quite frustrating because what would happen would be at the last of the gig they would drive straight to the airport, get on the plane and fly through the night, arriving at the next town maybe at two, three, four in the morning, depending on how far away it was and we would be whisked into some motel in a town that was entirely asleep and not expecting The Stones to arrive, so there were no girls. There were no parties. There was nothing. It was almost impossible to get a Coca-Cola. It meant that it was a very grueling tour logistically. Everybody was exhausted. We were living this very topsy-turvy, un-natural life style, which was another reason why it wasn't something I particularly wanted to repeat.
Q - Did The Stones pick up your expenses, hotel, food?
A - They paid for everything. I was just on the tour. You gotta understand that touring in those days was very simple. There was no security. No agents. No stylists. There was no lighting. No sound crew. It was just the band and me. The support acts were on the plane with us, The Vibrations and Patti La Belle And The Blue Belles, and The Ramrods. They were the three other acts that were on the tour with us. We were all on the plane together. We were just hanging out together. I would stay in the hotel next to Bill or Charlie or whoever it was. There was no difference between the way I was treated compared to the way they were treated. I was part of the tour and as such ate with them, traveled with them, slept with them. No difference.
Q - Do you remember what you were being paid at that time?
A - I can't remember. I really can't remember. It's fifty years ago. I don't know. I think I would've gone for free at that point in time, the opportunity to go to America for the first time in my life and to go with The Rolling Stones and to criss-cross the country with the band that were number one in the charts. I mean, who wouldn't want to do that? I don't remember the financial arrangement. They're gone in the mist of time.
Q - After The Stones, you photographed Jimi Hendrix?
A - I did, in '67.
Q - That's when he was in England? You weren't on the road with him, were you?
A - No. I didn't go on the road with anybody after The Stones. I did a couple of 'live' albums for some people, but they were very specific projects where I might go and do two or three gigs only with a brief in mind. I never went on the road again to cover a tour as such. I certainly never went on the road with Jimi. I did two studio sessions with him quite close, one in February '67 and one in March ('67).
Q - Did Hendrix like to have his picture taken? Was he co-operative?
A - He was completely co-operative. You must remember that when people come to the studio they're committing themselves to having their picture taken. So there's no point for them to act up in the morning and go to a photographic studio and then not be co-operative. That just doesn't happen. They're coming to me to have their picture taken. It's part of their job and they're co-operative, but he didn't particularly care for having his picture taken. Most people don't really like having their picture taken very much, but he was super co-operative. He was very easy to work with. He was very charming and very humble and modest and quietly spoken. He loved to laugh. He giggled a great deal. We talked. I fed him. Musicians are always hungry. If you start in the morning they probably have just rolled out of bed and they're always hungry. So I used to feed them and it gave me a good opportunity to break the ice with them, to chat, to look at them. We talked and we talked a little bit about segregation in America and the Chitlin Circuit. He told me a bit about the Chitlin Circuit. I told him about the tour I did with The Stones. So, we chatted. I used to bump into him in the following months in London, the clubs that we all used to go to and hang out at. He was always very friendly. We'd have a drink and chat mainly about the girls in the club. He was nice. I liked him. He was great.
Q - Were you ever to this club called The Iron Door?
A - No. Where was that?
Q - I don't exactly know, but I do know that you had to be a member to get in the door at one of these clubs where the Rock stars of the day would hang out.
A - There were several clubs in those days called discotheques and there was the Ad Lib which I particularly liked and I hung out there a lot, and The Stones and The Beatles and Jimi used to hang out there. The Pickwick Club, which The Beatles and The Stones used to go to sometimes. Then there was the Crazy Elephant, The Scotch At St. James, The Pheasantry, The Cromwell, The Bag O' Nails.
Q - Were you ever in awe of any of these people when you'd walk into a club? I realize you worked with The Stones, but how about The Beatles?
A - To be honest with you, I don't think I was ever in awe of anybody. I think if I'd been in awe of any of those people, I wouldn't have been able to do my job. I wasn't a fan as such, but I wasn't in awe of The Beatles. I was quite friendly with Paul. We had several mutual friends. I was quite friendly with him although I never photographed The Beatles. I photographed Wings later on in the early '90s and I photographed George for a solo album called "Cloud Nine" in the '80s. I wasn't in awe and I think one of the reasons I wasn't in awe was because of my childhood and my background in show business. Therefore the people my father worked with and mixed with, many of whom I met as a kid, were big stars of the day. I was fascinated by them, but I wasn't in awe of them and I don't think I was really in awe of anybody.
Q - Did Brian Epstein ever come into one of these clubs?
A - I'm sure he did, but I didn't know Epstein. I don't remember if I ever met Epstein. I don't think he was a big clubber, but he might've been. I don't remember seeing him. Andybody in a suit probably would've turned me off.
Q - So, these days you do what? You licence your photos to newspapers and magazines and you must sell prints of your photos at galleries?
A - Yeah. That's what I do. I run my archive. I still shoot a little bit. I supply magazines, books. I make my own books and I do my own exhibitions and I sell prints. Primarily selling prints is my business.