Gary James' Interview With Photographer
He was a staff photographer for the Chicago Rock concert promoter Flip Side Productions. In that capacity he photographed some of Rock's greatest stars, including Elvis, Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin. And now his photos cam be seen in Doug Harr's new book, Rockin' In The City Of Angels. Jim Summaria is the photographer we are talking about, and we talked with Jim about his time as a Rock photographer.
Q - I see your photos are part of Doug Harr's new book.
A - It's an awesome book! Doug did a great job. The quality is great. He used a lot of my pictures. He's got Zappa, McCartney, Sabbath I believe. It's very high quality. A beautiful book.
Q - Jim, you actually photographed so many Rock stars, why did you give it up?
A - Well, actually I still do it. I started again in 2008, but I stopped doing it in 1978 because I wasn't making a lot of money at it, and then I went into corporate work where I made some money. It got to be a hassle. From about '73 to '78 when I was shooting, I worked for Flipside Productions. I got the backstage passes. I was 19 when I started. It was just a fluke how it started. Everything was really cool. You could go back stage and you could talk to the bands, not the big ones, not Zeppelin or the Stones, the Joe Walsh's of the world, people like that. It was awesome. Then all of a sudden it got more strict and it was like, "Okay, you can do the first three songs and then you have to leave the premises." The very last band I shot in '78 was Heart and their manager came up to me. I was shooting slides. He said, "I want you to send me all the slides and then I'll send you back what I think you can use." And I said, "That doesn't make any sense. They're my pictures." He goes, "It's my band." So of course, I didn't do that. I could've kept going, but I decided it's too much of a hassle, so I stopped doing it. I regret it because then the Punk movement started and I could've gotten shots there. I did it for about five and a half years total. It was really cool. When you're 19 and you get to talk to somebody backstage who you've admired like Black Sabbath... Six weeks before that their new album was out and it was great, and six weeks later I'm talking to them!
Q - I know that feeling.
A - And when I say talk to them, it's not like we went and had a drink. "Love your new album." "Oh, thank-you man. How are you?" So, no really big deal, but I still got to talk to them.
Q - You were hired, as you said, by Flipside Productions to take photos. What does a concert promoter need a photograph for? It he wanted to publish a concert, couldn't he get the photos from a record company?
A - Well, they also owned record stores all over Chicago, like about a dozen. Then they would take my pictures and make 5x7s or 8x10s and put 'em up in the store. The kids would come in and say, "I remember that part of the concert." It would just help sell the next concert. It would help sell an album. The cool part is the pictures were just put up all over the place. There was only two of us really doing it and then the third guy joined in the later '70s. They just used it for promotions in the store. Obviously they couldn't use it for marketing because the bands are not going to get paid for that. So, pictures were just put up on the wall. It was a good deal for me. I got in free. I got in backstage. It paid for my parking. It paid for my film. Then I gave 'em a 5x7 or 5x8. That was the deal.
Q - Were your photos ever used in newspapers or magazines?
A - Back then not as much. Being kind of naive to it, I did get some pictures in some magazines. The magazines at the time were Hit Parader. I never got anything in Circus or Creem. Hit Parader had a couple in. We had a magazine in Chicago called Triad. So, I got a lot in that one. Back in those days you'd get like ten bucks and that was about it. I remember the first time I got a cover was Mick Jagger and these magazines were free. You'd go to a record store and they'd throw them in a pile up there. I never forgot when I saw my cover of Mick Jagger and there's five hundred copies of the magazine sitting at the front of the store. I'd go, "Hey, that's mine!" That was really cool. I started selling more in the 2000s to a lot of books and magazines. Then I started promoting it on my corporate website. I've been a corporate photographer since '79. So, I thought what the hell, I'll just try putting my concert pictures out there and see what happens. All of a sudden somebody finds it! Probably the biggest break I did was I contacted Wikipedia and fortunately Wikipedia is open to the public to use, but it got my name out there quite a bit. That's how people have been finding me. Of course I solicited as well. I didn't give Wikipedia my best Jagger or my best Zeppelin, but something to get my name out there. So that really helped. In the 2000s I've sold quite a bit.
Q - Are you able to sell prints of your photos at a museum?
A - Yeah. I could do it 'cause I own the copyrights. So you don't need permission. Since these people are celebrities, public figures, you don't need permission to sell their pictures. I could do that. I've sold pictures online. I don't charge an arm and a leg. I actually had one guy who said, "I'd like to have a 4x5 of every photo you have," and I said, "Well, I've got over a thousand. He said, "How much will you charge me for that?" I said, "Since you're ordering so many, how about $4 each?" He said, "Fine." I almost dropped the phone. I've got a printer and I printed them all myself. It probably cost me twenty cents to print each one. So that was my biggest sale to a private person. I asked him, "What are you going to do with a thousand pictures?" And he said he was "Making a collage for my rec room." But that was my biggest payday by far.
Q - You photographed Elvis, right?
A - Yes.
Q - How were you able to do that? Colonel Parker was pretty strict on who got close to Elvis, wasn't he? Was that one of the deals where three songs and you're out the door?
A - No. What happened with Flipside is they also had the ticket machine for all the concerts. If I couldn't get a backstage pass, which I couldn't get for The Stones or The Who, Elvis I got front row center. I'm not exaggerating. Front row center. In those days you could bring your camera in. So, I'd bring my camera with my telephoto and just shoot away. The photo pit was just right in front of front row. So, for the big acts I would get front row center, maybe second row on occasion, but I was right there. So, it always worked out.
Q - Did you get backstage for Zeppelin?
A - No. Just front row. I'll tell you who I got front row for, McCartney/Wings, Stones, The Who, Zeppelin and Elvis. Everyone else I got backstage.
Q - What were you doing before you started with Flipside? Were you in college? Were you taking a college course in photography?
A - Well, this is how it all started and it's kind of a cool story. Back in the day in Chicago we had a place called the Kinetic Playground. The Kinetic Playground was a standing room only kind of place. I'd go to the concerts and I'd bring a Kodak Instamatic 104 with a flashouse. So, I'm kind of a big person and I could sort of elbow my way up to the front of the stage and I would photograph B.B. King, Edgar Winter, whoever was playing at this place. I would bring my photos in. There was twelve pictures on a roll and I didn't know anything about photography. I just thought it'd be cool to take pictures of these guys. So, I took 'em to the photo store I bring 'em to and the guy said, "Boy, you're really good!" I go, "Well, okay. Great. Thanks. That's nice." He said, "You need to get a 35 millimeter camera with a telephoto lens." I go, "What the hell's that?" And then he showed it to me. I go, "How much is that?" And he said, "All this stuff here is about $400." I said, "Wow!" My pictures kept getting better and I kept going to the same guy and he kept talking to me. So, I finally went out, and where do you go in those days? I went to Sears and bought a Sears camera with a telephoto lens and all of a sudden my pictures were getting better and better. Since we were such Rock 'n' Roll aficionados we went down to St. Louis to see Led Zeppelin in '73, early '73. A friend of mine told me about Flipside Records. They had all these pictures on the wall. Maybe they'd put up some of my pictures. I said okay. So, I bring these pictures in of Zeppelin with Page and Plant. They said, "Wow! These are fantastic! We'll put 'em on the wall. Whenever you shoot a concert, bring 'em in." So, I did like two more concerts. Then the manager of the store, Rick Carlsen, said, "Would you like to be our official photographer?" I'd just turned 19. I said, "Alright. What do I have to do?" "We'll get you in the shows for free, backstage. Shoot the shows for us and we'll put the pictures on the wall like this other guy's been doing." I said, "Sure," and that's how that started. Then I didn't star college until '75. Then all of a sudden I started getting interested in everything else, landscapes, whatever. But I was working construction actually.
Q - You could've hurt your fingers and there goes your photographic career.
A - That's right. My dad got me into the construction, but then I didn't like it and so I started college in '75. I was very fortunate to have a teacher take me under his wing the second year I was going. It was a community college. It wasn't a four year college 'cause I was going at night. It took me actually five years to get a two year degree, but he took me under his wing and said, "You've got talent. You should think about being a professional." To me, what's a professional? Wedding photographers? I don't want to do that stuff. He said, "No. There's other things. There's corporate photography." When I got my diploma in '80 or late '79 actually, I think it was in December, I went out for two interviews and I got both jobs. I took the one in downtown Chicago and I've been a corporate photographer ever since. It almost corresponded with me stop doing Rock concerts. The cool thing is I got to photograph other celebrities, got to meet them, people like Meryl Streep, Jay Leno and Mickey Mantle. Back in that day he was a big one for me. Of all the celebrities I've ever photographed, I think that's the only person I ever lost sleep over, knowing I was going to photograph him the next day. So, that's kind of my story. There's certain people that pushed me a certain way and helped me along. Obviously I'm indebted to all their help.
Q - I guess the appeal of corporate photography to you is the work is steady and the money is good.
A - Both of those. I worked downtown for four years and I got a chance to work at Allstate Insurance Company. They called me. They heard about me and I went for an interview. I thought, what am I going to shoot? Accidents? Anyway, they had a huge audio/visual department. So, not only did I shoot photojournalism there; in those days you would shoot slide shows, I learned all that. The education I got there was fantastic. Then I stayed there 'til '99. I became the manager of the department and still got to shoot pictures and got to travel all over the United States and Canada for them. In '99 I left and became a freelancer. I love my life. It's fantastic the way it goes. Around the mid-2000s, about 2007, I got a call from Paul Nelson, who was Johnny Winter's manager. At this time I already had the website going up and he wanted to use one of my pictures. Johnny Winter was coming out with his Live Bootleg series CDs. I noticed they were going to be playing at a local place. I wrote 'em back and said if you're here I'll take some 'live' pictures of Johnny Winter. He said, "Yeah. Okay." I just met him and it was fun shooting him again. That was the start of it. I think it was '07, '08. I can't remember exactly when. So what happened next was some other band came and played a small venue, a Classic Rock band, and I'd take their picture. Then I hooked up with Penny Black Music in England with a lady named Lisa Torem, and she was getting me backstage to all these shows, shooting concerts again. And now it's digital. So, now I'm not worried about shooting two rolls of film. Now I can shoot a thousand pictures a lot cheaper. One thing led to another and I thought I'll try to start selling some of these and started selling some. Then we have a theatre in St. Charles called The Arcade Theatre. The owner is Ron Omesti and he gets a lot of Classic Rock people and I've been photographing so many people there. I talked to him about getting a pass and that was about four years ago, so for the last four years I've been shooting there. Again, same deal. I'm getting in for free and seeing all these great shows and getting up front.
Q - Are the Classic Rock guys talking to you or are they still distant?
A - This is a whole new ball game. These guys are all great. I get to talk to quite a few of them. I've developed a real good friendship with Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown. I do a lot their promo work. They were just in Chicago the past month and I did their new promo picture. I got a picture on his CD that's coming out. When he was in town we went out to dinner. It's that kind of a friendship. My son lives in California. He works in the TV industry and when Savoy Brown was out there we went to the show with them. Rare Earth, Edgar Winter, Vanilla Fudge. He took us backstage and got to meet the guys. So, it's just been real cool to talk to some of 'em. Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash. Every time he sees me, "Hey, Jim the photographer guy." That kind of stuff. Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues. We became kind of like online friends. He used a lot of my pictures for his website. One thing I'll say about the musicianship of these guys that are still playing - they're all awesome! I mean, they really are. I just saw Carl Palmer, drummer of Emerson, Lake And Palmer. I photographed him. He blew me away. This guy's like 68, 69 years old and he just blew me away! Jeff Beck is crazy good. Some of these guys are just so good. I just did a show with Burton Cummings of The Guess Who. I think he's got one of the best voices in Rock. This guy could not have been nicer. When he was on stage he said, "I'm up here for one reason," and he pointed to the audience. "You guys. You're what made me famous. Not me. Not my voice. You guys. You like what I did so I thank you for that." Not too many people say that stuff.
Q - You sound like a guy who's really enjoying life these days.
A - I couldn't be happier. I'm very happy with the career I've had. I've gotten to take pictures my whole life. I mean, how exciting! (laughs) I could've still been digging those damn ditches, but I'm not. (laughs) So, that's good.