Gary James' Interview With Rock Photographer
He has photographed some of Rock's biggest acts, including Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith and Queen. He shot the cover photos of Bon Jovi's "Slippery When Wet" and Twisted Sister's "Stay Hungry". We are talking about Mark "Wise Guy" Weiss, and he's got quite a story to tell.
Q - Mark, when you still in high school you paying off security guards to get closer to the stage to take photos? Is that true? And how much did you have to pay those security guards?
A - Well, what happened was I wouldn't have a ticket for the concert. So I would like go into Madison Square Garden and there's like the guys that look at the tickets. They don't rip it. You gotta get past those guys first. So, you have like an old ticket stub and you hold it in the air and you get past that bunch. You go over with a bunch of people that have them, the real tickets, and you kind of blend in. So, you've got that tier one phase. You get through them and there's another phase where they're looking at it again and then the third one where they actually rip the ticket. This is like '76, 1976, 1977. When the guy that rips it, you look at him and show him a five dollar bill and he looks at it and grabs it. Usually an old guy. He grabs it and hustles you inside. So I'd have all my cameras like hidden in my Frye boots. I'd dismantle everything, put like film on one side of my boot and on the other side I'd put my lens. Around my back I would hang my camera body. So they really wouldn't pat me down 'cause they didn't check as much back then. Then I'd get in. I didn't have a ticket. That was phase four. After I got in I had to make it down to the ground. I had old ticket stubs that were different colors. I would get close and and close and close and then when the lights went out I would jump over the barricade to the floor, run to the front. Everyone was standing on their chairs and as they were standing on their chairs they were off their seats, I would dismantle the chairs 'cause they were connected and then I would block off the aisle so the security guards couldn't come down and then I'd have a little spot in the middle of the chairs where I would photograph the show without being hassled.
Q - How many shows did you attend every month? Where did you get the money to do that? Even five dollars a show was quite a bit back then.
A - Well, I mowed lawns for five dollars a lawn. You mow a lawn for five bucks, you got five bucks to go into a concert. I guess after maybe seven or eight shows I started selling my photos in high school and then eventually in front of the concerts for a dollar a piece. So, I ended up getting money that way as well.
Q - I see. Then you would sell the photos you'd taken to your classmates in high school, right?
A - Yeah. Back in the '70s it was an event if Peter Frampton played or Boston or Led Zeppelin or whoever. It was on the radio. Everyone would wear their old t-shirts from the last tour. Everyone would be talking about that band for that week. Then you go on the party train from Matteawan. Everyone's on the train for the experience. After the concert I would have all these pictures and I'd bring 'em in and show people. They started freakin' out. "Wow! Can we buy one of those?" That's when I started putting signs up in the lunch room saying "Go to locker 23," I forgot whatever my locker was, and they would meet me at a certain time and I would sell my 8 x 10 photos for a dollar a piece out of my locker. It kind of happened organically.
Q - You were actually arrested outside of Madison Square Garden for selling your photos. Who complained about that?
A - In December of '77 KISS played three shows. I went the first night, took pictures and sold them the rest of the nights. I was selling my pictures in front of the concert and they were cracking down on the bootlegger shirt sellers and there were a couple of people like me selling photos, same thing. And I kind of got ruffled in with a bunch of 'em and went to jail overnight. It was kind of like the worst thing that happened, but also the best thing that happened because I just wound up in jail overnight and not getting my pictures back, but I stopped doing that. Then I went to Circus magazine the next day, which is the big Rock magazine that I used to read for years. I dreamed about being in the magazine. So, I just went there not knowing anybody. I looked in the magazine and there was an address. I knocked on the door and waited a few hours for the Art Director to see me. I was seventeen and he said, "I like your stuff. Do this and do that. Use this film. Use a flash and come back when you got some good photos, kid." And that's how it started.
Q - See, that's one of the benefits of living in a city like New York. You could find your way into the offices of Circus magazine. Your career started then in 1977, 1978 when you walked into the offices of Circus?
A - Right. I kind of forgot about it and then the secretary called me up. This was six months after I got arrested, and six months after I went to see the people in Circus. I still didn't feel like I had great shots yet. I wanted to blow 'em away. So, I didn't say, "Check these out, check that out." I didn't want to be a pain in the ass. I knew I only had one shot, so I was going to wait 'til I had some killer stuff, but I just wasn't ready yet. But then I just got a call from the secretary, Mary Ann who kind of took a liking to me and we became friends over the months. She said, "Do you have any pictures of Aerosmith and Ted Nugent?" I was at the concert Giant Stadium, snuck my camera in again and got some really good shots. I dropped them off and forgot about it for a couple of months. Back then it wasn't like you take a photo and it's online or in a magazine the next day. It took a month or two months. So, I dropped off my photos and forgot about it until I was walking down the street in New York City and I saw an October '78 magazine. The Beatles were on the cover and I started flipping through it. In the Table Of Contents it said, "Centerfold Steven Tyler." I opened it up and it was my photo and my name was on the bottom. That was the beginning. I turned the page and there was a Ted Nugent photo. I turned the page and there was another picture. So, there were like three or four pictures in that issue. And that was the beginning. That was the start. From there I started submitting photos and getting pictures in every issue in the monthly magazine. Within six or seven months I was doing assignments for them.
Q - That October '78 Circus magazine might be collectable these days.
A - Could be, yeah.
Q - As time passed and say you wanted to take a photo of say Led Zeppelin, wouldn't you have to go through their manager, Peter Grant?
A - Oh, yeah. At that time I was just sneaking into concerts in '77. That was the only time I shot Led Zeppelin. I shot Robert Plant. I got a photo pass. Once I started working for Circus I got credentials. I didn't have to sneak in anymore.
Q - So, there were no problems in taking photos then of Led Zeppelin or Def Leppard or Van Halen?
A - Yeah, well, I never shot Led Zeppelin when I was working for Circus. They broke up because of the death of (John) Bonham. I did actually shoot Led Zeppelin in 1985 at their reunion, at Madison Square Garden for the 40th Anniversary of Atlantic Records. I got a photo pass for that. I shot that. Because of the clout Circus had, it gave me a lot of clout. I took advantage of it. Whenever there was a door open I would go through three of four more and then keep gong through them until I got what I wanted, which was access and more access and more access.
Q - Did you get to the point where the guys in a band would know your name or who you were?
A - Well, that happened pretty quick. Even from the first photos of Steven Tyler in Circus, he liked the photo and reached out to his management, "Look at these photos. Find out who this is!" Shortly after that I was working for Leber - Krebs who had Joan Jett, Scorpions, AC/DC, Ted Nugent. So, it happened pretty quick and organically. So, whenever I went to a show and had a photo pass I would try to get backstage by using the Circus name to get a few photos. Next time I'd see them I'd bring the photos and give 'em some. I'd get more access. I'd get to shoot the whole show, backstage photos. That's really how it snowballed into doing the album covers of a lot of the biggest records of the '80s for Rock bands.
Q - I recall the management of The Police restricting photographer's access to the group. Was that situation ever resolved?
A - I shot The Police in 1979 on one of their first tours. They played The Bottom Line and I had an assignment from Circus magazine to do a photo shoot with them backstage. At that point things were fine and I think I shot them a couple of other times. Maybe three songs they stopped (photoraphers taking pictures) in the later '80s, but a lot of bands did that. A lot of bands only let me shoot the whole set and backstage, like Bon Jovi and Van Halen and Motley Crue.
Q - You really came along at the right time, didn't you? You got in at the tail end of the '70s which afforded you the opportunity to take photos of Areosmith or Queen. Had you started your career in the early 1980s you would have been right in the middle of Hard Rock, Heavy Metal. And so you might not have had the chance to photograph '70s groups.
A - Yeah. Well, that set me up. I was always envious of photographers of the '60s and early '70s, Henry Diltz, Lynn Goldsmith, Mick Rock and all those people who shot all that cool Rock stuff. I was too young to capture that, but I caught the tail end of it because of my age and how I got my access. It kind of set me up for the decade that really rocked. It set me up for the decade that really blew out because of MTV and the visuals. The '80s really were the most fun time to be in a Rock band. There was a ton of access and women and drugs and everything fun. Even to this day that decade is keeping us young at heart in mind and everywhere else. That decade is keeping us young. Whoever liked that music and lived for that music is forever young.
Q - As the '80s turned into the '90s, Grunge hit big. The Seattle Sound. Did you ever photograph Nirvana? Kurt Cobain?
A - When that whole thing happened I was at the Cherry Pod Video doing photos and photo shoots. It was a big record. Who would figure that that record and that band and that time period would be almost the end of that decade? It was still going pretty strong. Skidrow just came out with a great record, "Warrant". That was a killer record. But then Nirvana came out and everything changed. I thought alright, they're cool. They're not dressing up, but I got a lot of stuff under my belt. I had some big album covers. Let me move onto the next thing. I didn't think Heavy Metal, Rock 'n' Roll, Hair Bands, whatever you want to call it, would go away so quick. I thought there'd be this new music and they'd both live in harmony, but it didn't happen. There was a switch over and I tried to dabble in it. I never shot Nirvana. I shot Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, and they didn't care to be photographed. They didn't want to pose. They knew they had to and they did, but it wasn't fun for them and it wasn't fun for me. So, it was kind of a deterrent on moving forward with that genre of music, although I did try. Photography was not a welcome medium for those kind of bands.
Q - Are you still photographing today?
A - Yeah. I just shot Guns 'n' Roses. I shoot whether they're in a little, tiny club or they're in a big arena. I shot Ozzy a couple of months ago. I love doing it. Making money on it is not really the case, but I like to do it. I like to keep it in my archives for future books. I'm working on a book now, The Decade That Rocked. I might have a final chapter where I revisit the bands I photographed back in the day and then today. For me, I'm not monetizing on it. I'm just using it for branding and for fun really. You just never know where anything can lead to. New people you meet may have another band.
Q - What passes for Rock 'n' Roll these days seems to be Country. Are you or have you photographed Country artists? Is that something you'd do?
A - I could to it. I'm interested. I didn't go after it. It's something I thought about investigating 'cause they seem like nice people. I did a couple of things with Trace Adkins. I did a cover for him. In fact, in the '90s when Country really started kickin' I didn't like where the Grunge was going, I figured I'd try Country 'cause one of the Rock magazines switched over to a Country magazine, so I had access. So I did some photo shoots with Alan Jackson and Vince Gill. It didn't really click, but I tried it. It wasn't fun. But today I would consider doing that. I don't say no to anything. I always like to see where it goes.