Gary James' Interview With Photographer
Oh, the artists Patrick Harbron has photographed! We're talking The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Queen, The Who, Genesis, KISS, U2, Aerosmith, Prince, The Police, Bruce Springsteen. Well, you get the picture. Patrick Harbron's photos will be on display through February 12th, 2017 at the Albany Institute Of History And Art in Albany, New York.
Q - How is it that you got to photograph all these Rock stars through the years?
A - Well, in the early '70s I was a freelance writer and I had been a drummer for a long time, so my area of expertise was in the music business. In the mid '70s I decided I wanted to be a photographer, around '76, '77. I just applied the contacts I had in my other businesses to the photography. That's how I got the passes and the access to the Rock 'n' Roll I ended up shooting.
Q - Were you a drummer in a noted band? Were you in a cover band?
A - No. It was original music. We did a demo, but it never went very far, but it was a really great experience. Our influences were Progressive Rock like Emerson, Lake And Palmer, Jethro Tull. We did some Buddy Miles covers and some of our own stuff. It was just the two of us. It wasn't like Teegarden And Van Winkle. It was keyboards and drums. We were the first band, other than Syrinx, and John Mills-Cockell, had an ARP Odyssey 2600 and so did we. We were the only two bands to use that synthesizer early on, like '72, '73. We were really into that kind of music.
Q - What was the name of your band?
A - Grundy.
Q - And you were a freelance writer.
A - That's right. I worked for Beetle Magazine, RPM, The Record, The Globe And Mail, POP Magazine, wherever I could get a freelance gig. Actually the last time I wrote anything for a newspaper was in August of 1977. At the time I was uncertain about continuing as a writer or becoming a photographer. I did a profile of Rush for the release of the album "Farewell To Kings". They were coming to town and they were going to do a gig at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition). There were great concerts there every summer in the big stadium. It's gone now like so many other venues. Rush was scheduled to play on August 23. The Globe And Mail, Canada's national newspaper, asked me to do a profile with photographs of Rush that would be published before the show. It was going to run on August 17. On August 16 Elvis Presley died. My story got bumped.
Q - At least we've been told he died that day.
A - Well, we didn't have 7-11s in Toronto, so we had to take their word for it. Anyway, the editor, Jack called me and said, "We're pushing the piece, Elvis died." I said, "I understand." He said, "Don't worry. We'll run it August 20. There's still lots of time. The band's not coming her 'til Tuesday of next week." Groucho Marx died on August 19. Bumped again. I thought, "Oh, man." It was a big piece too. I took the photos and I wrote a great article. The album, "Farewell To Kings" was four years before "Moving Pictures" with "Tom Sawyer" and "Limelight". They were a hard working band but not really big yet. He said, "We can't do it on the weekend. We can run it Monday but if it doesn't run by Tuesday morning we'll have to kill the piece. Sorry." I understood. Finally, on Tuesday, the day of the show, the piece ran. When I picked up the newspaper at the corner of my street at 6 o'clock in the morning, I looked at this great big picture next to the article and I went, "Wow! That looks great!" I said, "I think I'm going to be a photographer." (laughs)
Q - How much did you really know about photography?
A - My father was a journalist and photographer who worked internationally.His photos were intended to accompany his work. I was always surrounded by it but not really influenced. It was a friend of mine who traveled in Guatemala for a year and he came back with this bag full of camera gear. They were Bushnell cameras. I remember because you had to screw the lenses in. I was really impressed how he knew where everything was. He took a picture of me and my girlfriend at the time. This is like mid '70s. I was knocked out. I guess it was about '75 'cause I went to the camera store the next day in Toronto and I bought a Minolta with a 135 millimeter lens and took the stuff out of the boxes in the car. I went right into Maple Leaf Gardens where I photographed The Who. (laughs) The pictures were terrible. I mean, they were really awful, but it gave me a start. That's when I got interested. When I get hooked on something I want it to happen fast. If I had any idea of the learning curve I was to go over through over the years it might have given me pause, but within a year and change I was earning my living as a photographer.
Q - You said that the photos you took of The Who were awful. Is that because you didn't know how to take pictures or the equipment wasn't as good as you thought it would've been?
A - The equipment was fine. I didn't know what I was doing.
Q - So you learned on the job then.
A - I did. Using the camera during the show I was trying to match up the needle with the circle. Meanwhile I had no idea that at an eighth of a second all these guys running across the stage were going to be blurry. So, I think the best way to learn a lesson is the hard way. Maybe the only consolation was that it wasn't an assignment. But, I learned on the job a lot. That's how I figured things out.
Q - I should have asked you, when you were writing who did you interview?
A - I interviewed Mott The Hoople, Joe Walsh. I did a cover story on Leonard Cohen. I interviewed the cast of Lemmings, which was John Belushi, Chevy Chase, when the National Lampoon Show came through in Massey Hall. I interviewed a lot of people. I interviewed Rush, Anne Murray, Bruce Cockburn. I really thought because my father was a writer and my mother was an editor that that's what I was going to do, but in the end, as I explained, it took a different turn.
Q - You did interview some big names! Anne Murray doesn't talk anymore.
A - That was a long time ago, and then a lot of these people came back to me when they realized I was a photographer and I ended up getting jobs through the record companies and bands because they remembered me through the writing. Honestly, I think a lot of 'em thought writing and photography was the same thing, but obviously they're two different beasts. And they always are. But, people tend to look at other people's jobs... people don't often understand what another person's job is, leading to misunderstandings. If there were misunderstandings they were positive ones and they helped me move ahead. They helped open doors very quickly for me.
Q - Did you have an agent at the time or do you have a agent now?
A - No. I didn't have an agent until I was in advertising photography when I moved to New York in 1990. I was doing an Apple campaign, GE phone and American Express. I had an agent for that. Most of my work now is in television and film. I work on things like Deep. I did Boardwalk Empire, House Of Cards, Daredevil from Marvel, Sex, Drugs And Rock And Roll. I worked on Vinyl as a photographer on that. Those things are all through my relationships and I joke now that my agent is FedEx. They have their own 800 number and uniforms. (laughs)
Q - I get it. What is the purpose in the exhibits you're doing? Is it in hopes of leading to another project maybe?
A - Well, because I don't shoot music anymore my archive is a closed thing. It's a self-contained collection of hundreds of bands taken at a really important time in music and at a time when we didn't have the internet and we didn't have cell phones and photography was something few people were doing because it required a skill. To pick up a cell phone now doesn't. And the value of it was higher then than it is now. So, when I photographed things through the '70s and '80s and early '90s I was photographing Rock 'n' Roll artists and from my journalistic background doing them from a historical point of view, meaning that I knew that this moment right now was going to be important, this tour, that first thing of Elvis Costello or the first time we saw Meatloaf or when Ted Nugent was worth watching or Yes or new groups coming up. Capitol Records convinced me to go shoot a new group called The Knack at a small club in Toronto. I was the only photographer there. Things that were happening then I realized had a historical context, so I preserved the work and dated it. I still have some identification problems with a couple of things when I do cross checks, but I pretty carefully catalog everything and since then I've scanned it and made it available as Limited Editions In Fine Art and that's where the galleries have been very useful. It's been interesting because that work now that's 30, 35, 40 years old, the people who were there then want to own pictures of those people because that music and the musicians are also important to a whole new generation of people that weren't there.
Q - That means you own the rights to those photos?
A - Yes, I do.
Q - And when people come calling and want to use your photos in a book they're writing, you can license out your photos.
A - That's right. Where it would make a difference is if Shure Microphones said, "We're running an ad. Can we use a picture of Bruce?" I can't licence that legally without permission from Bruce's management. If an artist says, "Hey, by all means licence a picture to Company X, we're all over it." then I'll do that with the proper written permission. Mostly the requests for photographs are editorial as you described, for magazines and books. That's within the realm of proper reproduction. So to are Fine Arts prints for collectors.
Q - What if you called Bruce Springsteen's management and told them Shure Microphones wants to use one of the photos you took of Bruce, what's the likelihood that they would say yes or no for that matter?
A - I'd have Shure do it. I'd say you know what? I'd need to see a letter from Landau (Bruce Springsteen's management) stating that we have written permission to go ahead and do this or I wouldn't do it. It's not on me to chase down. If somebody wants to use that photograph, companies have Rights Clearances Departments and copyright lawyers and people who undertake that. They understand in order to do that they have to have permission and if somebody's endorsing a product, this would be an extension of that, but I would still have to ask and receive written permission before I'd go ahead with anything like that.
Q - Did you like most, if not all, of the people you were photographing?
A - Yeah. It comes into two groups, sort of three sections I guess. Number one was the stuff I really wanted to shoot. More often than not someone would hire me to do it anyway. Of course I was hired all the time for one assignment or another. I generated a lot of my own work by suggesting events or tours that I knew would be good opportunities. Then the assignment would follow. There were other situations where people would have me shoot a group or performer that I wasn't really that aware of and their career would skyrocket. The best example of that is probably Blondie. When that group, with Deborah Harry, came out in the late 1970's, nobody paid much attention before "Parallel Lines" was released. During that promo tour, I did some portraits of her for a small, local magazine, Roxy.Then when she came to The El Mocambo, they were on tour before the album was out. The image with her hair flying is one of the most iconic photographs in my collection. I guess I went to the gig on my own, but the portrait thing made it possible because the record company hired me to do something else. So, I tried to keep my ears open, but there were some groups I just missed and others I wasn't interested in. I wasn't angry of disenfranchised or unhappy, so I didn't shoot Punk at all. I shot The Ramones a couple of times. I shot The Clash in a situation that was really untenable. Just bad access. I wasn't a Punk type of person, so that scene didn't really interest me.
Q - The Punk movement didn't last very long in the U.S. Maybe six months.
A - Well, a little longer than that maybe. There were a lot of offshoots too. You look from '77 to maybe '79. For a couple of years Punk was really strong. Things like The Sex Pistols didn't last more than six months, but the genre did and the music had influence and carried on. There were people who would mistake things like Television for Punk, and they weren't. They were New Wave. A new kind of music. But hard core Punk stuff was just not interesting to me at all. I didn't get it and still don't. It's just ugly music. I didn't enjoy it. So what I shot a lot of has become mainstream Rock 'n' Roll. Springsteen,The Who, Clapton, Grateful Dead, Tina Turner, Genesis, Van Halen. I enjoyed early Pat Travers. KISS was blast to photograph. I liked The Strawbs and PFM. They're not mainstream. Emerson, Lake And Palmer, because I played that kind of music. Progressive music is still something I like listening to. I listen to a lot of stuff, especially jazz. I never played it. I don't think I could. I wasn't that kind of a drummer, but I love that the music. I really like Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn. I look at my stuff now and you ask why do the exhibition? I do exhibits because there's a call for it. The Albany Institute Of History And Art is a revered museum. They asked me to do it and I quickly agreed. I was doing a Springsteen group show in New York about the revamping of "The River" tour. I shot the original one. You've interviewed Frank Stefano I've noticed and Neal Preston. We all shot that back in 1981 when that tour was on the road. So, I did an interview on the radio on WAMC, the NPR station in Albany, NY. The museum curator heard the interview and invited me to do the exhibition. Sometimes things happen for the right reasons and a bit of luck.
Q - You say you didn't understand Punk. The formation of so many of these Punk groups was in response to Rock bands that could really play well, sing well, and write good songs. The philosophy seemed to be, "We can be famous too."
A - Yeah. There was a lot of that in it. The music was awful. It really came from frustration and that's how they got it out of their system, which was great. The fans that went to see them felt the same frustration and anger. I didn't. So, I couldn't relate to the music at all and I still can't. If I hear The Dead Boys, even The Ramones' "Beat The Brat With A Baseball Bat", it's not my music. I didn't gravitate to that.
Q - Did you ever become friends with any of the people you photographed over the years?
A - Well, I would see artists I had photographed during my travels and they'd remember our shoots. Los Lobos or Lyle Lovett come to mind. You're with these people for such a brief period of time and they're photographed so often and in so many places that I didn't often develop long term relationships. I did have a lot in common with the musicians because I was a musician and loved music. I think a musician understands when they're talking to you if you get who they are. They'll open up to you, relate to you and then you can hang out and just talk music because that's what you're both into. If you're a guy who shoots still life on a table top all day and somehow you've got a music client and you go to a show and don't even know who the artist is, they sense it. They understand that you're not on their side because you may not understand who they are. When I photographed Ray Charles,whose history in music goes well before mine was generous with his time and energy. We laughed an worked quickly to create what is on of my favorite sessions. I'm still a musician and I love the artists and their work. I had a great time with Ray, Lyle Lovett, Robbie Robertson, Asia, Bon Jovi, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Def Leppard,Little Village. I enjoyed all my sessions. The work between the musician and the photographer is made that much better when you connect with your subject.