Gene Simmons of KISS said it best: “Mark is the real deal. He may not play the guitar, but that camera is his guitar. He’s a rockstar.” In an era where rockstars were hailed as gods, Mark Weiss carried the all-access pass. Known by some of the greatest artists as more than just a photographer, Weiss captured and lived some of the most iconic moments in rock n’ roll history. He recently sat down with Screamer Magazine to share his story.
Growing up in the age of the Apollo space program, Weiss was fascinated with space travel. As a young boy, his dream was to become an astronaut, and the thought of becoming a photographer had never occurred to him. When he turned thirteen years old he wanted to earn some extra cash. Being the son of a door-to-door salesman, Weiss had learned at an early age to knock on every door until someone says yes. Using his charisma as his best sales tactic, he began mowing lawns in his hometown of Matawan, New Jersey. One customer in particular paid him in the currency of a Bell & Howell Canon FP camera and unknowingly changed his life forever. From the moment that Weiss stepped into his first darkroom, it was as though he had finally made it into space. The glow of the red lights, the sound of the timers, and the sight of the enlargers and undiscovered instruments transported him into another dimension of time and space.
During these early years, Weiss was not only exposed to photography but music as well. Under the influence of his brother Jay Weiss, he would tag along to band practices and soon discover his passion…chicks and rock n’ roll. (Stay with me here, because as cliche as it sounds – the ‘80s truly were shaped on sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll, hence the name of Weiss’ book The Decade That Rocked.) On August 8, 1974, amidst 50,000 fans eager to see Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Weiss ran into a family friend Kenny Reff. With a camera draped around his neck and a gorgeous girl draped over each shoulder, Reff was on his way up to the stage to take photos of the band. Through the booming sounds of the crowd, the music, and the smell of pot in the air, Weiss could not get the image of Reff and the two girls out of his head – where it still remains to this day. The rest of his high school years revolved around music and photography. From the first time that he snuck his camera into an Elton John concert at Madison Square Garden, to the time that he used the fake ticket (atop of cash) trick to get into the sold-out Aerosmith show, Weiss never stopped learning his craft through trial and error. After a crash course in developing film at his school, he turned his family bathroom into his own personal darkroom. When his parents went to sleep he would take everything into the bathroom, set it up, develop his prints, and then tear everything down until the next night. This labor of love continued until he made a deal with his father – that he would go to college if the back of the garage was turned into a more permanent darkroom. But until then, the family living room was decorated with photos of the likes of Frampton, KISS and Led Zeppelin. The photos were displayed string and clothespin style, where they hung to dry before Weiss would collect them to sell at school and outside of concerts. His reputation in school was starting to grow as the “kid with the pics” and he was gaining a lot of attention, especially with the female crowd. “I was always quiet in class and in school,” Weiss reminisces. “But in this way, I could be quiet verbally, but not in my antics.”
When Weiss began his next chapter at Ramapo College he knew almost instantly that it was not his scene. However, he found a glimmer of hope when he met and photographed a local cover band called the Stars Rock N’ Roll show. As a friendship with the singer Cheri and the rest of the band grew, college education faded from view. In 1977, after sneaking in and getting kicked out of a KISS concert at Madison Square Garden, Weiss was selling out of his prints as the crowd left the show. But before he could sell out completely, he was arrested for selling photos and spent a long night in jail. The next day while reading his subscription of Circus magazine, he wondered what he would do next. Noticing the New York City address in the masthead, he hopped on the same train that he had taken the night before and walked right into Circus magazine. The secretary, after taking a liking to him, allowed him to wait around for the art director who was working on a deadline. With a small chance that the art director might be in a good mood and willing to talk, Weiss waited. Three hours later he found himself in the office of the publisher, Gerald Rothberg. With some advice and the promise to stay in touch, Weiss had his foot in the right door. Unbeknownst to his parents, Weiss dropped out of college, moved in with the band, and began traveling around the tri-state area doing lighting and photos for them. He spent the next year gaining access to photo passes, getting published in Circus, and getting closer and closer to the rockstars that he admired. In October of 1978, his photo of Steven Tyler was published as the centerfold. He realized that this was the largest image in the magazine, the image that would be ripped out and placed on readers’ walls. This was the best way that he could tell his parents that he had dropped out of college. Though they insisted that he complete a semester at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, they supported him in his dreams, unlike one of his professors, who told him that he was “never going to be a rock n’ roll photographer.” Little did she know that by 1981 he would become one of the most legendary music photographers of the decade.
From getting thrown out of concerts to getting thrown into photo pits for paid publications, Weiss was on his way to becoming Mark “Weissguy” Weiss. He had grown not only as an artist but as a person. “Photography got me out of my shell and made me confrontational,” Weiss explains. “Whether it was getting chased down the street by the police for selling photos, or having the balls to ask Circus magazine to look at my work, I had no choice but to be confrontational. To start asking for photo passes and then getting there and asking ‘what do you mean I can’t shoot the whole show or go backstage,’ I just wouldn’t take no for an answer.” His persistence and raw talent took him to places that most photographers at the time were unable to reach. While most stopped at the photo pits, Weiss was insistent on making his way backstage and capturing candid images of musicians behind the scenes. “I definitely pissed off some publicists on the way,” Weiss remembers. “And I’ve even pissed off some rockstars on the way, but you know what… I still got the shots.” He was breaking boundaries and getting a much more intimate look at the rockstars that the fans never got the opportunity to experience. For weeks at a time, he would hop on the bus with them and photograph their tours. “I wouldn’t go on a whole tour, “ Weiss says. “I’d go out for like two weeks at a time, go home and develop the film, go out with another band and a few months later I would do it all again. There was no rhyme or reason for how I did it.” However, he always made sure to be around for the events that seemed “important,” such as international concerts, music video shoots, and special events such as Hear’n Aid, Live Aid, the Moscow Music Peace Festival, US Festival, and the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) hearings in Washington, DC. By the end of the decade, he had participated in the visual documentation of historic events throughout music history. One of those events was the moment that he photographed the Prince of Darkness, Ozzy Osbourne, in a pink tutu.
Shortly after the launch of MTV, the media was circulating with vibrant news about Ozzy Osbourne. Weiss was assigned a cover and feature with Ozzy, he was eager to work with him. Their first photoshoot began on the streets of New York and ended in his hotel room at the Plaza with a seamless backdrop and an experience that would transform his artistic direction. “He (Ozzy) had a bit of a double chin, so I kept telling him to lean forward,” Weiss begins. “He couldn’t quite understand what I was saying, because I was a little bit soft-spoken. So he just kept saying ‘what, Mark?’ and naturally leaning forward like you do when you can’t hear someone. And I would say ‘that’s it’ and he would go ‘what’s it?’ And it all turned into a little bit of a comedy act.” A comedy act that grew into a great working friendship. After the initial shoot together there was a level of trust that had been gained and a breach of confidence that allowed Weiss to expand his horizons. He began incorporating crazy outfits and creating scenes that told stories. But most importantly, one of the biggest stars in the music industry was leaving his image in Weiss’ hands. Which is why there was such a negative outburst when he was photographed and published in a pink tutu. This was the moment in time when Weiss accepted that he was not always going to make everyone happy with his work, but he was grateful that he had gained the confidence to take risks and push the limits. “That’s kind of what did it for me,” Weiss reflects. “Ozzy’s acceptance of what I do. I owe him for giving me the confidence of being the photographer that I am.” And we may just owe Weiss the credit for the tantalizing visual performances during Ozzfest. “After the first shoot we did, he saw what I did and he basically listened to me whenever I asked him to do something. We started getting really nuts ” Weiss explains. “And then in the 1990s when he started Ozzfest, he started taking that theme of dressing up and he put it in his show. When he started the show he would dress up as different characters, but they were kind of inspired by our early photoshoots like that.”
After shooting with established bands like AC/DC, Judas Priest, and the Scorpions, and having his photos grace the cover magazines, his reputation grew much larger and emerging musicians wanted him to take their photos. During this time, he was able to document the rise to stardom for some of the most iconic musicians of the ‘80s and the rise of sex appeal in rock n’ roll photography. When Weiss began working with gentleman’s magazine Oui he was given the task of photographing for the music section. As directed, he began incorporating scantily clad women into his photoshoots with musicians. “ The publicists hated me, but the bands loved me,” Weiss laughs. “They WANTED to be in Oui magazine with naked girls. Well, half-naked girls, there wasn’t like spread legs or anything like that. Just, you know, breasts. There’s nothing wrong with nice breasts here and there.” The teenager who was consumed with the image of a photographer with beautiful girls was living his dream in California when he was given the task of handpicking models from the Jim South Modeling agency. “I’d go in there with this guy Michael Kirk, who was the editor, and we would pick the girls out. He would go ‘Hey Mark, we got this new girl and she’d be perfect – she’s a rocker’ and we would wait about half an hour.
She would come in, take her clothes off, and spin around for us, ” Mark recalls. “I don’t know how that would go today. I was surprised that they were doing it like that back then. But then you look at Mapplethorpe and photographers that are a little more, uh, suggestive than what I do. It’s really what rock n’ roll was about back then, you know, sex, drugs, and rock n roll. As cliche as it sounds.” This raunchy style of photography was becoming a hit and opened the door to a brand new band on Sunset Strip – Mötley Crüe. Weiss did a session and interview for Oui that became the first photoshoot that the world would see of the band. More importantly, it set the stage for who the band was and how they would portray themselves for years to come. By 1984, Weiss was taking the publishing world by storm. He was working regularly with Circus, Faces, Hit Parader, and Oui. His artistic freedom grew with his notoriety. He went from live shows to creating concepts, styling, and set design. Inspired by the work of Annie Liebovitz at Rolling Stone magazine, Weiss began putting bands in different environments. And if he could not find one suitable, he would build the set around them, as he did for Twisted Sister. The release of the album cover for Stay Hungry was a game-changing moment for Weiss and something that he had always wanted. “It’s great having a cover on Circus magazine, or Hit Parader, or any of those magazines, but they go away in a month. Album covers stick around,“ Weiss explains. He would go on to photograph covers for albums such as Slippery When Wet by Bon Jovi, Night Songs by Cinderella, and The Last Command by W.A.S.P.
Through the years Weiss experienced his own share of setbacks as well. He found that not everyone was enthused about having him take their photos, including Aerosmith manager Tim Collins. After claiming his management position he set out to sober up the band and draw the line to who had access to them. Weiss was on that list and that meant that he was no longer being allowed backstage, or to shoot more than the first few songs of the show. “It was definitely heartbreaking to me because here’s my favorite band and we had a great friendship. ” Weiss wistfully recalls. “The manager was just trying to cut everyone out from the beginning. He told people that I used to give them drugs. I didn’t give them drugs. I was the young kid. But anyway, we partied together and he didn’t want me around. So he made up a story that I was smuggling in drugs with my film canisters to give to the band. He told me that I had to stay away. And I was like, ‘I don’t think so, that’s not gonna happen.'” After being hired by the Scorpions to shoot their Arizona stop on their tour in 84’ with Aerosmith, Weiss found the perfect opportunity to talk to the band. When he was left with no response from Collins after requesting a photo pass with backstage access, he ran into Steven Tyler.
Their brief encounter backstage ensured Weiss that the band had no idea why he hadn’t be around. But with no time to go into the details and with Collins walking up to them Weiss had to shoot his shot and see if he could get the clearance to shoot the show. Collins agreed but told him that there were no passes left. Tyler offered Weiss the laminate right off of his neck and called the band over to take some quick shots before they went on. Collins stood back in silence and Weiss was ready to shoot Aerosmith again for the first time in years. Little did he know, it would be his last time for more than a decade. After only a few songs he was pulled from the photo pit by security and told by Collins that it was the last time that he would ever shoot the band. “I just remember Tom Hamilton coming up to me after I got kicked out. He’s like ‘Mark, I don’t know what to tell ya. Tim said you gotta choose between me or him. And I’m sorry Mark. You know, we put our everything with this guy.’ And that was it. I said, okay, no problem.” Weiss remained professional with the Aerosmith camp, but he never grew tired of hoping that he could explain the situation to Tyler. “A lot of my bands that I worked with opened up for them (Aerosmith) – Dokken, Skid row. So on New Year’s Eve, Skid Row was playing in Boston. I was with my fiance at the time and we were friends with the Skid Row guys. They allowed me in the building, but they said you can’t go backstage and you can’t ask Steve for a photo pass or anything like that. If you do you’re going to get kicked out. I just wanted to tell him what was going on, you know? So, I’m walking down the hall and he sticks his head out, Steven, he sees me and he’s like ‘Hey man, where have you been?’ I said ‘I can’t talk’ and I had to act stupid. He just looked at me like ‘what the fuck is wrong with him?’ That was it. I wrote an intense letter to him going over all the details, which I still have and I was going to actually publish it in the book, but I didn’t. And then I just let it go. It is what it is.” Over a decade later, when Weiss heard the news that Collins had been fired, he got back in with the Aerosmith camp and never left. It was very clear that he was meant to stay connected to them and countless other musicians, even after that rocking decade had ended.
His relentless spirit made him the world-renowned photographer that he is today, and his journey isn’t even close to being over. “If there’s a door to open, I’m gonna kick it down and go find another door,” Weiss asserts. On June 2, 2020, Weiss released his book published by Insight Editions. The Decade That Rocked gives you a backstage pass to the era that revolutionized rock n’ roll, featuring a legendary lineup, never before seen photos, exclusive interviews, and a personal narrative that makes you feel as though you are sitting with the author as he takes you on a tour through one of the hottest decades of the century. (You can read our full book review here) Weiss originally designed the book for 600 pages, even though he was given a 300-page limit. They were able to compromise by cutting 200 pages, which was not easy for Weiss to do. A lot of the photos that were cut ended up on mixed-media chapter pages and some stories were left untold. “I’m sure there are some stories that I wish were in there,” Weiss laments. “But I tried to keep the real important ones, you know? Like the time that I got held up at gunpoint with Poison photos and when I got bit by Nikki Sixx and had to bite him back… the important stories.” One thing that he made sure to keep in the book was his love for fan photos. Weiss has a collection that could become a whole book in itself. His admiration for turning around and taking photos of exuberant crowds began because that is what he started as. In his eyes, the community of fans from that decade and beyond have a bond that is never broken. “When I’m shooting bands now and I look in the crowd, it’s almost like seeing the same people,” Weiss describes. “It’s the same excitement, the same energy.” Eventually, he would like to do a whole campaign that revolves around fans identifying themselves in his photos. Until then, you can hear stories from fans and interviews with musicians turned friends on his podcast, The Decade That Rocked. Or visit him at the Monmouth Museum in New Jersey, where he is exhibiting his portfolio and actual pieces that were featured in his book, like his first camera, the Slippery When Wet shirt, and much more. With an archive of iconic photos and stories that are much larger than words, Mark “Weissguy” Weiss is someone you want to keep on your radar and your bookshelf.
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“I don’t think he thought of himself as a rockstar. He knew he was a rockstar, but I don’t think he wanted to think of himself as one.”
Mark Weiss on Eddie Van Halen