Let’s say that you, Joe or Jane Average Rock ‘n Roll Fan, decided you wanted to be a rock photographer. You grab your professional camera, sling it around your neck, and head off to a concert by a major name artist. No assignment, no photo pass…just a burning passion for taking photos. How far do you think you would get? In the present day, not even through the front door of the venue. Not one footstep inside.
Things were very different back in 1968 when Robert Knight had a camera and a dream. As he relates the tale, “It was in San Francisco, at the Winterland Ballroom. I walked in with a camera to a Jimi Hendrix concert. And there was no security. I don’t even know if backstage passes existed at that point. I don’t know. I just know people would literally get out of my way assuming I was with the newspaper or Rolling Stone magazine or something. I just walked down to the front and started shooting. It was very surreal. The irony of that first shoot with Hendrix was I was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute. Annie Leibovitz was in the same class as I was. And film was very expensive for us and we had to process and print out our own stuff, so I only brought one roll to the concert. I only shot 14 pictures. I mean, at the time it was like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot, 14.’ Years later, Janie Hendrix, Jimi’s sister and controller of his estate, used all 14 photos on the release of the Live at Winterland video. So all my pictures ended up on the cover and the inside.”
Knight has recently released a book titled Rock Gods: Fifty Years of Rock Photography. Flip through the photos and it’s literally a gallery of the all-time greats: Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, and many, many more. But if one thinks that the book is just another coffee table volume of cool photographs, think again. The back stories of how Knight came to meet and befriend the musicians behind those photos are equally fascinating. For a book about photographs, it makes a great read.
“I think that was what we really tried to go for because one of the things I was trying to portray was that I wasn’t just a guy that only took pictures,” says Knight. “For example, I used to go over to the house that Jimi Hendrix and his group were staying at. They rented this house for weeks at a time. I would go over there and spend the afternoon talking to everybody and didn’t have a camera. And I was thinking, ‘Well, why didn’t I bring a camera?’ But then they’re all sitting in bathing suits and they’re out of their stage clothing and not with their instruments, and I just thought, ‘Well, that’s really not interesting.’ On the other hand, when Led Zeppelin came to town, I did pull out the camera because it was so crazy what they were doing offstage that I was able to document that. So I have them surfing and having pool fights and flooding the house with water. I mean, it was good fun.”
The phrase “good fun” is an understatement to the average rock music fan whose interaction with rock stars is usually limited to few minute’s time…usually just a handshake and a selfie. Knight’s tales allow a peek inside that highly guarded and insulated world.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s really wild. I was at the Sunset Marquis a few years ago and I was walking by the restaurant, and I looked over and I saw this guy. I thought, ‘Well, he really looks familiar.’ He had really short cropped hair and looked to be an older gentleman. And he waved me over and it was John Paul Jones. He was reading a book, nobody was bothering him. I don’t know anybody knew it was him. I sat down and he said, ‘Robert, how’s it going?’ So I asked him what he was doing there. He replied ‘Oh, I’m doing this album with Dave Grohl called Them Crooked Vultures, it’s very unusual stuff.’ And we would have all these conversations for a few days at breakfast; we never talked about Led Zeppelin. I mean, it was like…that was something that happened almost 50 years ago.”
“I’ve run into Robert [Plant] a few times. I spent about four hours with him in Nashville a few years ago and we talked for quite a bit. I asked him if he wanted some of the pictures I took in ’68, ’69 with his wife. He said, ‘Why would I want pictures of my ex-wife? No, I don’t want those.’ And then he actually ordered 10 of my 30″ x 40″ prints of the Honolulu Airport shot of Led Zeppelin. His assistant reached out to me and said ‘Robert would like to get 10 of these, and he’ll pay you.’ I’m like, ‘Uh, I don’t think I wanna charge Robert Plant for his own photo.’ It turns out that we were both going to be in Nashville. When I met him there I asked what he was going to do with the 10 photos. He said ‘I’m giving them to Alison Krauss and her band and my kids and stuff.’ I said, ‘Do you want one for your house?’ He said, ‘I would never put a photo that big up in my house. Maybe a little 8″ x 10″ or something.’ I mean, it was so different.”
A common theme with the stories in Rock Gods is how Knight eventually became good friends with most of the musicians he photographed. They’re all good tales, but conspicuously absent are tales about artists that may have been…let’s day difficult to work with (because rock stars never have big egos, right?)
“Probably the most difficult person to shoot was James Brown because he came into the studio and he walked out on the backdrop and turned his back to me and he wouldn’t turn around. I said, ‘James, turn around, turn around.’ He wouldn’t turn around. And finally, one of his guys came over to me and whispered, ‘You can’t call him James, you gotta call him Mr. Brown.’ I replied, ‘Oh, I didn’t know. Mr. Brown, I’m so sorry. Would you please turn around?’ He said, ‘Yes, sir, Mr. Knight!’ You know, those were such fun times.”
“I mean, you hear tales. Bob Dylan was one of those who were supposedly difficult. I’ve heard other photographers saying, ‘Oh, you know, I did a photoshoot with Dylan and he allowed me only three photos, and one of them had to be a Polaroid.’ I’m like, ‘Really?’”
“And yet opportunity came with film producer Steve Bing who was doing a thing called Angels and Outlaws in L.A. at the Wiltern. It was like everybody that was anybody was going to be at this concert. I called up the publicist and asked if I could shoot, and he said, ‘Oh, Steve Bing’s booked Jim Marshal’ [prominent music photographer]. So, I figured I was out. Then about an hour before the show I get this call and they said, ‘Jim Marshall never turned up.’ Bing says, ‘Rush down here, we’ll give you a front row. You can use flash and shoot anybody you want.’ And I literally shot Dylan for 40 minutes. He never said anything, it was really wild. I was wearing this Che Guevara T-shirt and a bunch of photographers went upstairs because Keith Richards was up in the dressing room and they all wanted to go in the dressing room and take pictures with Keith. And Keith pointed to me and said, ‘He can come because he’s with Che Guevara.’ So I got the shot.”
Knight has had so many amazing experiences in his long career that each story seems better than the previous one—like the time Knight was onstage with Steven Tyler and Aerosmith. “Steven Tyler has actually incorporated me into the show a couple of times where he tries to chase me with a mic stand and acts like he’s mad at me and then introduces me to the crowd. But you know, you’re getting angles, they encourage you to get those angles where you’re literally standing behind them looking out at 20,000 people getting that shot from behind. That’s been wonderful. And to actually be in the band while you’re hearing your favorite song is just fantastic.”
One of the most poignant stories involves the last concert of Stevie Ray Vaughn, a few hours before the fatal helicopter crash. Knight had several experiences that could be accurately described as paranormal, foreshadowing Vaughn’s death later that night, experiences that haunt him to this day. That chapter alone is worth the price of the book.
As technology has evolved, photography has necessarily evolved along with it. The days of shooting film are long gone, and anyone with a smartphone can be a concert photographer. “Spray and pray” is the term…shoot enough photos, and there are bound to be some good ones—a technique that was obviously not practical in the days of film. Knight says “I watch the kids shoot and you’ve got people with selfie sticks with iPhones up above and you’re trying to shoot from the pit with a bunch of sticks in front. I’ve seen guitar players just kick the sticks away. Back in the day, it was difficult to be a photographer, it was technical. You didn’t get instant feedback, you couldn’t play the image back immediately and know what your exposure was. You just had to know what you were doing. And sometimes it took a few days, the band’s already left town before you even knew if you got anything. It was interesting.”
Photo Credit: Maryanne Bilham)
“Photography has evolved, as has everything. Digital technology has affected everything across the board from recording studios with the need of a producer to people recording at home on their computer. But photography has morphed from the technical part of being a photographer into post-production computer artists. And this is what most photography looks like now. It looks like everybody’s using the same after-effects HDR program and it’s highly processed. And in reality, you’re more of a computer geek than you are a photographer.”
As revolutionary as changes in technology have been, the ability to gain access to a band has also changed, and not necessarily for the better for a young photographer wanting to break into the business. What Knight did the late ‘60’s with Hendrix and Zeppelin would be impossible today. Knight was able to walk unfettered to the edge of the stage to shoot Hendrix; major bands today limit photographers to the first three songs, shot from the soundboard. “Useless, completely useless” says Knight. “To some degree I understand it because I’ve been a beneficiary of that in a way. But some of these bands, and they will go nameless, some of these bands are looking a bit worse for wear. And they get very unhappy when they see a lot of photos of themselves that do not look good. And so what they do is they hire a photographer and then they buy your pictures outright. I’ve done this with major bands and then they own everything. I can’t do anything with it. I think Axl, from Guns N’ Roses, has a photographer that’s the official photographer and a lot of guys have been flipping out that they won’t let the local photographers shoot the band when they come through town.”
“Another reason the personal photographer concept came about is that a lot of bands are very unhappy that a lot of pictures get sold, are bootlegged for T-shirts, people are doing all kinds of other stuff with it. They’re not happy about that because there’s no approval or whatever. But on the other hand, when they were starting out, they needed us. I mean, there was always this symbiotic relationship between bands and photographers and there were certain photographers that they knew in each city. They knew if they worked with that person, they would probably get good results and you would always have a photo pass.”
Knight will often get asked for advice from young photographers and he gives of his knowledge freely. “A lot of young kids will ask ‘Hey, can I shoot the Stones or Van Halen,’ or whoever it is. And I say, ‘No, you’re not gonna get there, don’t even worry about it. But find a young band you love, help that band and ride the rocket. And they will always remember you and they will always give you photo passes like what happened to me with Led Zeppelin.” As a way of expanding on his love for musical talent, Knight has created two programs: Brotherhood of the Guitar and Drummerhood. Their stated purpose is “a worldwide hunt looking for the next generation of young guitar players and drummers who might become the next Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, or Ringo Starr.”
On the back-inner cover of Rock Gods, there is a photo of Knight. It is a portrait of a serious, stern-looking man with wire-rimmed glasses and a beret. However, the voice on the phone conveys a completely different image—that of a vibrant, enthusiastic man who’s full of fire and passion. At age 69, Robert Knight is clearly having the time of his life, reliving old times while seeking the rock gods of tomorrow.