Alec Byrne was one of the most successful music photographers before he decided to retire. He came to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s taking pictures of Rock icons, from Jimmy Page, to Marc Bolan, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and David Bowie, just to name a few. Byrne was recently in London to launch his exhibition called London Rock: The Unseen Archive by Alec Byrne, and our writer, Lucrezia Alfonsi, has interviewed Alec to get to know more about him and his career.
How did your passion for photography started? Was there anything specific that made you think: “Ok, this is what I really would like to do”?
There was an event that really got me hooked and that was when I was working at a photo agency in Fleet Street called “Keystone Press”. I never really knew anything about photography and just hanging with these guys in the dark room, I remember getting interested and taking some pictures and then they showed me how to develop them and when I did my first print and saw that image appear in the dish I was hooked. When that happened I thought: “Oh this is really fascinating” and then after that it became an obsession. I’ve never had a lesson of photography or a course in photography, I never went to art school, I never did any of that. I just became obsessed, I got the camera and shot everything, from family members, to family dogs and that was it, it took off from there.
In the realm of photography was there anyone who strongly influenced you at the beginning of your career?
I don’t recall any particular photographer because at the beginning I was just all over the place.
You have worked for one of the most important music magazines, NME. How did you end up working for them?
As a young kid I was shooting these concerts…First of all my first picture ever published was a picture of a petrol station which I had sent to my local paper and when they published it they sent me a little cheque and that was fantastic. So then when I went to big enough concerts I started taking pictures, I sent them to NME and eventually NME published one of them, purely unexpected and when I got paid for that, 1 pound, 1 shilling, I thought: “This is fantastic, being paid to do what you love.” So then I just kept on shooting, sending in the pictures and eventually I went to NME and said: “Look, I can’t get in to some of these venues, can you help me?” So the editor, Andy Gray at that time, was a fantastic guy and said: “Yes, sure, we’ll send you a letter. We’re not saying we’re going to publish anything, but we’ll send you this letter.” So I got the letter and I said: “Wow, I’m shooting for NME” and one of the manager of a venue said: “Yes, sure you can come in.” So I ended up going to NME and eventually they offered me a retainer as a 17-year old, and that was it. It really just completely took off after that. I loved going to gigs, loved rock music, and as an added bonus I was also getting paid for it. So that one picture a month getting published turned into 2 pictures a week and later turned into a retainer. At that time I was living at home, it wasn’t like I had a big apartment to pay for so I just loved it.
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Your art has almost exclusively dealt with music, what do you think of photography in the music industry today, has it changed a lot since you started your career in the 60’s?
I don’t follow it as closely as I did. But photography has done a 360° change with cameras and photos formats. I grew up in an age when you had a roll of 120 film and you had to be familiar with that, 12 exposures, and you went out, covered a job, and you came back with half a roll unused. You had to be very focus on what you wanted to achieve. Now, the last time I did a portrait session I used a digital camera and there were 500 exposures. Back in the day it was maybe 12, so there’s a huge difference. And of course if you’re working for print media everyone expects you to have the images yesterday, they want to see things immediately, which you couldn’t do with film, so that’s a huge difference. When I was shooting in black and white I had my photo lab, so I could see (my pictures) as soon as I could spend some time in the dark room. When you were shooting in colour back in those days, you had to send pictures to a lab, and if the lab closed at 5.00 pm you had to wait for another day and so you really didn’t know until you collected the film what you’d got. Sometimes back in the day you could even do a Test Smith to boost unexposed pictures, but it was a long process as it took days. Nowadays when you shoot in digital you take a picture, look at the screen and when you got it you move on.
You have shot a multitude of icons of the 60s and 70s, from The Beatles, to Jimmy Page, David Bowie, Bob Marley and many others. Do you think there was someone who was particularly challenging to shoot?
Quite often just getting access to shoots was a challenge. If you didn’t get on with the manager, the publishers, the agents or with whoever your connection was to a band, it was difficult. I mean, I loved Led Zeppelin, I just thought they were amazing, but their manager was a pig of a guy who I had no connection with, nobody did, I think his name was Peter Graham, he was a huge guy, I think he was an ex-bouncer or something that ended up as a manger. I never had any connection with him, so I didn’t get to do the Led Zeppelin at home or go on tour with them. I never got anything like that, no collaborations. So that was a challenge when you really wanted to do something and you couldn’t.
In terms of technique, do you believe it is important to know a bit about the subject before shooting it?
I think it is important to know a bit about the person, but from other people, because you don’t want to go in there and the guy (for instance) is quiet and introverted and the last thing you want to do is say: “Can you jump off this chair?” And then there were other bands like Slade or some other people who were crazy, you could just push them to the limit, you could get them to do anything. So knowing who they are is important, I mean, I met Cream when they were really famous and Eric Clapton, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce came to the studio, took some pictures and then I said: “Ok guys, I need some exterior in the park.” It was very normal back in the day when you got a band to show up and they had three or four changes of clothes and then I would select what clothes I wanted them to wear and we did one set in the studio and then we’d go outside. And I still have a memory of walking around a business area in London, like a financial district, and you saw Ginger Baker and Eric Clapton with frizzy afro hair, psychedelic shirts, trousers and they are walking down the street with all these business guys with bowler hats. It was like a reality show or something, you were staging this event and they didn’t give a damn, I think they just loved the attention. So I think we walked through Red Lion Street (Holborn) to a park and did a great photo-shoot, and they were amazing. There was like an ice cream vendor, and I said: “Can you line up for me and buy an ice cream?” You know, Cream the band, big stretch. So they were great and accommodating. Knowing a bit about them and how far you could push them to achieve what you want is a big part of it.
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I was at the exhibition’s opening. I was wondering if there is any picture you’re most proud of.
There were so many great bands. There is not a single one picture that sums up my whole mad decade of Rock n’ Roll, but one of the images I really love is Mick and Jimi (Mick Jagger and JimiHendrix). That is one of the few that I can actually tell you the date it was taken, whereas all the others are a bit of a blur. It’s hard to pin down exactly where and when I took them, but that one was taken on May 4th 1967 and my birthday was May 3rd, so I had just turn 18 years old and when I look back and think: “These two icons of rock were letting me direct them”. I think that when you’re young you don’t give a damn and you just go. So that’s one of my favourites.
This exhibition is called “London Rock: The Unseen Archive by Alec Byrne”, why did you decide to show this pictures only recently?
They were all boxed away for nearly half a century, five years ago we had a show in Los Angeles at Smashbox Studios and I almost expected anything really to happen, I had made dinner reservations with some friends to whom I said: “Look, I got to pop into the gallery, there are going to be a few people there, and then I will go on to dinner.” When I showed up at the gallery there were over a thousands people, I spent the whole night there, and in the end they were flashing the lights on and off to empty the people out. And at the end of the night I could hardly speak due to talking to so many people. People were so emotional about the pictures, sharing stories and saying: “Oh, I was at that concert…do you remember when the drummer did…” I said “No, sorry I don’t, it’s been so long ago”, people wanted to share their stories, and ask: “What was Bob Marley like?”. It was an amazing night which to me was a life-changing moment and that was 5 years ago, and since then we have done everything we can to get the images out to show them to people, and that’s why I’m so proud of this book (London Rock: The Unseen Archive by Alec Byrne, Virgin Books) which has just been released. I didn’t expect anyone to come to the exhibition 5 years ago; I thought that maybe half a dozen people would have showed up, maybe some die-hard Rock fan, collectors or whatever. I thought I would have been in and out in 20 minutes and go on to dinner. But instead, the reaction to that one show was a big event in my life.
Last but not least: What advice would you give to young people who would like to follow your footsteps?
I would say to never take no for an answer, you’ll always find a way around it. When Mick Jagger was doing his first movie role, I would have liked access to it, but I was told: “No, close set, no media”, I kept calling and calling the manager and calling everyone I could and eventually I got on set. So even though things have totally changed now, and I feel sorry for everyone who wants to get into shooting gigs now, and I’m thinking of the Taylor Swift contract that you have to sign, which is very normal I believe; I haven’t shot a concert in decades, but apparently now if you want to shoot a gig you do three numbers (songs) and then you’re out, and then you sign this contract which says you have no rights, the manager has copyrights, you can only supply the pictures to the newspaper it was accredited, you can basically do nothing with them. And I look at my collection and I have the copyright in all of those images, which I don’t think anyone could do that today. So things have really changed today. But having said all of that: never take no for an answer!