"Peter Sellers... brought with him a full Hasselblad kit and a big old Polaroid camera... He proceeded to take pictures of me and my brother on the Polaroid, and it was completely amazing and magical - it blew me away!"
In Conversation With... Gered Mankowitz
You may not have heard Gered Mankowitz's name before, but this is the photographer behind many famous album covers; from The Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons to Kate Bush's Lionheart, and of course, the now iconic portraits of Jimi Hendrix. Gered discusses his career within photography, and offers insights to many of the shots we know and love.
Born to Wolf Mankowitz, a famous English writer, was there a push for you to be an English protégé?
I think I reacted against my father’s English; his language, his education, his writing. I was a very late reader; I was a very late speller. I struggled with my spelling, with my grammar. I couldn’t express myself writing. I wasn’t academic. I struggled to learn from books. I wasn’t academic at school. I was probably dyslexic, but it wasn’t something that was talked about or discussed back in those days. Wolf was always quite cross with me in regard to that, so I think I felt inhibited and intimidated, not necessarily by his success, but by his extraordinary skill as a writer and as a talker and as a debater and all of that stuff. I think I was intimidated by it.
I’m not sure whether I ever for a moment entertained the idea of being a writer. I wanted to be an actor briefly, and I did a certain amount of drama at school, which I enjoyed and loved, but he was always very against actors; he didn’t like actors particularly. Although he never actually said You can’t be, he was discouraging of acting. I had the most wonderful dressing-up box, and I used to go to the theatre with him when I was very young, and the actors would give me dog-ends of make-up. I had a fantastic make-up kit, and I had beards and I would emerge as an old sailor or a cowboy, or whatever it was. I loved that and I wanted to be an actor, but he was discouraging of that. Then I found this sort of niche of being a photographer very early on, and he was encouraging and supportive of that. I think he was quite eager for me to leave school because he didn’t really feel that I had any future in any form of further education. I think he was convinced that I didn’t have a chance, so I think he was keen that I should get out and work, learn a trade, and photography called to me, and that’s what I pursued from the age of about fourteen.
How did you come about discovering your gift for photography at such a young age?
We had family snaps: I don’t really remember either my mum or dad with a camera, but there were family snaps. People were taking pictures of us on holiday, but not hugely, and it wasn’t a real avid hobby. One day, Peter Sellers, whom my father was working with on a movie, came to have Sunday lunch, and he brought with him a full Hasselblad kit and a big old Polaroid camera – well, old now, but then it was very new! He proceeded to take pictures of me and my brother on the Polaroid, and it was completely amazing and magical - it blew me away! Sellers showed me the Hasselblad: he took the lenses on and off and he let me hold it, explaining everything, but he did it in a sort of a mad Goon-Show-Swedish-Chef type voice, and I was just weeping with laughter! When he left, I said to my dad I want to be a photographer and I want a Hasselblad! I associated cameras, Hasselblads, and photography with fun from that moment on. I thought I would have fun with it.
Then I took some very early pictures on a school holiday and Wolf thought they were pretty good – God knows why, I’ve looked at them since and they’re absolutely terrible! He thought there was something in them, and he showed them to Tom Blau, a friend of his who owned Camera Press Ltd, which was a huge photo agency in the heart of London. Tom very sweetly, very generously, bought a couple of the pictures of Delft Cathedral in Holland, and the most important thing was that he said If you want to pursue photography, I will offer you an apprenticeship when you leave school. I was about fourteen-fifteen and went almost immediately to work for Tom Blau at Camera Press. That was it really. I never strayed from that path. I knew that that was what I wanted to do and never felt like wanting to do anything else.
Could you just tell us about that intermittent experience before you found your calling to work with musicians?
In a way, music photography came as an accident because it didn’t exist as a genre, and really, to be a successful commercial photographer you had to do a range of different sorts of photography. That was pretty much pushed on me throughout the Sixties. Even after I’d started photographing The [Rolling] Stones and [Jimi] Hendrix, I was still always looking for different avenues, different areas of photography, because I never imagined for a second that I could earn a living. Earning a living, being paid for what you do, was important to me from the beginning. I couldn’t possibly be my father’s son if I wasn’t acutely aware that whatever we did, we did it in order to be paid, to buy all the things that we need and that we want. Earning a living was absolutely key.
There was one photographer I can think of who seemed to do a lot of music – Dežo Hoffmann – but in general, photographers had to more than one thing, especially if they were going to run a studio. I dabbled and explored by assisting various people in different genres of photography. I was sort of settled on being a showbusiness photographer, which meant perhaps photographing for the theatre, photographing actors, maybe working on movie sets, that sort of thing. Very early on, two young actors I was photographing were also singers. Suddenly, they opened a door for me, and a realization that these are young artists my age, making music. That was very much part of showbusiness at that point, and they needed photography. We all felt and talked the same, and it just seemed to me as though this was an area of showbiz that was full of young people all eager to experiment, to try things out, to break the mould. Here I was: young, with a Hasselblad, ready to go.
You mention music photography not existing as a genre. As a post-war baby, do you remember growing up with certain records?
We didn’t listen to a lot of music at school, but we shared music that we’d heard. Occasionally there’d be a record player and we’d bring in a record. Elvis was probably the first artist to really get us all going, and I remember me and the boys all trying to compete for doing impressions of Elvis; the lip and the hip and trying to do that extraordinary voice.
At home it was rather limited. There was a bit of modern jazz and there were show albums: The Pajama Game and West Side Story. My dad was in that area of showbusiness: apart from all his other talents, he’d written Expresso Bongo, which was one of the first ever musicals or pieces about contemporary popular music. I’d met Cliff Richard on set in ‘57/58? I’d gone to the theatre to see the production and I’d be backstage. Primarily the theatre, and a bit of movie, was always part of my life, and music associated with that.
Did you realise the magnitude of your father's fame as a child?
It’s funny, of course I was aware of my father’s fame because we saw him on television. He was on Juke Box Jury, which was one of the few things that I might have been allowed to see him on, but we knew about it because in a way we’d shared it; in family photographs for the Evening Standard. We were very aware that he was successful, but going to a film set or going to the theatre just felt normal. It felt like a treat, but it seemed normal.
I don’t think I ever felt in awe of it, or of many people because of it. I watched Orson Welles put on a false nose when I was about eleven, Charles Laughton came in to our house and told us to turn the bloody music off... These people were the people that we knew, and I don’t think I was in awe of them, I just thought they were absolutely extraordinary, wonderful people. It meant that I could relate to the people I was photographing as people: as talent, as people who were exceptional, but not necessarily people I was in awe of. It made the relationship from the beginning, much more of something that you work on together. Maybe that’s another thing that I got from seeing the theatre: the collaborative nature of it. I was too young to be conscious of the politics and the backstabbing and the absolute ghastliness of it, but on the surface, it felt fantastic to be part of a company.
How did you come to forging your career within the music industry, despite all the exposure to showbiz?
Well, timing is everything: timing and luck play a huge role in it. I’d met Marianne Faithfull socially and just absolutely fallen under her spell. I’d asked her if I could photograph her, and she agreed. I whisked her off in my little Mini Minor, we took photographs, and became really good friends. I did two or three sessions with her in the recording studio, and then I shot something in a pub in St Martins Lane, because I thought she needed an album cover and I thought it would make a good cover. She was managed by Andrew Loog Oldham, who managed The Rolling Stones, but I’d never met him. Although he managed Marianne, he was very much at a distance and other people did the day-to-day. Then I got a call saying would I go to the office, which was in Ivor Court, because Andrew wanted to meet me.
I went, and The [Rolling] Stones were there, and we all got on. It was just lovely: very friendly, very nice. Andrew was weird; odd and crazy, but very nice. That was it, I got working with them. That was at the end of ‘64, and I actually did my first session with the band early ‘65.
We have this image of The Rolling Stones; wild, crazy, drug-infused, mainly from the media. What was it like on that tour for you?
The reality was I went to America with them in ‘65, I think we flew out in October, and it was their fourth tour of America, so they were already quite experienced at it. I went along as their photographer and it was pretty chaotic! It wasn’t choreographed for or by the media, because the reality was the media wasn’t interested. The local media, The Rochester, New York media, wanted to interview the boys because they were in town to do a show, but the British media, and the media as a whole, wasn’t remotely interested. Maybe they were interested in the odd fact, you know: Rolling Stones concert closed down because of screaming fans in New York, or something like that, but they weren’t interested in my photography. In many ways, I felt my photography had no real purpose at all, but it was a great adventure.
Of course, it was organized – there were agents and everything – but a lot of the promoters had never promoted a rock-and-roll show: they might have been wrestling promoters, or basketball promoters, or maybe they’d put on Broadway musicals, but they didn’t understand The [Rolling] Stones. Nobody understood. It was all incredibly new and so ‘amateur’, but it was all we knew, so we didn’t know any different. The dressing rooms were absolute shitholes. The facilities were negligible. There was no sound desk. There was no rehearsal. The boys tuned up in the dressing room, there weren’t any guitar techs. They carried their own backline with them but mixed sound through the house PA, whatever that was. It was crude, but it was intimate because there was nobody else: there was the band, there was me, there was a tour accountant, Ronnie Schneider, whom I used to share a room with, and there was Ian Stewart - the roadie. There were two agents: one who was an advance agent, so we hardly ever saw him, and the other one would be with us to make sure that everything went all right. It was a tiny little crew: there was no security, there was no press, there was nothing. It was intimate. I was treated like one of the band. I stayed next door to the band: I wasn’t put in a lesser room or treated in any way differently from the band. That spoiled me, because I assumed that was the way it was done!
It was a great experience but it was chaotic, and it wasn’t conducive to great photography. It was a great adventure and it taught me a huge amount. I became very, very close with the band, got on extremely well with them, and had a lot of fun.
One of the things that makes my photography so interesting to people is that I caught an innocence, an innocence and naivety, and of course a youth... all of which has disappeared! With it comes mythology, extraordinary experience, a fantastic back-catalogue, professionalism to a degree that is unimaginable. I mean, back in those days, nobody imagined that they would be around for more than eighteen months, maybe three years tops!
You capture an innocence with Between the Buttons, juxtaposing those ideas we have of The Rolling Stones. What is that you are looking for when you are photographing the subject?
I am trying to photograph the subject, and I’m not trying to do anything for myself. I’m trying to draw something out of them. I’m trying to photograph them, and I’m trying to add in terms of the technical quality, the feeling, the atmosphere that I’m trying to create, that hopefully will reflect something to do with the music or the times.
With Between the Buttons, drug use had become much more widespread and acid was much more part of day-to-day life for a lot of people.
Gered Mankowitz © BOWSTIR Ltd. 2021/Mankowitz.com
It wasn’t for me, but it was for a lot of people, and I was very aware of the increasing role that drugs were playing with the band, and I wanted to try to get a feeling of that in my photography. It was a concept that I had begun to explore in the recording studio, coming out of the session early in the morning. I looked at the band and just thought that they looked exactly how The Rolling Stones should look. I suggested that we did a session early in the morning after an all-night recording session, and everybody agreed. I made a home-made filter using glass, Vaseline and black card, and I discovered that if you move the Vaseline around on the glass you can control – up to a point – the way the blur works, dissolving them into the environment. I took them to Primrose Hill because I thought I’d get good light up there.
What you try and do is to create a space and a point of view that you hope is appropriate to the person and the moment that you’re photographing for them. You hope that they respond to you. You hope that they will give you what’s needed to make those pictures exceptional, and how you draw that out of them is a combination of things. It’s a bit mumbo-jumbo; it’s a bit of magic, a little bit of chemistry, a little bit of good timing, and being sensitive to people – wanting to work with people, and sharing that.
I’ve always thought that my best work was with artists who were early on in their career. That doesn’t mean to say that I haven’t photographed very famous artists and done a good job and had a nice time doing it, but in general, I found that the collaboration is best when the artist is still reasonably early on in their career. Not because you can manipulate them, but because you’re sharing something together. You’re going down the path together. If you’re a photographer working for the New Musical Express and they send you to a hotel to photograph a famous act, you’re not on that road with them. You’re jumping in and you’re trying to capture them, and the chances are that they’ll give you a few minutes and they’ll give you a well-tried look. You’ll do your best and leave, and the magazine will use it because it’s a new picture that’s unique and exclusive to the magazine. You’re not on the road with them. I never liked that; I never wanted to do that. Whenever I found myself in a position to do that, I always felt uncomfortable and I never felt confident.
We have to mention Jimi Hendrix, and the now iconic shots. Was there a name to Hendrix at the time of your meeting?
When I first met him, nobody knew him. Chas Chandler, who brought him over from New York, was an acquaintance of mine, although I’d never photographed him when he was in The Animals. He invited me to a little gig that he’d set up at a place called The Bag O’Nails in Kingly Street, Soho, where he was showcasing Jimi and the Experience. I walked in, there were dozens and dozens of media and musicians and music business hangers-on, agents, booking agents, press agents... Jimi blew everybody away. I have to say he went straight over my head; I didn’t get it at all. What I did get was Gosh, this guy looks absolutely sensational! I want to photograph this guy; it doesn’t matter whether I understand his music or I get his music, but I want to photograph him. He is the wildest-looking bloke I’ve ever seen! I want to work with him!
Chas introduced me amongst lots of other people. Jimi was very polite, very quiet, called me Sir. I said It would be lovely to photograph you... I look forward to seeing you in my studio. He went That’d be great.
I got a call a while later – three months or so – Chas booked a session with me, and Jimi arrived with Mitch and Noel. Hey Joe was about to be released or about to go into the charts, so even then, when we did that first session together, he hadn’t had a hit. He wasn’t famous. There was a buzz about him: he’d done a lot of legwork in that three or four months. He’d been to Europe to do some things, and there was a big buzz about him, but he hadn’t had a hit. I made this extraordinary decision – a stupid decision in many ways – to only photograph him in black and white. I was so concerned to treat him like a serious musician and not like a one-hit wonder or a pop bit of fluff. I wanted to photograph him as a serious musician, and at that moment in time, serious photography was black-and-white photography, and a serious portrait was a black-and-white portrait. That was what the greats would have done: Irving Penn or Richard Avedon or Arnold Newman or Karsh of Ottawa would have been black and white. I wanted to do that, and nobody argued with me: Chas didn’t argue with me; he was very happy to trust me. In some ways, it makes the session particularly unique, but from a commercial point of view, it was a kiss of death, because the record company wanted colour pictures for the album cover, so I didn’t get the first album cover. He was such a colourful, flamboyant, wild character, that in a way, people wanted colour pictures of him. So, my pictures were pretty much left at the starting gate. They weren’t much used.
I think Jimi quite liked them because we did a second session together a few weeks later, after he’d seen them, and he seemed to really like them. Even the second session, I didn’t do any colour. I must have been a pig-headed, ignorant little twit, because that was a terrible mistake. Fifty years later, I wish I had a whole bunch of colour of Jimi. I had to add colour to my black and white.
Gered Mankowitz © BOWSTIR Ltd. 2021/Mankowitz.com
Gered Mankowitz © BOWSTIR Ltd. 2021/Mankowitz.com
Other photography that did make the album cover includes Kate Bush's Lionheart. What was it like working with someone known to be imaginative yet reclusive?
There was nothing fearful about Kate in person. She was a power of nature, extraordinarily flamboyant, extraordinarily energetic, enthusiastic, and had fantastic creative energy. There was nothing fearful or timid about her. She was great to work with; she was exciting to work with. She was demanding to work with, because her inexperience meant that you had to somehow try to rein her back without diminishing her enthusiasm or spoiling the moment.
One of the problems was by that time I was working with Polaroids, which gave me an opportunity to share what I was seeing – my vision – with the subject. Up until then, trust was an absolutely crucial element. They had to trust you; you had to make them trust you. Once you started having Polaroids, you could share your vision. One of the problems with Kate was that she always wanted to move on: she would always have another idea, she would always want another idea. You’d show her a Polaroid and she’d say Oh no, I don’t think that’s working. Let’s try this. I’d have to say I think this will work, but we have to do a little bit more on it. I used to try to tell people that Polaroid was like a demo: it’s not the finished thing. It’s got the elements of the finished thing to it, but we need to do more work on it. Sometimes that was a little bit difficult, simply because she didn’t understand that photography – certainly my sort of photography in the studio – is something that you work on, and you try and work on it together. You can make it better, and you can subtly change the lighting, the composition, the position of the camera, the focal length of the lens, to make a range of differences.
Kate was quite taxing in that way, but I loved working with her. She was very fulfilling because she was so beautiful and the photographs were stunning to take and stunning to participate in. Lionheart was a great experience and she was a wonderful, wonderful subject, and I was very happy to work with her. I did pretty much all the official photographs for the first year.
One of the more disappointing album covers is Eurythmics' Revenge. It was a painting based on your photograph.
The painting is a piece of shit. It was the last session I did with Eurythmics. I was very, very pleased that I got the call to work with them again, because I loved working with them. I’d loved working with them when they were The Tourists. I worked with them right at the beginning of Eurythmics, when I and a couple of other photographers were giving our services for nothing in the hope that they would get a deal, and it was just fun. It was really great to be with them.
When I got the call to go to Paris in '86, I was thrilled, but the moment I stepped into the studio, I knew that there was something going on that I just didn’t understand. There was a tension. There was a sadness in Annie [Lennox]. There was a tension between them. There were obvious problems, which I didn’t understand. I did two or three setups - simplicity is key for me. A great portrait doesn’t need lots and lots of props. It was a great set for Lionheart because it’s illustrative, but Kate still dominates the space: she’s the hero of the picture, not the set. I think simplicity is always the key if you can achieve it. I did this portrait, and Annie was looking just beautiful but there was a sadness to her. Dave [Stewart] was looking great (Dave’s a funny-looking chap and he didn’t always look great. He looked geeky sometimes.) and there's this contrast between them. Dave had this black cloak, black suit, white shirt, and I just said to Annie, Don’t wear anything on your shoulders, just wrap something around your boobs so that you’re comfortable, but don’t wear anything.
I did this series of portraits, and the moment I saw the Polaroid, I knew it was a great picture. I said to Dave, This is a cover picture! He looked at it and went, Oh, yeah, it’s fantastic! and pointed to this chap who’d been in the studio, whom I hadn’t really met. I think I’d been introduced to him, but I didn’t really register him, and he said, That’s great, because Fred – or whatever his name was – Fred’s going to do a painting of it for the cover. I tried very hard to say This is a really great portrait, and it just stands up, and it doesn’t need anything...
When the album came out, I was absolutely devastated. I was really sad. I stayed in touch with them but I never photographed them again. I don’t know why. Dave is a deep thinker; he’s very spontaneous, he has wild thoughts, but he’s a real thinker. I have no idea what he thought he was going to get that was more than the original picture. I always show that picture as revenge. It’s a terrible cover but it’s a great picture. It’s my Revenge on Eurythmics!
Have you had many difficult shoots?
If there have been many, I’ve forgotten them or I’ve put them out of my mind, because I don’t want to hold on to negativity if I can avoid it.
There’s one person who comes to mind, which is Howard Devoto from the Buzzcocks, and I photographed his band Magazine. I spent an afternoon with him at Virgin listening to the album, and we seemed to get on really well. I thought I had a vision for my photographs. When he came to the studio, he was very, very weird. He was on something: I have no idea what it was. I explained what I was doing, and we tried to do the first couple of setups, and he just hated what I was doing. He didn’t want to discuss it, he didn’t want to collaborate, he didn’t want to work with me; he just hated it and he wanted to walk out. He wanted to end the session and I made him call Virgin and just tell them I’m walking out of this session because I didn’t want them to think that I wasn’t prepared to work with him.
It’s a very nice picture! In a way, it’s not dissimilar to the Eurythmics situation inasmuch as I got a great picture of Eurythmics and Dave screwed it up by getting a painting made: I think I got a really good image of Magazine, but for some reason Howard Devoto couldn’t see it, but I feel that it was my mistake. I didn’t handle him in the right way, and I lost him, and that was a shame. I did get a nice picture, and it’s in the books, and it goes in the exhibitions, and it’s part of the folio.
Heavy metal bands are often quite difficult. Uriah Heep weren’t a lot of fun to photograph. I don’t think I got a good picture, because they’re not really interested in working with anybody. Generally, because of the way I work, and because people come to me most of the time, the sessions are already there. People are coming to work with me. People are coming to work on an album or an image or something, and usually it’s been very successful and productive and enjoyable. Any really bad experiences, I’ve tried to put out of my mind.
On the other hand, you've worked with some amazing artists. What shoots have been rewarding for you?
I loved working on Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake for Small Faces. I thought that was great because it was a wonderful concept. I loved the album, I loved working with Small Faces, I loved being around them when they were recording. I enjoyed the process, and I liked trying to create images to go in this extraordinary conceptual album.
Kafunta, which was P.P. Arnold’s second album on Immediate, was also a fantastic experience and great collaboration. I think it was a really extraordinary, way ahead-of-its-time, attempt to visually link a black artist with their African roots. I’m sure it doesn’t stand up in modern times, but it was a really great project to work on with her. I love her, and I’ve continued to work with her right up until her most recent album.I think she is probably singing better than she ever did. She’s one of these extraordinary people who never stops learning, who never stops working. I don’t mean gigging, I mean working on being better, working on keeping her health and maintaining her energy.
I took her to a Rolling Stones gig and it was the most fantastic experience because we were up in the gods, and she was singing every song in my ear! It was like having the best backup chorus voice in your ear. It was absolutely fantastic. The people around us were in seventh heaven, because there was this most wonderful singer singing along.
I loved working with Sparks. They were always great fun to work with. It wasn’t so much a collaboration as much as they were just so inspiring to work with. I did another cover for them when they were on Virgin, and took them out to photograph them in various situations, doing crazy things and getting the public to respond to them. That was fun.
I did the cover for The Magic Position and I loved working with Patrick Wolf. He was very involved with the process of how we got to where we got for The Magic Position and the rest of the shoot. His mad clothes sense, his ability to pose, and his understanding of the visual side of it made it a very rewarding session to do.
Other artists I would put in there are Suzi Quatro, Slade, and ABC. They were very visual, they were entertaining, they were hard-working, creative people, and I really enjoyed working with them. I like artists who not only are collaborative but they push you. That’s one of the great things, going back to Andrew Loog Oldham, is that Andrew pushed you and he brought the best out of you.
Do you feel with modern technology that there is a lack of appreciation for photography?
It’s not just photography. Skills, knowledge, and experience have been slowly eroded and devalued for a long time, and photography is a difficult thing: it always was, in some ways, because there were always amateur photographers. Quite often I’d have people come to the studio who just had no idea about what went into taking a photograph. People couldn’t understand why we wanted the band for the day, Why can’t you just do it in an hour or something? They just didn’t understand the process.
Now it’s exacerbated because of social media, because of smartphones, because of the way artists communicate to their fanbase, because of the way people listen to music and buy music. It’s all changed dramatically, but if you want an image, if you look at these artists who continue to have really good images, interesting images, somebody has to take it. The problem with smartphones is that if you’re only looking at an image on your phone, if it hasn’t got to do anything else, you can get a really good picture. If you’re photographing a concert that is beautifully lit by somebody, they are beautifully dressed by somebody else, beautifully performed by beautiful-looking people, you’d have to be a fucking moron not to get it in a way that works on Instagram.
I’ve just finished as executive producer on this television series we did called ICON: Music through the Lens on Sky Arts. It explores music photography since the late Fifties right up until the present day. I was meeting photographers whom I didn’t know, but they were young photographers and they have an energy and an enthusiasm, and the way they embrace the medium, as well as going back and using Polaroid and shooting film, made me feel very confident that although it’s a struggle and very difficult, that there will still be really good music photography and really good music photographers.
I’ve always thought that music photography should be done by young people: it’s performed by young people, it’s generally appreciated by young people, it should be photographed by young people. The younger photographers I met are doing some fantastic work. Really fantastic work. It might be difficult to get a great picture of Katy Perry or Taylor Swift because they control everything, but the actual roots of music are still happening in pubs and in small clubs. People will be performing, and there are bands in every small town; in every village there are pubs that will put on music. There are still great artists out there who haven’t been discovered yet, and those are the ones that need great photographers.
A professional photographer doesn’t take snaps: they create images, they makes photographs because of their experience, because of their knowledge, because of their inspiration, because of their inexperience, because they know that they can shoot into the sun or into the light or whatever it is, in order to create something unexpected. I think there will always be a place for good photography.
Gered Mankowitz © BOWSTIR Ltd. 2021/Mankowitz.com
Gered Mankowitz © BOWSTIR Ltd. 2021/ Mankowitz.com
You can visit Gered Mankowitz's website by clicking here to view a wealth of photography from fifty-five years of rock 'n' roll and to purchase limited prints! You can also click the following to delve deeper into projects Gered Mankowitz has been involved with, from books to series: