By Jennifer Hirte, Schwarzkopf & Schwarzkopf, for AbeBooks
At just 19 years of age, Gered Mankowitz accompanied the young Rolling Stones band on their first big tour of the USA. His camera not only captured the future legends of rock, but also the meaning of the 1960s and the spirit of a new generation. Today Mankowitz is recognised as one of the most important photographers in the history of rock. His coffee-table book The Rolling Stones: Out of Their Heads shows life “behind-the-scenes” of the ‘bad boys."
In an interview with Jennifer Hirte, Mankowitz reveals the candid truth about his youth in the world of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
I think my archive is about 5000 images and we got just over a thousand images in the book, a very high percentage. The publisher, Oliver Schwarzkopf, was very enthusiastic about the idea of showing the picture stories that I shot in a complete form. A lot of the picture stories - like the band at home, some of the backstage stories, some of the live pictures, the sequences, have never been published completely before.
How much do you think is of the Sixties in your pictures of the Rolling Stones?
I think that in a way it could not have happened at another time, because working in the 60s and with everybody’s mental approach to life meant that we worked in a particular way, because of our inexperience, because of our naiveté, because of the innocence of the time, because of the sort of amateurishness of the business. It was all learning, so I don’t think that the pictures could have been taken at any other time.
I think the two years that I spent with the Stones, I changed enormously. I would have changed anyway, because going from 18 to 20 is quite a big jump. But I think I changed in a particular way, because of my experience at working with the Rolling Stones. In the two years or so I was with them I made a transition from being a very enthusiastic teenager to being actually quite an experienced professional.
Do you think that your work influenced the image of the Rolling Stones?
I think I contributed a lot when I did the cover of the album Between the Buttons. My contribution in the earlier sessions was based more on an honesty, a desire to communicate something about the Stones as people and not try and mask their personalities with any sort of technical or theatrical embellishments. I think that that’s why (their manager) Andrew (Loog Oldham) liked the pictures and why the band were happy to work with me for such a long period of time, because I photographed them as they were. And then when it came to Between the Buttons, I felt confident enough as a photographer and in my relationship with them to actually make a contribution.
The early photographers, the people who really influenced me particularly, were Irving Penn, an American photographer who is absolutely wonderful, Richard Avedon and a portrait photographer called Arnold Newman, a guy called Yousuf Karsh - he was a very inspiring portrait photographer. And then of course older more historical figures - Stieglitz, Man Ray, I was interested in all of these people without really knowing very much about them. Probably the two most influential were Irving Penn and Richard Avedon.
What I find really amazing about your pictures is even the really early ones look so clear like you knew exactly what you were doing.
I was very lucky. From the very beginning I was taught by a marvelous man called Tom Blau and he gave me the fundamental building blocks of all photography: Focus, exposure and composition. Composition, you have to have some sort of natural inclination for, exposure and focus you learn. And once you grasp those fundamentals you never ever let them go. You never lose those, it’s like riding a bike. So from the beginning, from the first moment I picked up a proper camera, those were the things that you had to get right. It didn’t matter what else you did if those three things weren’t right. Your picture was no good and so from that very early point - I was 15 - those things were important to me and I think the pictures reflect that, as well as the fact that I was looking at great photographs from the age of 15. And even if I did not know anything about the photographer what I was seeing was great photography from the beginning, so the early pictures are solid technically, and it makes a big difference. Nowadays we accept certain things that in those days I would have dismissed as mistakes and therefore I wouldn't have looked at a photograph. And one of the exciting things about doing any sort of book project but particularly this book because of the scale of the book is that you look at things again with a fresh eye. You see things that you either dismissed completely before, like a blurred hand - perhaps in 1965 I would have felt that that was a mistake where as now I see it as being an exciting and interesting part of the image.
I don’t think so. One of the great strengths about being young and inexperienced and arrogant and precocious is that you don't know that what you're doing is wrong, you think you know everything and you think everything you do is right. So, I did everything in my way because I didn't know any better. One of the curses of experience is that if you've done something twenty times before you can't help but learn from that experience. And it sometimes restricts how you see something because all you see is all the problems that you solved last time that you were confronted by this situation. So it limits you. So now I try and create surprises for myself by working with equipment I've never used before or working on locations instead of in the studio. So there are always unknown elements that make you look at everything afresh. So that you have new problems to solve. One of the things that was happening to me in the studio, when I had a studio, was that in the end I always had a formula, not because I wanted to be formulaic, but because I couldn't help it. Because I knew. I could put a light up, I didn't have to take a meter reading, I knew what the exposure was. It was inevitable, so I wanted to get rid of this bar, to try and keep it fresh. In the 60s everything was fresh, everything was for the first time.
Who would you really like to work with these days? Are there any bands or people around that for you hold a similar appeal?
One of the problems is that when I started aged 16, 17 and started as a music photographer, I wanted to be the Richard Avedon of music photography. I wanted to be not a great photographer but a serious photographer, a proper photographer. I wanted to be an artist in my own right. And what I feel now is that the majority of music photographers still don't really know how to take a great picture of a band. It’s still haphazard, it’s still a question of chance. You don’t feel that there is any real professionalism on anybody’s part. They are lucky if something happens. And then occasionally you see a really good picture taken by a really good photographer, and then you think, I wish I had taken that picture, but it doesn’t happen very often. So I don’t know, I can’t think of anybody offhand who I would like to photograph. I can think of people I wish I’d worked with, or photographs I wish I’d taken: I wish I’d taken Wertheimer’s pictures of Elvis, or I wish I’d taken Bob Marley or early Bob Dylan.
What are you working on these days?
All the time, books and exhibitions and selling print. And then I’m doing 3-4 new shootings a year.
What are your three favourite books of all time?
Oh, difficult! OK, Richard Avedon and James Baldwin did a book together, Nothing Personal - that was a very important book for me. My father wrote a book in the 1950s that was called Expresso Bongo, and that was very important because that changed everything for our family and for me, and it also changed Andrew Oldham’s life. It was because of that book that he wanted to become a manager. And the final one – if I can’t have my Rolling Stones book or my Jimi Hendrix book (those have been very important to me), I can think of one more thing: Time-Life published a fantastic series of photography books in the 1970s - LIFE Library of Photography - and they were fantastic reference books for photography, but I am sure they are not available anymore. [Editor's Note: There are copies available on AbeBooks. See the Books]
Design, book choice and editorial work: Stephan Buergel.
Also by Gered Mankowitz
Signed by Gered
This edition of Rolling Stones: Out of Their Heads has been hand-signed by Gered Markowitz. Sure to be a collector’s item, this beautiful selection of previously unpublished photographs boasts 640 pages and comes in two volumes with a decorative slipcase case.
In 1963 Gered Mankwitz opened his first photo studio in London’s West End and soon became one of the most sought after photographers in the music industry. Arguably the most influential rock photographer today, Mankwitz has worked with countless young artists and celebrities, including the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and Marianne Faithful.