All Access: Our Interview with Ken Regan

I am a sucker for rock photography.

I'm not talking about the finely-managed images of Lady Gaga or Coldplay that get sprayed across the Internet as if from a fire hose. I'm talking about images of the titans of music, at the height of their powers, that defined what rock and roll meant to a generation. Imagine Freddie Mercury with arm raised before the crowds at Live Aid. Or Jimmy Page, hair flopping across his face, channeling primal sounds from his fingertips. Or four boyish lads from Liverpool grinning into the cameras upon their first arrival in America. Those are the images that still stick in our collective consciousness as the essence of youth, music, and the our own teenage memories of AM radio blasting through tinny speakers in our parents' cars.

And Ken Regan was there. He is an award-winning photojournalist who has taken some of the most memorable photos of the last 50 years, ranging from sports icons to war zones. And he's also had the good fortune to have traveled with, photographed, and becomes friends with the legends of rock and roll. He has just published a new retrospective, All Access: The Rock 'N' Roll Photography Of Ken Regan, which showcases his decades of work capturing the likes of the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and virtually everyone else of significance at their most intimate and accessible. It's a must have for any fan of rock, and I had the pleasure of speaking with him at length about it.

Your career has spanned decades and spans so many subjects. Why a retrospective on rock and roll, and why now?
Yeah, I started out as a sports photographer then I started doing music, then I started doing politics, then I did wars and then I did food and fashion. I've done a little bit of everything, and I've always wanted—when I got into photography—not to be pigeonholed as a rock photographer or a sports photographer, but to be someone who is diversified and can walk into all different elements of life and have the pleasure of photographing them.

I had done a book with the publisher, Insight Editions, about four years ago that was a retrospective of boxing, and they wanted to do another book with me. I wanted to do a full retrospective, but they felt we'd be better off doing a music book since I'd done so much music over the years. We were supposed to do it two years ago, but the recession hit and the publisher felt like the timing wasn't good to put out a big expensive holiday book. So here we are.

The book starts off with Elvis's return from Germany. How old were you when you captured that, and how were you able to get access?
Well you see I started taking pictures when I was thirteen or fourteen. So I was photographing sports and music for my school paper because I was the school photographer. At that time it wasn't as difficult as it is today. You could call up and say, "I'm the school photographer for Mount Saint Michael," which is where I went. Generally, if it wasn't something that was really huge, they would afford you the luxury of giving you a pass to come and do it. That's what I did for a number of years and I was lucky enough to have the parents of some friends of mine... one friend's father worked for the Yankees so he was able to get me passes to Yankee Stadium to take pictures, and then another friend of mine's dad worked for the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS and I was able to get in and photograph the Beatles.

Was it your desire to get into photography and explore different areas that spurred you into doing that?
I was always interested in photography. As a boy of eleven or twelve, I used to go through the magazines my mother brought home and tear out the images that I really thought were amazing. My walls were covered with images and on my twelfth birthday bought me a camera. And that was the beginning of it.

What was it about the images you collected back then—and the ones that appeal to you now—that really affect you? Is there a magic ingredient that you think makes a picture special?
To answer that question as well as I could, I think that if you're able to capture an image that nobody else has then that's what makes the image important; that's what people are interested in. You see hundreds of photographs of rock artists on stage, but do you see them on their plane? Do you see them at home? Do you see them backstage? And those are the things that I always wanted to do

And I was afforded the ability to that because of all the relationships I built up over the years with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. It was all because of Bill Graham, the promoter, who took me under his wing and introduced me to all these people.

And to have people like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and James Taylor write pieces for the book was a mind blower.

How do you know when you've got that right shot? Is there a moment of recognition that you've got something special?
It's just a moment, and sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn't. I'll give you one example that's not in music.

I was Ted Kennedy's photographer—sort of the unofficial Kennedy family photographer—for thirty years. Ted was another person who helped me in my career, because when you have access to people like the Stones and Kennedy it opens all sorts of doors. He took me to Eastern Europe for the first time and we went to Yugoslavia where we stayed with Tito. And then we went to Romania where we stayed with Ceau┼čescu. And then we went to Russia and we were the guests of Brezhnev. We were doing a tour of the Kremlin after an incredible lunch with Brezhnev and the people from the Soviet Supreme, and we were walking through the halls. I always preceded Teddy; he always used to joke, when people asked if he was afraid of being assassinated, that "No, because Ken's always in front of me. He'll get hit first."

He and his son were walking down the hall and his son, Teddy Jr., had his leg amputated from the knee down maybe three months before. And I just said to myself, "Let me stop and have them go past me." They went past me and here they were, the two of them all alone in this hallway. You could see his son's leg bent inward from the operation, and he had a cane. And that was the moment. That picture became iconic, and won first prize at the World Press Contest, and ultimately appeared in both Time and Life magazines.

You must feel like you always have to be "on" to capture those moments.
Absolutely. When you're on a shoot like that you can never really have a good time, putting your cameras down and enjoying what's going on. You always have to have the camera up and ready. These things happen in a split second.

Are there any images you missed? A moment that passed that you regret not capturing?
I don't know that there were images I missed when I was out on a shoot. But I'd made a list when I was thirteen or fourteen years old of all these musicians I wanted to photograph. There were ten of them, and three I was never able to photograph were Cat Stevens, Leonard Cohen, and Tom Waits.

They're all still around... I think you still have a chance!
Oh, I know! I keep trying! But I don't want to go to a concert to photograph them. I want to have some time with them.

It's hard today. Nobody wants to do this anymore. I was so lucky to be able to do what I did in a period of time where you could get all these things done and you didn't have to deal with publicists who are afraid that someone is going to take something or say something that won't be what they would like it to be, for whomever they represent.

When do you think that changed?
It changed in the '90s. The publicists wanted to control everything. They wanted photographers to sign contracts and agree to this or that. It's something I never had to do. Everyone I ever photographed trusted me, and it was always a handshake. And my reputation for that stands on that.

It's really a shame. I was speaking with a friend recently about how there are so many iconic, timeless images from the '70s and '80s—pivotal moments in rock and roll—but you just don't see those anymore. Part of our theory was that rock and roll, and frankly the world, had changed as well...
That too. I had done some work with Bryan Adams. Bryan had called me up once and said, "I know you've been over in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. I'm doing a tour there, and this is the first time they are letting a Western singer come over there since James Brown in 1975." This was in the mid '90s. He said, "I'd love for you to come with me." So we went over there, and Bryan is a great photographer in his own right. He appreciates good photography. When we got there he asked, "What do you want to do?" One of the things I wanted to show him was the roof of the American embassy where that famous picture was taken of all the people dangling from the bottom of the helicopter [from the fall of Saigon]. Bryan said, "Do you think we can get in?" And I didn't know what security was like over there because it's empty. So we drove over there, and there was a guard at the gate who was asleep. We drove past the guard and went to the end of the complex—I'd been there during the war—and we jumped out of the car and ran up the stairs, because there was no electricity or power for elevators.

We got to the roof and—you know those circles they have for helicopters? That was still there, and we started taking all these pictures. I had Bryan sitting in the middle of the circle. In five minutes the doors banged open and the soldiers came out and escorted us out of the building. Bryan was so up for that; he loved doing all that stuff. We did a rickshaw trip through Saigon, and went to the areas where the mines had been and the grave sites were. He just wanted to explore and see everything, and I was fortunate enough to be with him.

I think we had a four-page layout in Entertainment Weekly, and then Bryan published a book two years later of photography he did and trips that he made, and included two pages of my photographs in his book.

I want to backtrack a little bit. We were talking about the Rolling Stones. You're obviously close to them... how did that relationship develop?
Again, it all developed because of Bill Graham. I had a call from Time magazine in 1972, and they said the Stones were going on tour and asked if I could get on the tour. So I called Bill, and he said, "Fine, I've told Mick all about you. We're starting off in Vancouver, then Seattle, San Francisco and LA. I don't know how long Time wants to keep you, but you're welcome to come along on the first leg of the tour." Time told me to do as much as I can, so I went out there and Bill personally introduced me to Mick. He told him the history of our relationship, and Mick was fine. He said he'd love to get into Time and see my work, and maybe down the road we can do something together that's not for a magazine.

And it was great! I was with them on the bus, on the plane, back stage... I was with them all the time. Time ended up running three pages of photographs. Afte that I would run into Mick time and again because he was a big sports nut, and then in '75 his manager, Alan Dunn, called me and said they were going out on tour and Mick would like me to come.

We did two or three weeks of rehearsal at Andy Warhol's house, and the tour was scheduled to start a couple weeks after the rehearsals. Some of the pictures that are in the book are the ones we took out at Andy Warhol's house.

My favorite picture in the book is one of Keith Richards, shirtless, leaning over a kitchen counter and pondering his breakfast. Is that from that time?
Yeah. I was wandering through the house one day, about 3:00 in the afternoon. Nothing really happened until at least 5 or 6 because that was when Keith woke up. I smelled this aroma of bacon and eggs cooking, and I go in the kitchen and who's making breakfast but Keith by himself! He's cooking eggs, he's got his shirt off, and I said, "Keith, what are you doing up so early?" "Eh, I was hungry and wanted some breakfast... want some eggs?" So I took some photographs then we sat down and had some breakfast.

It's funny because... I guess it was the second or third week of the rehearsals. I get a call from Kennedy's office and he's going to Iraq, Iran, Saudia Arabia, and Israel, and he wants me to go. I'm going, "Oh my god, what am I going to do?" They told me the dates and I went and talked to Mick and told him I'd just had this amazing opportunity, and I think I'd done as many things as I could do of you guys rehearsing and walking on the beach. Would he mind if I went for a couple of weeks? When I told him why he said, "Oh my god, can I go with you?"

So I show up at Kennedy airport to get on the plane at 8 in the morning, and Ted, who knew me really well said, "Jesus Christ, you haven't slept in days! What have you been doing?" I told him I'd just spent three weeks with the Rolling Stones, and he said, "Oh my god, you've got to sit down with me on the plane and tell me all about it."

The contrast between politics and music is interesting. They're always interested in what the other people are doing.

I'd also like to ask about Bob Dylan. You mentioned in your book that the greatest picture you've ever taken of a musician was of Bob Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Review tour. Can you tell me about that?
On the Rolling Thunder Tour I was documenting everything, which Bob asked me to do. He'd never done that before with anybody. I was doing 24/7. Bob told me from the beginning that I could walk into anyone's dressing room, anyone's camper; anything you want to do, you do (barring anybody having sex). Every night after the gig or party we'd go up to his hotel room and look at the contact sheets and say "yay" or "nay." Then I'd project all the color and we'd do the same. Once the tour started everyone was joining and everyone wanted photographs or a story. And he wouldn't do it. He said, "If you want photographs you can't use another photographer. You have to get them from Ken Regan." Which was great for me, because I ended up with the cover of Rolling Stone, the cover of People, Time, Newsweek, etc.

About three weeks into the tour we were going through the material, and Bob looked at the photograph and said, "Oh my god, this is the best picture that's ever been taken of me." All I could say was, "Wow." I didn't know what else to say! I was totally floored.

In 27 years—and again, I never had a contract with Bob, I always had a handshake—whenever I got a request for anything I would run it by his office. He kept saying no to this picture. I kept asking myself why he didn't want this picture used... he said it was the best picture of him ever taken of him. I asked his manager three or four times, and he never knew either. I worked with Bob through the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and I would ask him and he'd say he was saving it for something special. I mean, the Kennedy Center was honoring him and they wanted it on the cover, and he'd say, "No no no."

So 27 years later his manager calls me and says, "Bob is releasing the live music from Rolling Thunder for the very first time on a CD, and he wants to use that photograph." I said, "thank god."

This brings up an interesting question. When you're working with artists, what do they hope to get out of you? What are they hoping your images will do for them?
It has many facets. In Bob's case he was doing a film, and wanted to use the photographs to publicize the film, and in the back of his mind he wanted to have control what he could give something exclusive to Rolling Stone or to People.

Through the years with the Stones I was doing all sorts of things for them. Things for their album, things for their book, thing for a brochure or magazines. We once did an actual jigsaw puzzle of the Stones that was never released, but I have a copy of it in my house at home. And every time I see it I laugh.

The way you're describing it sounds like more of a business decision than an artistic one.
It's a little of both, but yeah, more business. And they seemed to actually love the photographs, which always made me very happy.

Are there other images in the book—besides the ones we've spoken of already—that you particularly love?
Well there's the portrait of Bob, which he liked more than any picture taken before that. And there's a picture of Keith at his wedding leaping off the table in a tuxedo. There's a picture of Mick that runs across two pages of him walking on the dunes at Andy Warhol's house when we were out there rehearsing. And also one which is more recent is a picture of Neil Young just pops out. It has a gold background, and he and the piano are in silhouette. I just love that photograph.

I also love the one of Meatloaf with his lady friend in the tub, beneath four hundred pounds of chopped meat.

That must have been an interesting one to set up.
Well Meat was supposed to be in the tub and he changed his mind at the last minute and put his lady friend in there. And that was never published. It was supposed to be for People magazine. The backup photograph was at a place called Manganero's, an Italian restaurant that made six-foot heroes. I had a six-foot hero made with chopped meat, with Meat biting into it, and that's what the magazine ran. So there are pictures in the book that we went through great lengths to do that were never published before.

That's worth noting. Many of these have never been seen before.
You work on these things over the years, and whether it's for a magazine or whatever they invariably pick four or five pictures they want to use. There are hundreds of thousands of pictures I've taken over the years. I have a library that contains 3.1 million images, of contact sheets, transparencies, negatives... everything. When we started this book we must have looked through close to 200,000 images before we finally made the selections for the book.

What are you focusing on now?
Well right now everything is focused on the book. We have five or six galleries that are doing exhibitions. And I've been shooting this year. I've worked a lot on The Big C, which is a Showtime series with Laura Linney, and also Nurse Jackie with Edie Falco. And right before that I was in Budapest for about six weeks with Angelina Jolie working on a film she directed, produced, and wrote, but is not in. So I keep pretty active. I do more and more work in film, and ad and corporate work.

Do you enjoy that as much?
Oh yeah, it's great! I would never do anything I didn't enjoy.

All Access: The Rock 'N' Roll Photography Of Ken Regan is available through Insight Editions anywhere totally awesome books are sold.

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