Legendary Rock Photographer Robert Knight On Zeppelin, Jeff Beck and Stevie Ray Vaughan

Jerry McCulley | 04.06.2009

Robert Knight has long been one of rock’s most acclaimed photographers, a master lens man whose four decades of stunning musical portraits and concert photography are now chronicled by Insight Editions’ lavish Rock Gods book, which also features insightful commentary by the veteran rock image maker.

Knight’s career is as unusual as it is accomplished. The son of the chaplain of the Honolulu Police Department, rock music was largely forbidden fruit for him growing up. Yet for two decades, his masterful musical portraits went largely unseen, a private passion pursued in the shadows of a successful commercial photography career that saw him circle the globe more than some astronauts. Robert’s images now decorate the exteriors of hundreds of Guitar Center stores, while Rock Prophecies, a documentary about his distinctive career and modern advocacy of such young artists as Sick Puppies, Tyler Bryant and the Answer, was also recently completed.

Having been fortunate to work with Robert a few times (his soundcheck portrait of a boisterous Les Paul remains a personal favorite), he’s often as fascinating as his subjects — a few of whom have also become Knight’s close friends. One of them, Slash, even penned the introduction for his new career retrospective. “I don’t think of Robert as a ‘rock photographer’,” the GNR/Velvet Revolver axmeister muses, “he’s just a really good guy I enjoy spending time with.”

Knight is vehemently anti-drug abuse, photographs only artists he personally likes, and has an abiding interest in the paranormal (one that several of the photographer’s rock legend friends also share) that’s as critical-minded as it is keen. When lodging for a Las Vegas-based project we were working on became problematic, Robert quickly secured a favorite alternative — a mobile home on the edge of Nevada’s notorious Area 51 secret government test facility. Knight reminisced with us about his unique career while — as ever — on the road, bouncing between Nashville, Vegas and L.A. and unrelated meetings with Robert Plant and John Paul Jones.

How strong was your interest in rock music growing up in Hawaii?

Tremendous. When I was about 14, the only people I sided with were guitar players and artists, because I wasn’t a surfer or football player. And there were only six white kids in my school, so the people I bonded with were super into music, and I was exposed to their influences. Yet being the son of a Baptist minister, my parents wouldn’t let me go to rock concerts and I couldn’t own a record collection. So it was sort of a secret turf.

Was rock photography a rebellion against those restrictions?

I didn’t think of it that way. I’d found a magazine in a Waikiki alleyway, apparently dropped by an English tourist, and in it was an ad for an English record store where you could send away for records by the Kinks, Yardbirds, Pretty Things. So I ordered a lot of records before they came out in America, and would play them on the school PA system during lunch hour. But it was the visuals on the album cover that I was really drawn to. By chance I ended up in London in the mid-’60s, and the people I was staying with looked after a photographer’s studio. They said, ‘Come down, they’re making a movie!’ I had no idea about any of it, but it was parts of Blow Up being shot. When I finally saw the movie it clicked in my head that this is what I wanted to do.

How did you make that happen?

I Spent ’66 to ’68 figuring out how to connect, and I discovered the San Francisco Art Institute had a photography school. That summer Bill Graham was also bringing in Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and others, so I convinced my parents that’s where I needed to go to school, if for no other reason in my mind than that those guys were going to be in town, too. And that’s how it started. My first roll of film as a rock photographer was that one of Jeff Beck without his shirt on, summer of ’68. Then I shot Hendrix a month later. I brought one roll of film to each — and I didn’t shoot the entire roll! I didn’t know you were supposed to shoot rolls and rolls of film — 36 pictures seemed like a lot to me!

Yet you primarily pursued commercial photography for years.

Because I was so cut off being in Hawaii, I never relied on the rock stuff and did commercial work. Therefore I was on an agenda that was my own, and not subject to restrictions that the music business was putting on people. I didn’t need the guitar and music magazines, because the pay was so low compared to what I could make shooting for a cruise company or airline. So [rock photography] was driven by my passion. But between ’77 and ’84 I thought the music business sucked and basically stopped shooting. I was so anti-drug that [the whole scene then] annoyed me. Later, I even turned down photographing Kurt Cobain. I just absolutely hated that culture. Now when I meet somebody like Steve Jones and photograph them, they’re cool ’cause they’ve been through rehab. It was Jeff Beck coming back out in ‘84/’85 that got me interested again.

You’ve also become close friends with a number of your subjects along the way.

Slash wrote the forward to my book, which is really wild. He said working with me was like finding a good dentist: You go in, get it done, you come out — and don’t feel any pain! (Laughs.) The photos of Jeff Beck’s wedding are incredibly private, but to have the access to photograph Paul McCartney, Jeff and Jimmy Page playing together [at the reception], there was so much camaraderie there it was unbelievable. The beauty is what great friends some of these guys have become. Billy Gibbons, Slash and Jeff are such dear friends. I run into them all over the world, and get weird emails from them all.

Is there a downside to that rapport?

Sometimes when you meet your heroes and really get close with them, you see an aspect of them that takes away from the mystique. You get to see a rather dark side sometimes that maybe you come to regret.

Legend has it you were also present at some of Led Zeppelin’s more colorful tour adventures. That must put a photographer in an interesting position.

I think Robert and Jimmy would get stuff going and then sit back and laugh their heads off, because it was usually other crazies that would get the party going. Most photographers would have shot everything they saw, and I think that the reason Led Zeppelin gave me such access was 1) I was there from day one and showed an interest when nobody else did, and 2) I knew when not to take the camera out of the bag. They have a very tight circle and don’t like it when people in it open their mouths. One of the ways you stay friends with them is you keep you mouth shut. So I am still part of that camp in a weird way.

Restraint is unusual in the age of paparazzi — is it hard to draw that line?

I took some shots of Keith Richards without his shirt on relatively recently, and it was a little scary. And I almost let them out, because I could have probably syndicated them for a fortune. But I thought about it for about 10 seconds and didn’t. I always try to protect the artist in what I do. The worse people look sometimes, the more some photographers want to let those images out because they’re “controversial.” I’ve always been pro-artist — but I wouldn’t work with someone whose music I didn’t like. There are a lot of bands you won’t see in my portfolio, simply because I couldn’t stand them.

You’ve also freely mixed your interest in music with what most people would label the ‘paranormal.’

The first day I walked into Guitar Center [with whom he’s had a two-decade relationship] was the first RockWalk induction, with Eddie Van Halen. Synchronicity is really the key to my life. When I see a lot of synchronicity happening in a situation, I know it’s something I should be involved in. You’d be

 

Rock photographer Rober Knight

Rock Gods a movie about Rock Photographer Robert Knight

Less Paul shot by Rock Photographer Robert Knight

Jeff Back by Rock Photographer Robert Knight

Led Zeplin Photgraphed by Robert Knight in Honolulu Hawaii

John Lee Hook photographed by Robert Knight

surprised how many rock people enjoy doing a photo shoot with me because they get a UFO update. They’re the people who are most receptive to other forms of consciousness. They’re wide open. When Dave Grohl calls his band the Foo Fighters, and they’re on Roswell Records and they premiere the record in Roswell, New Mexico, you know something’s going on! Jimmy Page has always been interested in UFOs, and Jimi Hendrix was driven by UFO ideas.

You were also the last one to photograph Stevie Ray Vaughan, just minutes
before his tragic accident.

I wouldn’t let any of those pictures out for over two years. People would call and say, “You know what these pictures would do for your career?!” But I wasn’t interested in that. Stevie and I had been talking about the positive changes in his life for days before. It broke my heart.

What’s the downside to rock photography now?

How mercenary being a photographer has become. The paparazzi thing has destroyed the relationship; there’s a constant pressure to expose the subject in some way.

How do you deal with that?

The trick is to find young bands and grow old with them, because they will always let you shoot without all these restrictive contracts. What keeps it fresh is finding the talent before anybody else gets to them. When I first shot Panic! at the Disco no one had ever heard of them. Guitar Center thought I was crazy. But the way they approach their music is Beatle-esque. And Tyler Bryant (winner of Gibson’s 2007 Robert Johnson New Generation Award), who will go on to even greater things, is just one of those guitarists who’s born every 20 or 30 years, while the Answer, who’s out opening for AC/DC, is like early Zeppelin.

Aside from their music, is there a personal quality that draws you to certain musicians?

You can spot it in their eyes — there’s a drive. There’s nothing else in their life that they’re capable of doing; they would never be able to hold a regular job. I remember Jimmy Page telling me that if Led Zeppelin didn’t make it, he was going to go back and become a professional artist. Same with Jeff Beck.

Do you empathize with that mindset?

Absolutely. People write me and say they want my job, and I write back and tell them I’ve never had a “job” in my life. A job is something you hate!

 
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