Interview with Rock Photography Icon Robert M. Knight

First and foremost, Robert Knight is an artist in the fine art of photography. His photographs of rock performers have helped to define many iconic moments in rock 'n' roll. Whether his subjects are on stage performing or artfully posed for their publicity needs, album covers or personal interests, every picture captures the essence of what defines these people as musicians and legends in their own right.

A considerable inventory of Knight's work boldly portrays the explosiveness of the young Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, as well as the poignant beauty of Joni Mitchell. Check out Robert's work in his book, Rock Gods: Forty Years of Rock Photography and enjoy the glamour and drama of Alice Cooper, Little Richard and dozens more.

A few years ago, Robert moved to Las Vegas, Nevada and opened up the Knight Gallery, a place for visitors to roam and check out some of the world's finest in rock photography. In the past, we've said that his work is "always exceptional and distinctly his own," and we continue to be amazed, haunted, entertained and informed by his photography.

After photography, Knight indulges his passion for music by keeping his radar on and looking for new performers who are ready to break out into stardom, or who reach deep into the roots of American music and deliver sound blasts to shake us all up…and move us. It's more than a "knack," it's an imagination that is informed by a deep love of good music and mind blowing performances.

Knight always seems to be on the lookout – and in the right place – to discover emerging talent and a new DVD documentary on his life, Rock Prophecies, reflects a man of infinite curiosity, inventiveness and stamina, who has both an eye and an ear for the "next best thing."

Rick Landers: Since you started out with photography in the '60s the technology has changed so that virtually everyone carries a camera with them now. Has the blossoming of photography changed the landscape with respect to photography being a fine art?

Robert Knight: Yes, it has, since digital came into play, and the abilities of new cameras are so great anyone with a camera is now a photographer, where there was only one or two photographers in the pit shooting there are now 30 to 40.

When we were using film and had our own darkrooms, photography was much more a real science and you needed to be much more technical. Also, in most cases our old clients are now their own photographers. It's much more of a challenge today for young photographers to get access to these kinds of artists.

Rick: Do you ever grab an old camera, dust off the cob webs and have at it for some artful black and white prints?

Robert: I recently shot the young band Hero in Eden and brought out one of my wonderful old film cameras, a Fiji 6X17 that shoots huge wide negs. It was so mind numbing to see how great it was working with film again. It had been six years since I shot a roll of film as everyone these days wants everything right now.

Rick: Your work with Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and The Yardbirds is now historic, with photos that are landmarks for the music and the performances that raged during the '60 and early '70s. What other milestone musicians have you covered during the '80s, '90s and this past decade?

Robert: Well Stevie Ray Vaughan, Steve Vai, Van Halen, in the '80s. Slash, Jonny Lang, KWS, Robert Cray and many of the blues greats from the early years of music as we inducted them into Hollywood's Rockwalk in the '90s. As well, over the last 10 years I've worked with all the great young bands and guitar players such as Tom Morello, U2, Velvet Revolver, Sick Puppies, and the past summer Aerosmith and YES.

Rick: I love the quote about you collecting rock stars. Have you found that the magic of the moment is better captured when you're really into the music of the performer, or is it that personal relationship that you might conjure with the performer that makes your photos come alive?

Robert: I like to think it's the personal relationship with the artist. I have huge problems with photographers who think they are some how more important than the artists they are photographing. I think the artists see this and want to work with people they know won't exploit them behind their backs.

Also, in a way, shooting a major band and the photographer have sort of become part of the act itself. There are bands that need to have every second of their lives filmed, and the photographer becomes part and parcel of the event.

Rick: When you look for "new blood" to photograph, does that always mean youth or have you found that there are long lost or never before discovered older musicians that trigger your passion too?

Robert: Rock Prophecies has triggered a huge amount of emails to me from people suggesting I look and listen to a whole range of artists, young and old, that I suddenly find a new passion for. This is one of the best parts as a result of the film that has happened for me.

Rick: How did the documentary film, Rock Prophecies become an idea that took hold and gathered enough interest to become a reality?

Robert: It started out with my friend Paul Rivera. Jr asking me to come into the CBS studios to meet Will and Grace Producer, Tim Kasier, who was interested in doing a reality show on Ronnie Wood, who I work with via the Limelight Agency for our art. After many hours of trading rock and roll stories he suddenly thought a TV show or film about my life and work would be very interesting.

It took me a few days to over come the idea of it as I hate all form of reality TV, which is really not very real. I told him the only thing I would do, would be a film where I could shine the light on the artists that blessed me by allowing me to work with them such as Jeff Beck, Slash and Carlos Santana.

We also wanted the film to be modern, so when he brought in director John Chester he challenged me to find several young artists that know one ever heard of and hoped by the time the film came out they would be on the road to fame. Sick Puppies, Tyler Bryant, Orianthi were the ones I picked.

Rick: Rock performance photography always offers up some great shots, especially when performers are flailing around on stage, but I know that you're an accomplished studio photographer as well, meaning you set up the shots and somehow must figure out a "mood." There must be more than that to it. How do you prepare for studio shots?

Robert: If given the time before the shoot, I research things I might enjoy or share that the artist might also be into. From comedy with Elton John, wine with Joe Bonamassa, UFO's with some of the Aerosmith guitar players, hot rods with Jeff Beck, you need to find something very fast that breaks the ice. Most of the guys that have been around awhile really hate photography sessions and many of my shoots have ended up with more talking than shooting.

Rick: Have any of your subjects surprised you with impromptu gestures or actions that not only changed the mood but sparked some magic? Tell us about a few of those.

Robert: I recently had a shoot with Damien Marley who wanted me to shoot him for the walls of the Sunset Marquis. At first he seemed very stoic, but when I told him I knew his dad back in Hawaii in the 70's he smiled and started a whole conversation about the effect his father had on music in Hawaii and New Zealand.

Edge and I did a very fast shoot together and when he found out I had worked with Jimi Hendrix it opened him up very quickly and we were able to slow down and talk a bit.

The wildest one was this summer when I was shooting for Aerosmith. Steven Tyler punked me by acting like he didn't know me or wasn't told I would be shooting. The other guys wanted me to jump on stage and shoot them during the live show, but I needed to ask Steven who said he would get back to me.

Two minutes before the show the tour manager walked up to me and said Steven didn't like my shirt and wanted me to change before the show, he made me wear an Aerosmith t-shirt.

During the first number I was right below Steven and he swung the mike stand at me several times and I need to duck. I was weirding out but thought I will go for it so I jumped right up in front of him and we suddenly did this wild photo shoot in front of 15,000 people.

After the song was done, Steven stopped the show and introduced me to the crowd as one of the great rock photographers, and for the rest of the show climbed all over the stage with the band playing away.

Rick: The last time we spoke, you were working with some young blues artists and I'm guessing that you're always on the lookout for new talent. Have you gotten more into managing new blood?

Robert: I am now managing Josh Gooch and looking after Graham and Harrison Whiford, Yayo Sanchez and Chris Iorio. There are so many wonderful young guitar players coming up its unreal. Ryan McGarvey's band is fantastic and Ryan won the best guitar player and played Eric Clapton's Crossroads as the prize.

I was able to get Josh Gooch the guitar player slot in one of the best bands in Japan for the summer and fall tour of its lead singer. It was amazing for Josh, who had never toured, to start his life on the road playing in front of 30,000 people a night and has become a very up and coming guitar hero in Japan.

Rick: You were also associated with The Yardbirds in some fashion, are you still working with the group?

Robert: I photographed and hung out with the band in 1999 and they were looking to get a major record contract. I went to Steve Vai and he signed them and I was able to get many major guys to play on the record. Jeff Beck, Slash, Brian May, Skunk Baxter, GooGoo Dolls just to name a few.

The Yardbirds are why I am a photographer, after seeing Blow Up that was the band I wanted to first photograph as a kid. My first rock and roll shoot turned out to be with Jeff Beck right after he left the Yardbirds. I don't currently work with them, but they are dear friends.

Rick: What level of input or collaboration did you have with the making of Rock Prophecies? Get into the editing, sound production and other areas…Did you have the "final say" so you could control the quality before it was released?

Robert: I worked very closely with the director John Chester on getting the artists; their music and getting the legal stuff done, having to call them direct when the managers or labels wouldn't be helpful. John did a great job and editing and I can take no credit for that. I sort of had some final say, but the director was told he had final approval, I think he did a great job.

Rick: Do you have enough leftovers for a Rock Prophecies II?

Robert: We certainly have tons of over shoot plus we filmed many artists that John just did not have time or story line to use. We could do just a film on Jeff Beck as we have about eight hours I think. Think you might see something in the future. The hardest part was taking 42 years of my life and reducing it to 80 minutes.

Rick: Whenever we've corresponded you've always got something new going on…What's up at the moment?

Robert: I'm working on two very interesting projects. I just directed my first film, a documentary on artist and super psychic Ingo Swan, who is the father of Remote Viewing, developed for the CIA. Ingo is the most tested psychic in the world and his work is stunning.

I'm also working on a TV series with British writer and Janes Defense aviation editor Nick Cook. We are going to roam the world, rock and roll photographer and defense journalist looking into paranormal conspiracies, right up my alley.

 
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