Rock Photographer in Las Vegas Life
Knight Tales Photographer Robert Knight has circled the earth, shooting exotic people and places for 35 years. So why at age 58 did he and his wife, Maryanne, suddenly decide to move to Las Vegas? The answer’s not what you may thin.

By Lonn Friend

It’s a busy Friday morning in Hollywood, California. Pedestrians clog the famous boulevards, natives en route to their daily jobs, tourists lining up in front of Mann’s Chinese theater to take s snapshot of Jimmy Stewart’s handprints eternally etched in sidewalk cement. Behind the wheel of his Jeep Cherokee, veteran rock and resort photographer Robert Knight has business in town, and we’re along for the ride. As he regales us with moments from his own wonderful life, he drives fast and talks even faster.

“I was born and raised in Honolulu,” he says. “My parents were missionaries, my dad a Baptist minister. From my earliest memory, the world was a very mysterious place to me. I was restless.” At 16, Knight became the youngest travel agent on the island of Oahu. By the time he was 18, he’d earned enough travel credits to book a flight to London. “I read all the music

magazines and was mesmerized by pictures of the Stones and the Beatles. I needed to go there. And that’s where my photographic journey began. It was total synchronicity.”

  Robert Knight

Jeff Beck photo by Robert KnightJeff Beck: In 1985, we were in the Mojave Desert, working on a video with Rod Stewart for “People Get Ready,” and Jeff and I went off and shot this Jeff’s passion is cars, and this shot sumariszes everything he’s about he’s my fovorite artist I ever worked with, and the best guitar player in the world. He was a hero of Jimi Hendrix.”  

Synchronicity, as defined by Webster: the people, places or events that you attract into your life to help you evolve. Knight’s a case study. Cosmic case in poijnt: when he arrived in London, Knight contacted some friends who were looking after a photo studio where a movie was being shot. He was invited down to visit. The film being produced was Blow Up, the 1966 Michelangelo Antonioni classic about a photographer in singing London.

“Everything I witnessed that trip blew my mind,” he recalls with timeless enthusiasm. “The girls were so cool looking and the music, oh man, it was everywhere, this new raw, rock n’ roll. I fixated on this band called the Yardbirds and its guitarist, Jeff Beck. I said to myself, “This is the crowd I want to run with.”’

Knight returned to Honolulu and befriended local concert promoter Tom Moffatt, who opened the doors to the teenager’s first live gig experience. Two of the guys onstage were named Mick and Keith. “I wasn’t allowed to bring my camera in that night, “he smiles. “but I watched from the front row, dead center. My mind’s eye was framing the band throughout their set, like in an imaginary viewfinder.”

Prior to his jumpin’ Jack Flash-bulb epiphany, Knight had developed his photographic skills by shooting models on the island for travel advertisements. He soon began using his spare time to photograph local acts, honing his eye for the magical mystery tourahead. In 1968, he relocated to northern California to attend the San Francisco Art Institue. He wrote a letter to Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner– a Hawaii native – offering his services as a photographer. Within the space of a month in San Francisco. He’d been assigned to shoot Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix and Jethro Tull. He even got to shoot Beck, who was disbanding the old Yardbirds and parting ways with the other guitarist I the group – an axe prodigy named Jimmy Page.

“I got the tip from Beck that Jimmy’s new group, Led Zeppelin, was playing their debut gig in Amerca in Hollywood at the Whisky A Go Go on Sunset,” he remembers. “Wenner sent me down to shoot the show, but when I got to the venue in the afternoon they wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t 21. They called the hotel where the band was staying, the Chateau Marmont, and got Jimmy on the phone. He said, ‘send the kid over’” Knight hung out with the band at their hotel and shot the show. He’d become an unofficial roadie to the quartet that would soon change the face of rock ‘n’ roll.
  Elton John Photo by Robert KnigtElton John: “ I met Elton very early in his career. I was one of the few people he actually knew in Hawaii, and he stayed at my house on the beach. He would bring me on the stage and give me access to shoot. He would actually stop playing and pose in the middle of a concert and then continue on. This was in 1974

Green Day photo by Robert KnightGreen Day: “this was taken in the early ‘90s in Phoenix. They are really sweet, unaffected guys. I did the painting. It’s like a Jackson Pollock. I took a white cloth and did a whole splatter painting. I took it with me to Phoenix.   Knight rode with Zeppelin to San Francisco and shot their Fillmore West performance in what he fondly refers to as a very Almost Famous week, recalling Cameron Crowe’s fictionalized biopic as a prepubescent fly on the rock ‘n’ rollwall. He also made a phone call from the mainland to Mofatt, hipping him to this brave new band from Britain and urging him to book a concerrrrt in Honolulu immediately. According to Knight, thy will was done… and more. “When Zeppelin arrived at the Honolulu Airport later that mythical 1969, Tom sent me to pick up the band,” he says, grinning. “One of my most famous photographs is Led Zeppelin walking on the tarmac carrying the master tapes of Led Zeppelin II, the album they were working on at the time. I drove them around the next couple days in my VW bus, took’em surfin, to restaurants. It was a blast. And I’d finally turned 21.”

The past has to take a temporary backseat. Knight’s got a stop to make in Tinseltown. We pull into the driveway of the renown Nardulli Photo Lab on Highland Boulevard, where a session he’d shot the  previous week with the buzzing new Las Vegas band, Panic! At the Disco, was processed and ready for pick up. He’s crazy about digital but still likes to shoot studio sessions on film, “old school.”

As we stroll into the lobby of the establishment–known for processing the work of legendary photographers like Annie Libowitz, Mark Seliger and the late Linda Eastman McCartney–we’re struck by the song floating from the ceiling speakers. It’s Led Zeppelin’s “All of My Love.” Cue the synchronicity angels and another Knight tale.

  Herb Albert Photo by Robert KnightHerb Albert: “We Sot this in 2005. Herb’s in his 70’s, but he hadn’t done a photo shoot in 10 years. He’s a very reclusive person. We were so honored to be able to do this. A silhouette seemed like such an obvious thing because he’s such and iconic figure.”

Jimi HendrixJimi Hendrix: “this was taken in 1969 in Waikiki at an outdoor concert. He suddenly stopped playing and announced that everyone had to come back the following day. He didn’t want to play anymore. They came back the next day and he played.”   “Annie was at the Art Institute when I was there,” he sys. “She was one of the guys. Mick Jagger really dug her. And Linda Eastman, I used to see her at shows all over California. She joked about someday marrying a Beatle… but her eyes were se on John! Annie and Linda got into the pit and dressing rooms, places the male photographers couldn’t.”

As he scans the frames of the Vegas-based teenage sensations who are riding the new wave of indigenous pop celebrity set in motion by The Killers, the fellow behind the counter is familiar, yet respectful. He asks Knight how he likes living in the desert. “Oh, I love it!” he boasts. “My wife, Maryanne, and I bought a house. I’m finally a homeowner!”

Behold the fork in the road, the shift of gears, act II in the play, the other side of eternity, as Carlos Castaneda called it. Perhaps now is the time to ask, why did this Nikon-toting globetrotter– whose professional immaculate conception coincided with the appearance of modern music’s chosen ones–decide to change his home base to Sin City? We hop back in the car and watch for more signs.

Driving south on La Brea Avenue toward the Interstate 10 on-ramp, Knight drops the first clue as to what inspired his relocation. “I’m a UFOlogist,” he confesses. “I am fascinated by the study of UFOs, spirituality, theology, conspiracy theories and other alternate reality disciplines. Hey, see that store? That’s where Maryanne and I bought our fist piece of furniture for the house in Vegas. A five-foot-tall gold Buddha. Wow, More synchronicty?”

Growing up on an island does things to the mind. You’re isolated from the rest of the world, surrounded by sky and sea. For an average kid, it’s a challenging environment. But for the son of a Baptist minister and the only fair-skinned boy in the neighborhood, it’s a formula for enhanced curiosity and accelerated transformation. “When I was a kid, I saw things white people didn’t see in Hawaii,” he explains. “Like the Hawaiian Death marches. I witnessed runners carrying torches through the night along the hillsides, fixated ans the bodies appeared to float up and down the mountain.” Knight also remembers hearing noises outside his bedroom window, the sound of rocks being broken and piled, and voices speaking in tongues. One of his friends at Kaimuki High told him that what he was hearing was a dead dialect, and the sounds were the building of an ancient bathing pond that took place somewhere on the island 150 years before.

  Jimmy Page Photo by Robert KnightJimmy Page: “this is 1972 in Seattle, and led Zeppelin was the biggest band in the world. Tey allowed me to shoot the whole show. To be able to shoot a whole show without restriction is rare today. This is probably when they were in top form.”

Mick Jagger Photo by Robert KnightMick Jagger: “This was 1973 in Honolulu. They only did four or five shows that entire year, and this was for Earthquake Nicaragua Relief. I  got unfettered access and was able to shoot both of their shows that night. This has Mick in his prime, just super athletic. The funny thing is they look like giants onstage, but in person they were all little dudes. But Mick was very sweet. Keith (Richards) was the pirate.”   That childhood fascination with the unknown has never waned. On assignment in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin, in the summer of 1990, he walked blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn to the helicopter that would crash shortly after takeoff, killing the acclaimed musician. “I was there to shoot an important guitar ad for Fender,” he recalls. “Eric Clapton, Jimmy Vaughn, robert Cray and Stevie. We had talked earlier that day about life and death. He knew he was living on borrowed time.” Vaughn believed that he’d died” six years previously in Switzerland when doctors resuscitated him after a drug overdose. That near-death experience awake him to the realization that he had a serious habit. He finally got clean and inspired kids to party responsibly. “When I said goodbye to Stevie, he gave me his phone number in Dallas,” Knight recalls, his eyes starting to mist “if anything ever happens to me, Robert,” he said, “you’ll know me when you hear me.’”

Before Vaughn’s death, Knight shot him live and captured what he considers is a sequence of images that convey, in his words , “that something else is going on.” Spikes of light fly off the artist with a wicked, almost electromagnetic, radiance. Knight claims that when he was shooting, there ws no background light source that could have created tha effect. “That’s Stevie’s energy, his aura,” he insists.

Aura and spirits, Wicca and wanderlust, the realm of the depraved or the divine? It’s fine line in the Honolulu sand, but Knight knows where his bare feet stand. “My relationship with God is very personal,” he confesses. “I suppose part of being a minsister’s kid is that you’re overwhelmed with religion because it’s all around you. I lived I a church for years growing up in Hawaii. The parsonage was attached to our house.”

One of the reasons why Knight has traveled the planet–besides being paid a nice coin for shooting exotic places for major hotel chains or snapping a hero onstage for his ever-growing rock archives­–is he possesses a deep belief that if he could find evil, then he could also find good. And so comes one of Knight’s weirder tales. “I’ve been to Bali many times,” he says. “there’s a place called the Monkey Forest outside of Uboud. I was told that this forest at night was highly possessed, so I I decided to take a walk one evening without a flashlight. It was like invisible hands were reaching out of the darkness, pricking my skin. You could literally feel the demons and the spirits. It was very palpable.”

It’s a week later, and we’re driving around again, but not in Hollywood. Tonight, we’re cruising the south end of the Las Vegas Strip, musing on the light and darkness of Knight’s new hometown. He remembers driving cross-country with his parents when he was kid and passing through Vegas. “I was enamored by the lights, especially downtown, Freemont street,” he says. “Las Vegas is the closest thing to a surrealistic city, the extreme accepted as the norm. Salvador Dali would have loved Vegas. Too bad he was terrified to fly.”

Knight and his wife call Las Vegas their new sanctuary. Tey met in 1985 while Knight was on assignment in Hong Kong. Bilham, a native New Zealander and noted photographer in her own right, has developed a venerable reputation in the area of resort photography. Over the years, she became his muse, inspiring him to branch out with his busiinss and talent, to travel and shoot the great outdoors as well as the rockin’ indoors. Five years ago, thye formed a company together, Knight Bilham Photography, a synthesis of their combined professional vision and pedigree.

  Panic! At the DiscoPanic! At The Disco: “I am very prod of this shot. The president of Guitar Centers asked me to try to find artists before they got huge. I shot this last year in a storage locker they used to rehearse in over in West Las Vegas. They are now outselling U2 in Austrialia. These boys self –produced without a record company and now they own everything. It’s the smartest model for a young band I’ve seen in years.”

Led Zeppelin photo by Robert Knight   In 2004, they finally tied the knot. “Maryanne helped me structure my life,” says Knight. “And she’s twice the photographer I am!” While they still perform solo assignments  Maryanne has photographed the Rio top to bottom twice, the Aladdin, and is preparing to capture another image makeover when the latter property converts to its new Planet Hollywood ownership– they also shoot together. Like the recently completed three-year project where they were flown across the glove to photograph every destination the Princess Cruises line goes to. “that was the dream job,” admits Knight. “to be paid to travel to and shoot Argentina, Iceland, China, The Solomon Islands and dozens more. I even got to hang out with Jeff Beck in London on that trek.”

As we pull up in front of the dynamic duo’s modest green Valley Ranch home, it’s not an other tale that Knight wants to impart but, rather, a philosophy. “It is light that dazzles the  eye and captures the attention,” he says. “the light of a rock concert’s strobes, fireworks and lasers, or the iridescent glow of the setting sun behind a palatial hotel. Our job as photographers is to manipulate light and capture or preserve time. I work with time. That’s not a gig but rather a sacred, Universal trust.”

Just then, all heads turn in unison to grab a glimpse of a shooting star darting across the eastern sky. Sin City Synchronicity. It’s a beautiful thing.

  Stevie Ray Vaughn by Robert KnightStevie Ray Vaughn: “ I only knew him when he was sober. He was the sweetest guy in the world.  I was with him the night he died, and I shot thiis in Minneapolis in 1990, a week before that. This photo really captures his vibe. He never looked at his hands.”
Ringo Starr phot by Robert Knight
Ringo Starr: The funniest person in rock and roll. Sharp as a tack. In the early ‘90’s I was invited to meet him at the Bel Air hotel. It was him, three other drummers, his wife Babara (Bach) and me.”
Rufus Wainright: “Rufus I knew nothing about. This was taken for portraits that appear on the outside of the 187 Guitar Centers around the country. Our portraits are outside all these buildings. I was in an old Vanderbilt mansion in New York City, and he was kind of blown away by the whole thing. I noticed his ring, and he said “Elton John gave me this ring.’”
Eddie Van Halen photo by Robert Knight
Eddie Van Halen: “Again, we were working on a portrait that was going to appear on the outside of Guitar Centers, and Eddie gave me unfettered access to a Southern California show. Tis was probably Van Halen at the top of their game. This would have been around 1995

Courtney Love photo by Robert Knight

Courtney Love: (Shot by Maryanne) “This was shot in our studio in Hollywood in 1995. (Love at left, Lisa Leveridge at right.) Courtney was very professional. She was in control of her look, but provided me creative freedom. It was, for her one of the more saner photo shoots.”


Carlos Santana photo by Robert Knight
Carlos Santana: “This was 1995, and it was the 10th anniversary of Rock Walk. This was Carlos’ induction to Rock walk. I’ve worked with him since the 1960’s, and he’s the American bono. His contributions to charity and world peace don’t get a lot of publicity, but he is a very sweet man. I really like Carlos.
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