Sunday, March 6, 2011

From Spinner

Herb Wise's Photography Reveals His Musical Mind -- PhotoSynthesis

Beginning in the 1960s, Herb Wise used his two music degrees, from UCLA and Syracuse University, to great, if not typical, effect. Joining Oak Publications as a staff photographer, he was tasked to get images to accompany a variety of rock, folk, blues and jazz books. Wise used his knowledge of music theory to help him with his timing of when to get the best shots of performers. Now, in concert with the recent release of 'People You'd Like to Know: Legendary Musicians Photographed by Herb Wise,' a comprehensive collection of his groundbreaking photography from the '60s through the '80s, the master lensman has taken the time to share, in his own words, his memories of and insights on a specially curated gallery of his most iconic pictures.

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
"As a photographer, we take pictures in one-thirtieth of a second, and frequently we don't have direct contact with the artist other than the situation. We might be at a festival, and the weather is nice, and the music is great, but there's not a lot I can tell you about the artist. I can only tell you certain stories about things that happened along the way." --Herb Wise

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Although Herb Wise is a man who prefers to have his photographs do the talking, the iconic images he has captured of musical legends of all walks tell a grand tale. Wise got his start as a lensman in the 1960s for Oak Publications, where he gained fame for making the rounds of rock, blues and folk festivals throughout the '60s and well into the '80s, cameras at the ready. He even used his renown to get invited into the homes of many well-known performers, capturing intimate portraits of artists rarely seen in their private moments.

The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born Wise, who currently resides in the Hollywood Hills of L.A. with his dog, Dawg, has recently compiled three decades' worth of photos and memories in his recent book 'People You'd Like to Know: Legendary Musicians Photographed by Herb Wise,' published by Omnibus Press.

What follows are Wise's thoughts and reminiscences on the photos curated for this unique gallery:

James Taylor. 1971: Yeah, James Taylor. You know, James has a history. He was North Carolinian, and I think he was very disturbed at an early age, I don't know if it was because of drugs or it was otherwise. His father was a doctor, and he was put into an institution. He had just come out, and this was, I think, one of the first places that he played, and he played 'Fire and Rain,' which was autobiographical. It was very powerful.

Carole King, 1971: Actually, I was photographing someone else at the time. I didn't know Carole King. I think that was just about the time of her 'Tapestry' recording, maybe even before, and she wasn't known, but she got in the way of my lens, and she did look young. She's a focused lady.

Frank Zappa, 1976: His family lives down the street from me on Woodrow Wilson Drive [in L.A.]. He was always in the Village and he was with the Mothers of Invention. When I took that picture he was performing at the 'Dick Cavett Show.' I went onstage for the rehearsal, they were working out, I'll never forget this, I was so put off by it. I got on the little platform, the little riser, it was about nine inches from the ground and I stood up to take a little better shot of it, a little wider shot, and some stagehand came over to me and he said, "Are you in the union?" I said "No, I'm not in the union." He said "Then get the hell off that riser!" That's my remembrance of Frank Zappa.

I was so put off by that stagehand that I left. I'm easily bruised. 'Cause those guys get rough, you know. Those stagehands can get very rough, I've found. was doing a video of Blood Sweat and Tears once and they threw me off the stage because I had camera equipment, so I had to fly up to Boston to get them, where those stagehands were less concerned.

Bobby Womack, 1973: You know, if you asked me to take pictures of baseball players, I wouldn't know what to do. Each person has their own specialty, and mine just happens to be music. And I know when the guys are gonna sing, and when they're gonna give a downstroke on the guitar or change their fingering on the trumpet and so forth. That's my little area of expertise. I've seen press photographers take terrible pictures by jumping onstage during a performance and they never seem to get the beat right. It's a matter of timing, but I guess I'm good at that. [Bobby Womack] was looking everywhere, but I caught him at the time that he was looking at me.

Steve Winwood, 1970: He was at a cocktail party at the New York Hilton. I don't know what the occasion was, but there were a group of people, and he was one of them. He was funny. That's when he was Stevie Winwood. Then he called us one day and he said "No, it's no longer Stevie, it's Steve." He grew up in a hurry.

Deborah Harry, 1979: I was actually going for somebody else that was in front of her. It was in Central Park, at the ice skating ring, and they set up the stage. I was doing a job for something and then she came on, and I got she and Nick Lowe and her other musician, I forget the name. She was wildly popular at the time. She was related to somebody that I knew, so I figured it was an obligation to take her picture.

Sonny Terry, 1980: Isn't that amazing? Well, he and Brownie [McGhee], of course, were the famous team. From what I understand, they hated each other. They played together for 40 years. Maybe after 40 years you sorta start to hate your partner, I don't know. He had all keys, you can't transpose with blues harp, you have to use a different key, and that's why he has that whole rack of harps.

Taj Mahal, 1971: That's an interesting story because a woman came to me one day, she was the producer of Big Sur Festival, a folk festival. I was in the music business, and I used to take pictures for music books. She came to me and said, "It might be interesting to you to know that we're putting on the last Big Sur Festival, but we don't have the money, and we'd like to know whether or not you could support us." And I said, "Well, what do you need?" And she said, "I need $50,000," and I said, "Well, OK. What rights do you have to these performers? Have you signed them up, can you use their names, what's going on?" She said, "I have all rights, they're all friends of mine: Taj Mahal, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson." Everyone that you can imagine, she signed them all up. I said, "Well, do you have recording rights?" She said, "We have everything. We can do an album, we can do anything we want." I said, "Follow me." So we went across the street to Columbia Records, to my friend Clive Davis, and I said, "Clive, listen to this," and he said Columbia would give them the $50,000, but they wanted Blood Sweat and Tears to appear. And she said, "Well, for $50,000, they're not folky, but sure, bring 'em along," and we put on the concert. Of course for $50,000 I got very good treatment, with access everywhere.

Roger Sprung, 1974: Sprung is a pretty well-known banjo player. He always performed at festivals. It's a picture of the Dulcimer Grove at one festival, might have been Philadelphia. I use that just to show the audience, so enraptured of him, and the scene. It's really a peaceful scene. Really lovely. Roger Sprung. He's the guy in the black hat, standing onstage, second from the right. The kid to our left is a young protégé. These are all the performers, this is not a band, this is just a group of performers who got together and decided they were gonna play one afternoon. And it was really nice.

Pete Seeger, 1978: You know, there was a wonderful artist. Pete is the spearhead of the folk movement, very prominent. I sent him a copy of my book, which I thought was really interesting because he knows everybody in it and I thought it would be nice for him to look at it, and I got a letter back from him saying, "Dear Herb ..." You know, he's 90-some-odd years old now and he can't write to all the people who write to him because he gets a deluge of notes and requests for interviews and filming and whatever, so he has this letter, it's a printed letter, and it says, "Dear friend" -- which I though was sort of interesting -- "I've gotten so many requests for personal interviews.... Unfortunately I'm not in a position to do that. So I have to write this and I apologize for being so formal about it, but that's what I have to do." So when he got my book instead of "Dear friend," he crossed out "friend." He said, "Dear Herb," which I thought was very nice, and then he wrote across the top and he says, "Beautiful book" -- that was the best critique I had.

Lou Reed, 1973: I like performance shots. They're very difficult, particularly in those situations where they're not set up for video. They light the stage just for the audience, and there's a mystery to the lighting. You come in and out of lighting, in and out of the spotlight, it's very difficult for the photographer, and it's particularly difficult unless you're onstage. I was onstage at that time. If you're not onstage and you're photographing from below, it really makes it difficult. But he's a good performer. He's a real pro.

Candy Darling, 1973: We were at a Lou Reed concert, and they were devotees -- they were hanging out, waiting for him to finish. I actually didn't know their names. I knew their faces, I knew their bodies, but I didn't know them and I never met them before. They were weird-looking. And they are. And that's why I snapped them. It was part of the back room scene.

I think there are some great photographs in the book, but a lot of them are a moment, capturing somebody during the period when they were popular or exhibited some exhibition of the time. I think these people were doing that. They represented that period. It was my time, I hung out at a place and the look was amazing. I didn't realize it at the time, but the look was amazing. A lot of the photographs that I took are amazing for that same reason, they're of a time.

Divine, 1973: Well, that was in the group of Lou Reed supporters. It was at the same time, at the same spot. Holly [Woodlawn, a Warhol "Superstar"] and Divine, they just followed him around for some reason or another. 'Walk on the Wild Side' -- that's what it is. That's the lyric of them. Not your typical housewife.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, 1975: I got to know the owner/manager of that hall, and he let me bring in photo equipment, which was really nice, because otherwise you can't get those shots. There's a sign behind the players, the sign says, "Traditional requests $1.00. Others $2.50 and 'Saints' $5.00." This was a hard shot to take because there are posts in the room, and if I got behind the post I couldn't get the shot, and if I got in front of the post it was hard to get the wide angle. It was a great tourist spot. Still is.

The New York Dolls, 1973: These guys were performing, I think they were on TV. I was able to get them all -- that's a composite shot. It's interesting that as youthful as they were, only one of them is still alive. [Editor's Note: David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain are the two surviving members.] I think that's sorta telling, isn't it?

Charles Mingus, 1973: I think there's a legend on it, but I don't recall.

Professor Longhair, 1975: This was in the mid-70's. You know, I met Allison Miner, who was one of the founders of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and she took me around to see some of the homes where these guys lived, because she knew them all. She really took Professor Longhair -- he was near broke and almost destitute -- and she sorta managed him and built him as a character, and she loved him. We hung out in his house for a while and got a lot of shots there. It's funny; I took a picture of him, and the following year I took another image of him and it was the same shirt. I'm sure he changed it, but by coincidence it was the same shirt that he was wearing.

Gladys Knight and the Pips, 1973: It's one of those moments that you capture. I followed her all the way from her dressing room, down an alley in the back with, I think that's her cousin, and one of The Pips, and got on stage and followed them all of the way. She seemed not concerned at all that I was snapping away.

Jackson Browne, 1972 Very peaceful. He was dating Joni Mitchell. They were, as we say, an item at the time. That was in Canada, at the Mariposa Festival, and he's wearing a badge that gives him access, and it says, "Kin." He wasn't performing, he was just following her. They were madly in love. It just worked out beautifully; he was playing and he didn't seem to mind me. That was the time when I was standing on the hillside and Joni Mitchell is about a hundred feet away, and she waved to me, and she said, "Come here, come here," and I said, "Me? I don't know you!" She said, "Yeah, come here!" She kept beckoning me over there, so I go over and I said "Yeah, can I help you?" She says "Yeah, would you mind watching the port-o-potty door so no one goes in, while I go in?" That was the closest I could get to her. I had three cameras strapped around my neck.

John Lee Hooker, 1973: That was in Ann Arbor[, Mich.] He did his act, he was sorta cocky, he knows how good he is. He performed, there's a picture, the hand with rings on it? I took a picture of a guy who's got six or seven rings on his finger, a guitar player. He was a homeless guy who they let play in Ann Arbor.

Bob Dylan,1974 That's another one where I couldn't get backstage passes, so I just stood up in the audience and got that. It's the only shot that I took, but I guess it worked out OK. He's just surrounded by people. It actually didn't come out badly.

Libba Cotten, 1979: Libba's sort of a tradition and an old timer, and a highly regarded performer. She was a housekeeper for Mike Seeger, and I think they figured out that she played guitar. Of course, the oddity was that she played backhand, she played left-handed guitar, with an upside-down guitar. I can just imagine her having picked up the first guitar and playing it backwards.

David Bowie, 1973: That's not a very good shot; I was in the audience, actually. I tried to get backstage passes, but I couldn't. So I got in, you know, I stood up for a second and grabbed the shot. You have to get the shot, and I don't think I ever went away without getting the shot. It might not have been beautiful, but it was what I set out to do.

Chuck Berry, 1981: You know the stories of Chuck Berry: "Pay and Play." And that's his routine, his duck walk. And again, I timed it. That's my ... my thing. He had his foot up in the air, just slightly in the air, bent over, and I can spot those things in advance.

Arnie Berle, 1972: Arnie Berle is an interesting guy because he comes off as a very ineffectual sort, but he's a good instructor. We figured it would be good to get him in the hustle-bustle of the city. We stood in the middle of Broadway. Death was calling, and my assistant was trying to shoo off the cars that were passing by, but we got an urban look to him. It comes off as a very interesting shot, because a lot of people like that photograph. I don't personally understand why.

Postscript: "I was just at Coachella. You know Coachella? At one time, photographers were respected, working photographers were respected and we got press passes to go to the front of the stage and work. And if some kids got in the way, we pushed them out of the way because that was our job, we had to get the photograph. Today, I went to Coachella, had a press pass and I said, "Great, I'm gonna get some great shots because there was a great lineup of performers." I go past the guard at the door and the front of the stage is packed with kids. I mean, it's just jammed with kids, not with cameras but with cellphones, taking pictures. And I said, "What is that? What kind of respect is that?" You know, it's totally unprofessional. So, I left, actually. I took some pictures of Beyoncé or somebody, but it was really a waste of my time. Besides, it was 110 degrees. It's an exciting event, but it's for kids." --Herb Wise


Owen said...

Good stuff... looks like he really got around...

mythopolis said...

Lots of cool shots, and it appears he got many of them the hard way.