Michael Putland: A Life in Music

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Bob Marley, Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh pose backstage at a R
Bob Marley, Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh pose backstage at a RPhotography by Michael Putland, Courtesy of Getty Images UK

Ahead of his retrospective at Getty Images Gallery, we catch up with music photographer Michael Putland to talk touring with the Rolling Stones and other highlights from his 70s heyday

Hanging out with a laid-back and loved-up John and Yoko on the Imagine shoot; standing inches away from Mick Jagger as he enthralled an audience of thousands; capturing the instant that Pete Townsend launched his electric guitar six-feet into the air or the time Jerry Hall joined Brian Ferry for an impromptu duet on stage. These are moments that mere mortals dream of, the witnessing of one alone enough to fuel a lifetime's worth of bragging to friends. But for music photographer Michael Putland, who once stated that he never had a day off during the 70s, such occasions formed the fabric of his day-to-day existence.

"My talent isn't technical, if anything it’s capturing the real person" – Michael Putland

Putland can give you the lowdown on any famous musician of the 70s and 80s, casually noting, without a hint of self-importance, that "nobody has ever been as rude or as nice to [him] as Pete Townsend"; that Spike Milligan was the only person he'd seen crack the rather distant Van Morrison, reducing him to tears of laughter on a shoot; how Madonna was "a girl who really knew what she wanted" right from the start and how Elton John is a "thoughtful, kind guy" who remembered him ten years after they first met.

Putland's rise to success is in itself remarkable. Opting for a job as a photographer's assistant over formal study, he had his own studio by 19 and eventually secured a role with music magazine Disc & Music Echo. His first assignment was to shoot Mick Jagger, and as an avid Stones fan he couldn't believe his luck. His picture made the front cover, and from then on there was no looking back. In 1973, he was asked to accompany the Stones on their tour – probably the defining moment of his career.

Now, 50 years on, an extensive array of Putland's captivating and candid shots are set to go on display at Getty Images Gallery, a well-deserved celebration of an illustrious career. Here we take a trip down memory lane with the photographer – who since the 80s, and the bureaucratisation of pop culture, now focuses mainly on the worlds of jazz and opera – to find out more about his rock'n'roll heyday, his early encounter with Keith Richards and his favourite photograph.

On his beginnings... "I started in my parents’ bathroom. It used to really annoy my father because he could never get in there – I'd be washing prints in the bath and then heating the chemicals in the sink. My grandmother gave me my first camera. It was my grandfather’s, a box Brownie –  one of those ones that you used to look through from the top. It didn’t even have a label; just had a little thing that went click."

On his favourite picture... "It's hard to pick a favourite but my most successful print from a sale point of view, and one I think is kind of sweet, is the one of Bob Marley, Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh. It was after a concert they played in a small theatre in New York, in an actor’s dressing room. And in that room were Bob and Peter and Paul and Linda McCartney and all of the Stones. It was a tiny space and I was just given free reign – incredible really. It’s a lovely set of pictures; they were such great years."

On his skill... "My style was always more photojournalistic – I didn’t want to do glossy. There are people that do take very beautiful, glossy pictures but my talent isn't technical, if anything it’s capturing the real person. You know when people are a pain in the rear, it comes through in their eyes, and I can’t stop it. I can’t make them look beautiful; the most lovely person in the world externally, but I just can’t do it."

On the early Stones… "When I was about sixteen, the Rolling Stones used to play London clubs near where I lived, and me and my friends just adored them. Once they were playing the British Legion in South Harrow to 300 people and I was going to meet my friends in there but it was full – a lot of screaming girls, it was all just beginning to start. So I started driving home and I saw this guy with a guitar and I’m sure it's Keith, absolutely sure. And I was so shocked, he stopped and said, “Do you know the way to British Legion?” And I said, “Yes, I can take you there.” Thinking, “You’ll get me in!” So I drove him a couple of miles back up the road and he got out and he just said, “Yeah, thanks,” and I went home again."

On shooting live gigs... "When you were shooting a concert the light was very poor sometimes and technically it was quite hard – you had to push the film and increase it's ability to find the light. Now with digital it's so easy, I can do it on my iPhone, but then it was tough, especially if you were taking it seriously and wanted to get really great stuff. But it was worth it. Very often the encore was terrific. Look at the Stones' Jumping Jack Flash – Mick used to throw a bucket of water over himself and then throw rose petals. It was visually fabulous. Why would you want to miss that?"

On his favourite anecdote... "I went to photograph Stephen Stills of Crosby, Stills and Nash in the 70s. He was a great solo artist and one of my big favourites around that time. I went to his house with a journalist and he said, “Would you like to hear the new album?” We said we'd love to, so he took us into the recording studio in his house and we sat down on the middle of the studio floor. I thought he was just going to play it to us on tape but then he and his band all plugged in their instruments and played it for us live, in quadrophonic sound! It was gorgeous."

Michael Putland: A Life in Music 50 Years on the Road opens at Getty Images Gallery on October 22 and runs until November 22.