Interview with versatile photographer Alan Messer - captured legends of music behind his lens

"Music is the soundtrack of our lives, it inspires, encourages us to dance, to dream, to rock. It makes us cry and makes us smile."

Alan Messer: The Photocatalysis of Music

Alan Messer left school at sixteen to become a professional photographer in London. He shot his first magazine cover a few days later (Manfred Mann promoting "The Mighty Quinn"), the second, published 1968, was the Beatles promoting the Yellow Submarine film. Alan insatiably photographed the British rock and pop scene, working from Dezo Hoffmann's studio, first as an apprentice and then in 1968 as a freelance photo-journalist photographer, during which time he photographed such artists as: The Rolling Stones, Diana Ross, The Kinks, T. Rex and George Harrison. Alan left Hoffmann's studio to work briefly with renowned music photographer, Gered Mankowitz (still as a freelance), before opening his own London studio.

During the seventies Messer was the independent resident Old Grey Whistle Test (BBC) photographer and was tour photographer for Iggy Pop, Deep Purple and photographed many visiting touring US bands and artists including several country music musicians, both in his studio and on the road. With "itchy feet", excited by America and its commercial possibilities, Messer moved from his native England to Nashville and opened a studio there in 1978. An amazing opportunity to photograph the country music scene unfolded.

The Los Angeles based record companies hired Alan instead of importing their West Coast based photographers. He got the work and the budgets were spent on the photography and not wasted on travel and accommodation. During the 80s Alan was often shooting a session a day, many of which were LP album covers. His nights were spent printing in his darkroom. After a few years of a pounding schedule, he was forced into a break. During this transition period, Alan was introduced to silk-screen printing, which immediately became commercially successful and he won a Grammy in 1989 in the Album Packaging category.

A screen print of his photograph of Johnny Cash set the stage for a series of ten albums for CBS Records (now Sony) called “American Originals”. A limited edition book of Alan’s photographs of Johnny Cash (1977 - 2003), is to be published in by Genesis Publications, titled, JOHNNY CASH American Legend.

Interview by Michael Limnios 

Photographs by © Alan Messer [www.alanmesser.com], all rights reserved

When was your first desire to become involved in art of photography and Rock 'n’ Roll culture?

I bought my first camera, a Kodak Brownie 127, when I was seven. I was anxious to document my family and our environment on the South East coast of England. I was born in 1951, so as a boy I would hear records that my mother played on a 78 wind-up gramophone. English BBC radio played the top twenty pop hits, but the best stations were Radio Luxembourg and "pirate" off shore stations like Radio Caroline, that we could hear on our transistor radios.

I loved the Beatles; I bought all their records, both 45's and LP's.

My father employed a famous music photographer Dezo Hoffmann to photograph a line of boys suits that he manufactured at his bespoke factory, I J & J Mendes, under the company name of "Sartoris". My two brothers, David and Michael and myself modeled these suits. During one of these sessions, on our one day off from boarding school, we are posing in the back garden and trying to listen to "Pick Of The Pops" on the radio. Dezo tries to get us to jump for a picture, we really don't want to, then he says, "Last week I photographed the Beatles jumping in Liverpool". We jumped!

I did not like school so on December 3rd 1967 I got a job at Dezo Hoffmann's studio in London, I was sixteen. A week later I was assistant on a Jimi Hendrix photo session for a magazine cover. Dezo was the photographer for the Record Mirror a weekly pop music magazine. He was older and not into the scene, so he sent me out on assignments for them. Within a few weeks I had a front cover of the Manfred Mann group promoting their, "Mighty Quinn" single and then the Beatles posing for their "Yellow Submarine" film promotion.

Other artists I photographed were: The Small Faces, Jim Morrison and the Doors, John Lennon, George Harrison, Diana Ross, The Rolling Stones, The Who and many more.

Dezo lost his contract with the Record Mirror and was very short of money, so within six months of being employed I lost my job and went freelance working from his studio on a small retainer that barely covered my train fare. I bought a Nikon with a £100 left to me by my grandfather and was fortunate to be given a lens by a wonderful man, Keith Johnson, who worked at a camera shop and then went on to own the biggest camera store in London. Keith would allow me to get film and equipment and pay him when I could.

I was driven by my passion for the music and photography. I wanted to be a musician; I played drums in semi-pro bands and took drum lessons which I paid for by giving my teacher prints of my pictures of Buddy Rich. I was a photographer trying to find my way to the stage!

"I hope my catalogue of pictures, books and films will be enjoyed by my family and future generations."

What characterizes Alan Messer’s progress and how do you describe your philosophy about the IMAGE?

After forty six years of being a professional the passion for music and photography has not faded. I have an empathy for musicians, my style is organic, based on being in the moment, allowing the spontaneity, incorporating composition and tone. I learned to print in a darkroom and to develop my own film. Knowing how to print has been essential and I still incorporate those skills digitally. I became an art director/designer in the 80's that has also helped me to define the image. My basic training was tough. The picture editor at the Record Mirror, Peter Jones, would not accept images that did not fit the paper's format, so I had to deliver to get published.

There is glamour and beauty in everyone and everything, I like the simple truth. Well done is better than over complicated, that is how I try to live my life, how I prepare food and how I photograph. Behind simplicity there is craft and education, but that is in the background, the most important thing is to be present, to be there. If people can see the story, see the love I have for the people I have the opportunity to meet, then I have done my job. My photographs are not about me, I am the catalyst, it is simply the picture created that counts.

How important was the Rock n’ Roll culture in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

It is all important. Music is the soundtrack of our lives, it inspires, encourages us to dance, to dream, to rock. It makes us cry and makes us smile. It is there when we fall in love and when we break up. It is there when we marry, when we visit our friends, when we drive in our car. Music is in the air, in the wind. The music can influence my mood when looking through the camera, but mostly I prefer the natural sounds of nature, the sounds of the sea greatly influenced my early life.

"I am emotional about many songs I hear. My path has taken me on an emotional soundtrack lately, every song being about love and relationships. When I hear those songs I know I am not alone."

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and highlight moment of your career?

My early Rock 'n' Roll days were amazing, I was young and everything is wondrous as a teenager.

There are many stages as we move through the decades of our lives. I love England and the British music scene. I was fortunate to experience the late sixties and early seventies in London as a teenager and into my twenties. It was really fun. I was a freelance photographing great shows and attending music functions and TV shows.

I was the unofficial photographer for the Old Grey Whistle Test for 103 shows, toured with Iggy Pop in '77, was the photographer for Anchor (ABC) Records in London and worked with Deep Purple and other bands of that era.

In 1972 I was given an opportunity to fly to Canada for a music junket. It was a an amazing four day trip for a twenty one year old. The festival organizer, Ritchie Yorke (John Lennon's friend) helped me get immigration status, but I was not ready to live in Canada, so I opened a studio in London and waited till I had more experience. My relationship with Anchor led me to RCA and to connections in Nashville.

So I moved to Nashville in 1978, America was a new adventure. I was twenty eight years old and the Nashville music scene was developing. I am not a country music fan. I am a photographer. My personal taste in music does not dominate my business sense. However, sometimes there are artists I just have to photograph because of their music, such as Stevie Ray Vaughan.

During the 80s, an amazing opportunity to photograph the country music scene unfolded. The Los Angeles based record companies hired me instead of importing their West Coast based photographers. I got the work and the budgets were spent on the photography and not wasted on travel and accommodation. I was often shooting a session a day, many of which were album covers. My nights were mostly spent printing in the darkroom. I've probably photographed and/or designed about 800 albums (LPs and CDs). I had thoughts about living in New York and Los Angeles, but I was on a roll, was at the top of my game, so I just kept working.

In 1989 I won a Grammy in the Album Packaging category for The O'Kanes "Tired Of The Running" (CBS Records). Honours and accolades are fun and useful career moves.

In 1987 I got to work with Johnny Cash, a lifelong friendship developed. John was larger than life and simply one of the most down to earth, friendliest, wildest men I have ever met. There will never be anyone else like him, he was an American original.

I shot hundreds of sessions during the 90's, moved to New York for a year and also lived in Austin, Texas where I met Stubbs and got involved with blues and barbecue.

"Professionally I have met many great people. Notably, John Lennon, George Harrison and my friend Johnny Cash."

What are some of the most memorable shoots? Are there any memories which you’d like to share?

I have had the opportunity to photograph some music icons. Here are some stories:

John Lennon, London,1968

John Lennon and George Harrison were celebrating the opening of Apple Tailoring at Club Dell'Aretusa in the Kings Road. There were press photographers, journalists, lots of those trendy fab gear people that usually cropped up at those sort of parties and me. John Lennon was in great spirits posing for promotional photographs in the restaurant's basement, singing “I’ll Apple you if you'll Apple me...” accompanied by his (not yet publicly known) girlfriend, Yoko Ono. Not wishing to be intrusive and because he was married, I did not photograph them together. John asked me if I would take some photographs for him. The next day John and Yoko officially broke the news of their union.

George Harrison / Ravi Shankar London,1974

I had met Ravi Shankar briefly during a press conference and photo call at the Savoy Hotel in London in 1968. He was really kind to me when I asked him to pose for a portrait.

Six years later (1974), I attended a photo call at the Royal Albert Hall for Ravi Shankar who would be performing with an Indian orchestra. I arrived at the Albert Hall for the afternoon press call, to find the place swarming with press photographers. I found a seat to set up my camera bag and surveying the scene, announced to the gaggle of photographers, that I didn't have a flash and that when Ravi Shankar made his appearance that it would be best to place him in the small pool of light on the stage. They would get their flash pictures and I would take mine with the available light.

George Harrison was also there. In true Fleet Street press style the photographers swarmed the two artists as they walked onto the stage to meet the press. Flash guns were popping and I could do nothing but stand back, as they were not in the light as we had arranged.

I don't shoot with a flash gun as in press style, having always preferred available light photographs with black and white Kodak film.

When the swarm of press had subsided I introduced myself to Ravi Shankar and George Harrison and asked to photograph them together in the light, explaining that I didn't have a flash. They were most happy to do so. Unfortunately as we began to photograph, the paparazzi press swarmed again. Abruptly a voice cut through it all, " You're taking star press poster pictures of me..." said George Harrison pointing at a photographer to my far left. "No I'm not" whimpered the wretched man. "You've got a telephoto 135 mm lens...," said George.

It was all over. The press call was terminated and the Dark Horse press agent ushered us all out. As I walked back across the Albert Hall to repack my camera bag, feeling a bit disheartened, I felt a hand on my shoulder and heard that famous Liverpool voice, "Would you photograph the show for me tonight?" asked George. I turned around, "Yes," (I said a bit surprised, but really pleased) "can I have back stage access too?"

It was an amazing concert. I had so much fun listening to Ravi Shankar and was pleased with the photographs. I printed some 12 x 8's which I hand delivered to George at Dark Horse Records. Some of the photographs appeared in the Ravi Shankar 2010 "Collaborations" limited edition boxed set.

I met George Harrison once more with Johnny Cash at Madison Square Gardens during rehearsals for the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert in 1992. Two of my pictures of the concert have just been used in the CD/DVD package.

Jim Morrison - ICA, London, 1968

I photographed Jim Morrison in 1968 at The Doors press call at The ICA in London. It was a "trippy" sixties psychedelic affair. I like my image of Jim because it shows the iconic imagery of the Doors. I met the drummer, John Densmore in Nashville a few months ago and we shared some memories.

Diana Ross - London, 1968

I photographed Diana Ross during a record company press photo call at EMI in1968.  One of my first 45 singles was "Baby Love". She was the most beautiful women this seventeen year old boy had ever met, so I asked her to pose for me.  Several years ago I sent Diana a signed print. I still really like this photograph, hope she does.

Al Green

I grew up listening to Al Green songs like, “Let’s stay Together” and “Love and Happiness”, so I was thrilled to meet him and photograph him in my house. The first of several sessions with the 'Reverend', was for a a gospel album. I had “Al Green’s Greatest Hits” playing on the studio stereo, assistants and a video camera. I used to document most of my sessions.

Reverend Al was not pleased to listen to his music, pouting that he never likes to hear that stuff. Challenging his penmanship, I said, “Take Me to the River, I never realised you wrote that, isn’t it a Talking Heads song?” - ”You put that back on, this cat is real good!” said Al.

Al Green was back! He got the spirit and danced to the music. We shot some great photographs.

I have visited his church in Memphis where I have been introduced to the congregation by Reverend Al Green. I have photographed three Al Green albums and photographed him for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine.

Stevie Ray Vaughan - In Step - 1989

I flew down to Austin the day before the In Step session to prepare. Stevie's crew took me over to their band warehouse space. The setting was too modern and severe but a roadie mentioned there had been house painters working (I presume at Stevie’s house). Sight unseen, I said yes and waited for chance to work her wondrous way.

I arrived next day for the session, the setting was perfect. The canvas backdrop was as if I had brought one of my own. Outside, an overly jubilant Stevie arrives, gleaming in the Texas sun, accompanied by a pretty lady, his girlfriend, Janna Lapidus. They were pulling clothes out of a car. Stevie sees me and holds up his soft guitar case, it's neck bent and wavering, “Had some trouble with Number One,” beams Stevie, jokingly.

The photo session was like playing a long gig. It is possibly one of my longest, but most productive. Having vamped through a few moves to warm up, I stopped shooting for a moment. Pointing towards the rack of guitars, I asked, “Is that a 1928 National?”, “1929” Stevie says with a big grin, “Does it work?” I asked challengingly. Stevie Ray Vaughan picked that National off its stand, dropped to one knee to check the tuning and went into the Mississippi Delta. A shudder went through me and it still gives me goose-pimples whenever I recall that moment. We got the "In Step" cover, then the "Pride and Joy" picture. We both knew we had the photograph, but we had much more to do that day, so we jammed on for hours.

I loved Stevie, although I only met him that once and then again briefly backstage after a show in Nashville. I felt we had a simpatico, both having brothers who play blues guitar. My brother Michael played a 1928 National Resophonic, which inspired the “In Step” photograph.

Stevie said he wanted to be legendary like Jimi and the other fallen rock legends. He is and Stevie Ray Vaughan's music still rocks my house and always will.

Steve Earle - Guitar Town, 1986

Guitar Town is a classic Nashville album. I am really pleased to have been involved with this project.

Steve Earle is one of the new legends of country music. He has endured drug rehabilitation, a jail sentence, weathered life’s storms to emerge as a cult hero. Steve is instrumental in raising public awareness against the death penalty and has effectively done some great work that has saved lives. This man rocks on stage, takes no prisoners and delivers.

Guitar Town was re-released in 2002 with extra pictures. Steve and the original band performed the whole album live at the Ryman.

James Brown - Nashville 1988

James Brown warmed up his band in one beat. I photographed him singing, "Please Please" during a performance at The Opry House for a benefit to honour the late John R, a former prestigious Nashville disk jockey who dared to play black soul and rhythm and blues before it was socially acceptable.

Willie Nelson

There is only one Willie, just as there is only one Keith. Along with Johnny Cash he is one of the cornerstones of American music.

I have photographed Willie several times. My favourite moment is when he and Kris (Kristofferson) walked into Tootsies Orchid Lounge in Nashville (1982). I just happened to be there too with my camera and lights! Willie bought us all a beer and borrowed a guitar and played, "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground".

Another memorable moment was photographing Willie on his bus smoking a joint.

Keith Richards - Memphis 1995

I was given three and a half minutes backstage during the ‘Voodoo Lounge’ tour. Within five minutes the Stones were on stage. It had been twenty-five years since I had last photographed Keith in his London office before the 1968 Hyde Park concert. Time waits for no one! We got the cover and a photo feature. It was the biggest selling issue of RayGun magazine.

Johnny Cash

I met Johnny Cash in 1977, when I first arrived in Nashville. I wanted to meet Cash because he represented country music. He was the ambassador of American music and the "Baron" of Nashville. We were introduced by his musical director (Australian born) Bill Walker during a break in a TV show taping at the Opry House. The tall man politely stretched down his long arm and extended his large hand towards me from the edge of the Opry stage and said, “Hello I'm Johnny Cash”.

We did not meet again until 1987 when I was invited to photograph him on tour in Florida. I became the next chronicler of his iconic career.

"My photographs are not about me, I am the catalyst, it is simply the picture created that counts."

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? Which of memories make you smile?

Professionally I have met many great people. Notably, John Lennon, George Harrison and my friend Johnny Cash.

Privately, seeing my nieces and nephew for the first time and watching them grow.

What is the strangest desire where request have in the shooting? Who's had the most passion for the image?

Those who are passionate about their music and art are usually the best to photograph. I approach my photography without tricks, bells or whistles. The actor, Robert Duvall was excellent to work with. We spent about one month creating pictures for his country album that unfortunately was never released. I was the art director and photographer for an indie label in Nashville, Triad Records.

I photographed William Lee Golden (Oak Ridge Boys) a lot during the 80's and country singer, Tanya Tucker. Both of those artists are passionate about the "image". Johnny Cash was more "casual" about his image, but he was uniquely, "The Man In Black". 

 

What do you miss most nowadays from the Rock n’ Roll of past? What are your hopes and fears of music?

Music will never die. I have no fear for the future or regrets for glory days gone by. I am fortunate to have been around some influential artists and musicians, "Rock and Roll will never die".

"The music can influence my mood when looking through the camera, but mostly I prefer the natural sounds of nature, the sounds of the sea greatly influenced my early life."

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you of music circuits?

Your questions made me laugh!  I am emotional about many songs I hear. My path has taken me on an emotional soundtrack lately, every song being about love and relationships. When I hear those songs I know I am not alone.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I have no power to change anything. My biggest peeve is that music is over used in documentary films drowning the dialogue.

I will make my own documentary movie my way. It is a film about the food industry. Maybe I will make a music related film too. I have shot and directed several music videos.

Which incident of Rock n’ Roll history you‘d like to be captured and shoot with your camera?

The next one.

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

I hope my catalogue of pictures, books and films will be enjoyed by my family and future generations.

"Music will never die. I have no fear for the future or regrets for glory days gone by. I am fortunate to have been around some influential artists and musicians, 'Rock and Roll will never die'."

What do you learned about yourself from the people of music industry and what are the differences between UK and USA?

I have learned that I can not speak Greek, nor can most English or Americans.

Alan Messer - official website

Photographs by © Alan Messer [www.alanmesser.com], all rights reserved

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