Iconic rock photographer on his classic ’60s imagery...

In 1965, in a story that sounds like the stuff of dreams, 18-year-old Gered Mankowitz found himself in one of the most enviable positions on Earth: the official photographer for The Rolling Stones’ record breaking American tour.

His journey up until that point had been just as remarkable. He dropped out of school at the age of 15 to apprentice for feted photographer Tom Blau of Camera Press. Two years later, in 1963, a chance meeting and impromptu photo shoot with folk rock duo Chad And Jeremy led to the cover of the duo’s first album, and it was then that Mankowitz realised both his propensity for music photography and the industry’s dearth of image-makers in what was a seminal moment in British rock history. He struck up relationships with key new wave producers including John Barry, Shel Talmy and Chris Blackwell, establishing himself as a go-to man for artists’ portraits, and by the end of ’63 had set up his own studio in London’s Mason’s Yard.

A few month’s later, the talented young photographer began working with Marianne Faithfull, capturing the attention of her manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who also managed the Stones. Oldham was struck by Mankowitz’s raw, youthful approach, and in early 1965, invited him to shoot the Stones, just as their career was starting to soar. Mankowitz would spend the next three years of his life in the company of the band, striking up close friendships with its charismatic members and shooting some of the most memorable images of the Stones’ early heyday, both on and off stage.

A number of these works feature in the Saatchi gallery’s mammoth Stones retrospective Exhibitionism - a show-stopping, interactive exploration of the band’s colourful history, complete with a recreation of their very first flat, a mock recording studio, original costumes, photographs, stage designs, posters and much more.

Here, as the show prepares to enter its final month in London before relocating to New York, Mankowitz talks us through his images from the exhibit, the heady years he spent with the band, and other highlights from his incredible 50-year career photographing some of music’s biggest names, from Hendrix to Oasis.

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You’ve got six works in the show in total, and one album artwork. Let’s start with that: the ‘Between The Buttons’ album cover and outtake. How did that shoot come about?
This was actually was taken in late ’66 but the album was ’67. The album cover image was actually lost. In those days we didn’t make duplicates of the transparencies - nobody wanted to spend that sort of money - and so when I presented the work to Andrew Oldham, he selected this one as the cover and it was cut off the strip and sent to the printers and never returned. It’s a bit of a tragedy but I have lots of outtakes and the one that made it into the show is called ‘Smiling Buttons’. All of the outtakes have something to do with buttons: ‘Behind The Buttons’, ‘Over The Buttons’... And this one hadn’t really been very widely seen until I proposed it to Taschen for the cover of their big Stones book a couple of years ago, and we completely gave it a new life. It’s become one of my favourites - just because it’s such a happy, optimistic picture of all five of them. And they look like they’re a gang of people who share something in common; I like the way that Mick’s looking straight at the camera and the others are in their own worlds but they’re all sharing some sort of joke - probably at my expense if I remember rightly.

Where were you taking this?
This was on Primrose Hill - very, very early in the morning after an all-night recording session. In those days the band used to record from 10 o’clock in the evening through until five or six the following morning. It was quite a social event, and I used to go and hang out with them and shoot the recording sessions. One morning, we sort of tumbled out of Olympic Studios in Barnes and I looked at them and I thought, ‘They look just like the Stones should’ - they looked absolutely like I’d want The Rolling Stones to look. And so I suggested to everybody that maybe we could do a photo session at the same time the next morning. I chose Primrose Hill because I thought that being high up, and being very early in the morning in November, that we might get the early light. I created a homemade filter of glass and Vaseline and black card, stuck it on the front of my Hasselblad camera, and then they gave me about 20 minutes happily and about another 20 minutes grudgingly.

So was there no inkling that this might be an album cover shoot?
Actually I think there was. In many ways it was the very first conceptual cover, because really until that moment covers were not planned. A manager or a record company would go through pictures that were on their desk and say, ‘That would make a good cover.’ I had realised that very early on and, because of that, I always tried to shoot my sessions with covers in the back of my mind - in a square format on the Hasselblad so that it was a tailor-made album sleeve shape and incorporating the space for the band’s name and the record company logo, because those were the things that guided the record company in choosing a picture. So this was definitely shot with an album cover in mind, although beyond that there was no specific concept other than my own wish to try and communicate something about the druggy, trippy general atmosphere that was pervading the world at that time, or our world at least.

And then there are the four silkscreen prints…
They were something that I did with my photographs considerably later. What happened with these particular works was that the Stones were doing the ‘Voodoo Lounge’ tour, I think, and they decided that they wanted something art related as merchandise so they asked me and my colleague David Costa whether we were able to create some silkscreen prints based on my photographs and that’s what these four are. The pictures were all taken in 1965. The middle two are from my very first session with the Stones and then the outer two are from late-’65 when they were recording the ‘Aftermath’ album in LA, at the end of a tour that I did with them.

And finally there’s a Charlie Watts portrait…Did you go and hang out at the Stones’ houses much?
Not so much. A little bit with Charlie because he lived in Sussex and my family have a house in Kent. Charlie is very interested in antiques and my father and his father dealt in antiques so Charlie would come over to our house to source quite a lot of furniture - big refectory tables and things like that - which he still has, he tells me. Keith came over to mine as well. Keith and Charlie were the two I was closest to; they felt a bit like brothers. I got on really well with Mick but I never felt wildly close to him.

Did that closeness make a difference to how you felt when you were photographing them?
I think what did make a difference was this feeling that I was completely accepted by them; that I felt that there was no sort of hierarchy. I mean, when we flew to New York, there was just the band and Andrew and me - there wasn’t any security or anything; we were just all together as a group of young people. I always felt that I was very much a part of their generation. The fact that I was younger than them seemed to work very much in my favour. I was with them for nearly three years on and off - really important years in their careers and in the way that they were evolving - so we ended up being very close, very comfortable and I think that having that element of friendship just felt like a natural extension to the working relationship.

Were you a fan of their music?
The Stones are the only band that I feel I’m even remotely close to being a fan of. I don’t think I’m sort of fan material particularly. I really enjoyed The Beatles’ music, but I didn’t care for The Beatles’ image, so the Stones’ image had a much more natural appeal to me. Their rebelliousness, the naughtiness, the individualism, that was much more interesting to me.

But you were approached to photograph them, is that correct?
Yes, I didn’t go out of my way to pursue subjects - it just didn’t seem like the way to work and I was lucky enough to be pretty busy from the moment I sort of focused on music in ’63. I think it’s very lucky.

The interesting thing is that I was one of the very first photographers to actually specialise in music at that time. David Bailey was a fashion photographer who also shot music - because he was the go-to British photographer. And Terry O’Neill was a journalistic celebrity photographer, who also photographed musicians. But I pretty much set myself up to be a music photographer. One of the reasons that there were so few was the commonly held belief that you could never earn a living as a music photographer, which was actually true [laughs]. You could never earn a living, you had to do other things but every time I tried to do something else I was always drawn back to music. I just had a real affinity for working with musicians; I seemed to be quite good at it, at bringing something out of them. I never wanted it to be about me - about me putting my stamp on pictures.

What do you think drew Andrew Oldham to your style of photography?
Andrew was an extraordinarily visionary person and incredibly important to the Stones’ history, and certainly incredibly crucial to my career. And, although I’ve never asked him, I think he felt that because of my youth - my naivety, if you like - I wasn’t going to impose anything on the Stones. He’d used Bailey to do at least one session with the band before, but I think that Bailey, being seven or eight years older than me, being much better technically and being part of a very glamorous group, almost unavoidably created a patina of glamour on what he photographed. And I think that Andrew felt that I would get a rawness that was perhaps more appropriate to the Stones and their look at the time. But he used to say to me, ‘If you don’t do well, I’m taking them back to Bailey.’ So ‘back to Bailey’ was a sort of threat!

In fact, my only regret about Exhibitionism is that ‘Out Of Our Heads’, which was the first cover that I did with the Stones, isn’t in the exhibition. For me, it was such an important turning point and in many ways it was a really important point in their image, because it’s quite a different looking picture to the previous cover, which was a Bailey cover.

Where did the ‘Out Of Our Heads’ shoot take place?
That took place in my studio, which was in Mason’s Yard, just behind Piccadilly. There was an alleyway that went underneath my studio to Ormond Yard so I did a lot of pictures in both. And that particular shot of the Stones was done in Ormond Yard.

When you first started shooting them, did you fully realise what a significant time it was?
It was clearly incredibly important for me because they were already the second biggest British band. They hadn’t had ‘Satisfaction’ yet, when I first started working with them, but they’d had ‘The Last Time’ and a couple of other big singles. They’d had a real impact on the scene and there had been the scandal with the pissing in the forecourt - which is why I did that caged picture on which the silkscreen was based! Because The Daily Mirror had said, ‘The Stones are animals who should be caged up.’ So they were clearly a very important band, and they were the most important band that I’d shot. And Andrew was this incredibly happening manager with enormous energy and seemed to embody everything about the new wave of the music scene. So I knew this was really important - I knew I couldn’t screw this up! They couldn’t go back to Bailey.

Did you have a youthful arrogance or complacency?
I don’t think I was complacent and I’m not sure whether I was arrogant but I was precocious. I don’t remember feeling in awe of almost anyone. I felt pretty confident although I honestly didn’t really know what I was doing at first - I believed that you could just do it. I understood the basics of photography of course: I was processing my film, I was printing my pictures; I was doing it. But I just didn’t have the experience or the sophistication of some other people. But I loved showbiz and the music scene just seemed to me to be the most perfect arena for me to play in. It was showbiz; it was young people; it was great music; full of energy. It seemed just like a fantastic place to be in!

When did you first photograph Jimi Hendrix?
That was ’67 but I met him in ’66 through Chas Chandler. He and I were friends and he’d been contemplating going into management for a while because The Animals, the band he was in, was falling apart and he discovered Jimi and brought him over. So I met Jimi then but we never actually did our photo-shoot until ’67 and then I did two sessions, one after the other, about five or six weeks apart.

Why so close together?Did you do any colour shots for the second shoot?
No [laughs]!

Which is your favourite from those two shoots?
The first shoot is the better shoot. Looking backwards, it was a wonderful time to have worked with Jimi. He emerged at the end of ’66 having been a sideman to lots of different people. He’d had to endure the rigours of the Chitlin’ Circuit - playing the Café Noir and a couple of other places in New York. Everybody who saw him was knocked out, but nobody was doing anything for him; he was going nowhere fast. So when he came over to London and everything started, he was so excited - so terribly positive and optimistic. It was just a fantastic time to be with him because now, looking back, you realise that this was probably the high point emotionally for him because it started to slide very quickly after that - into creative frustration and so on. But that whole time, the whole of ’67, he was just loving everything about it. He was going to play Hastings Pier the day I photographed him; his roadie came to pick him up at half past four. It was a big gig in those days.

Did people tend to turn up for their shoots alone back then?
Yes, the roadie just dropped Jimi off at the door - ‘I’ll be back at 4.’ Andrew used to be around during the Stones sessions because he was very much part of that process but he never really got in the way. He was always trying to help. There were some managements who tried to impose something and they always created a barrier between me and the subject, and usually that didn’t work. I always felt that what you needed to do was have a meeting beforehand and if possible a meal, because there’s a lot that happens when you’re all eating together. I used to feed people at my studio, because musicians would always be hungry and if you had a morning session that started at 12:30, they’d all just rolled out of bed starving so I used to feed them. That used to be a great opportunity to break the ice and just chill and relax a little bit and I could look at them and get a sense of what I wanted to shoot.

I also wanted to ask about the picture of Oasis you shot for Mojo. That was a revisiting of the ‘Between The Buttons’ shoot, wasn’t it?
Yes - I thought that they were a tribute band! Mojo said to me, ‘We want to put Oasis on the cover,’ and I said, ‘Well they’re a Stones tribute band aren’t they?’ And they said, ‘Well not exactly.’ I said, ‘Well why don’t I do a pastiche of the ‘Buttons’ shoot anyway?’ And they went, ‘Ah great!’ So that’s what I did.

Did Oasis realise that you’d done that?
Not really. They were so horrible to me! They came around though. They liked what I did. But they were awful for a minute - I thought the whole thing was going to fall apart. It was a nightmare! The brothers had been at each other and weren’t talking and Liam was literally kicking everything - chairs, tables, doors, the wall; just kicking! And they were quite established - it was 1996. They had a fantastic tour manager who I’d known, who’d been Gary Moore’s tour manager. He was an ex-SAS parachutist - a gentle giant who could look at you and you’d go, ‘OK.’ [Mock cowers]. So I said to him, ‘Look you gotta do something about this because I’m not gong to get anything with these guys,’ and he took them to one side and said, ‘Either we go now or we have the cover of Mojo.’ And he sort of slapped them a little bit and they came around and we got a really good session!

Finally, I read that Peter Sellers introduced you to photography…
He did. Well, he didn’t introduce me to photography as such. He was a business associate of my father’s and he came to Sunday lunch at the family house when I was about 12. He’d just finished making Tom Thumb with Terry Thomas and he was a fanatical, obsessive amateur photographer. He arrived with a full Hasselblad kit and he had a big Polaroid land camera - the sort where you pull the front down to reveal the lens - and he did a photograph of me with apparently my brother in the palm of my hand à la Tom Thumb and I was just blown away by that. And then he showed me the Hasselblad and he did a Goon Show voice, and I just loved The Goons, so I was weeping with laughter as he showed me how this incredible machine, this Hasselblad 507, worked. When he left I said to my dad, ‘I want a Hasselblad and I want to be a photographer.’ [Laughs] And that was that.

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The limited edition photography book, Backstage: The Rolling Stones by Gered Mankowitz, published by Ormond Yard Press, is available here. For more info on Gered, check out his own site.

Exhibitionism – The Rolling Stones runs at London’s Saatchi Gallery until September 4th. Tickets at stonesexhibitionism.com

Words: Daisy Woodward

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