Interview with Paul Natkin

Paul Natkin is a world renowned music photographer who has been working in the industry for decades.  

Over the course of his career, Paul Natkin has toured with and photographed some of the biggest names in music. He sat down with Loud Hailer to discuss his career as a music photographer, from the first shots using his father’s equipment to touring with the Rolling Stones and photographing Buddy Guy, Prince and Bruce Springsteen amongst many others. If you’re a music fan this is a great story and its a lengthy one. So make sure you’re coffee is hot or your beer is cold and find a comfortable spot to spend some time with Paul’s story.


LH: Let’s start right at the beginning. Growing up as a kid, pre-photography time, were you interested in music?
Paul: I was interested in music, I was interested in going to concerts. There’s a place in Chicago called the Aragon Ballroom that used to have five bands for $5 every Friday night. And it wasn’t local bands. There was one night where I saw The Who and Led Zeppelin and three other bands for $5. There were three local bands and then two real bands and I used to go every Friday night, no matter who was there. And I’d just go as a fan and hang out. I used to be really into folk music. Steve Goodman, John Prine, people like that… They’re all Chicago guys and they played every weekend at various clubs around Chicago and as soon as I was old enough to get into the clubs I would go and see them. I never thought I’d get to the point where I would meet them or go to the shows for free, anything like that. I just loved music.

LH: A lot of musicians I’ve spoken to have mentioned there being a particular light up moment or a particular album or seeing a particular band. Did you have anything like that?
Paul: No, they were just all good.

LH: Did you ever play an instrument? Did you have any desire to be in a band?
Paul: No, never, never. I can’t sing. I don’t know how to play anything. But you know, I love going to concerts. It’s fun.

LH: So at the beginning, your dad was a photographer?
Paul: He was a photographer, but he quit photography when I was born and he went into the building business and all the time I was growing up as a builder he had this dark room in the basement that was never used for anything. And then in 1970 he kinda went bankrupt in the building business, not officially bankrupt, but nobody was building houses as it was the Vietnam War and a recession and all that. So he picked up his cameras again and he started shooting just out on the street. He started going out on the street and one day he called an old friend of his, who was a publicist in town for the Chicago Bulls basketball team and he said, “do you have any work,” because my mother was supporting the family, he was just messing around. So the guy said, “Well, if you come to the Bulls Games and take pictures, if we like them, we’ll buy them from you.” I was living at home, I was 19 years old. I had no idea what I want to do with my life and he went to a Bulls game and he came home and he told me there were four things that happened. Number one, you get free parking right next to the stadium. Number two, you get in free. Number three, you get a free hot meal up in the press box before the game. And number four, you get the best seats in the house because you were right down on the court, underneath the basket. So, I just looked at him and said, okay, I want to be a photographer, take me to the next game.

So he arranged for a pass and sure enough we park for free. We go inside, we get the free meal and then we’re standing right next to these seven-foot tall guys. And I had no idea how to hold a camera. He had to put the film in, he had to show me how to set the exposure.

LH: So you were just using his gear?
Paul: I was using his stuff. So he showed me you pushed this button and then you turn this crank and when it won’t turn on anymore, let me know and I’ll change the film for you. And I shot some pictures and some of them came out pretty good. So I started going to Bulls games with him and pretty soon he got tired of it. But I still enjoyed it. And I was started getting pretty good at sports photography because there are certain moments. There’s this thing in photography called “the decisive moment.” If a guy’s taking a jump shot, the moment is when is at the highest part of the jump and the ball has just left his hand. The ball can’t be five feet away. It’s got to be right at his hand. If the guy’s dribbling, the ball has got to be right by his hand. If the balls is at the ground, it just looks stupid.

So I started taking pretty good sports pictures and I met all these other photographers, they were sports guys and they would get me into Bears games, Cubs games and Sox games and tennis matches. And I was having a good old time. I was working in a photo lab during the day and then I was going to all these sporting events, which was pretty cool. Almost as cool as going to concerts. So I went to a tennis match in Evanston, up on the Northwestern campus one day. And I shot it. It was over at 6:00pm in the evening, it’s an outdoor thing, and I went back to my car, which was parked in a parking lot down the street and I put all my stuff in the trunk and turned on the engine and the radio was on. WXRT in those days was only on for two hours a day – 6:00-8:00pm each night. And they had an ad for this concert that was taking place that night. This is not an exaggeration, it was 10 feet away from where my car was parked. I was sitting in my car looking at the building that the concert was taken place. The artist was this unknown singer, songwriter, guitar player by the name of Bonnie Raitt. And I had heard of her, kind of. She was just getting started. And it was right there. So I shut off the engine – it was starting in about an hour – shut off the engine, went I got my stuff and I made up this huge lie – “I’m shooting for Rolling Stone. I’m supposed to have a pass waiting for me at the door.” And I took all the cameras out of the bag and I hung them over my shoulder to try to look like I was important and I walked up to the backstage door and I opened the door and I went inside and there was a guy sitting at a desk. And before I could tell him my giant lie, he just said, “Oh, you’re with the press. Go in and do anything you want, just don’t get up on stage.” And there I was, the first concert I ever shot was Bonnie Raitt and I was right in front of the stage and I still sell those pictures occasionally. You know, they weren’t bad. They weren’t good but they weren’t bad. So that got me hooked, like here I’ve been going to concerts all my life, now I can figure out a way to get in for free.

EVANSTON, IL – MAY 11: Bonnie Raitt at Cahn Auditorium on May 11, 1976 in Evanston, Illinois. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

There was this little venue near my house. it was on Clark and Wellington, called the Ivanhoe Theater. It’s now a Binny’s liquor store. It held 500 people and they had some pretty good acts there. It was run by Jam Productions. I had no idea who Jam Productions was. I had no idea what the whole business was all about, but I went in one day and I snuck in the back door and I took some pictures. I can’t remember who the band was but it was kind of fun. So, the next day I decided I’m going to go back there and I’m going to try to meet the guy who was the security guy at the backstage door. I told him what I was trying to do (build my career in the music business). And he’s still my friend to this day. He worked for Jam. His name was Scott Gelman. And he went and got the manager of the theater and they got me this badge that said that I was a staff member, which meant that I could just walk in the door anytime I wanted to, and nobody said first three songs, nobody said you have to sign anything. You just went in and shoot pictures and you leave. And that’s it. And I did that for three years and I made a deal with Jam that I would give them pictures in return for them giving me this access. Soon they’re giving me access to the Riviera, the Uptown, the Aragon. And I was shooting all this stuff and nobody ever stopped me.

I was just that guy that was always hanging around. I got to be friends with all of the security guys, and, I’m kinda, sorta likable. So we got along great and I would bring them prints and when they finally started the period where they started telling me we had to leave after three songs, these guys would turn to me after the guy left and say “When everybody else leaves, you just come back in and do whatever.” And that’s how I got my start. I would shoot everybody, that came through town. The Ivanhoe had Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the list is huge, huge acts. They weren’t huge in those days – they became huge.

And then I started shooting at the Aragon and the Riviera and the Uptown. The Uptown is right on the corner of Lawrence and Broadway on the northwest corner. It’s a giant theater. It was the second biggest movie theater in the United States and it closed in 1984. But in those days I shot three nights of Springsteen there. I shot three nights of the Grateful Dead there. I shot Rod Stewart. The last show ever at the Uptown was The J. Geils Band, December of 1984. And they’re remodeling it and reopening it soon, hopefully. But as Jam got bigger, all of a sudden they were doing shows at Soldier Field and they’d say, “Well, you know, just come over and we’ll get you a pass. You can do whatever you want.” 

LH: And then was it all freelance?
Paul: It wasn’t even freelance because I have no idea what to do with the pictures. I was just buying film, going home using my father’s dark room to develop it. I started working for the Reader every once in a while and they’d paid about $40 a shot. And that’s the first publication that I worked for. There’s a newspaper called the Illinois Entertainer. They’d paid $10 a shot. And then one day I was at Park West, can’t remember who the act was. I was standing in the lobby and this woman that I knew said, “Hey, I want you to meet somebody.” And she introduced me to this guy who was the photo editor of Creem magazine. I don’t know why he was in town. His name was Charlie Auringer. And I said, “Well, how can I get my pictures in your magazine” because Creem magazine was the ultimate. He said, “Well, tell you what, call me the 15th of every month (he gave me a card). Call me the 15th of every month, I’ll give you a list of who we’re doing articles on and if you have any pictures of them, submit them like everybody else and if we use them we’ll pay you.”

So the 15th of the month came along. I called him, didn’t return my call. Called him seven days in a row, didn’t return my call. So I gave up. The next 15th, a month later, tried it again like seven times in a row. No returning of the call. And I didn’t give up. The following month, he must’ve gotten really sick of getting the messages from me because he called me back and he gave me a list and I had three people on the list, and one of them was Rick Derringer, and they used one of my pictures, full page color in the magazine. And I’m thinking, “Man, I’m rich now! This is the greatest thing in the world. I’m going to be a millionaire doing this.” And about a week later I got a check for $35. So I figured I had to find a lot of magazines.

So meanwhile my friend Marilyn Laverty from Shore Fire Media was the publicist for a woman, she was a girl, she was 17 years old, her name was Rachel Sweet. She was great. She was like Brittany Spears before Brittany Spears. And she was on an English label. She was from Akron, Ohio. She was playing out in the suburbs and Rolling Stone was writing an article about her and they called Marilyn and said, “Do you know anybody who’s a photographer in Chicago?” And Marilyn recommended me. And I got my first picture in Rolling Stone. And so now I got Creem and Rolling Stone. Then I went and picked up a copy of Circus and a copy of Hit Parader and I looked up in the magazine who the photo editors were and I called them up and same thing, “We’ll give you a list the middle of the month.”

Meanwhile, I’m shooting every band on the planet and it’s the early eighties and hair metal’s starting to be big and I’m shooting Judas Priest and I’m shooting Van Halen and Circus and Hit Parader are using pictures every month. I was getting something like four pictures a month in Creem, Circus, Hit Parader, and I started working with 16 magazine and Seventeen magazine. I started shooting all the teeny boppers. I realized you had to shoot everybody. So I would shoot Shaun Cassidy and David Cassidy and the Bee Gees and, and I made friends with all the promoters. So when Poplar Creek – that was a venue that was out in Hoffman Estates. It’s what Tinley Park is now. And I made friends with the people that ran it. They gave me a pass for the entire season and everybody played there. Including Genesis when they were huge.

LH: So you’re shooting David Cassidy one night and Judas Priest the next?
Paul: Yeah, exactly, exactly. It didn’t matter who they were. I was shooting David Cassidy one night, Judas Priest the next night, Rodney Dangerfield the next night because I would just go to Park West whenever anybody was playing there. It didn’t matter who they were, I just shot pictures of them. And if you look at my list of people, it’s over 4,500 names at this point, and it’s every kind of music, comedians, actors, you name it.

So meanwhile, I’m shooting all these bands, I’m getting pictures in magazines and publicists are starting to think “This guy is pretty cool. He’s got access to the magazines so we should give him access to our bands.”

In the early eighties, I went to the Uptown Theater to photograph this guy named Rick James. And the opening act was this little guy who called himself Prince. There were about 10 photographers there that night. All of them hung out in the lobby while Prince was playing. I was the only one that went in and shot pictures of him, not because I thought he was great or anything, but just because there was another guy on stage, I’m going to get pictures of him. So I shot him that night, I shot him at Park West six months later. I shot him at the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place about a year later. And then in 1983, he played at the Auditorium Theater and I got a call from his publicist and she said, “Prince’s manager wants you to come down and shoot tonight.”

So I went down there expecting the shoot three songs and that’s when I still would allow myself to be told that I could only shoot three songs. And there was a note with my pass saying, “Come backstage” and this guy from Los Angeles, Steve Fargnoli, hands me a pass and says “Here, you can shoot the whole show and do whatever you want.” So I shot. I stood right in front of Prince for the whole show. And those pictures went everywhere. That was right when he went from a club act to a stadium act. This was 1982.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – NOVEMBER 4: Prince performs at his birthday party at First Avenue on June 7, 1984 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Wire Image)

So, 1984 was the big year. That’s when my career exploded. In June 1984, I get a call from Prince’s publicist who says, “Do you want to go up to Minneapolis and shoot Prince’s birthday party?” It was at First Avenue, which is where Purple Rain, the movie was shot. It was the week before Purple Rain came out, the movie and the album. So I figured if she was calling me she was calling 100 photographers. There’s going to be a scrum of photographers in front of the stage. He was going to perform for two hours. So I figured, in those days you could get a round trip plane ticket to Minneapolis for 90 bucks. I figured even if there’s 100 photographers I can make back 90 bucks, it’s worth my while to take a chance. So I fly up to Minneapolis, get in a cab, and go to the club. There’s a guy in the front with a list and I say, “I’m on the photographers list.” The list is like a book, and he goes to the last page and there at the top it says “photographer,” photographer singular, and there’s one name on the list, and it was me. I stood right in front of Prince for two hours. At one point, he was kneeling right in front of me and sticking the neck of his guitar into the the lens of my camera. And I walked out of there with some great pictures and he went into seclusion after that until Thanksgiving. The movie came out and went to number one. The record came out and it went to number one, and was number one the whole summer and I was the only person in the world that had pictures of him with his new band from the movie wearing all the costumes from the movie. Looking like they did in the movie and without exaggeration, I made $50,000 off those pictures over the next year and I still sell pictures from that, like crazy.

LH: But it’s not luck, right? I mean that’s just hard work getting you the chance to be there.
Paul: It was being in the right place at the right time and I have no idea why they picked me. I have no idea why they picked me in 1982 to go and shoot. I’d never met the manager. No idea who he was. When I walked backstage in 1982, I had no idea who I was going to see.

LH: Did you actually meet Prince?
Paul: No, never met him. Never had any interest in meeting him. I shot him a couple more times after that. Then it was kind of over. But one of the things that I did when I got back from Minneapolis, was I sent a bunch of pictures to Rolling Stone and they used one full page, and there’s a couple more with the article.

And so I get a call the following week from Marilyn Laverty (Shore Fire Media) who said, “Hey, I was up at Rolling Stone and I saw your pictures of Prince and they were really good. Would you like to come up to Minneapolis and shoot the opening dates of the Springsteen Born in the USA tour? He is playing three nights at the St Paul Civic Center.” This was one week later. So I went back up there. She said, “Come up a day early.” So I got up a day early. I got there in the morning, I called her in her room at the hotel and she said, “Meet me in the lobby in a half an hour.” And I grabbed my bag and meet her in the lobby, we go to the St Paul Civic Center. And Bruce was shooting the first video he ever did for that song, “Dancing in the Dark” and she said, “Go for it. Just shoot whatever you want.”

Brian De Palma was the director, the girl he was dancing with onstage is Courtney Cox, and I had total access. I just shot whatever I wanted the whole day. And then I shot three full shows of Bruce in the St Paul Civic Center the next three nights, then came back to Chicago. Two days later, he played two nights at Alpine Valley, I shot both of those from start to finish. And then two nights later he played three nights at the Rosemont Horizon, which is now the Allstate Arena. and I shot all three of those. So I shot three, two and three – eight shows in a week and a half plus the video shoot. And had this massive amount of really amazing photographs. So I sent those to Rolling Stone and they ran those. And I started getting magazine covers – Creem and European magazine covers everywhere of Prince and Springsteen.

A week after that I get a call from Rolling Stone and they say, “We really like your work, you’re doing a really great job for us this month. Can you go down to Kansas City and shoot the opening of the Jackson’s Victory tour?” which was two nights at Arrowhead Stadium. So I went down there and shot two shows from start to finish. Amazing access, you know, because it was Rolling Stone. 

That was a one month period and at that point I became known as being not just a guy from Chicago, but as a nationally known concert photographer. So I started getting some pretty good gigs. Creem started hiring me to shoot covers. I’d shot a couple beforehand, but I shot about 20 covers over the course of the next five years for them. Mostly posed shots. The year after that month, this was July of 1985, I got a call from Newsweek and they asked me to send them my best Springsteen stuff because they were going to do a big article about him. So I send them a lot of stuff. Back in the old film days, you had to send them the original film, you had to send them sheets of slides. And you had to write forms with it because if they lost them, they’re gone forever. So you had to write a contract with them saying, “If you lose these, you owe me a ton of money.” So I send them pages – a page of slides holds 20 slides – I send them a pile of slide pages about an inch and a half thick. It’s probably 200 pictures because they were doing a big article! The following Sunday I get a call from somebody from Newsweek. They were at the printing plant and they were getting ready to print the next week’s issue. And they said, “This afternoon, we’re making a decision between three possible cover shots. And two out of the three are yours. So if we choose one of yours, how do you want the photo credit to read?” Think about that for a second. Rolling Stone is one thing, Newsweek and Time are like the gold standard.

So I told them and the next day they called me and said, “Okay, you got the cover of Newsweek” (one of the pictures from Alpine Valley from the year before). So that definitely established me as a nationally known photographer. 

My neighbor at the time was the music critic of the Chicago Sun Times. I was taking out the garbage that night and he was out on his porch and I said, “Hey, guess what? I got the cover of Newsweek.” And he said, “Oh, we got to write an article about that.” So they got an advanced copy of Newsweek and they sent a photographer over to my house and they took a picture of me holding up the Newsweek and they wrote a little article about it. Came out in the paper the day that Newsweek came out.

That day I got a call. There was a talk show on Channel Seven, a local talk show called AM Chicago, and the host was this woman name Oprah Winfrey, and they said, “We’re doing this show called Brushes with Bruce and it was going to be on live in the morning that he was playing at Soldier Field on the Born in the USA tour. So we want you to be on the show as a guest.” So okay, new experience. What the heck. So I go down there and it was the dumbest thing I’ve ever been a part of my life. They had a woman on there who had worked in the catering department at the Rosemont Horizon and she had cleaned the dirty spaghetti off Bruce’s plate when he played there the year before.

LH: And that was a guest?
Paul: That was a guest. That was a Brush with Bruce. Oprah wasn’t even there. There was a guest host because she was filming The Color Purple at the time. I didn’t even know who she was. I had no idea. I didn’t watch morning television. In that entire hour of the show, I didn’t say a single word, I just sat there like an idiot on stage. I never said a word because there’s really nothing to say. I was just the guy who shot the picture on the cover of Newsweek.

LH: But they’d rather speak to the woman who scraped spaghetti off his plate?
Paul: Yeah. So as I was leaving, somebody handed me a business card and said, “Hey, give me your card. We might need you at some point.” I didn’t know who she was, and I had no idea that she was going to become a national icon. So, I gave them a card and I walked out of there, I figure I’m never going to see these people again and just went on with my life.

This was ’85. In ’86, I was out at Poplar Creek, out in Hoffman Estates shooting a Robin Williams concert in the middle of summer and this woman came up to me backstage and said, “Hey, our show is going to go national in September. Do you know anybody that might want to be the photographer for the show?” So she handed me a card, which I put in my pocket, got home and took out the card. It said the Oprah Winfrey Show. So I started making phone calls. This was before you could go online. So Phil Donahue at one point was the only talk show host in America and his show was shot at WGN, which is right down the block. And I used to go over there. Every once in a while they call me up and say, “Hey, Dolly Parton is going to be on, the Bee Gees are going to be on. Do you want to come and shoot pictures just to say, hey, come and hang.” So I figured if she’s going to compete with Phil Donahue, she’s going to have celebrities on our show. So if I could work out a business deal with her, where I would own all the pictures, it would be worth doing. I had no idea who the host was, who this Oprah Winfrey woman was, but you know, I figured I could maybe make some money off of pictures of stars. 

So I had a meeting with them and we decided I was going to be the photographer and they’d pay me a little bit each show, pay all my expenses, parking and film and processing and I would own the copyright and they would own the publicity rights. They could use the pictures for publicity. That September I started working at the Oprah Winfrey Show and in the first year she had Eddie Murphy, Burt Reynolds, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Taylor and Jimmy Carter on the show!! I mean it was like every celebrity.

LH: How often was that going out? Every weekday?

Paul: They were shooting live in Chicago Monday through Friday at 9:00 in the morning. And they would tape it and then they would show it around the country in all these other markets at 4:00 in the afternoon. So it was everyday. I wasn’t down there every day. I was down there whenever they had a show that was publicizable, but all the celebrity shows. And I slowly started amassing these pictures of not only A list celebrities, but also people who I had barely heard of.  I just scanned a bunch of pictures of Catherine Oxenberg. She was a princess of Luxembourg who was on that show Dynasty

NEW YORK SEPTEMBER 22: Keith Richards in September 22, 1987 in New York, NY. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

So I’m doing that for awhile and 1988 rolls around and I was getting pretty bored with the Oprah thing. It was not all as much fun as it might seem to be. And my next door neighbor, that Sun Times guy, calls me up and this is where the story gets really interesting. He called me up and said, “Hey, I’m going to New York tomorrow to interview Keith Richards and the Sun Times is too cheap to send a photographer. So if you want to pay your own way, get a plane ticket, sleep on the floor in my hotel room and come with me and shoot pictures.” 

So I went with him and I met Keith for the first time and I took the pictures and then as I was packing up my stuff, Don was doing his interview and at one point he said to Keith, “Are you going to go out on tour?” Because that’s when the first X-Pensive Winos album was coming out. For a Stones guy to go out on a solo tour was kind of blasphemy, in a way. Keith used to ridicule Mick all the time for doing solo albums and Keith said, “Yeah, we’ve got a pretty good band. We’re going to go on tour.”

LH: That was with Waddy Wachtel and those guys?
Paul: Yeah, Waddy Wachtel, Steve Jordan, Charley Drayton, Ivan Neville and Sarah Dash from LaBelle. So I just filed it away in the back of my head and I got home and I made a couple prints, 8×10 black and white prints, put them in an envelope and wrote a note to Keith’s manager and said “Hey, I heard you guys are going out on the road. if you need a photographer, let me know.” Never expecting to ever hear from her. And I just walked to the corner and throw it in the mailbox. Didn’t even send it registered mail or anything, just throw it in the mailbox put “do not bend” sticker on it.

So 1988, it’s the day before Thanksgiving and I got a call from Keith’s manager saying, “What are you doing tomorrow?” And I said, “Well, I was going to go to Thanksgiving dinner at my mother’s house.” And he said, “Well, no, you’ve got to come to Memphis. Here’s the hotel information. Check into the hotel and call me.” And I called him and he said, “Be on the bus at 2:00pm, we’re going to the gig” and I was on the road with Keith Richards for three weeks until Christmas. His birthday was December 19th, and that was the last day of the tour at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. 

So I come home and there’s three weeks worth of mail in my front entranceway and one of the things in the mail was the latest issue of Rolling Stone and there was a little article in Random Notes that the Stones were getting back together and doing an album and they were going to go out on tour in ’89 and it was going to be a really big stadium tour. So I wrote the same note, “Hey, heard you guys are going out on the road and if you need a photographer let me know.” 

So 1989 comes along, it’s August and my friend Don, the Sun Times guy, was going to Philadelphia to go and interview all the members of the Stones and they were rehearsing at the Veterans Stadium. So the publicist, who was a friend of both of ours said, “Why don’t you come along and shoot whatever you want during the rehearsals?” So I’m walking around an empty football stadium, listening to the Rolling Stones, playing a concert for me and I’m walking up on stage and shooting. I’m doing whatever I want and I’m looking around like, what the Hell’s going on here? How did I end up being here?

The tour starts and no phone call. A month later, I get a call asking me what I was doing the next day. I said, “I guess I am joining your tour!!” My instructions were – fly to Boston, take a cab to the Ritz Carlton and see a guy named Spin in room 2304.

So I go up to the room and I knock on the door and there’s this guy standing there and I said, “Hey, I was told to bring my luggage here” and he gives me a couple of luggage tags and takes my luggage and he says “Wait down in the lobby and the band will be leaving at 2:00pm.” So I go down in the lobby with my camera bag and at 2:00pm the elevator opens up and the Rolling Stones get out and I’m getting in the same van as they are and we’re going to Foxborough Massachusetts, which is where the Patriots play. And I shot my first Stones show from onstage.

LH: Was that the Steel Wheels tour?
Paul: Yes, the Steel Wheels tour. So they told me they wanted me to do a month and I had promised Oprah that I would be back for sweeps. There’s a thing in television called sweeps. There are three months during the TV season where, they do their biggest shows because that’s how they figure their audience for advertisers to pay for advertising. So February, May and November are the three sweeps months. That’s why you’ll see all the biggest shows on television those three months. So my month with the Stones was going to end about November 3rd and I had promised Oprah I’d be there for sweeps. She was doing a week in New York and a week in LA. By some miracle my month with the Stones was up in New York and Oprah was starting her week in New York the next day. So I’m at the Ritz Carlton with the Stones and we’re playing four nights at Shea Stadium. The second day I get a call from the publicist on the tour and she says, “Hey, can you come up to my room?” So I go up to her room and she’s there and the two managers are there and I’m thinking, “Man, I must have done something bad. I’m in trouble now.” And they said, “Well, sit down.” And I sat down and they said, “Well, we got to tell you, everybody in the band really likes you. We really like your work. You’re doing a really great job. Can you stay for the rest of the tour for the next two and a half months?”

And I turned them down. I never thought I would ever do that in my life. But I said, “I promised Oprah Winfrey that I would do these two weeks with her. I can’t go back on my promise because if I did that to you, you would hate me for it.” They really respected me for that. So they said, “Okay, go and do the two weeks with her and then we’ll figure out how to get you to wherever we are after that. And then you’ll do the rest of the tour.” So after the fourth Shea Stadium show, went back to the Ritz, went to sleep, got up in the morning, packed everything up, walked down 57th street from the Ritz to the Plaza and checked into the Plaza and worked with Oprah for a week, got on a plane, went to LA, did a week in LA, and then I joined the Stones wherever they were, and then the rest of that tour, which is, pretty jet-setter like. 

LH: That’s awesome!
Paul: So at that point, I could write my own ticket. Everybody knew me as a Stones photographer.

LH: Were you working for record companies as well at this point?
Paul: I was shooting publicity shots for record companies. I was doing things like Epic Records hired me to go down to Miami and shoot two nights of Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. They were shooting a live VHS, and I shot the cover of the VHS tape of their live concert. Some band would come to town and I get a call from the publicist saying, “Can we send them over to your house and we’ll pay $1,000, do a photo shoot with them from publicity shots.”

I was doing one of those a month, but also, publicists were calling me and saying, “You got to shoot our band because you’re going to get them into magazines. We’ll send them over to your house.” So these bands were showing up at my house. I was doing photo shoots for like 20 minutes, and then they would go back to their hotel. And I still have all those pictures. I’m running across them as I’m going through these files.

LH: And probably some bands that no one’s ever heard of.
Paul: Most of them nobody’s ever heard of before. But they are good shots. And then I would go out and shoot bands, I’d shoot concerts. I’d set up photo shoots in hotel rooms, in the lobby of a hotel, wherever, depending on how many people were in the band. And I did that for quite a while.

So,1994. I did another tour with the Stones. I did a month on the Voodoo Lounge tour, that was a lot of fun.

LH: They had to be fun, just seeing behind the scenes.
Paul: Yeah, it was, it was. It was really great seeing the celebrities that showed up. There was a night in LA where Keith [Richards] and I were playing pool against Eric Clapton and David Bowie. You have to look around like there’s something really weird going on. 

The same night Jack Nicholson comes up, puts his arm around my shoulder and says, “I’m going to hang out with you. You’re the guy with the camera.” You know, I mean, it’s stuff like that. I’ve got a picture of Meryl Streep, Barbra Streisand and Michael Douglas with Mick Jagger and was like that almost every night, there was something like that happening. There was one night in New York where I walked in backstage and there was a guy sitting there on the couch eating a sandwich and somebody came up to me and points to him and says “He doesn’t want anybody taking pictures of him.” And I looked at him like, “It’s okay. I don’t even know who he is.” And it was John F Kennedy, Jr. I didn’t even recognize him. 

And this is where the whole story starts going bad. ’95….. There was a guy who was my idol, still is my idol. His name was Jim Marshall, greatest music photographer ever. And he calls me up. He was in town, staying at the Ritz Carlton. I don’t know why he was in town, but he said, “Let’s go out to lunch.” So we went out to Gene and Georgetti. It’s Saturday afternoon, there’s nobody in the place except for us and it’s him and a friend of his and me and we’re sitting there eating lunch and he orders three bottles of wine and I don’t drink so he drinks them all and we were talking and at some point he says to me, “Do you do that first three songs thing?” And I said, I started hemming and hawing like, “Well, you know, we kind of have to. That’s what the business is all about. You have to follow the rules.”

And I remember we’re the only people in this restaurant. It’s really quiet. And he looks at me and he yells across the table, “You know what? You’re a f***ing moron!” And I looked at him, I said, “Excuse me?” And he says, “When you allow people to tell you how much you could shoot and where you could choose from, it’s not your photo anymore, it’s their photo.” And at that point you shouldn’t even bother doing it. So I just filed that away in my brain and we finished the meal and I drove him back to his hotel and I went home. I’m sitting on the couch watching a football game and I’m thinking to myself, “You know, he’s right.” He really has a point there. Yeah. And I made this decision, lying on the couch that day that I wasn’t going to do it anymore unless I can do it right.

So, what I used to do is every Monday I would pick up the Reader from the Friday before and I’d see who was coming to town the next week and I’d start calling all the publicists. Then they would always give me whatever access I wanted because I was the Stones’ photographer. “But you can only shoot three songs. We will give you a little photo shoot before the show, if you want. But three songs, and you have to leave.”

So I would call all the publicists the following Monday. And I started saying, “Well things have to change.” I said, “I really want to shoot your band, but I need to shoot the whole show.” And over the course of the next three to four months, I lost 95% of my business and it never came back.

LH: I know we’ve spoken about it before, but it doesn’t make sense. Where did it come from in the first place, where you can only shoot the first three songs?
Paul: Well, there are numerous thoughts about that. The one that I found that I use as a quote – Springsteen played at Madison Square Garden right when he got really big and there were like 100 photographers in the pit and they’re all these paparazzi guys and they’re all using flashes. And he walked off stage at intermission and went up to his road manager and said, “There’s so many flashes going off that I can’t concentrate on singing. Yeah, what can we do about this?” And there were two things that they could have done. One, they could have banned flashes, or they could have kicked everybody out after three songs. And that changed the whole business because they picked the wrong one. It would’ve been really easy just to say, “No, you can’t use a flash” and that never would have happened.

LH: Now, when I see concert photographers, 95% of them aren’t using a flash anyway.
Paul: Yeah, exactly. If you’re a real photographer, you don’t have to use a flash.

LH: Just everyone in the audience using them.
Paul: Exactly. So, I lost all my business and it never came back. And meanwhile, I stopped working for Oprah and I used to shoot 250 to 300 bands a year. Not an exaggeration. I would shoot five nights a week, 52 weeks a year. This year so far, other than shooting Buddy Guy the whole month of January, I’ve shot four shows, total. Four shows the entire year.

LH: The Buddy thing is worth talking about. How you did that come around?
Paul: I don’t even know how I met him. I kind of know how I met him. In 1978 I did a lot of work with this band you might’ve heard of, called Journey when they were the bIggest band in the world and they used to call me when they came to town and I just hang out with them for like a week and they were playing three nights at the Rosemont Horizon, Allstate Arena, whatever it was called in those days. And some video crew came to town and they decided they were going to do a documentary on Journey, but what they were going to do is they’re going to have every guy in the band pick one of his dreams, like his bucket list. One of the things they really wanted to do more than anything and they would make that happen and then film it. And Neal Schon came from a whole blues background he decided he wanted to play guitar with Buddy Guy. That was his goal.

CHICAGO, IL – MAY 25: Buddy Guy at Biddy Mulligans on May 25, 1980 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Paul Natkin/WireImage)

So, Journey rented out a blues club on the north side of Chicago, it doesn’t exist anymore, it was Biddy Mulligans, and they paid Buddy and Junior Wells and their band to come and play and Neal sat in with them and they shot the thing. It was a funky blues club but it was really well lit because there was all these video lights everywhere and I had total access because I was with Neal. I was Neal’s photographer. I was always a blues fan so in between, like everybody’s just sitting around, so I went over and introduced myself to Buddy. He’s a really nice guy and I said, “Hey, next time you play in town I’m going to come and shoot pictures of you.” And I did and I kind of made my way backstage and met him and we got to be friends. And now it’s 30 years later.

LH: And you’re there every year, four nights a week for all of January.
Paul: Yeah. But I also just shot a bunch of pictures for his latest album cover which just came out. I get invited to his birthday party.

LH: And you were there when Keith came for the documentary, Under The Influence.
Paul: Yeah, so now the Stones call me whenever they come to town, to just come and shoot whatever I want. So they played in Milwaukee and then they had a day off the next day. So they’re shooting that documentary where Keith rides around in a van. Did you see that?

LH: I saw the documentary, yeah.
Paul: So he rides around in a van in whatever city they’re in and he tells stories about all the places he’s been to. So, they call me up and said, “Meet us at the Peninsula and jump in the van with us” and I thought they were going to get out and I will get great pictures of them sitting on the steps in front of the front steps at Muddy Waters’ house, going into the Chess building, but they just sat in the van and talked and there were no pictures to be taken. So they went to Muddy’s house, they went to Chess and the third stop was Buddy Guy’s Legends. And the deal is Keith’s going to play pool with Buddy, they’re gonna film it, they’re going to talk while they’re playing pool. So the camera was walking in a circle around the pool table and I was walking right behind the guy sideways in a circle for an hour, taking pictures.

So they finished and Keith and Buddy go and sit at the bar and there was no bartender. So I went back behind the bar and made them drinks. So Keith turns to Buddy and says, “I got to go back to the hotel and take a nap” – it’s like five in the afternoon – “But I’ll come back tonight about 8:00pm.” So he leaves and I just figured I’ll just stay there. So I went downstairs and order dinner, had some dinner, went up, was sitting and talking to Buddy in his office and 8:00pm, Keith walks in. So there’s this room, Buddy’s sitting on one side, Keith’s sitting on the other side, I’m sitting on the floor in the middle and Keith’s manager sitting on the couch on the other side. And I’m taking pictures of them while they’re talking and I waiting for a moment when I could say, “Hey, can you guys get up so I could get pictures of the two of you.” And all of a sudden Keith turns to Buddy and says, “Hey, do you know my photographer?” And Buddy looks at him and says, “What do you mean your photographer? That’s my photographer.” And I realized that these guys were fighting over me.

LH: That’s got to be a nice feeling.
Paul: It was pretty cool. I said, “Hey guys, don’t worry. There’s enough for me to go around for both of you.” And so then they keep on talking and I’m waiting for that moment and all of a sudden people start filing into the room and it gets really crowded and I realized I kind of lost my moment and so I stand up and I look around and all of a sudden I realized that all four members of the Stones are in the room along with about 20 people that don’t belong there. And I look at Keith’s manager and she looks at me and she says – I’ll never forget this – she says, “You’re a professional, make it happen.”

So I walk over to Mick Jagger and I grabbed him by the arm and dragged him out of the room into the hallway. I walk over to Ron Wood and Charlie Watts grabbed them by the arm, drag them out in the hallway. I go and get Buddy and Keith drag them out in the hallway and I stick Buddy in the middle between the Stones and I got one perfect shot of Buddy with the Stones. But that’s the kind of stuff that, when that happens, it’s like I tell everybody that I’m retired at this point because I really don’t, I honest to god, don’t shoot anymore. Sometimes if I do go out I have to check and make sure that my batteries are charged in my camera because it’s been so long since I used it, they could be dead. But, you know, I had my day. I had a pretty good run.

LH: You got it at the right time as well.
Paul: I got it not really at the right time. I got it at the second to the right time. The right time was right before I started. That’s when, I always tell the story, my friend Henry Diltz, who’s a legendary music photographer. He lived in LA all his life. He shot Crosby, Stills and Nash album covers, Eagles album covers, Neil Young album covers. All those California guys. And he used to live in Laurel Canyon and his next door neighbor on one side of him was Joni Mitchell, his next door neighbor on the other side of him was Frank Zappa and he would wake up in the morning and look out the window. If Frank was out in the backyard, he would grab his camera and go out there and take some pictures. If he bought a new lens and he had the test it out…. in the old days, not every lens was sharp. A camera store would give you a lens and say, “Try it, make sure it’s sharp and then we’ll charge you for it.” So he’d try his lens by calling up Joni Mitchell and saying, “Can I come over and take some pictures of you in your kitchen?”

Henry owns Morrison Hotel Gallery. He started it. So I look at my pictures and they sell occasionally. I sell one or two a month, maybe. Henry sells 50 a month. And the reason is I’ve got really great pictures of Neil Young singing into a microphone on stage. Henry’s got pictures and Neil Young in his garage with the hood of his car open, working on his car with a giant deer head on the wall, over his head. I’ve got great pictures of Bob Dylan singing into a microphone. Jim Marshall’s got pictures of Bob Dylan walking down the street and Greenwich Village rolling a tire down the street. I got great pictures of Miles Davis on stage. Jim Marshall’s got pictures of Miles Davis in a boxing ring with boxing gloves on, and boxing trunks on, no shirt, sitting in the corner of the ring with his hands up on the ropes. I can’t compete with that kind of access. That access is gone.

There was also, there are no celebrities in Chicago. I mean there’s Oprah, there’s Michael Jordan. There’s maybe Chance The Rapper. Except he doesn’t even compare to Bob Dylan and guys like that. So to have access to those kinds of celebrities on a daily basis, I’ve never had that. I just have it when they come through town and they’ll give me three minutes and I make the best of what three minutes will give me. That was a three minute photo shoot [pointing at the black & white image of Keith Richards].

LH: Which is a good photo from a three minute shoot.
Paul: Yeah, it was pure luck. But you know, in three minutes you got to be ready. But the difference between three minutes and like…… a year after that Keith’s manager invited me to go up to Keith’s house and spend a day with him and I did a day’s worth of photos with him and I mean that’s [photo on the wall of Keith] great, but the photos from that day at his house are just amazing.

LH: That photo of Keith was the first time you met him, right?
Paul: Yeah, I’d known him for 10 minutes at the time. But a three-minute photo shoot is not very satisfying. You do it because it’s all you can do.

LH: Looking around this room at some of your shots and then listening to you talk about access, that’s never going to come back, right? Now, it’s three songs, and I know it’s sometimes now one song and it’s one song from the soundboard. It’s never going to be the same.
Paul:None of these on my wall were taken during the first three songs.

LH: And that’s my view on it is if you want to get a band really, really going for it, you need them drenched in sweat in the last five minutes of the show.
Paul: Yeah, but drenched in sweat is what they don’t want. There are occasions when I kind of agree with them. I used to work with this band, a little band called The Go-Gos and they were my friends. I met them when their first album came out. The really great people, they’re wonderful and they got to be really big. And then Belinda Carlisle put out a solo album and she did a solo tour and I called up and said I want to do a photo shoot with her before the show and I want to shoot the whole show. And they say, “Oh yeah, for you, no problem.” So it was out at Poplar Creek, and it was a day where it was 100 degrees out. So I drive out there, it’s an hour and 15 minutes. I set up a backdrop, I set up lights, she comes in, we did a really nice little photo shoot a and she says, “Well you’re going to shoot the whole show, right?” And I said “Yeah”. And she said, “Great, but everybody else has to leave after three songs.” So I go out in front and there was a seat in the front row. There is no photo pit at Poplar Creek. There was just the rows went right down, you had to kneel on the ground, on the concrete. 

So I found this seat and I’m sitting there and the show starts and midway through the first song, her makeup starts running down her face. She looked like a clown. It was like both sides of her face, black makeup all the way down her face. And I stopped shooting because number one, I’m not going to sell those pictures. Number two, she is my friend. And she kept on looking to me for the whole show. I sat there for the whole show and everybody else shot three songs, so most of their pictures had the makeup running down her face, and I didn’t shoot it. At the end of the show I went backstage and she says, “You know what, I walked backstage and I looked in the mirror and I realized why you didn’t shoot and I really appreciate that.”

But that’s the only time that I’ve ever said I agree with you about three songs.

LH: At the same time, photographers shouldn’t put photos like that up, right? It’s not in their interests but they will. There was the Beyonce thing where the guy should that picture.
Paul: It wasn’t that the guy sold the picture. It was that there was an agency that had three photographers at the Super Bowl and they shot a ton of pictures of the halftime show and they picked all the pictures that made her look as bad as they possibly could make her look, and they did a slide show and have them all on the front page of their website and it went viral.

So this sums it up. Heidi Ellen Robinson is one of my oldest friends. She used to be the publicist for Tom Petty. And she was the last publicist he had that he allowed everybody to shoot the whole show. And then she quit the account and He went to somebody else who immediately said, “You can only shoot three songs.” So I didn’t know she had quit the account, called her up. Tom Petty was coming through town and we started this conversation. She said, “Well, you got to call Big Hassle. Jim Merlis, he’s now the publicist.” And so I’m talking to her. I’m sitting at my desk talking to her while I’m emailing Jim Merlis and I’m getting a response from him saying, you can only shoot the first three songs and you have to sign a contract. And I was responding to him saying, “Sorry, I’m going to stay home and watch tv” and all this time I’m talking to Heidi on the phone and at one point she says, “Wait a second, Hold on a second. There’s one thing you got to figure in this whole discussion. Half the photographers out there are unprofessional jerks.” And I said, “You know, you’re absolutely right.” And she said, “If we trust you, we’ll figure out a way to make it happen.” And that’s what she did with Slayer last month.

There’s a website, it’s actually a facebook page, called “Assholes in the Photo Pit.” It’s really funny. It’s people standing on chairs in front of the audience and all that stuff that photographer shouldn’t do and it’s because of people like that, that we’re screwed. And it’ll never go back, like you said. It can’t go back.

 

PAUL NATKIN
Website 

About Phil Walton 25 Articles
Phil grew up in the UK and loved listening to and playing music from a young age. He moved from the UK to Chicago in 2011, falling in love with the city and its music scene. He enjoys nothing better than spending time with musicians, whether it be watching them perform, talking to them for the website or reading their autobiographies.

1 Comment

  1. I remember first concert I went to with Paul at the Aragon!

    May 15,1970 Joe Cocker Mad Dogs and Englishmen (filling in for Delaney and Bonnie who cancelled) Smith , and The Flying Burrito Brothers

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