I booked to see Jill Furmanovsky’s talk as much to hear about her involvement in Rock Music as photography and came away as entertained as I was informed. In her 40+ year career she has photographed just about every performer of note including Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Blondie, The Police, Led Zeppelin, Madness, Rod Stewart, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Stevie Wonder, Pink Floyd, The Who, Rolling Stones, The Sex Pistols and Bob Dylan.
Her talk consisted of a review of her career showing many of the images for which she is justly famous such as this shot of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Jill discovered Photography whilst studying Textile Design and like all students at the time was given an introduction to photography. In her own words “I borrowed a camera while studying at the Central School of Art and Design and went to see YES play at the Rainbow Theatre”, she says. “I don’t know what came over me but half way through the show I got up, went downstairs and made my way towards the stage without being stopped. The bouncers must have assumed I was professional because I was carrying a professional looking camera.
“At the end of the night I started chatting to a couple of professional photographers who worked in-house at the Rainbow. They asked if I was interested in doing some regular work at the venue. I remember rushing into college the next day and begging the somewhat bemused staff in the photography department to teach me everything they knew immediately. I’d got a job. The following week, I was taking pictures of Pink Floyd.” (Velourmagazine.com, 2017)
So began a long and illustrious career in Rock Photography, textile design forgotten, she was able to transfer to a Graphic Design course which allowed more use of the camera as Photography didn’t exist as a degree course at the time.
‘In 1972, following the immense success of the original “Tommy” album by The Who, Lou Reizner decided to produce a full-blown orchestral version of the rock opera featuring the London Symphony Orchestra and an assemblage of well-known rock stars. I attended the rehearsals and final performance at the Rainbow Theatre. It was a highly ambitious project featuring guest appearances by Rod Stewart, Peter Sellers, Merry Bell, Maggie Bell and Sandy Denny. This picture of Roger Daltrey became my first cover image for Melody Maker. I was 19 at the time and still a student so I was thrilled.’ (Rockarchive.com, 2017)
The postscript to this was Furmanovsky revealing that following publication she asked the then editor of Melody Maker if she could get a name credit for future images the reply was “You will get a credit when you deserve one” and as Furmanovsky recounts ” I never did” a reflection on the esteem photographers were held in at the time.
Furmanovsky acknowledges her work with Britpop pioneers Oasis as some of her best. “It was a combination of subject matter, excellent timing and experience. Given that I had only taken a two week course, I spent years teaching myself how to use a large format camera, how to use flash, how to shoot in colour. By the time Oasis came along, I was forty and ready.” (Velourmagazine.com, 2017)
She attributes much of her success to the trust and respect that musicians have for her. “It takes a lifetime to build that”, she says. “You can make somebody look a fool if you want to, but if you are good enough and produce good work then everything else disappears. I used to feel I was challenged for being young and female but I couldn’t let that stand in my way. I didn’t walk around in stilettos and a mini skirt because I had a job to do. When young girls today ask me if they can come on the road, I advise them to lose the make-up and put on a black t-shirt and some flats.’
Furmanovsky stated she felt some photographers got carried away with the trappings of the rock lifestyle, the travel, 5 star hotels and so forth and whilst, occasionally, tempting for long term success said it was essential to focus on the work, remain professional and ignore these diversions because ultimately its the quality of work that makes possible long term collaboration.
An example being her long term friendship with Chrisse Hinds of ‘The Pretenders’ which apart from the work documenting her long career has also led to other work, outside of rock, such as this image done in collaboration as a result of their mutual interest in animal rights.
Other Chrissie Hind Images
Although I expected to be entertained I also found much food for thought in her presentation as a few things stood out for me in terms of being successful.
Again learning the craft of photography and becoming proficient, Furmanovsky started with very limited knowledge and then spent a long time self teaching to improve. Another key aspect was her focus on the work and delivery of quality output which led to repeated commissions. Further her approach was based on developing strong relationships with her subjects which occasionally became genuine friendships but always based on mutual professional respect. Furmanovsky stating there were many opportunities to provide images of private moments of people drunk or stoned but recognised that taking and publishing such images would be extremely short term and for a long term career she needed to build the trust of her subjects.
Asked about how you would start in the industry today, Furmanovsky said she didn’t think the industry existed in the same way that it did, this because, the main purchasers of images such as Melody Maker and NME (New Musical Express) have disappeared. Her advice was you need to identify new talent early and work with them as they will take you with them if you have done mutually good things in the early days. This is largely how she was successful with Oasis, photographing them from their earliest days to the peak of their success and with other more recent artists such as Florence Welch of ‘Florence and the Machine’ who Furmanovsky first photographed in 2007.
Jill Furmanovsky recalls ‘Johnny Borrell of Razorlight was the first person to tell me about Florence Welch. He was very impressed with her way back in 2007 and they worked on a few demos together. Johnny invited me to attend a rehearsal at John Henry’s where the two with a small backing band were working on an arrangement for one of her songs. Florence was a charismatic presence even then. She had that huge voice and as she sang she beat the shit out of a snare drum like punctuation. I love this image of her in full flow, and it is entirely just that she has gone on to become a new star.’ (Rockarchive.com, 2017)
I think this illustrates another aspect of being a successful photographer- the need to thoroughly research and be constantly aware of what happening in your area of interest coupled with good networking and relationships with others in the industry such as the Florence Welch example above. This reinforces the aspect of mutual professional trust and respect.
Furmanovsky is the founder of rockarchive.com which sells prints from her own and others, archives, partly to generate income lost with the demise of a specific music press but also to ensure that this work is not lost to posterity.