Interview: Music Photographer Ed Perlstein

EdPerlsteinPortraitEd Perlstein began his photography career in the mid-1970’s. After eight years of photographing rock, blues, punk, folk and jazz musicians, Ed stopped to pursue other interests, including raising a family. Over the past 30 years, his photographs have appeared on CD’s, TV documentaries and in various books, music-related magazines, posters and calendars. Ed has an impressive portfolio with undoubtedly some of the biggest names to ever grace a stage – Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, B.B King, Queen… to name just a few.

For those of us who may not be aware of your work, can you give us a brief run-down of your music photography career? I shot professionally in the San Francisco Bay Area from 1975 to about 1983. I started working with the Grateful Dead, who were a big influence on my life dating back to the late 1960s. They recommended me to BAM (Bay Area Music) Magazine, a new mag just starting in 1975. So right away, I had press credentials. I also worked a lot with legendary promoter Bill Graham, photographing many of the shows he and his production company staged. These two connections allowed me access to both large and small shows, with genres such as rock, jazz, folk and blues. Also, punk was just starting to go big in the late 70s, and San Francisco was right in the thick of it.

How did you get started in music photography? Were you a professional photographer first? Music came first. I was always a big fan of music, and I truly fell in love with the San Francisco bands from the sixties. I grew up in New Jersey, but moved to San Francisco when I was 19 to be closer to those bands and their music. Although I didn’t really learn how to use 35mm camera until 1975, I did bring a movie camera to shoot Cream in 1968 and a still camera to shoot Jimi Hendrix in 1969. So I must have had a passion for photography inside of me early on.

Besides a few photography classes and the help of a few more knowledgeable friends, I’m pretty much self-taught. I learned what I needed to get the pictures and made mistakes like anyone trying something new.

Freddie Mercury by Ed Perlstein

Freddie Mercury by Ed Perlstein

Can you share with us some of the highlights that stand out as special moments in your career? Living in a large city, and especially one where Bill Graham was staging shows, made it easy to always have big name bands to shoot. Some special shows were the Who opening for the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, The Band’s Last Waltz, and shows by Bruce Springsteen and The Police early in their careers. One of my favorite overall photo weekends was when I shot Springsteen one night and Queen the next. I have to admit, though, that my favorite shows to shoot were the 3 years I shot the Berkeley Jazz Festival. Rock musicians tend to hide in their dressing rooms behind several levels of security, while jazz musicians were always open to hanging out, talking and posing for pictures.

Having that love for music and going to lots of shows must have helped you try to capture that moment. Absolutely! At first, of course, I gravitated toward the bands that I loved. However, when I started working with music publications and then marketing my images worldwide, I shot bands that weren’t necessarily in my comfort zone. I worked with a stock agency in Japan, so I was very aware of what bands and artists sold overseas. I would shoot those artists with that in mind, and that would expand my musical tastes as well.

Bob Marleyby Ed Perlstein

Bob Marley by Ed Perlstein

Would you say you had a particular style? What things did you always look to do when shooting a concert? I like to shoot tight portraits whenever possible. I don’t like a lot of distracting objects or backgrounds in my images. I had a 300mm f4.5 lens that was a workhorse for me. I wasn’t a mosh pit photographer in GA concerts. I just couldn’t deal with being in a crowd of fans near the stage that would hit you while dancing or spill beer on you. So I tended to either shoot from the periphery, from good seats up front if the show was seated, or from the stage if I could get access. Although shooting a show was hard work, for me it had to also be fun. When I was at my best, I was visually dancing with the music through my viewfinder.

Looking through your website it seems like you had a lot more access than the majority of today’s music photographers. I’m not really aware of what passes are like these days, however I know from the comments in social media that it’s a lot harder to get them. When I was shooting, there were usually one, maybe two, types of passes. There were photo passes, which allowed the photographer access and freedom to roam the front-of-the-house areas, including the front of the stage when appropriate. Then there were backstage passes, which allowed access to the stage (in some cases) and the dressing room areas (in some cases). It really depended upon the promoter and the band’s stature in the food chain. When I hung up my cameras in the early 80s, the levels of security were starting to expand. You could stand here with one pass, but not there. Then you could stand over there with a different pass, but certainly not back there. In a nutshell, it was freer when I was shooting. Sometime I would meet with the head of security before the show, and he would introduce me to his team so I would not get hassled during the show. But like I said, the promoter and the band set the tone for access.

So there wasn’t a ‘first three song’ rule? What a load of crap that rule is. I mean, I don’t have to tell you what you already know. When I was shooting, I could bring my cameras in to any venue, shoot mostly anywhere for as long as I wanted. It wasn’t until 1987, when I went to shoot a Santana/Grateful Dead show after not shooting at all for 4 years, that I encountered the “3 song rule”. I shot the entire Santana set on stage, but when I went to shoot the Dead I was told I could only shoot the first 3 songs. I had never heard of such a thing. The best part of the show, with the lights up the highest and the band rocking the hardest, is at the end not the beginning! That’s when you get your best shots! It made me feel like I made the right decision to get out of the business. It must be so hard for photographers to shoot shows these days.

Why do you think the 3-song rule was put in place in the first place? I’m just guessing here, but I think that it was the distraction factor. As time went on, there were more and more photographers in front of the stage and, I think, management from some of the larger bands said “enough”. Then it just caught on and became the norm over time. 

Of all the photos you have taken which ones are your favorites? That’s a tough one because I keep finding images in my archives that become my favorite images of the moment. For instance, I just found a photo of Stevie Nicks & Mick Fleetwood I had never seen before. The position of Stevie’s body and the intense look on Mick’s face makes the shot for me. One of my all time favorites, though, is a shot of Keith Richards in a blissful moment playing with the New Barbarians.

Keith Richards by Ed Perlstein

Keith Richards by Ed Perlstein

There will be many readers of this interview who have never taken a photo with film before, who shoot with digital SLR’s, download their photos and email them to websites or publications (the same night as the gig) for the next day’s articles. In contrast to today’s digital world, can you give us a typical ‘day in the life’ of a music photographer in the mid-1970s? Technically, photographers today have it much better than we did back in the 70s. For one thing, the cost of film, processing and printing hit a photographer pretty hard right up front. Typically, I’d bring rolls of Tri-x black & white and Ektachrome color film with me to a show. While nowadays you can shoot a ton of shots before changing cards, we were limited to 36 images on a roll before having to reload. Also, and this is huge, we didn’t have the instant gratification photographers have now with LCD screens on their cameras. We didn’t find out until we got the film back from the lab whether the shots came out.

So, getting back to my typical day of shooting, after the show or session I would either send the color film out to a lab or I’d develop the Tri-X film myself in the darkroom. Then I’d have to wait for it to dry, cut it, sleeve it and check it out with a loupe (BTW, since I could only develop 4 rolls at a time, I’d have to repeat the process until all rolls were developed). Then, I’d have to set my darkroom up for printing (mixing the chemicals, etc) and print the images I needed to show or sell. Sometimes I would shoot at night, develop & print the next day and bring prints with me to the show the next night to show the artists. That’s a bit different than in today’s digital world.

And was that process any different if you were shooting for a magazine? Not really. If I were shooting for a magazine, I would print the best images and send them to them for possible use. If a record company hired me, I might make contact sheets to show them all the images I took so they could pick what they needed. Remember, “send them” meant via snail-mail because there was no Internet. Some clients would give me their FedEx number so I could send them overnight if they needed them quickly. Color slides were a different story. I bought a slide duplicator, and made slide dupes to send to magazines, record companies or my stock agents.

Betty Carter by Ed Perlstein

Betty Carter by Ed Perlstein

Have you ever shot a great gig and you were really excited because you had some awesome photos – only to find for some reason you didn’t have a single shot worth using or selling? Yes, definitely… that’s why I envy the technology that today’s photographers had to work with. When I was just learning with film, I had to guess the exposure for the stage lighting using suggestions from my peers as a starting point. As I got more experience and became more knowledgeable of how to work with different lighting situations, it becomes easier. I also bought a 1-degree spot meter, which was great for taking readings from the musician’s face. In most situations, we didn’t have to deal with the constantly changing lighting conditions like today. Working with flash was just as frustrating, if not more so. The on-camera flash technology back then was so rudimentary. We were all learning from the ground up.

How do you feel about the benefits of working in film and developing your own photos – do you think every photographer should have that experience to help understand ‘pure photography’? No, not at all. While I think negatives and slides have a lot better chance of surviving than digital files over a long period of time, I still think the technologies used by today’s photographers are just as good for developing the ability to capture great images.

Back then music photography was taking off as much as rock and pop music was. Icons were born and photography was a big contributor to that. There certainly weren’t as many pro photographers shooting music back then. Nowadays it amazes me when I see a ton of photographers jammed into the pit in front of the stage. And, of course, every person with an iPhone thinks they’re a photographer. I guess back then even the big stars saw the benefits of being photographed. I recently saw a contract that photographers have to sign to even be allowed to shoot a few songs for some name acts. It gives the photographer limited rights, if any at all. All I can say is that I have a lot of respect for the photographers who are able to make it in this market.

Some of the photographers in the 60s and 70s almost became as famous as the stars they photographed. That’s true. I used to shoot with the late photographer Jim Marshall here in the Bay Area. There are many great photographers from that era… Baron Wolman, Bob Gruen, Lynn Goldsmith to name a few.

What was it like working with Jim Marshall? Jim was very gracious and helpful to the newbie photographers in the Bay Area.  Once, when I was over at his house, he had a huge mountain of several hundred slides on his kitchen table. A cloth covered them, but I could see what they were. When I asked him about them, he replied with one word… “rejects”!

Which photographers do you admire? Besides the ones I already mentioned, I have a learned a lot from and admired the work of older music photographers like Norman Seeff, Neal Preston, Michael Zagaris, Henry Diltz, Herman Leonard, David Redfern and Michael Putland. I collect books by music photographers, so I have many out-of-print books with the work of photographers from the 60s and 70s. More recent photographers I admire include Jay Blakesberg and Bob Minkin, two of the hardest working photographers from the Bay Area, as well as Jerome Brunet, Caitlin Mogridge and Jeremy Gordon.

Neal Schon from Journey, by Ed Perlstein

Neal Schon from Journey, by Ed Perlstein

What do you think makes a classic live music photo? Capturing the decisive moment (thank you, Henri Cartier-Bresson). Perhaps when the musicians are airborne, or they have a particular expression or body language that portrays their persona. Some of my best photos were taken on the last frame of a roll because I knew I’d have to change film. So I was more patient waiting for the decisive moment before taking the image.

Talk us through your kit bag at the time. I was strictly a Nikon guy back then. When I started, I was pretty poor and used borrowed cameras and lenses. A friend’s Nikkormat, or my girlfriend’s Nikon F, were my main bodies until I could afford to buy my own Nikon FE body. I used a borrowed 70-200mm lens as my telephoto early on. I was working at a big camera store in San Francisco, so I had access to equipment to borrow or buy cheap. One of my favorite borrowed lenses at the time was a 180mm f2.8. I eventually stocked my bag with 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, 105mm and 300mm lenses. I also used a Vivitar 286 flash, which was the new hot on-camera flash for photographers at the time. But it took me awhile to really understand how to get the best out of that flash, so there are a lot of early photos that show my learning curve.

Do you still go to gigs and take photos? Even as a hobby? Rarely. It has to be a situation where it’s fun to shoot and where I won’t be hassled for bringing in a camera or using it for the entire show. I’ve shot gigs for a few friends recently, but for the most part I don’t shoot very often. After I stopped shooting gigs back in the 80s, I got into nature photography as a hobby. I used to go on photography expeditions to Yosemite with teachers such as Galen Rowell. That was a lot of fun.

What are you up to these days? I retired from serious photography in about 1983 when my daughter was born. I realized that I needed a more stable profession to support a family, so I went into computer programming. I’ve been doing that for over 30 years. But I really have 2 jobs now, because when I’m done programming all day I work on digitizing my negs and slides for Getty Images, who represents my music photography.

Digitizing all your photos must have been a bit of a nightmare. Did you digitize everything or do you have boxes of negatives waiting to be processed? I’m still digitizing my images, and I’ll be doing it for many years. Of course, I do have a day job, but it’s still such a time consuming process. After I scan the negative or slide, I do a lot of work with it in Photoshop to adjust the exposure, crop the image and remove dust spots and scratch lines. I’m very particular about providing clean images to the stock agency or as prints to my clients.

How do you see music photography in 2014 in comparison to how you knew the industry back then? I don’t really think I’m qualified to answer that question because I’m no longer involved with the music industry. I’m too far outside the loop to make a knowledgeable comparison. I will say this, however… the most important thing for a music photographer is his or her contacts. That was true then and it’s probably even truer today. Especially since your proximity to the band usually dictates the quality of your images, and your ability to get close to them is based on your connection with the band, the promoter or a client like a record label who is connected to the band. 

Thanks very much Ed. How can we find out more about you and your work? and you can check out

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