Adrian Boot is one of Britain’s best-known music photographers. After university in 1970, Adrian moved to Jamaica to teach physics, returning to Britain to freelance for the NME, Melody Maker, The Times, The Guardian and The Face. By the mid-1970s Adrian had become staff photographer for The Melody Maker.
Adrian has been chief photographer for Live Aid; for Nelson Mandela – Freedom at 70; for Roger Water’s ‘The Wall in Berlin’; for Greenpeace in the Soviet Union. Adrian has also worked with ORBIS, the flying eye hospital, in Africa; the British Council in Iraq and Jordan; for the Grateful Dead in Egypt; and for Island Records in Jamaica, Colombia, Algeria, Nigeria and many other parts of the world.
Adrian’s books include ‘Babylon on a Thin Wire’ and ‘Jah Revenge’ (both with Michael Thomas). With collaborator and friend Chris Salewicz: ‘Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom’; ‘Firefly: Noel Coward in Jamaica’; ‘Midnights in Moscow: in the USSR with Billy Bragg’; ‘Punk: History of a Music Revolution’; and ‘Reggae Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music’. Adrian has curated and produced various exhibitions and events, including ‘Songs of Freedom – The Bob Marley Exhibition’; ‘The Ultimate Experience – The Jimi Hendrix Exhibition’; ‘The Punk Exhibition’; and ‘The Island 50’ exhibition.
Today Adrian Boot is working on new exhibition projects, electronic books and various educational projects with the World Photography Organization. He continues to travel throughout India, Asia, Africa and of course Jamaica, always searching for and promoting positive images of our wonderful planet and its people. Together with a select group of photographers and friends he also runs the small eclectic online photo agency.
IRIE. You are regarded as one of Britain’s best-known music photographers. Can you take us back to the beginning. When did you first get interested in photography? What inspired you to pursue music photography?
Adrian Boot: I first became seriously interested in photography in 1971. I had just left university and was in Jamaica as a physics teacher at a school in Port Antonio. My stay was meant to be a couple of years before getting a real job back in the UK. I guess I was always interested in photography and Jamaica provided a great subject … not so much the spectacular countryside … I was more interested in Jamaica’s idiosynchratic urban landscapes and its uniquely brilliant people. I wasn’t following the music. I didn’t know that much about the music. I was photographing Jamaica … and Jamaica was in turmoil … Politics, Rastafari, searching for new national identity. In spite of the poverty that many Jamaicans suffered during these post colonial days, a rich new culture was emerging … exciting times … with despair being replaced by a new optimism. The Rastafari movement and the music that surrounded it, exploded across Jamaica and on to the UK, Europe and the USA. I was obviously in the right place at the right time.
IRIE. You eventually return to Britain and began freelancing as a photographer for such publications as NME, The Guardian, The Face, The Times and the Melody Maker, one of the world’s earliest music weeklies magazine. By the mid 1970’s you would become the staff photographer at The Melody Maker. How did this opportunity come about?
Adrian Boot: It was entirely serendipitous. I came back to London around 1973 thinking I would never see Jamaica again … except maybe as a tourist. I finished and published ‘Babylon on a Thin Wire’ with Rolling Stone journalist, Micheal Thomas. The book was a great international success and the press were commissioning me to photograph the emerging Rastafari – Reggae scene in the UK and in the same year back in Jamaica. I decided to have another year off taking photographs, a sabbatical. I’m still on that sabbatical .. the rest is history.
IRIE. During this period in your life, you’ve managed to photograph some of the most famous faces in music including The Clash, the Sex Pistols, Debbie Harry, Eric Clapton, U2 and the three original Wailers, Bob, Bunny and Peter. What was it like to photograph Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh? And how was your relationship with the original Wailers?
Adrian Boot: Everyone asks what it was like photographing artists like Bob Marley. At the time it just felt normal. Marley wasn’t a superstar … that came later. He was just another subject. Sure we got on well. I was familiar with Jamaica, understood the language, the jokes and was able to share a spliff.
I tried to photograph Bunny Wailer on my first return back to Jamaica, but he wasn’t happy with a white guy capturing his ghost with my camera. I did get to photograph him in later years … famously with Peter Tosh at Bunny’s farm at Hectors River. The first white musicians I got to photograph were the Punks, and that was because of Punk’s strong connection with Reggae and the UK Jamaican scene.
IRIE. Let’s talk about your collaboration with British journalist, Chris Salewicz. You guys are are among the most important authors in music journalism, in particular, reggae and punk music, two genres that inevitably altered the British music scene during the 70’s. Together, the two of you have collaborated on five projects which include Jimi Hendrix: The Ultimate Experience (1995), Bob Marley: Songs of Freedom (1995), Punk: The Illustrated History of a Music Revolution (1996), Firefly: Noel Coward in Jamaica (1999) and Reggae Explosion: The Story of Jamaican Music (2001). Where did the two of you meet? How did the idea for your first collaboration come about?
Adrian Boot: Chris was always working for the same magazines and papers as me .. we became friends he loved Jamaica and unlike me was an expert at the music.. We made many trips to Jamaica together over the years coving not only the music but also the growing tourist industry. It wasn’t just the books.. he also helped produce the various exhibitions that accompanied the books.
IRIE. You have travelled the world producing some of the most amazing photography projects to date. A few that come to mind include Live Aid at Wembly Stadium (July 13, 1985), Nelson Mandela – Freedom at 70 (June 11, 1988), Roger Water’s ‘The Wall’ in Berlin (July 21, 1990) and The Grateful Dead’s ‘Rocking the Cradle: Egypt 1978’ (September 14-16, 1978). For our readers, the three concert performance that was staged at the foot of the Great Pyramid and the Sphinx. How do you prepare for music projects of this magnitude? And when you are shooting these types of projects, is everything planned out or are you shooting by instinct?
Adrian Boot: You can’t plan. You have know idea what is going to happen next. Back in those days everything was film, no digital. And you needed to carry 2 or 3 cameras around at all times, one with colour film, one with black and white film, one with high ASA fast film and nothing was automatic.
Often you had only a minute or two with the subject. It’s happening in real time and you have to catch it all as it happens. If you have the wrong film in the camera, you lose the shot.
More important, you have no idea what you have until weeks later when you return and the film gets processed and prints made. The harsh judge of a lightbox viewer on some picture editors desk on a miserable winter morning.
So you have a picture of Jerry Garcia on a camel in front of a pyramid in Egypt and you’re both high on acid – so what. If he’s not smiling the editor can’t use it on the cover. It’s like a holiday snap, not a portrait of the famous Jerry Garcia.
I think these days with digital cameras its more stressful. You are constantly reviewing your successes and failures on the camera monitor in real time, and that creates an anxiety that isn’t good for spontaneity.
IRIE. For someone who has had such an extensive career in music photography, how has the change from traditional film to digital film affected the way you shoot today?
Adrian Boot: I shoot less these days .. I am photographing Baaba Maal at the Royal Festival Hall here in London this evening on a digital camera. Photography is so ubiquitous these days … the world is flooded with images. Everyone can take a good photograph … on mobile phones, tablet computers, inexpensive high quality cameras etc.
IRIE. When you look through the lens to take a picture, what’s going through your mind?
Adrian Boot: ASA 1600, 1/60th F5.6 low light… how long have I got… time to change film? Anything else is in the subconscious.
IRIE. You are the co-founder of UrbanImage.TV, the UrbanImage Photo Agency featuring an eclectic alternative collection of music, travel and lifestyle images that we are proud to be a fan and user of. How did the idea for the agency first come about?
Adrian Boot: Everything was going online for photography, a fact that was obvious when we started Urbanimage almost 15 years ago. The likes of Getty Images had the resources to take over world of photography. Agencies were either absorbed by the big USA companies or closed down. We had the advantage of a fairly unique and eclectic collection of images that we felt could still compete with the big online agencies. We stayed specialist, bringing in photographers who were friends and could plug the gaps in our collection. Urbanimage remains one of the very few independent small photo libraries left in the world. Unlike Getty’s millions of images, Urbanimage has less than 20,000 images but they are all special, unique photographs. Still… we are an endangered species.
IRIE. Every time I visit www.urbanimage.tv, I always seem to find a new collection of images waiting for me to discover the story behind them. For me, I feel like music history comes to life through your images. I also sense a creative relationship between you and the musicians photographed in your images. What do you want viewers to take away from exploring your work?
Adrian Boot: I hope some of the personality of the people I photograph shines through. Not the makeup, styling, lighting or props that the industry thinks it needs to project a contrived public image. I’ve done all that and I’m not good at it. I leave that to the studio advertising and fashion photographers etc.
IRIE. Can you share with us any new projects that you are working on for 2016?
Adrian Boot: We are building a Punk exhibition for Australia. It’s called ‘Punk Nation’ Last year we were successful at selling prints online, either directly from our site or via Rock Paper Photo in the US. It has kept us going for another year. I am also working with ex Island Records ace designer Bruno Tilley on a special T-shirt project. Very high quality high tech black and white reproductions on a new kind t-shirt fabric. We are also going to expand our Africa archive. That entails lots of scanning and retouching and could take a year. Urbanimage only represents the tip of the iceberg for us, more than 75% of our archive remains to be trawled and scanned in. But most of all, we, like everyone else, will continue to survive and remain independent.
IRIE. What advice would you give to photographers looking to pursue a photography career in the music industry?
Adrian Boot: The above job definition no longer exists. The music industry isn’t the same. It hardly exist. If you want to be a photographer, you’ll have to be passionate about ALL photography and probably film as well. And you’ll need a second job. You’ll need to sponsor your own projects. The phone isn’t ever going to ring. You’ll also have to find your own story and take lots of pictures. Build you own website .. use the internet and don’t expect anyone to help. You have to love photography. It’s not a job.