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An Exclusive Interview With Photographer Jeffrey Mayer

April 20th, 2021 | by admin
An Exclusive Interview With Photographer Jeffrey Mayer
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Jeffrey Mayer has a stunning portfolio: Alice Cooper, The Beach Boys, Blondie, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, The Clash, Elton John, Genesis, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, John Lennon, The Kinks, Lady Gaga, Led Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Nirvana, No Doubt, Ozzy Osbourne, Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Queen, The Rolling Stones, Rush, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, T. Rex, U2 and of course…David Bowie. Sitting comfortably at his LA home, surrounded by framed pictures of his iconic images, Jeffrey kindly answers my questions.

-Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview Jeffrey, I really appreciate it. Let’s start with some information about you. Where were you born?

I was born in Queens, New York.

-What kind of music were you first interested in?

My mother was an opera singer, so I was exposed to classical music at home at an early age. Then I was exposed to rock music through the Kinks, The Stones, The Animals, then bebop and on and on you know, all the original bands. For me, my musical experience really began with The Beatles.

-I read that your interest in photography began with The Beatles at Shea Stadium, is that correct?

Yeah, I didn’t photograph that, but that influenced me as a young child. My parents gave me a little Kodak box camera. I couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old I think. That’s when I started taking pictures and as I grew older, as a young teenager I started out using a Yashica Rangefinder 35mm camera.

(With a rangefinder camera you do not view your subject through the lens. The viewfinder is slightly offset above and to the right of the lens.)

I eventually started taking pictures with garage bands. Young bands that were literally playing in their backyards. And then once The Beatles exploded, my interest in rock n’ roll exploded along with that, so it was the combination of the photography and the music, that kind of blended together. It was obviously just a hobby, in the beginning I was processing film in my mom’s kitchen sink.

Then I got more and more involved with taking photos. However, in grammar and middle school my aim was to become an engineer. I was influenced by my sister’s boyfriend, whom was an electronic engineer. I ended up going to one of the five specialized high schools in New York city, which is called Brooklyn Technical High School, and that led to me going to New York University School of Engineering. My plan was to become a civil engineer. But all through this time, in the late part of high school into college, I was shooting pictures at rock n’ roll shows. That’s when I started selling photographs to rock magazines, newspapers and it just blossomed, and I continued to do that throughout my education, even though I was planning to become an engineer.

After a couple of years at engineering school at NYU, I had taken a couple of summer jobs at engineering and architectural offices, and I saw what that career would be like. And I became less thrilled with that, and more enthralled with doing photography. Shooting photographs of rock bands, hanging out with friends and going to shows was seemingly more appealing for me. I didn’t make a great deal of money initially, but the creative spirit of the photography and the music is what kept driving me to that task. After a number of years working in New York City, I ended up moving to California in the 70’s, and I’ve been living here ever since. I made a lot of contacts with record companies and rock n’ roll magazines. I contributed to Rolling Stone, Circus, Cream, Bravo in Germany, Music Life in Japan and so many other publications, from the New York Times to Time magazine. I’ve contributed to countless number of books, my photos have been used in many different album covers, MTV started using a lot of my photos on their behind the music specials with dozens of bands.

-At that point I guess that based on your experience you didn’t consider pursuing an education in photography, right?

I did take some courses at Pratt Institute, I also went to New York Institute of Photography, just to add to my education based on a different level. But of course I’d say the majority of my education was by shooting hundreds of concerts, studio sessions, learning how to light in a studio, learning when to capture the right moment, being right in front of the stage, the singers, the guitar players, the drummers, that is where rock n’ roll happened for me. Many years later bands started putting restrictions on your access. Nowadays being right in front of the stage, being shoulder to shoulder with other photographers rarely exists anymore. Only in very special circumstances, photographers only have access because an artist is allowing them to be there, so unfortunately it’s a bygone era.

-This might be a difficult question, because you have such a breath taking portfolio. What do you consider your milestone as a photographer, taking into account your incredible experiences?

Well, it is a difficult question to answer. Because it’s not only a particular photograph, it is also a particular moment in time that has an effect on guiding that answer. As you have indicated, having seen and heard what I consider the premier and best bands of classic rock, it’s hard to nail down what is your prime moment…but the things that come to mind are when I first saw Jimi Hendrix perform. I had seen what I considered to be the best rock guitarists from Jimmy Page, to Eric Clapton, to Jeff Beck, to Pete Townshend…the list goes on. But when I saw Hendrix perform it was a jaw-dropping experience, I literally said to myself what planet is this guy from? it was so effortless it seemed, the way he performed. When I shot Jimi Hendrix in 1968, on his birthday, I was hired to shoot the show and shoot backstage. There was a small birthday party for him, so I have photos of him cutting his cake, playing piano, pictures of him opening his gifts, you know, just him as an individual, being the complete antithesis of his stage persona. He was an extremely quiet, low-key guy who spoke very softly. Intimate moments that not everyone gets to see are very unique and memorable for me.

The other moment was when I did a candid portrait shot of John Lennon. That shot was done in 1971 in New York City at a radio station, I was hired by his record company at the time. John and Yoko were being interviewed. Then we went to a conference room and the personnel from the radio station and the record company would group around to do what is called a trade shot with the artists. Those photos would then be sent to the key record publications like Billboard, Cash Box, Record World.

So that moment for me, being a huge fan, I was a little anxious about meeting them one on one. But he made me feel very comfortable. After the trade shots I isolated him to get a shot of him. He said take your time, we’re here for you. Him doing that was a huge relief. That was a nice moment for me. But there were so many more, shooting Black Sabbath, shooting Deep Purple, you would become overwhelmed with incredible musicianship. All these people really worked at their craft, they all were working to make a name for themselves and they did. I just happened to be at the right time, at the right place.

-You took photographs of David Bowie during his first visit to The United States in 1971, it’s a fascinating period in his career and your photos are superb, can you elaborate on the encounter?

    

Yes, I met David Bowie for the first time in New York. He had not even toured yet I believe. I think he was on Mercury Records at the time. He had long hair and he was kind of like a minstrel. On some of my shots you see that there was very low light so I kind of regret that some of those shots were not as sharp as possible, because I had to use very low shutter speed. It was an interview type of thing, I had a partner at the time, a writer. I would take the photos, he would write the story and we would contribute to publications. We also worked together to do liner notes and press releases.

People ask me “Did you know that he would become a superstar?” Quite obviously you don’t. I had never seen him perform. I’d heard his music, but you don’t always get the insight that a person will be an extraordinary artist, and he went on to become exactly that.

Later on I shot many of his concerts.

-Right, I’m curious if you recall what you talked about with him after the photo shoot, because it was such a fascinating, transitional period in his career.

I didn’t do much talking, I was a fly on the wall because the writer was the one asking questions with his tape machine, recoding the conversation. My interaction with David was on the side, and of course there were a multitude of other writers waiting for us to finish so he could do an interview with someone else, so I couldn’t give you intimate details on what questions were asked, I don’t even remember what magazine it went into. Unfortunately my insight is not as detailed as I’m sure you would want it to be.

-Right after that you photographed Bowie in 1973, a completely different context, he was a star at that point. What was your impression of David Bowie on stage then?

It was an extraordinary presentation. Being exposed to so many different people. I think if he were to review that himself, he would say “Ziggy Stardust – My Glam Rock era.” The same kind of thing like T. Rex, this era for many musicians that came out of Britain and were trying to create their own identity. David Bowie was at the forefront of being able to create a persona. I don’t know if you could say it was a caricature of himself, obviously he had an amazingly creative mind, so he could put whatever he wanted into words and music, but he was also very visual. Not everybody could translate that. Fashion was influencing rock stars and the people living at that time so I mean, if you saw a picture of me in 1969…this picture is not on my website, but I’ll show you what I looked like. You would think I was a member of Led Zeppelin, or Pink Floyd, or maybe I was Jesus Christ or Charlie Manson.

Little bit different than now right? (Laughs)

-Of course, you couldn’t predict in 1971 Bowie was going to be a star, but when you saw the 1973 concerts, did you have a flashback of two years before and think wow, this is a completely different person?

Absolutely, it was literally night and day. When I first saw him perform with The Spiders From Mars I said wow, WTF, where did this come from? What the hell is going on here? It was extraordinary. A complete, utter transformation. He changed his persona so easily, that it was ground-breaking. He brought legions of fans to connect with his music and what he was presenting. It really was a show, not just like 4 guys standing on stage. He was a unique personality. David led the way for a lot of people, he pulled no punches. If he had a thought he would express himself.

-I’m intrigued by some pictures that you took just one year later, in 1974 you caught Bowie at another transitional period, which I think not many people had a chance to witness. When he ditched the whole elaborate stage set, and he began doing the soul shows. What was it like for you to witness him doing these shows just a year after you had seen him with The Spiders from Mars?

Well again, his capability to transform himself from one persona to a completely different one show that he had a visual presentation that not many artists had. Many bands were fairly consistent, they had similar outfits and similar stage shows, but he was unique in going from one extreme to the other. I mean, here, he’s in a suit! But it’s like ok, what is he trying to say now? Of course you need to listen to the music and listen to what he’s saying in the songs that he’s presenting. As you can imagine for me it’s hard to remember everything because of the overwhelming number of shows that I saw. When I look at the file cabinets I think “how the hell did I shoot all this shit?” It’s awe-inspiring, it’s an era that will never be repeated.

-Can I ask you about your last session with Bowie in the 70’s which was The Cher show? Do you have any memories of that?

It was very fleeting. I didn’t really get to talk to him, I was just there shooting the show. You would always have a limitation on what you were able to do because you couldn’t interfere with the recording of the show. Do you remember what year this would have been?

-1975.

Ok, I shot a lot of different shows, I used to shoot on the Midnight Special on NBC, that was in Burbank, California. I shot dozens of those shows. Because the lightening was so good, it was a real clean set-up, you just were to the side of the main camera shooting of the stage, there was always an audience sitting on the floor, so it was a very easy thing to shoot and you could produce very decent-looking photographs. It wasn’t as interactive as a real rock concert per se, because everything was staged, timed, they would call cut if they needed to do it over, but for me being able to get decent photos was a good thing. I shot a lot of different artists that I may not have shot if I hadn’t been shooting a show.

The Cher Show was on CBS, which would have been in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. I don’t remember a lot of details other than I probably went in, I probably had a certain number of restrictions on what I could do and how long I could do it, so I probably shot whatever I could and then I had to have left. I don’t know if I could have been there for the whole show, whatever the recording time it would have been. I don’t even remember what song they played.

-They performed a medley and Bowie also performed Can You Hear Me? and Fame.

Ok, because you’re an aficionado you would know that but there’s no chance in my mind that I would remembered any of that!

-Forward to 1983, you caught Bowie during Serious Moonlight. He was even more of a super star prior to any other time that you shot him. What did you think about this stage show at this point in his career?

He never failed to impress, no matter what he did. He was always the consummate performer, always trying to stretch the imagination, trying to challenge the norms. He was a ground-breaker, no matter what direction he went. The guy looked good no matter what he wore, which is why I guess he married a super model right? Always had great hair, great outfits, he had a sense of style that was rare and he was a style maker. People would follow what he did.

-Then 1987 with Glass Spider was even a bigger show.

Well why not get bigger? What the hell! This reminds me of the 50’s with the guys with the slicked back hair, that would be hanging out in the corner singing doo wop. He looks great hanging on his chair floating in the air, the guy knew how to show you he was doing something different.

-I’m curious about the star-studded photo from 1989.

Alright so this is Bowie, Terry Bozzio, Jeff Beck, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Chrissie Hynde, Bonnie Raitt, Slim Jim Phantom, Slash, and Albert Collins. An incredible blues guitarist that influenced all these rock guitar players. This was backstage after a show and you had to have a pretty commanding presence to be able to grab all these people and say “Ok, get the fuck together, I’m doing a photo!” and be able to get them to react to you. It’s not an easy thing to do. There’s always so many handlers for each one of these people around trying to stop you from doing this. I managed to get this shot and it’s one of my favorites. It happened very fast. One of the things I would do to capture their attention was have three cameras on me. One camera with black and white film, one camera with color film. Long before digital, actual film. I would have one around my neck and one around each shoulder. Let’s say I was shooting black and white for the trade shots, the right camera would be black and white with flash and the others would be color with flash, because backstage the light sucked. So I would shoot a bunch of shots, and literally dropped the camera and grabbed the other camera like a gunslinger, and bring that one up and shoot, and everyone would go like “what the hell is he doing?” It was a very animated way and I would get a big exclamation from the people I was doing it in front of. It was a little trick to grab their attention and just get a response because everybody was standing there, dumb as a stone with no expression and I’m trying to get a reaction.

-Just a year after, you shot Bowie during Sound + Vision in 1990. He was performing his hits –allegedly- for the last time. That was the selling point of the tour. Do you have any recollections of those shows?

His music was an indelible part of the overall atmosphere of the time. It was always an experience to go to his shows and it was always fun to shoot him because he was always doing ground breaking stuff. I can’t specifically remember what I may have felt about him doing that tour but I always took with a grain of salt when an artist said “This is my final tour” or “This is the last time I’ll be doing my greatest hits” I always just figured that was a bunch of bullshit. Initially it’s just a selling point and maybe they legitimately thought “Well I don’t really wanna do things this way anymore” The next thing I do it’s gonna be something new, because with him it was always something new. You can’t go back, if you go back it’s because you’re being pressured to sell a greatest hits album by your record company or whatever the case may be. I don’t know what the case was with him in this instance but nonetheless, it’s about making money. Bottom line, if you wanna keep doing what you were doing back then, you had to make sales. Selling records today is not that important. People streaming your songs is the way it’s sold now but back then you needed to sell either singles or albums, or CDs or whatever. But for an artist the way they can make the most money is by filling up arenas and stadiums, and selling tens of thousands of tickets because the record company doesn’t keep that money. The artist and their management keep that money, that’s why live shows were always the most important for bands that wanted to keep the majority of the money.

I’m sure Bowie’s Sound + Vision show was incredible. More often than not I wouldn’t really shoot more than one show unless I was hired by the band to shoot multiple shows because in many instances they only did one show at the venue where I was. Los Angeles being the second biggest market in the country, they did multiple shows at multiple venues. They could do a show at The Forum, The LA Sports Arena, then they could go down to Anaheim to The Convention Center and then Play San Diego. That could be four different shows of the same tour. So if I felt “Hey, I want to see another show because he might be wearing a different outfit” If I got cleared to shoot more than one show of a particular artist I was either fond of or I knew could sell photographs, I’d try doing that.

-Jeffrey, I’m curious about 1993 when you were hired to document the Black Tie White Noise videos.

I worked for two or three days on multiple videos. I think I was hired by his record company or his manager, so I worked a bit more intimately with him than I had before. In the brief conversations I had with him he was a consummate gentleman and a consummate artist. I saw him before my very eyes transform from one character to another to fit with the theme that the director of these videos was trying to achieve. He played a character like Buster Keaton and he then went into another character.

-There’s a photo where Bowie is talking with David Mallet, who is pointing at something.

That man is the director. He and David are discussing whatever the shot is they’re setting up and the rest is the crew who are just there watching all this happen.

-The pictures with the mirror are so amazing.

He was just playing around, it was a natural thing for him to do these kind of things, become other people. There were so many different personas. There’s another one in the middle of all these women. I thought “Ok, this is different” But everything about him was different. Do you remember what video this was?

-It’s “Miracle Goodnight”.

Alright, so there’s the Buster Keaton character. We had people doing the costumes and make up and such, but he so easily transformed into the characters…

-In 1993 you also took some photos of Bowie and Iman along with Al B. Sure! For Black Tie White Noise. What recollection do you have of shooting them together?

Those things are always very brief. They happen within seconds so you have to literally just hang on the fringes because again, there are so many handlers around these stars preventing you from doing your job even though you’re being hired and paid to do this, sometimes the artists would say to their publicist or their manager “Hang on, I want this guy to stop” Because I may have been the only photographer on the set. There’s a balance that you have to work as a professional. You want to achieve the goal of obtaining the photographs, but you can’t push the boundaries so that you impede the main goal here which is producing the video.

The Al B. Sure! Video…what year was it, was that 1993?

-Yes, 1993 for Black Tie White Noise.

Ok, so that was the year after the Los Angeles riots, is that it? Ok, I do remember the details of this story. The LA Police Department were on full tactical alert. This is literally the anniversary of the riots, when south LA was burned to the ground. I remember being in town, I lived in San Fernando valley, over the hills from Los Angeles, Beverly Hills Hollywood. I remember driving home, looking over my shoulder and seeing a good portion of Los Angeles on fire and smoke. So this session was the one year anniversary, the shots are taken just a block or two from the incident where a man was dragged out of a truck and smashed on the head with a brick. So we were literally a block away from that point. LA PD was on full tactical alert in case there was gonna be a flare up because of this. When I was told by the people who hired me to do this video that we were gonna do a shoot there, I realized we would be in a burned out building, in the basement. We were one floor underground, below street level. I said “Are you guys crazy? We could all get killed!” There could be a drive-by with a guy in an AK-47 just taking us all down. I told a friend of mine what I was doing and where I was doing it and he said “Do you want a bullet-proof vest?” And I said “Why? You’ve got one?” And he said yes.

So I wore a bullet-proof vest through this entire video. And I said “I’m gonna stand as close as possible to David Bowie through this entire video” We were working from six at night until six in the morning. Fortunately there was no flare-up but I stood as close as possible to Bowie throughout the entire night because the bottom line is: He’s going to be the most protected person on this set. So if I’m gonna die he’s gonna die with me too! So, I think it was a very interesting moment in time and I think it was very brave of them to do this. Fortunately there was substantial private security surrounding the whole area and there were no riots, so we completed the video and went about our business.

-Jeffrey, in 1993 the photos you were taking for Bowie were on the set of music videos. This particular session is filed as 1993 on your website but David’s appearance doesn’t really look like in 1993 so…

Ok, I wish I was a bit more fastidious about writing down the information, like location, venue and date because unfortunately memory fails.

-Could it be that this is an unreleased music video? Prior to you sharing these photos we had never seen them before and if it’s a music video it’s also a video we have never seen before either. Do you recall taking these pictures at the shooting of a video?

It certainly doesn’t look like a regular session. It’s certainly not a photo session I set up. The background is not something I would have had access to. It could have been an unreleased video as you are indicating. Anything is possible. Even though I was there that day shooting you have a great deal more knowledge. If you and the people you are in touch with can’t figure it out there’s no way I hell I’m gonna remember! I guess I could go back into the original files to look through the cabinets and see if I have anything notated about these shots.

-That would be fantastic, it could clear up the whole mystery!

I didn’t know it was a mystery to be honest with you. I like to solve mysteries, especially if it’s my own work!

-What was it like for you shooting Bowie in the later period of his career, in 1995 and 1997 with the Outside and Earthling eras?

                 

At this point shooting shows for me is a routine, you have to go through the whole methodology of contacting record companies, contacting publicists, getting assignment to shoot the show and getting clearance, it’s all this process that you go through. Let’s say if I had not listened to the album and was not familiar with his most current music because there were so many different things I was involved in, at this point I have a family, children – my wife is an incredible person. Without her our children would never have been raised. But I remember he still put on an amazing show, he never didn’t impress you.

-2002 was the last time you photographed Bowie.

Did he perform a lot after that?

-He still toured his following album (Reality) but that was it, that was his last big tour.

So I guess I covered the majority of his career then?

-You absolutely did.

Well, the man was extraordinary. There’s no other way to say it. His music was always at the forefront of what and how he presented himself, regardless of the outfits he was an incredible singer, incredible songwriter, incredible performer, incredible musician. He worked with many different people, as you are aware. He’s one of the impressive people of the latter part of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. He left his mark as you are well aware and he won’t be forgotten by the people that enjoy his music and enjoy what he put forth. As many times as you hear “Space Oddity” it’s still a great song to listen to and everything else afterwards. It’s a hallmark. He presented a story, he created a visualization and you use your imagination to go to where he is bringing you and that is a unique talent that not everyone has.

-Have you ever thought about putting together a book of your David Bowie photographs or is that something you’ve never considered doing?

The idea has been presented a hundred thousand times. Doing a book of my overall work, not specifically David Bowie. It takes a great deal of time and effort and the monetary reward is not necessarily there anymore. There’s so many books that’ve been made about rock n’ roll music. It isn’t impossible but I don’t know if I would do one just specifically about David. I’m not sure his estate would be pleased with that, I don’t know if they would object. So no, I have not thought about doing that. I have thought about doing an overall book many times. I’ve contributed to Led Zeppelin by Led Zeppelin. I’m lucky to have four photographs in that book. Those photos were chosen by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant. The man who curated that book for them spent four or six hours at my home going through all of my Led Zeppelin photos, so when it’s done by the band it’s one thing, when they say ok, we would love to have your photos in this book. I don’t know if that has ever been an idea that the David Bowie Estate has considered.

-Regarding prints, I noticed that FATHOM has quite a range of your photos available, is that the only place where your work can be acquired or can they be acquired directly from you?

That is a gallery that I work with and those prints are all numbered and signed so they are limited editions, two different sizes. 18×24 and 24×32. They’re beautiful prints made by the gallery, they are museum quality prints. But people can contact me directly through my website and I can make prints for them, if they don’t wan to spend that kind of money on those shots, because those are exclusive, numbered and signed prints.

-What’s your social media Jeffrey?

instagram.com/jeffreymayer

https://www.jeffreymayerphotography.com

fathom-art.com/artists/photographers/jeffrey-mayer/

That’s a shot of me in a red baseball cap, in a WW2 fighter trainer aircraft, on a Pat Benatar video, Shadows of The Night.

-Last question Jeffrey, what was your reaction when you found out David Bowie had passed away?

I was devastated. So many of these people went far too young. How old was he, like seventy? (69) He needed to live at least twenty years more in my mind. I’m 72, these people were all around my age range. Eric Clapton just turned 76 a few weeks away. When you think about Mick Jagger, the guy is like 77 and the guy’s still running around on stage, it’s pretty amazing. It is terrible, you just don’t wanna see these people go. Tom Petty died, Prince died, it just goes on and on and on. Death is part of life sadly and you just never know how much time you have. We could finish this conversation and I could fucking drop dead in a minute. You just don’t know how much time you’re given. What are you, like 25 years old? You’re an infant. You weren’t alive when I took most of these photos!

**Note: After our conversation Jeffrey went through his archives and discovered slide mounts imprinted with © Jeffrey Mayer 1993. The photos are in the slide sleeves with other shots from the music videos as well as other photos from 1993. We can safely conclude that it was a scene or sequence which was filmed but never made it into one of the videos, most likely Miracle Goodnight, as it already had several sequences with different characters and sets.

Many thanks to Jeffrey Mayer.

All photos © Jeffrey Mayer

Interview by Francisco Beristain, exclusively for David Bowie News. © 2021.

Edited by Nick Vernon.

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