Annie Leibovitz on Mick Jagger and the Stones
Posted on June 1, 2013
Looking astonishingly like something out of Jesus Christ Superstar, This image of Mick Jagger was photographed by Annie Leibovitz in New York City, 1980.
Annie Leibovitz on Mick Jagger via Vanity Fair:
When I first worked for Rolling Stone, in the early 70s, we wouldn’t photograph a band until they came to town. I hardly ever traveled. I took some pictures of the Rolling Stones when they came through San Francisco in 1971 and 1972. Truman Capote was supposed to write a story for the magazine about the 1972 tour, and the editor, Jann Wenner, said it was O.K. if I went along to two or three cities. Robert Frank was traveling with the band, making a 16-mm. film that would become Cocksucker Blues. The band had commissioned him to do it, but it was never formally released, presumably because of the drugs and sex that were filmed. Danny Seymour, Frank’s friend and camera assistant, was involved in a lot of that. He died mysteriously while the film was being edited.
I was in awe of Robert Frank. He had been one of my heroes when I was a photography student at the San Francisco Art Institute. I couldn’t believe that I was able to watch him work for a few days, that I was actually in the room where Robert Frank was loading his camera. He picked up my camera once. I was terrified. He held it. It was like being with God. He said to me, “You can’t get every picture.” That was comforting advice. You do miss things. You’re attached to this machine. To its timing. Things are moving in front of you and you’re supposed to capture them, but it’s not always possible. Robert Frank didn’t seem to be missing anything, though. He was tireless. He never stopped working.
I guess the band liked the few pictures I took then, and in 1975 Mick called and asked me if I would like to be their tour photographer. Mick is very shrewd. He seems to understand that the documentation of the band is important. He kept all of his costumes from the tours. And he’s always had a photographer. Like the president or the Queen has a photographer.
I went to Jann and told him I wanted to go on the tour. He said that he couldn’t guarantee that there would be a job for me when I came back, but I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss. Robert Frank had photographed the Rolling Stones and now it was my turn.
The band was rehearsing at Andy Warhol’s place in Montauk, at the end of Long Island, and I went out there for a month or so, and then there was a break and the tour started in June. I was very naïve. I brought my tennis racket with me. I thought that maybe as we went from city to city I would take tennis lessons. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. They were paying me a few hundred dollars a week and I was supposed to create publicity pictures, but I only managed to get a few out the first day and that was it. I was never up during the day again. I was always with the band.
At the time, I thought that the way to get the best work was to become a chameleon. To become so much a part of what was going on that no one would notice you were there. It was unbelievably stupid of me to pick that situation to become part of. I did everything you’re supposed to do when you go on tour with the Rolling Stones. It was the first time in my life that something took me over.
A rock ‘n’ roll tour is unnatural. You’re moving through time and space too fast. The experience is extreme. There is the bigness of the performances and then the isolation and loneliness that follows. The band was like a group of lost boys, but their music saved them. It gave them a reason to exist. When they weren’t on tour they didn’t spend that much time together. On the road they worked. It was the first time in my life—and I’d been at Rolling Stone for five years by then—that I saw how music is made. I saw how it is produced organically. The riffs I heard in hotel rooms during the tour were the songs on the next album—“Memory Motel,” “Fool to Cry.”
The photograph that is emblematic of the 1975 tour for me is the one of Mick in the elevator. It was toward the end of the tour, and he was not on the ground. He was flying. From another world. He was the most beautiful object. Like a butterfly. Ethereal. After all the time on the road, his dancing was very loose. It was almost surreal. I was always aware of where Mick was. What might have seemed like a nuisance to him became a source of comfort. To know that I was somewhere nearby. It was a subject-photographer relationship of an obsessive kind. I remember him saying that I should tell him if I wanted him to be at a specific place on the stage at any point in the show, but I found that too daunting. I couldn’t think of anything for him to do that he wasn’t already doing.
At the end of the performances, the band would do two or three encores that had been planned. Nothing was ad-libbed. They were professional in a way I hadn’t seen until then. They’d been doing it awhile. After the last encore, when everyone in the audience thought they were coming onstage again, they would get out of Dodge. Mick dumped several pails of water on his head every night as part of the show and he would leave the stage totally wet, with his eye makeup running. He wrapped himself up in towels and jumped in the car. Usually the band went straight to the plane, but we were staying in town the night I photographed him in the elevator. The picture was taken on the way up to Mick’s room. He and I were alone. We were on some level out of it. Not because of drugs, but because of all that travel, and sleep deprivation, and the exertion of the performances.
I learned about power on that tour. About how people in an audience can lose a sense of themselves and melt into a frenzied, mindless mass. Mick and Keith had tremendous power both on and offstage. They would walk into a room like young gods. I found that my proximity to them lent me power also. A new kind of status. It didn’t have anything to do with my work. It was power by association.
I’ve been on many tour buses and at many concerts, but the best photographs I’ve made of musicians at work were done during that Rolling Stones tour. I probably spent more time on it than on any other subject. For me, the story about the pictures is about almost losing myself, and coming back, and what it means to be deeply involved in a subject. You can get amazing work, but you’ve got to be careful. The thing that saved me was that I had my camera by my side. It was there to remind me who I was and what I did. It separated me from them.