_For much of the 80s and early 90s, Lynn Goldsmith photographed the biggest rock stars on the planet. A gifted portraitist, her images have graced the covers of national magazines, album covers, and music biographies. Her latest book, Rock and Roll Stories (Abrams, $44) is a collection of favorites pulled from the archives, paired with a brutally honest and earnest retelling of the stories that formed her (reluctant) identity as a “rock & roll photographer.”
Goldsmith’s reputation as someone who could get even the most notoriously fickle celebrities to open up for her camera brought all manner of artists into her studio. The music she loved, the images she made, and the lovers she took were often interwoven, all part of the story she tells in Rock and Roll Stories. There are plenty of highs, but no life is without lows, and Goldsmith’s were played out in front of a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden—like the time ex-boyfriend Bruce Springsteen embarrassed her onstage at a concert she helped organize.
And while the roster of rock stars she’s romanced is distinguished (Springsteen, David Byrne, Sting), her stories remain intensely personal. And she projects the confidence that comes with being able to tell a tale of the time she smoked a spliff with Bob Marley, while showing you the picture of Bob rolling it. She’s not bragging; she doesn’t have to.
These days Goldsmith is a bit more out of the spotlight, but no less magnetic. Shortly after being selected as one of American Photo’s 2013 Books of the Year, she sat down with us at our Manhattan office to talk about the book, her career, and why it’s important for photographers to stand up for their work._
You’ve said that until now, you were never comfortable about being called a “Rock & Roll photographer.” What’s different?
I had to really look back at my own life to see what made me feel most connected to the world. Not only the camera, but why the subject matter? That was when I came upon my childhood, and remembering being a kid at four years old and being sent to overnight camp. Those moments, when my counselor took me out and sang to me, and had me sing with her….subconsciously, it wasn’t until I forced myself to write about it that I could see why music was a connector for me.
So that’s what the book is about?
The whole point of this book was to rewrite, add to, and expand upon what PhotoDiary was. I have enough of an archive that I don’t need to repeat images, but I never felt that _ PhotoDiary_ was complete because I never came to terms with being called a “Rock & Roll Photographer.” That book was more about me forcing myself to look at why people were giving me this name, and what did I have to do with it.
I was in such denial. I would say “I worked for Sports Illustrated, I worked for National Geographic, and I just came back from Mexico, covering the earthquake.” I’ve always been against labels, but to me a label in photography, meant, if it really applied to someone who had true skills, you were a portrait photographer, a landscape photographer…
What does it mean to be a rock & roll photographer now, vs. the glory days?
I don’t think there is such a thing as the glory days. In the book, I show my pictures of Elvis Presley, which I sold for $75. In my day there were very few major publications because they were more focused on news—they didn’t put celebrities on the cover. What record labels paid isn’t that far from what’s going on today. They wanted to pay you $100 for a press picture, you know, and you had expenses.
No matter what generation we come from, we will face challenges, and I think that the success of any person is to draw lines on what the value is of their work, and to demand that for it. And to educate those who are trying to get it for less: Why does it cost that? In our environment now, compared to then, was that in the 70s, 80s, and even the 90s, photographers met with photo editors and art directors, and there was a very human connection. Now so much is, email, look at it online, that it becomes easier for them as human beings, the person who allocates income, to not see others as human beings. And for me, that’s the challenge. How can you make yourself a human being to them, and them to you? How can you not fall prey to the mindset that even though Jim and Joe and Sally and Khalil are giving it for free, that you don’t go along with that. You have enough self-esteem to put a value on who you are and what you create.
How does a photographer get the kind of access you got?
You make the person in front of the camera—whether they be famous or not famous—feel incredibly comfortable. They have a level of trust with you. That access is given to people who an artist likes to have around and knows how to work effectively, so that their time isn’t wasted, and that they can trust.
You’ve been a champion of hair and makeup artists—there’s a great anecdote in Rock & Roll Stories where you recall showing the label photos of the artist with and without makeup, and asked which one they wanted to pay for.
If I didn’t do it myself, I paid people myself, because I knew it would make my images better. And that’s what they play on. But at least at that time, I owned those images. So I could make someone look better, then run around Manhattan on my bicycle and be able to create a market for that person. I’d sell or license those pictures, and hopefully be able to repay the money I had shelled out, and build my career in that way.
What does it mean to be a woman working in this industry? I can’t imagine there were a lot of female photographers at these events. Was it helpful, or hurtful?
There weren’t that many women photographers, period. I think that whoever we are, whether we’re attractive, white, African-American, Asian, or whatever it is we are, we bring the totality of that.
I didn’t realize it until I saw the image made of me and Patti Smith by Michael Putland, but we looked at it, and Patti said, “Wow, remember all the times we just walked down the street? If only we knew how good-looking we were.” I brought that to it, but I think I also brought my sense of humor and level of intelligence.
But then it also worked against me, in that most of the publicists were women, and they didn’t necessarily want me around. Or it worked against me because I wasn’t the photographer that they could take with them on the road, because they didn’t want to be seen cheating on their wives. And I wasn’t available. Some of those men photographers used to pull women for them, if it wasn’t a roadie….those were the days of rock & roll. It would be, “So and so, go in the audience, there was that one in the third row…” and that’s certainly not what I’m gonna do. So there’s always pluses and minuses, no matter what. I don’t know what everybody’s thinking. I only know one thing: I can’t change who I am on the outside. I think that if I’d been black, I would be way more successful.
As a black woman?
Oh yeah. I hired a black woman and trained her to be a photographer, and I could get her in anywhere and to do anything. I teach once in a while, and I’ve had African-American women students. I tell them, “you’ve got it going on for you.”
First of all, if they’re photographing other African-Americans, there can be an immediate level of trust, and a feeling that you can be more yourself. That’s one thing right there. African-American to African-American. But you take a gorgeous African-American woman and put her in front of a white rock star…
Is it a disarming thing, or otherization?
There’s white guilt, there’s all kinds of stuff. The young girl that I was training, Angie, she really wanted to photograph Robert Kennedy Jr. She knew where he came out of his house, everything. I said listen, if this is something you really want to do, go up to him and ask him. How often do you think he gets approached by a beautiful African-American woman? And she got the photo. If a white guy, a schlub, had walked up to him, what do you think he would have said? Pluses and minuses.
How do you influence an artist’s aesthetic without making your influence obvious?
Look at Bryan Adams! This was his [second] album. Do you really want to look like a green munchkin? This is how he shows up [flips to page 94 in book]…is that how you show up for your first shoot? That was the style he chose. He made a record—and this was his style—and his music didn’t sound like that. So I’m not trying to take him from this to this just because I think it will make him look better, it’s because to me, his music sounds like this, and not like this.
So the music is filtered through you.
I tell the Ricky Nelson story in there. I always try to make my best effort to see someone perform. I listen to the record, but I want to see them perform before I photograph them. With Ricky, I went to see him perform at the Ritz club, this is Ricky Nelson, from my youth, from the time of Elvis, and out comes this guy with gold chains around his neck and high-waisted continental pants. His new album [1981’s Playing to Win] was totally rockabilly; after seeing him perform, I knew. And that hairstyle? He had like a bouffant hairdo. If you’re playing Vegas, OK. But if you’re playing New York, and you’re playing the Ritz, a hip place…I didn’t say anything then, I just prepared for the studio shoot the next day, and got [ex-boyfriend] Mitch Glazer’s clothes.
He came in like, “OK, you have twenty minutes.” I just said to him, “listen, if you want to be photographed the way you look, I suggest you get on your plane and leave. Because I am not going to make pictures of you looking like that.” It’s not just I wouldn’t put my name on that. I love Ricky Nelson. He needed to hear that from somebody. And the beauty of it was, the next day, I got a call from his management saying, “Ricky came home and told his wife to throw everything in the closet out, and she wants to know where I should take him shopping.”
My husband is often appalled at my mouth. But I think that because the artist knows that what I’m saying is not to be negative, but from a very positive place, and that I care about them.
Tell me about Obie, Bruce’s “biggest fan.” You told The New Yorker that “I wished I could have been like her. She inspired me because she was able to give with no strings attached. She gave freely because she believed in the power of love.”
That’s why I wouldn’t call her a groupie. She was a No. 1 fan. A groupie is different from a fan.
What does it mean to be a groupie?
In my opinion, a groupie is someone who is willing to exchange any sexual favors to anybody involved in getting to whoever the star is in the group. And in fact, would probably do that with any range of stars—it’s not even just that one artist or group. It’s a person whose self-esteem is so low that they need to give up what I consider to be sacred stuff to be in the presence of. And in my opinion, they don’t even know what they are in the presence of. They just need it for validation.
And you were in the “presence of” for quite some time.
That’s why I hated being called a rock & roll photographer. That’s also why that’s not the only thing I did. I want to be around people who inspire me. There are a lot of people who give over the power to individuals that they want to think are better than themselves, and they can’t separate the messenger from the message. To be around that too much is really boring.
There’s a sexual dynamic in many of the photographs in Rock & Roll Stories. There is even an entire chapter dedicated to your relationships with various musicians.
I know so many guys who become fashion photographers or involved in some way with photographing women, because they want to get laid. That’s not my modus operandi, because I don’t need to do this to get that. I don’t need to carry all this heavy equipment. There’s many easier ways. And more profitable ones.
But the kissing and telling in the last chapter is not because I am trying to sell books, and not because I’m proud of having been with a particular famous person that other people want. It’s because I learned certain lessons, as we all do. I think the greatest lessons are learned in our romantic relationships. That’s where we’re the most vulnerable, that’s where things often hit you the hardest. So when I talk about something it’s because I think it will help other people. When I talk about Bruce, I share how in many ways I feel sorry for the guy, in that I wasn’t ready to be loved, and therefore I could do a hot-and-cold thing. I think there’s a lot of girls in their 20s and 30s that do that, and maybe they can benefit. When someone opens their heart to you, you should really take a close look at that, and how you communicate and behave with that person.
**What kind of work are you doing now? **
I continue to do self-portraits. Besides that aspect of my work, I’m always doing, as most people are, bodies of work that have nothing to do with selling to anybody. It’s more of a way to be curious about who I am and who other people are, and then utilizing work to help get me to focus in on those answers. So I always do a range of different kinds of imagery. I’m still ripping apart my Barbie dolls…I’m always doing something, visually. However, I’m also focused on my next Will Powers project. Hopefully by April I’ll have an EP of four new songs, and I have to work on em.
No Rolling Stone covers in the immediate future?
I don’t care. It’s not like in the early days, where to have a LIFE magazine cover, to have a Rolling Stone cover, that meant something. None of that stuff means anything to me. And certainly a CD cover doesn’t mean anything to me. There’s only so much time left. What does mean something to you? If I can figure out ways that what I do can be of service, whether it’s work for Doctors Without Borders…if you can take what you have skills in and apply it to areas that could help other people, that feels good. Much better than a Rolling Stone cover. Who cares, you know?
To view and buy prints of Goldsmith’s work, visit the Morrison Hotel Gallery at 124 Prince St. in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. For more information, call 212.941.8770. Goldsmith also has prints for sale at her personal site, rockandrollphotogallery.com.