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An interview... with Jill Furmanovsky

Her first photograph was of Paul McCartney, her first magazine cover was The Who, an award-winning photograph of The Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts in the archive and a legacy that has spanned over music's golden era.

Jessica Bracey interviews rock photography legend Jill Furmanovsky on behalf of Professional Photographer magazine.

With a vast catalogue of images featuring music royalty, Jill Furmanovsky stands firm as the leading lady of rock photography. Her ascent to trusted friend and respected documenter of rock history didn’t involve becoming a groupie or studying for three years in a London college, just gritty determination and a two week course.

“I borrowed a camera while studying at the Central School of Art and Design and went to see YES play at the Rainbow Theatre”, she says. “I don’t know what came over me but half way through the show I got up, went downstairs and made my way towards the stage without being stopped. The bouncers must have assumed I was professional because I was carrying a professional looking camera.

“At the end of the night I started chatting to a couple of professional photographers who worked in-house at the Rainbow. They asked if I was interested in doing some regular work at the venue. I remember rushing into college the next day and begging the somewhat bemused staff in the photography department to teach me everything they knew immediately. I’d got a job. The following week, I was taking pictures of Pink Floyd.”

The photography course may only have lasted a couple of weeks but Furmanovsky’s interest in photography dates back to her childhood in Rhodesia. “My father was an amateur photographer and played in a band. As a child, he would take me into his dark room in the house and I’d sit and watch as he developed his photographs. It was so magical. I never forgot that.”

In her early teens, her family relocated to London where her passion for music and photography showed early signs of coming to fruition. In an era of Beatlemania and fan publications, Furmanovsky took her first rock picture in1967 outside Paul McCartney’s St John’s Wood home. The photo, taken on a Kodak instamatic camera, was published in Beatles Monthly.

Years later, Furmanovsky began working for the music press. “We were called snappers in those days”, she says, “and we would be lucky to get ten minutes to ‘snap’ pictures at the end of a journalist’s interview. That changed in the 1980s with The Face magazine. Then it was the journalists who were given ten minutes at the end of our photo shoot.”

Even then, however, music photography was fashion’s lowly cousin. “We never had the status of the fashion photographers or the glossy magazines like Vogue to run pages of our work. We had Melody Maker and NME printed on toilet paper.”

In 1991, Furmanovsky took a picture of Charlie Watts from The Rolling Stones that was set to change all that. Part of a series for Q Magazine the now iconic image, featuring Watts in profile, was taken in a hotel room in Holland Park using a Hasselblad and a portable studio flash. “The picture was only used as a small on the magazine’s contents page. They used another photo as the main image that I didn’t think was very good.”

The photo was later entered into the Observer’s Jane Brown Portrait Award and won first prize in 1992, contributing to changing perceptions of music photography as a type of art. This concept is still something that Furmanovsky’s modesty sits uneasily with – she describes herself as “trigger happy and hideously sloppy” with new digital cameras – but admits that “winning it meant so much.”

In a career that includes shooting the likes of Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Blondie, The Police, Led Zeppelin, Madness, Rod Stewart, Brian Eno, Grace Jones, Stevie Wonder, The Sex Pistols and Bob Dylan, Furmanovsky understandably finds it hard to single out a highlight, but acknowledges that her work with Britpop pioneers Oasis is some of her best. “It was a combination of subject matter, excellent timing and experience. Given that I had only taken a two week course, I spent years teaching myself how to use a large format camera, how to use flash, how to shoot in colour. By the time Oasis came along, I was forty and ready.”

Much of her success is down to the trust and respect that musicians have for her. “It takes a lifetime to build that”, she says. “You can make somebody look a fool if you want to, but if you are good enough and produce good work then everything else disappears. I used to feel I was challenged for being young and female but I couldn’t let that stand in my way. I didn’t walk around in stilettos and a mini skirt because I had a job to do. When young girls today ask me if they can come on the road, I advise them to lose the make-up and put on a black t-shirt and some flats.’

For Furmanovsky, gaining access to the hallowed backstage arena was never about “playing rockstar”. In her early career photographers were poorly paid, earning on average thirty pounds per published photo. They were, however, treated to five star hotels and the kudos of celebrity companions on tour. “Some photographers got hooked on that”, she says. “They began to think they were part of band. I never had that. I didn’t go running around hotels at night with groupies or take endless drugs. I just went to bed, because I had a job the next day. I never thought I had to be friends with the musicians but having said that you become very close and intimate on the road. If a band is touring around Europe and you turn up with British essentials like Marmite, teabags and the latest copy of NME, they’re thrilled.”

It isn’t Furmanovsky’s ability to maintain provision stocks on tour that’s got her ahead, though. Taking photographs at gigs has always been more than just a job for her. She describes the process as “a holy experience and a meditation. The music goes out and you don’t hear it, you’re in your own field. Pennie Smith who shot The Clash followed inner directions of where she should be at a particular time. I think this is particularly the case in live shows. It’s probably the most honest photography in rock.”

This process has translated into some of the most memorable images in rock history. Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, with champagne bottle in hand, at the Rainbow in 1977. Chrissie Hynde with Furmanovsky’s own daughter locked in a cramped cage to illustrate animal rights’ abuses and an image of Amy Winehouse, taken in five minutes and a few frames in a corridor backstage, showing the singer smiling and laughing. In contrast to the usual images of a thwarted, torn icon on self-destruct, Furmanovsky’s photograph shows a side to the singer that most people hadn’t seen.
Her current focus is Rock Archive, a site dedicated to making her work, and that of other rock photographers and visual artists, more accessible to fans and collectors. To launch the project, Furmanovsky selected 30 classic black and white images of major rock artists from her 30 year archive, to make into an edition of 30 darkroom prints. Edition 30/30/30 as it became known, was the first collection for a project that now publishes more than 750 images by 60 photographers and art directors.

So, after so many years in the business, does Furmanovsky still feel the same magic that led her to a career in photography? “It’s interesting”, she says, “because I have a dear friend who was really bothering me to teach him how to use a dark room. He bought the paper and chemicals and I showed him how to focus, talked him through the red light, the grain, the atmosphere. It really brought it all back. Yes, the excitement is still there and I still believe in its magic.”

Words by Bianca Brigitte Bonomi (H/T - Velour Magazine)

A young Jill Furmanovsky photographed by Nick Maso from Pink Floyd