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Gered Mankowitz interview -

Mario: When did your passion for photography start? Anything in particular you remember from traveling and working in photography for the first time?

Mankowitz: My initial interest in photography was really inspired by the great actor Peter Sellers. He was a friend of my fathers and he came to the family home for Sunday lunch in the summer of 1958 when I was about twelve. Being a very enthusiastic photographer, he brought with him a full Hasselblad camera kit as well as an early 4x5 Polaroid 110A camera. Having just completed filming Tom Thumb he suggested taking a few Polaroids of me with my brother Jonathan apparently standing on my hand – like Tom Thumb! I was completely blown away by this magic, and then he proceeded to show me the Hasselblad camera, explaining in minute detail the workings of this wonderful contraption, but all the time speaking in a mad Swedish style voice – I was hysterical with laughter and from that moment was determined to be a photographer and own a Hasselblad.

Mario: You opened your now renowned photography studio at 9 Mason’s Yard before you were in your 20’s, do you think there was an advantage in starting at such an early age? – and did having a studio help your career or legitimize you?

Mankowitz: I didn’t really have much choice to be honest – I left school the moment I was legally allowed to and immediately served a short, but concentrated apprenticeship at Camera Press Ltd, a major photo agency in the center of London. I then began to learn about building a career in photography by working as an assistant and shooting anything I could! Opening the studio was really a pragmatic and logical step at that moment in time, but it certainly gave me a lot of credibility for someone so young.

Mario: You have photographed some of the most seminal musicians of the era early on; hence, I believe, helping to create and popularize the Rock star look, something I’ve read you refer to as a “moody and sexy” image. How were your pictures perceived at the time? How have these perceptions changed through time?

Mankowitz: Like the young musicians I was working with I was trying to rock the boat a bit. I wanted to bring a dignity to these new bands but also wanted to escape from the cliched shiny teeth, frilly shirts and glittery suits that were the hallmarks of the show biz world. No one wanted to smile, that just wasn’t cool or sexy, but everyone did of course – Jimi Hendrix laughed a lot, and I now love the smiling portraits I took of him, but at that moment in history we didn’t think that was what the fans wanted, so they weren’t used. I don’t think the perceptions have changed really, Keith Richards in 1965 is still incredibly cool and Jimi’s look lives forever!

Mario: You have mentioned the importance of trust between the photographer and the subject in your earlier photography, since the subjects were not able to see the results of the camera work in the moment. Do you think music photography has changed now that technology provides such immediacy?

Mankowitz: Of course, it has changed beyond recognition, but not just because of technology, which has had a major impact in the past 20 years in particular. It began to change once the bands demonstrated that they were more than a couple of chart hits, that they might be more than just a bunch of long haired louts! Lawyers, business managers and the controls that they introduced and encouraged altered everything. The industry grew rapidly, and the sums involved became huge. We all moved with the times, got better at our jobs, more professional and the industry matured, and we made it work. The immediacy of digital technology doesn’t feel to me like a positive thing of itself, because it has had the effect of devaluing photography and undermining the craft and skills that we spent years perfecting. You can take a marvelous “snap” on your phone but it won’t translate into an album cover or a poster, unless the degraded and pixelated image is what you are after. High quality studio photography still requires a lot of skill regardless of the technology, and you still need to engender trust with your subject to get the moment of contact that makes a portrait special.

Mario: In your work, you allow the personalities of the artists to emerge, is it a conscious effort? And how have you been able to accomplish this in your career?

Mankowitz: It always seemed obvious to me that the personalities of my subjects were key to capturing their portraits. Although most of the people I worked with were enormously talented musicians they were not necessarily comfortable having their photos taken. In that regard they were “real” people, not models or actors, and therefore making them feel good about what we were doing was important. They weren’t there to fulfill my vision, I was there to try and interpret theirs!

Mario: In the 60s, you travelled as the Rolling Stones photographer for their fourth US tour. What was your experience of the American music scene at that time?

Mankowitz: It was 1965 and it was chaotic! It was a mad scene, full of excitement, great music, terrible venues, awful sound, even worse lighting, boredom, crazy fans, amateur promoters, flashy cops, bad hamburgers, endless games of poker, scary flights in beaten up old planes, segregation, verbal abuse, two shows a night, terrible security, fan club Angel Cakes, flying panties, aggressive journalists looking for fights, a little sex, some drugs and not enough sleep – you know, fun!

Mario: Can you talk about your experiences photographing Jimi Hendrix – after years being a backup musician, he was finally making a name on his own, how did he take the newfound recognition? Was he a forthcoming, willing subject?

Mankowitz: He seemed very willing, enthusiastic and eager to work. He was modest, quiet and humble with a wicked smile and a great sense of humor. Looking back, I realize now that this fleeting period early in 1967 was probably the most optimistic period in his all too brief career, Hey Joe was about to hit the charts, the British musicians, the media and the fans had embraced him in a way that was completely beyond his previous experience and he had everything to live for. I also believe that he never looked better than he did in those early days and it was a privilege to have worked with him at this extraordinary moment in time.

Mario: The Rolling Stones’s “Between the Buttons” album cover displays an experimentation with the lens that distorts the image and adds a “trippy” effect. You also play with angles and space in the “December’s Children” album cover. When did you start experimenting with your lenses and angles, and how did you decide when you were able to experiment?

Mankowitz: From the moment I realized that Music was the world I wanted to photograph I tried to create album covers, or to be more accurate, to make images that would lend themselves to be a cover. In those days covers were very rarely conceived and shot specifically, it was much more haphazard than that, someone somewhere would see a shot and decide that would make a cover – December’s Children was a result of that process. Andrew Loog Oldham (the Stones brilliant manager/producer) saw the shot and decided it would make a cover – I was, of course, delighted! Between the Buttons was a little different because by 1966 I had achieved a closeness to the band and to Andrew that allowed me the freedom to feel that I could actually contribute something to the group’s image, and in that sense it was a concept cover. I had a powerful sense of how the music for the album was shaping up having spent long nights with the band in the recording studio, so I suggested we shot a session early in the morning after they had been recording. I made a filter of black card and glass and Vaseline and we shot on top of Primrose Hill in North London in the early morning light for about 40 minutes before the band made it clear that they had had enough!

Mario: In your work, you have photographed the rise of many young bands that were able to achieve high recognition. Do you consider the element of youth prevalent in your photography important for the work? And could you tell which bands would achieve a higher level of fame?

Mankowitz: I always found the most rewarding sessions were with artists who were about to break out. Their image is still unformed, and I can get involved and try to help the process and help them find a look that they can live with and build on. That doesn’t mean that working with an established artist can’t be rewarding, but if you are in on the ground-floor it is more exciting. There are certain artists who have an instinct as to how to work the camera, they are usually the ones who love it and you always know who they are…

Mario: After your long stint in music photography, you began working in advertising for over 20 years. What is a major difference in the advertising world that you could not do in music photography, or vice versa?

Mankowitz: Money had a lot to do with it – by the end of the 70s I was shooting a lot of music sessions every week and trying to come up with several ideas for each session was draining me creatively, and not earning me enough money. I was heading for a burn-out and began to feel that I was possibly getting too old for the music biz anyway – Punk was a nudge in that direction! So, I determined to put a portfolio together that would get me into advertising, but my music folio didn’t actually do the trick, so I spent a few months producing a lot of editorial work and that seemed to get me through the door. Once I started in advertising I really enjoyed the complex production challenges and I put together a marvelous team at my studio who were such fun to work with that every day was exciting and funny. However, Punk passed, and the music business never really went away, and I worked concurrently in both industries for the next 25 years!

Mario: Who was the most interesting or rewarding subject for you to photograph?

Mankowitz: Honestly, in 55 years there have been so many that it is impossible to think of just one, but The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix do stand out because their music continues to inspire people and my work with them continues to be of interest to collectors and fans all over the World. But Marianne Faithfull, Paul McCartney, Suzi Quatro, Kate Bush, Eurythmics, Elton John, George Harrison and many others have been pretty interesting as well..!

Mario: Who would you have wanted to photograph?

Mankowitz: Again, the list is endless but the young Elvis, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, Ry Cooder, young Beatles would all be at the top of the list.

Mario: Did you think, in the beginning that your entire career would be spent in photography?

Mankowitz: Well, I wanted it to be, but it never felt viable and as I got older I just assumed that I would need to evolve into other genres of commercial photography, but the musicians and the record companies kept asking so I never really gave it up!

Mario: You are still taking images of contemporary bands and even have participated in interesting video series like the Backstage Sessions. Do you have any projects you are working on now or will in the near future?

Mankowitz: I am always busy and have several projects on the go, but at this immediate moment I am focusing on a collaboration with an old friend, the Royal artist Christian Furr, and we have produced an exciting exhibition we call 45RPM which we are getting ready for a gallery in the UK which will open in February, and then we would like to bring it to the USA. And I am also preparing an exhibition for a gallery in Gothenburg in Sweden which will open in April. There is also a Hendrix exhibition for the latter part of this year as well as discussions for a very exciting TV project which might happen as well!



Gered Mankowitz portrait

Mankowitz was born in London in 1946, the first of four sons to Wolf Mankowitz, an established film writer and producer, and his wife, Ann Mankowitz a psychotherapist. Dropping out of school at the age of 15, Mankowitz began his career in photography and displayed an innate talent that would be discovered by legendary photographer Tom Blau, who offered him an apprenticeship in his famous studio, Camera Press Ltd., where he would gain much experience. In 1962, his photography career would start to take off. Still, in his teens, he traveled to Barbados and began to work professionally on photography, following that he would travel to Paris and begin working in fashion photography. Uninterested in this area of work, Mankowitz began working under “show-biz” photographer Jeff Vickers. After opening his first studio at 9 Mason’s Yard, in the cultural center of the London Swinging 60’s scene, Mankowitz began taking photographs of musicians, actors and show people, creating a name for himself and eventually meeting Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones, who would later hire Mankowitz as the Stones official photographer.

Over the last 20 years, Gered has been based at his North London studio, a converted Victorian chapel, taking prize-winning photos for the advertising industry. He has also been a regular contributor to several major publications and still works occasionally in the music business photographing bands and singers. Gered has participated in many solo and group exhibitions around the globe including having several images in the “Icons of Pop” exhibition at The National Portrait Gallery in London and has published many books of his iconic images.


Dialogues With Great Photographers - Chapter 31

Photographer: Gered Mankowitz
Interviewer: Mario Lopez Pisani