Renowned rock photographer Gered Mankowitz has just printed his half century in celluloid with a book called 50 Years of Rock and Roll Photography.
Inspired to take up the profession by Peter Sellers, he opened his first studio in 1964 and found himself at the centre of “Swinging London”, the birth of Cool Britannia.
He soon established himself as one of the most sought after music photographers, working with the Rolling Stones from 1964 to 67 and snapping the crème de la crème of British and American acts along the way.
It’s hard to image now but the British music scene at that time was in its infancy and there was no precedent or blueprint mapped out for the burgeoning musical uprising.
1963 was a pivotal year for Gered; he began taking his first pictures at the same time as the Mersey Beat sound was being birthed. The Beatles had just released their second studio album and were touring with Helen Shapiro — they were fourth on the bill of 11 acts.
The group trod onto American soil for the very first time in February of 1964, their stepping stone towards worldwide domination. This was an incredible achievement executed by a small number of creative individuals who were investing in the relatively new concept of “the teenager”.
Mankowitz was one of those early architects and creators of “Swinging London”, giving Britain a cool image that was marketed with incredible effect around the world; it was brand Britain.
He explains, “You didn’t know what was happening. I think that a big part of it was that suddenly people of my generation felt empowered and that we had something to offer that the old establishment seemed to want.”
He continues, “The realisation that within the stifled established music business of the time, certain individuals knew that there was a huge market out there to capitalise on and we needed to tap into it. They needed communicators, photographers, designers and art directors, who were plugged in naturally to the environment. We were given this extraordinary power, even as early as 1963 we were laying down the blueprint to what was to become this huge worldwide industry.”
The British Invasion of America in late 1964 was a product of this fertile scene and its Svengalis like Brian Epstein, Andrew Loog Oldham, George Martin and Chris Blackwell. America and the rest of the world fell in love with the Beatles and British culture. The excitement that surrounded this period was palpable.
Mankowitz remembers, “It was all new territory and everything was ground- breaking. Artists having control and a say about their career was completely new. You had these talented young music entrepreneurs and this extraordinary period for youth and energy for new ideas. It was amazing to be part of that, even if you had no sense that it was to go down in history.”
To try and imagine what this “pre-Beatles fame” period was like is akin to describing the basics of thermonuclear dynamics, impossible to comprehend or convey. To think that at one point in time nobody knew what the faces of the soon to be “biggest band in the world” looked like. Yes, at one point John, Paul, George and Ringo could buy a tin of baked beans at the local corner shop without a whiff of hysteria.
Mankowitz recalls this time by saying, “I first heard Please Please Me on the radio and it most definitely said something to me, but I had absolutely no idea what they looked like or who I was listening to. It sounds extraordinary now, but they had no image.
“This was the world I was trying to be part of. I wanted to make images for these people and to reflect their passion and talent. Their music certainly struck a chord, but I had no idea who or what they looked like.”
He went on to take some of the most iconic album cover photos and portraits in the history of music, from Jimi Hendrix to Kate Bush, and from Annie Lennox to Oasis and on.
He’s seen the music industry change beyond all recognition, and the advent of the CD and downloading has had a damaging effect on his long, illustrious career. Less space to represent the artist has almost signalled the end of the album cover, another drastic effect of the ever-changing entertainment business.
His last shot was taken three years ago with an artist called Patrick Wolf. “I was running out of steam and I knew I had lost a lot of my appeal to the contemporary music industry. The business has changed so dramatically and the CD, on to eventual downloading has brought about a huge change as to how bands are represented visually.
“The 12-inch record cover was just a wonderful space for a photographer. I remember shooting a quadruple gatefold sleeve once. It was so amazing to have all of that space to be creative with. Now that important album cover is almost nonexistent.”
Pete Mitchell presents Saturday Social on Absolute Radio every Saturday at 10pm. This week Pete talks to Pete Hook, bass player with Joy Division and New Order. Listen live here.