Snapshots of a career as a rock photographer
For nearly four decades, photographer Janet Macoska has been capturing some of rock and roll's most notable performers. Click here for a photo gallery of her favorite images, including those of many Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Inductees.
When the Beatles came to America in 1964, I was 10 years old. They totally transformed my life. If four young lads from Liverpool could have a worldwide impact with their music and personalities, I knew a kid from Cleveland could do anything. What I wanted to do was be close to the rock and roll music that I loved. I ran around with a transistor radio stuck to my ear and started playing with my parents’ camera. I photographed the neighborhood kids, the family dog; I tried to document my life the way I saw other photographers documenting the world in LIFE magazine. Those photographers hung out with celebrities, and their photos showed us the real people behind the celebrity. It was fascinating.
By the age of 12, I was calling disc jockeys Jerry G. and Big Jack at WKYC, and asking to help them out at the station answering fan mail. I ran Big Jack’s Fan Club. They were both so kind to me, a precocious but semi-responsible and quiet 12-year-old girl with a camera. Naturally, I brought my camera to the station, and snapped away when pop stars came to visit. My first published photo was of Sonny and Cher answering phone calls from listeners on Big Jack’s radio show. It was published in Teen Screen magazine in 1967. I got paid $2.
Years later, I enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, studying to become a journalist, writer and photographer. I worked for the college newspaper, but they wanted me to cover “news stories.” I made a deal with the editor: Every time a student failed to turn in their assigned story, I could fill the space with a music story – a review of an album or concert, or interview, for example. I’d already tromped around town asking Belkin Productions whether I could cover their concerts and spoke to WMMS Radio about covering everything they did. Within a year, I was writing and photographing rock and rollers as they came through town, and filling up two full pages of The Commuter with my stories and pictures.
Just like Jerry G. and Big Jack, I was fortunate to meet mentors who took me under their wing to give advice and help me on my way. One of the most important was Glaswegian Alex Harvey of The Sensational Alex Harvey Band. After reading my college newspaper article about the band’s first appearance in Cleveland and seeing my photos, Harvey and his manager “adopted” me and declared that I was family. They gave me my first paying gig as a photographer, when I was hired to photograph the band in Louisville for their Atlantic Records official promo shots. I also had an open invitation to stay with Harvey and his family in London, which I accepted in 1977. I returned to London and the Harveys for a month every summer, and they became a second family to me.
When Paul McCartney started touring again in 1989 (after 13 years off since Wings), I interviewed with his manager in London for the spot as tour photographer. Ultimately, I didn’t get the job, but I did get entrée into McCartney’s U.S. concert launch, a three-song mini-concert and press conference at the Lyceum Theatre in NYC. I was one of about a dozen photographers granted access from around the world, and I could go to any McCartney show on the tour, to photograph and see my favorite Beatle. Twenty-five years after seeing McCartney on the Ed Sullivan Show, I was shooting his concerts, attending his press conferences and photo ops, and having a fab time. A few years later, after dropping off my portfolio at the National Portrait Gallery in London, the curator requested a print of McCartney in concert during that 1989 tour launch. It’s in the permanent collection at the Portrait Gallery, and has been exhibited next to an Annie Leibovitz portrait of John Lennon. It was an incredible capstone on an amazing period of my career.
The list of artists I’ve photographed over the past four decades runs to the thousands, and the amount of images I’ve shot to more than a million. Favorite concerts include any David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen, Queen, Kinks, Paul McCartney or Alex Harvey shows, plus a couple you might not expect, such as Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and Paul Young. I’m still very much a fan of the music and the artists, and I channel my photography through that same music fan’s heart.
In 2004, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presented a retrospective exhibition of my photography. As a lifelong Clevelander and rocker, that was probably my greatest accomplishment. Where else would you want your work presented but in the ultimate temple of rock and roll?
About Janet Macoska:
Since 1974, Janet Macoska has been capturing rock's greatest on film. Among the publications that have used her photos are Rolling Stone, People, US, Vogue, American Photo, Creem, 16 Magazine, The New York Times and London Times. VH1 and other TV and film productions regularly use Macoska's vast rock archive for their "rockumentaries." Her work is in the permanent collection of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and the National Portrait Gallery in London.