By Kelcey Alonzo
Gered Mankowitz is a name not immediately synonymous with Jimi Hendrix fans or with guitar players, for that matter. However, chances are, whether you are a Hendrix fan or not, you’re already familiar with his work and may have even admired it. You see, in 1967, a Hendrix photo session took place that would, in turn, deliver some of the most recognized photographs in rock’ n roll history. The man behind the lens was Gered Mankowitz.
Mankowitz’s credits before that famous Hendrix shoot included a photo session with the Rolling Stones—a shoot that generated the image for the cover of their 1965 release, Out of Our Heads (US title: December’s Children). Mankowitz was then asked to tour with the ‘Stones for nine weeks. On that 48 city leg of their tour, he captured the magic of the ‘Stones on stage and behind the scenes. Mankowitz’s photographic artistry was obvious.
At the time of Gered Mankowitz’s iconic photo session with Hendrix, Jimi was not well known in the UK yet. Gered was asked by his friend, Hendrix Experience manager, Chas Chandler, to do the session. During this shoot, Mankowitz captured everything Hendrix would go on to become on and off stage. In Mankowitz’s photographs, Hendrix is frozen in time, looking playful, debonair, funny, sexy, and humble. The pictures would foreshadow the persona of a Jimi Hendrix the world was about to discover.
Years later, the Mankowitz shoot has been acknowledged as an important part of the Jimi Hendrix legacy; the images have been repurposed for, among other uses, album covers, books, and editorial backdrops. In this interview, Gered gives us a glimpse into the session, his interaction with Hendrix and the Experience, and the day that “raised the bar” in rock ‘n roll photography.
Guitar Connoisseur: How did you get started in photography?
Gered Mankowitz: I first fell in love with photography at the age of 12 when I met the actor Peter Sellers, who was a friend of my father’s, and he showed me his Hasselblad camera kit while describing the process of taking photographs in an insane Swedish chef type voice (the Hasselblad is Swedish). I was in tears of laughter and completely hooked!
GC: Your body of work consists of musicians mostly—why choose musicians as your subjects?
GM: I didn’t set out to work with musicians but intended to work in the theatre. It was while I was photographing two young actors called Chad Stewart and Jeremy Clyde who asked me to photograph them singing in a coffee bar in Mayfair that my career moved into music. They were signed by an independent record company called Ember Records, who began to use my Chad and Jeremy photos and commissioned me to work with some of their other artists. Suddenly I was in the music business, and it stuck.
GC: Are you a musician, or do you just love music?
GM: I am definitely not a musician! I cannot hold a tune, and every time I was asked to play tambourine in the background, I screwed up and was politely removed from the session! (laughs) I have always loved pop-music, soul, R&B, blues, etc., and music has always been an important part of my life, particularly throughout the ’60s.
GC: What do you think of music today as a whole, and is there anyone in particular that turns you on?
GM: I don’t hear a lot that really turns me on anymore and tend to resort to old soul and blues, but occasionally someone will ring my bell. Emili Sande did that a bit recently, and I have just been turned on to Chastity Brown, who seems rather special.
GC: In your opinion, how important is photography in music?
GM: Photography became a crucial element in the process of enjoying music in the ’60s through album covers and sheet music because that was, in many cases, the only visual link we had with the artist, and covers, in particular, became a major part of the listening experience. The image took over as artists, and their management became increasingly controlling, and photography was always at the forefront of artist representation and a fundamental component within the business. MTV and video evolved into the primary medium for image presentation, but photography remains important. But with the incredible advances in digital imaging, the process has become less of a collaboration between subject and photographer and more corporate production.
GC: You are known for taking Jimi’s press shots when he arrived in London; how did you land this gig?
GM: His manager Chas Chandler was a friend and asked me to work with Jimi.
GC: Had you ever heard of Jimi before the shoot?
GM: Chas introduced me to Jimi soon after he arrived in the UK in late 1966, and we shot the first session in February ’67. Nobody in the UK had heard of him until Chas brought him over.
GC: What was Jimi’s demeanor during the shoot?
GM: Jimi was easy to work with, responsive to my suggestions, charming, humble, and funny—an absolute delight!
GC: What did you think of Jimi as a subject?
GM: When I first heard him play his music, it went way over my head, and I didn’t really like it, but his image was fabulous and very unique, and I was very enthusiastic about getting him into my studio!
GC: Some of these shots are now part of rock’ n roll history; had you known this, the day you were shooting him, would you have done anything differently?
GM: I would have shot a load more film! I would have shot him in color, and I would have shot him with a guitar! It all sounds very obvious now with hindsight, but at the time, I was adamant that we should photograph him in black and white only and treat him with dignity and gravitas as a serious musician. Back then, we all thought it was very uncool to be photographed with an instrument in the studio.
GC: Do you feel photography as an art form in rock ‘n roll is often ignored due to the subject matter? For example, I know that every Hendrix fan has seen your work; however, I doubt they all know who Gered Mankowitz is.
GM: It took me years to get my work shown in galleries because of the subject matter. Over those years, my name and reputation have steadily become known to a wider audience to a point now where I believe I am acknowledged as one of the foremost music photographers of my generation. However, my subjects were always supposed to be the “heroes,” and I never intended for my name or style to get in the way of that so, I guess it should always be the subject first and my vision of them second.
GC: Here comes a loaded question: can we ask which is your favorite shot from your body of work and why?
GM: I find it impossible to select a favorite because there is a lot that I still like and consider to be pretty good. However, my images of Jimi will always stand out because they have a life and energy of their own now, and interest in them just increases all the time!
GC: How do you feel about photography today with all the technological advancements in photography? Is it really that hard to take a photograph now? There is Capture One, Photoshop, and a wide array of plug-ins that go along with them.
GM: I have been utilizing digital technology since the early ’90s as a post-production tool, but nearly all of my photography originated on film, even towards the end of my commercial career. The vast number of so-called photographs now being created on phones, iPad’s, and automated cameras have had a damaging effect on professional photography and photography in general because it has lowered standards and expectations. Anybody can take a groovy-looking snap these days as long as it is only viewed on a screen in a tiny format. Still, this ability has made it much harder to survive as a professional photographer, and I am delighted to have retired from commercial photography when I did!
GC: It wouldn’t be fair to our readers if we didn’t touch a bit on gear; what kind of camera did you use for the shoot?
GM: My favorite camera has always been the Hasselblad, and for this session, I used my original 500C with my favorite lens of the time, a 50mm Zeiss Distagon.
GC: Was there any particular reason why you chose the Hasselblad?
GM: Hasselblad has always been accepted as the finest medium-format camera system available over the past 60 years or so, and I always wanted to have the best kit!
GC: Do you still have it today?
GM: I still have my Hasselblad outfit, but the original camera I shot Jimi with was stolen in the early70’s.
GC: What kind of setup did you do for the lighting? Did you do anything special, or did you just light it as you would any other subject?
GM: By 1967, we had flash lighting at the studio produced by an eccentric English genius called David Cecil, who worked out of ramshackle offices in Central London near Smithfield Market. The David Cecil Strobe (as it was called) produced gorgeous light and was very powerful but could be very dangerous, and you had to take great care operating it. It was also huge and very heavy, but the lights were very well constructed. The range was extensive and included a vast unit called the Swimming Pool, which was six feet by four feet and contained four separate tubes producing a total output of 20,000 joules if you could afford the four power packs it needed to operate at full power! My favorite was a more modest unit called the Fish Fryer, which had two heads and an output of up to 10,000 joules. A few were sold in the USA and branded MagnaFlash, I believe. That is what I used for most of the portraits of Jimi.
GC: Where did the wardrobe come from, and what impact do you think it had on the session?
GM: The military jacket had come from a shop called Lord Kitchener’s Valet on the Portobello Road near Notting Hill Gate in London. Of course, it had an enormous effect because the key was how Jimi looked, so what he wore was crucial. But this is what he looked like, and there was no input from stylists or anybody else at this moment—it was all down to Jimi.
GC: Recently, an album of Hendrix’s unreleased material came out: People, Hell, and Angles; like other Hendrix unreleased material, is there an archive of your work we can expect to see?
GM: And the cover for that album is a rarely seen portrait of Jimi from my archive. I have a book published in the UK that is a retrospective view of my 50 years in music photography, and I hope people will be surprised and interested to see the range of work beyond Jimi and the ‘Stones. My archive consists of thousands of negatives and transparencies, but, inevitably, only a fraction of these have been seen and published.