The Who? Led Zeppelin? I’d
For the best part of 35 years, Ross Halfin has been the king of rock photography, taking iconic images of some of the
‘THE TERRIBLE thing about digital cameras is that they make e v e r y one t h i n k t h e y ’ r e a photographer,” says Ross Halfin almost as soon as we have sat down in a dark corner his favourite Japanese restaurant in Soho. “It’s the same as someone having a laptop and assuming that they are a writer. It’s a ridiculous idea, isn’t it? Although I do use digital occasionally, I think the idea of photography as art has been totally devalued in the digital age. Photography takes years to master, if you’re actually destined to do it for living.”
Halfin had no idea that he was destined to become a photographer until he dropped out of Wimbledon School of Art, where he was studying as a painter. Disillusioned with the school’s preoccupation with Modernism, he started shooting pictures of groups like Led Zeppelin and The Who.
“I actually enjoyed painting, but all of the tutors had this holier than thou attitude towards modern art. They concluded that I was ignorant because I refused to accept modern art. It all seemed to be about things like that Warhol movie where he filmed the Empire State Building for 24 hours and expected people to watch it, and I was like: ‘Please tell me where this is art?’ I originally really wanted to go to art school, but when I actually got there, I found it extremely disappointing.
“I always used to look at pictures in magazines and go: ‘I could do better than that,” Halfin continues, shovelling a forkful of soba noodles into his mouth. “I queued up for 11 hours to get tickets for The Who in 1975, and I remember this really snobby lecturer saying to me: ‘What’s more important? Going to see this pop group or going to your drawing class?’ I told him that seeing The Who was far more important to me, and I made a conscious decision to give up painting for photography. I got a job working in a guitar shop, and in the evenings I’d take my camera to shows and I started selling pictures to the music papers, although the money was terrible.”
In 1980, Halfin became chief photographer of music magazine Kerrang! and spent the next 20 years shooting iconic pictures of the biggest rock bands in the world, capturing the essence of everyone from Iron Maiden to Metallica, whose lead singer — James Hetfield — calls him “the best rock photographer of all time”.
“For me, an iconic photograph is one that looks like it was taken yesterday, even if it was actually shot 25 years ago,” says Halfin. “Some of the pictures I’ve done of artists like The Who, Phil Lynott, Keith Richards and Led Zeppelin have that quality about them. You really just know instinctively which shots are going to be good, but you certainly don’t know they will become iconic when you’re actually shooting them. “You can see a tangible difference in the pictures when a photographer has a good relationship with an artist, but relationships c a n c r a s h very quickly in this business b e c a u s e they’re all so egotistical. You can certainly have a good time with the artists, but very few of them are your friends. They really just want you to do the job.”
Did he live a very hedonistic lifestyle in the ’70s and ’80s? “Oh, I was quite a bad boy, but then you just sort of grow out of it,” he shrugs. “You’d always see these drunk middle-aged men in the pub and think: ‘I wish that idiot would go away’. Then eventually you realise that you’ve turned into him.
“You can get a buzz out of taking photographs the same way you can doing drugs. I certainly don’t get it all the time, but I still get that buzz now and again.”
Although it would be a huge understatement to say that Halfin’s life in rock ’n’ roll has been what you might call i nt e r e s t i ng, his own fami l y s o u n d s a l m o s t a s e x t r a o r d i -
Halfin ( with guitarist Jimmy Page