Ross Halfin's photo of Jimmy Page“The terrible thing about digital photography is that anybody these days can snap a decent picture and think he’s a photographer,” says legendary rock lensman Ross Halfin. “It’s such rubbish. There’s a skill to photography that can take you years to master-if you’re destined to do it, that is.” 

Halfin didn’t know he was destined to become a photographer until he first tried becoming a painter. He attended Art College in London, but a growing interest in following his favorite rock bands around England coincided with a rapid disillusionment with a school curriculum that, to his dismay, stressed Modernism. “Being told how to paint by people who couldn’t paint was such a turn-off,” he says. “Rock ‘n’roll was my only salvation. I would go to shows and get completely wiped out by what I was seeing and hearing. So I started taking a camera to gigs and shooting the bands. It was partly a way to express my creativity, but it was also a good way to hang out with the bands. Before long, I found my calling.” 

Halfin dropped out of Art College to become a full-time freelance photographer just as the nascent punk scene was making headlines. He shot the Sex Pistols and the Clash for magazines such as Sounds, NME, and Melody Maker. “It was great to be working at something I enjoyed,” he says, “but it wasn’t much fun shooting bands that didn’t want to be photographed. I much preferred the big rock bands from America, groups like Rush and Aerosmith. They actually wanted to have their pictures taken.” Several years later, punk morphed into the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, and Halfin discovered a world of bands that were dying to be documented. His shots of Def Leppard, Saxon, and Iron Maiden created a sensation when they appeared in the pages of Kerrang!, Britain’s new metal magazine. “Suddenly, I had a real platform for my work,” Halfin says. “Because of Kerrang!, I became constantly in demand.” 

Kerrang! put Halfin on the map, and during the past three decades his photographs of bands have been seen around the world. “One of the best aspects of my success has been the opportunity to shoot many of my heroes, people like Jimmy Page and Pete Townshend,” he says. “I think they respect the fact that I take the job seriously. For instance, I won’t shoot them digitally. I think it’s cheating. Digital can’t get that special light and shade that only film can.” 

“It’s all about capturing a special moment in time,” Halfin continues. “You know what it’s like when you’re at a concert and the singer or guitarist looks out and sees you, and for that one incredible instant you think that you’re the only person in the audience? That’s what I’ve always tried to achieve in my work. In that way, I’m helping the artist to communicate his or her art with the world. Music is pictures, pictures are music, and I get to be a part of that.” 

Through the years, Halfin has photographed many of Gibson’s biggest stars. In this exclusive interview, he shares his reflections on working with some of the greats.

Jimmy Page
Jimmy is a friend of mine, I’m proud to say. I know how to work with him and get around his moods. He’s one of those guys who’s never satisfied, which has its good and frustrating points. He doesn’t even like half of the Led Zeppelin pictures he’s in! That said, because he’s a friend of mine, I find him much easier to shoot than other people, because I understand him. Beyond that, I have access to him; nobody else does. When I’m shooting Jimmy, the main thing I try to do is catch him off guard. He’s very business-like in the studio. Doesn’t need music blasting and all that. Just comes in and does his thing. He doesn’t like to smile, but I happen to think he looks fantastic when he smiles, so I’m always trying to break him up. As much as he protests-“No, Ross, I’m not smiling today!”-I always get him to lighten up. Deep down, I think he appreciates that, even though he’d never admit it. But, see, that’s the thing about what I do: I’m always trying to get that private moment, that side of the artist they don’t always want you to see. That’s where the magic lurks.

Zakk Wylde
Zakk is out of control! He’ll do anything you want, apart from maybe kiss you. The only problem with Zakk is that he wants to have 20 guitars in every photo. I try to tell him, “Your fans want to see Zakk Wylde. All these guitars are in the way.” Which only makes him bring more guitars to the next session. Actually, he’s a sweetheart, and he wants to do great work. He has this whole muscleman thing going on, and it’s an image he likes to play up-the muscleman/biker thing. He loves to play music in the studio, but sometimes he cranks Sabbath so loud that he can’t hear me when I’m trying to talk to him. In the end, though, you just have to let Zakk be Zakk. He knows what he wants, but he’s open to suggestion. I just wish he didn’t bring so many guitars with him all the time! 

Billie Joe Armstrong
He’s easy. The whole band, Green Day, they’re one of the easiest bands I’ve ever had to deal with. Billie Joe knows what he wants to look like, but he knows how to take direction, too. I mean, he won’t leap in the air and do poses, but if you say, “Look up, look down, give me more of this,” he’ll do it. Very nice guy. Very unaffected by all that’s happening to him.

Slash
I remember one day he came in and said, “Make me look good, Ross.” And I went, “When have I ever made you look bad?” He didn’t have an answer to that one. I like working with Slash. He enjoys posing, so that makes him a lot of fun for me. He doesn’t need much direction other than “Chin up.” He’s a very nice guy. Smokes up a storm, though.
 
Paul McCartney
I remember working with him when Linda was alive, and because she was a photographer too, she would kind of pitch in and tell me things like, “He likes things from this angle; he doesn’t like it when people do this…” He’s a very charming and gentle person. I was quite surprised. For some reason, I expected him to be a lot of trouble, actually. I mean, he’s Sir Paul McCartney. I don’t shoot many “Sirs.” 

Pete Townshend
He’s very professional. Comes in and says, “Let’s get on with it, Ross.” The thing with Pete is, he likes working with me because I can do something in half an hour and make it look like it took all day. I can get him to smile sometimes, but it’s hard. Shooting him live with the Who can be hell because of the crowds-I hate getting pushed around when I’m trying to work-but oftentimes, that’s where you’ll get the true Pete. Pete Townshend onstage is a much different animal than when he’s one-on-one in the studio. Night and day, really.

Kirk Hammett
Kirk is very wary of photographers, but he likes working with me. All of the guys in Metallica feel the way. It’s amusing, really-they come in like they’re these big bad dudes, but in point of fact they’re just a bunch of normal guys who like to joke around like they’re in high school. That’s what I try to bring out of them, the human side.
 
Billy Gibbons
He’s fun to work, but I always have to spend a bit of time getting rid of his “shtick”-you know, the Billy Gibbons from the “Legs” video. I shot him recently with his cowboy hat off and he looked wonderful, like he was Christ with a Les Paul. I photographed him that way for a guitar magazine and they didn’t want to use it; they thought he looked a little too different. To me, that was the whole point. I was trying to get another side of him, and I thought the result was marvelous. The image that ZZ Top created 25 years ago was so powerful, I guess it’s hard for people to see past that.

Ted Nugent
He was one of the first guys I ever shot live. He’s great onstage; he’s like this wild jungle man let loose. Like many performers, Ted’s got his “thing,” which in his case is to be very political and pro-America. But it works for him. A lot of performers couldn’t pull that kind of thing off. Ted Nugent is a bigger-than-life guy, though. His guitar playing, too, is bigger-than-life. Very distinctive. When you hear him play, you know it’s him. You can’t say that about a lot of guitarists.
 
Tony Iommi
He’s not mean-spirited, but he basically comes in and says, “Let’s do this and then I’ll leave.” He’s a pro. He’ll work with me and do what I need to make him look good. The truth is, he doesn’t like having his photograph taken. When you think of Tony Iommi, all sorts of dark, sinister images come to mind, but he’s actually a very shy, down-to-earth guy, not at all what you’d expect from a member of Black Sabbath.
 
Keith Richards
Keith Richards is the greatest. “Whatever you want,” he’ll say to me. He’ll smoke his cigarettes and do all the poses. He’ll contort himself and swing his arms all around. His wrinkles are amazing, but he doesn’t give a damn about them. I think he’s rather proud of how he looks. He’s a sweetheart. All of the Rolling Stones are pros.
 
Angus Young
A class clown in the nicest way possible. Comes in and launches into Angus. He pulls faces, leaps all about. He puts on a whole AC/DC show all by himself. The best thing is, he enjoys himself, and he loves what he’s doing. That kind of attitude is infectious. I can be having a bad day myself, but the second Angus Young comes in, I remember what it was I first liked about rock ’n’ roll.
 
Dave Grohl
He’s fantastic! He loves to have a laugh. Tells great stories, none of which can be printed. Dave is like an enthusiastic fan who’s just come to his first gig. You put him in front of the camera and he’s just so pleased to be there. I think that’s one reason the Foo Fighters are such a great band: They haven’t forgotten to be fans.

To purchase prints of Ross Halfin’s photographs, visit his website.