ICON – Music Through The Lens

Last night I learned that the most valuable rock photograph in the world was taken in North London by the late Iain Macmillan on August 8, 1969, during a ten-minute session, for which he was paid £75. It was, of course, The Beatles striding across the zebra crossing that is almost opposite Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood, famously chosen by Paul McCartney as the cover of the LP that was named after the studio in which the group recorded almost all of their work.

        To be precise, what we are talking about here is a limited edition set of the seven photographs that Macmillan shot that day, six of the fabs walking one way or the other over the crossing, now one of the most visited tourist destinations in London, and one of the street sign that, tantalisingly, features the blurred legs of a girl in a light blue mini dress, which was used on the reverse. 

        The shots in question were a topic for discussion among gallery curators during the fifth episode of Icon – Music Through The Lens, a six part documentary on rock photography that is being shown on the Sky Atlantic Arts channel. One gallery curator told viewers a limited edition set of the seven Abbey Road photographs, signed by Macmillan, was sold for £40,000, another said the price quickly rose to £60,000 while a third said the price was now £900,000. It was left to a fourth curator to announce that a set was now being offered for £1.25 million. “Ouch,” said the first curator. 

        I was slightly confused as to how many such sets exist but it isn’t many. Macmillan, from Carnoustie in Scotland, died in 2006 so no more genuine signed sets will ever be produced. The key to the riches is that each photograph in a set must have the same number, which precludes the inclusion of photographs that may have been numbered but sold individually – unless, of course, a rabid collector takes the time to seek out every one to complete an identically numbered set, a task of Herculean, not to mention mouth-wateringly expensive, proportions.

        I am told by my friend Dave Brolan that once upon a time Macmillan was selling 8x10" prints of his Abbey Road shots for pennies in the kiosk at St John’s Wood tube station where all manner of Beatles artefacts were available before rock merchandising became the big business it is today. Dave, who once worked for me as the photo researcher at Omnibus Press, now acts as an agent for many top rock photographers, or their estates, from around the world, and he acted as a consultant on Icons. It was his involvement that brought me into the project. 

        I have now watched all six episodes of Icon and must declare my interest. I am one of only two music writers to have been interviewed for the series – the other is former Mojo editor Phil Alexander – but as is so often the case when I am offered the opportunity to address the nation, blink and you’ll miss me. I appear briefly  eulogising, quelle surprise, The Who  in episode two, devoted to shots taken on the road or at concerts; in episode four, about photography in rock magazines, my natural habitat; and episode five, which is about how rock photography has become an art form in itself and is now very collectable, hence the references to Iain Macmillan’s Abbey Road shots. In this I am a bit of a grumpy old man, declaring: “I wish I could sell my old articles that I wrote for Melody Maker for the same kind of money but unfortunately you can get them on line for bugger all.”

        The other episodes in this excellent series deal with the culture of rock photography generally, LP cover work and how digital cameras have changed the profession but, inevitably, the topics blur into one another because each episode deals essentially with the same subject. Many of the world’s best-known rock photographers are interviewed, among them old friends of mine like Bob Gruen (with whom I worked during my stint as MM’s man in New York), Mick Rock (who, as ever, swears like a trooper), Neal Preston (who flew with me on the Starship with Led Zeppelin), Adrian Boot and Jill Furmanovsky who, very early in her career, brought an on-stage photo of Roger Daltrey into MM’s offices. When we told her we’d use it on the front page she’d have done a cartwheel if only there was room between the desks. Gruen, famous for his shots of John Lennon, gets more screen time than most and is genuinely entertaining, as is Ross Halfin, the occasionally combative HM specialist. Gered Mankowitz, famous for his photographs of The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, acts as executive producer and is also interviewed at length.

        Another who is featured prominently is Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone’s first staff photographer, who sadly died earlier this month. I got to know Baron when I published and edited his book The Rolling Stone Years, and wrote about him here: http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2015/04/baron-wollman-rolling-stone-years.html. Elsewhere on Just Backdated I’ve written about Gruen, Rock and Boot. I was disappointed that Barrie Wentzell, MM's chief photographer from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, wasn't included, doubtless because he lives in Toronto now and was unavailable to be interviewed. Barrie was a pioneer, of course, arguably the very first independent rock photographer, but the series concentrated primarily on more contemporary photographers, many of them unknown to me.   

        Musicians, among them Nick Mason, Alice Cooper, Nicky Wire, Craig David and Julian Lennon, are also interviewed. And, of course, hundreds of pictures, perhaps even thousands, flash across the screen over the six-hour series, many of them instantly recognisable and genuinely iconic. All of which made me wish yet again that I’d carried a camera around with me during the seventies. 

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