John Rowlands gesturing like Bowie. Photo: Barry Roden Photography
John Rowlands gesturing like Bowie. Photo: Barry Roden Photography

A Bill King Conversation with... Photographer John Rowlands

Photographer John Rowlands has managed to stretch his career a good fifty-five plus years and still find enough juice left to lug a couple camera bodies and a few lenses in a tote bag across parking lots, stadiums and stages to capture an artist or group he suspects will become part of the certified lineage of contemporary music. His history has stood him well. One image alone, of the Beatles, taken when he was 19, he figures has earned him over $650,000 to date. He’s been down front for Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Prince, Madonna, Elvis Presley, KISS, Willie Nelson, Michael Jackson, Sting, Alice Cooper – many of the giants of pop music.

During the mid-70s’ – 1974-1978 - Rowlands toured with David Bowie – employed by RCA Records. Recently, in Toronto, Rowlands held an exhibit of large prints from that tour at the Spoke Club in Toronto. The Bowie Exhibit continues by appointment showings - Phone: (416) 368-8448 ask for Rupert Young.

Bill King: What is your David Bowie exhibition all about?

John Rowlands: It is shots I’ve taken on the '74, '76 and '78 tours I did with him.

B.K: Would you elaborate?

J.R: I met him through Scott Richards in 1974 at the O’Keefe Centre when he was doing Diamond Dogs. I went backstage afterwards and told him it would be a couple days before I’d get color proofs done. I shot a lot of color on the show. Scott had telegraphed me this was a very important rock theatre event with Diamond Dogs and I kind of blindly fell into it. My access to the stage and Bowie on stage was phenomenal.

I met him, got along well with him, and was then asked to come along with him in 1976 on the Station to Station album tour – also named the Thin White Duke. That’s where I got the shot called The Archer which is now the flagship image for press on the David Bowie is exhibition which has travelled around the world to many museums and is currently in the Netherlands and the V and A people there tell me the image of The Archer itself through websites, blogs, newspaper articles has now been seen by over 50,000,000 people around the world - a very triumphant thing for me. It’s my favourite shot of 55 years of shooting. It looks like he came into the studio and added static lighting on him, yet he did the stage lighting and I was on stage during the show.

I was in Montreal the night before and plotted out shooting positions, then in Toronto the next night, I was thirty feet out front of the stage and nailed it. I actually got two shots off as a matter of fact and five years ago when they started talking about putting this David Bowie is show together I got a telephone call from New York – Ilene his manager asked me if I still had the negative to that shot because David had remembered it. He had given me an autograph that said, “For John, one of my favourite shots of my career, forever.” I knew I had something he liked and I liked. He signed a few copies of a poster I’d made for charity that we gave away on radio stations to help kids.

B.K: Do you own the copyrights to these negatives?

J.R: Yes. No other agreement stipulated. I’ve done contract work for people like Prince, Elvis Presley and Madonna, artists who like to own everything to do with a photograph whenever possible and you sign away your copyrights rights etc, etc.. My day rate in those days was $2,500. I would double my day rate and that was how you’d co-exist. You can’t say you are only a courtesy photographer and do only what you want to do. If the client says they want to own copyright and I get to shoot Madonna or Prince, I’m not going to say no.

In copyright situations they’d count me in. If I had thirty rolls exposed or however many unexposed they wanted those back the end of the evening. If I still had film left the next night, they’d give back to me and away we go again.

B.K: There would be no access to these negatives after that?

J.R: No.

B.K: Looking back – do you wish you’d held out in some situations and worked something amicable with the artists?

J.R: No. A lot of decisions are made quickly and you know the rock n’ roll business and if you don’t come up with the answer they want to hear – you never hear from them again. It’s part of the job. If the client would like to own copyright then provide them with copyright. In some cases I’ve shared copyrights and said I like to promote in my portfolio and help establish my career and you have full rights otherwise to do what you wish with them – make posters, do anything you like. Besides, you would own licensing rights yourself and I can’t make a poster without your permission – so go ahead.

B.K: Are you out there shooting?

J.R: Yes – I do the big blues fest in Ottawa. I catch a lot things I find, (a) outstandingly new and outstandingly good in the early days of their career and try and plug into certain acts from the past I haven’t photographed even though they are much older than when I started, I at least have them in the catalog. I have 2,500,000 negatives and slides I’m currently scanning to digital and I’m at 300,000. That’s taken me five years.

B.K: Once scanned are you spotting and color correcting?

J.R: No, I get the raw scan in at about 1,600 dpi – two and a quarter negative and you can blow up enormously and do all the spot work afterwards. That’s the wonderful thing about digital. You can vary your light curves, mid-tones and create something that’s not dead-on-exposure because of circumstance or stage lighting or whatever and make it perfect.

B.K: Have the prints in the exhibition gone through this restoration process?

J.R: Yes, but not a lot. You just clone scratches out and make as perfect as you can.

B.K: How many of your iconic images do you think are still shown – still in demand?

J.R: I’m in transition in my life going from highly active photographer to highly active storyteller. I’ve put together a slide show of two to seven hundred shots and go out on the road as Rock n’ Roll Memories or The Night Brenda Lee Changed My Life.

B.K: Brenda Lee?

J.R: It all started in Ottawa, I was thirteen and she was fifteen. I followed her career, had every ’45 she ever made. And of course every record she cut, she was singing for me. I was walking two inches off the sidewalk to get to her concert. I had my dad’s Kodak Retina Reflex. He even bought me some big blue flash bulbs.

Remember, back in those days a roll of film would take six or eight months to shoot family wise. The Queen Mother comes to Ottawa you shoot two shots of her in the limo. Granddad and grandma come over for a barbeque; there are two or three shots there. The whole roll went on Brenda. Afterwards you just gravitated to the exit; nobody was guiding you like they do now. I look down the hallway and there’s a sign saying Brenda Lee & the Casuals pointing to a door. So my little thirteen year old brain goes, why don’t you thank her for the concert? I knock on the door and her mother opens it and I look at her mom and said, “Hi, I just came to thank Brenda for a great show,” and her mother says, “Why don’t you come in and tell her yourself, she’s sitting right over there?”

I went and sat beside her and we talked about school on the road. They were doing the tour in a station wagon. I helped her pack the bags and take out to the station wagon. I got her autograph, a kiss on the cheek and got off the bus two blocks before home because I thought it would take two stops walking to get me back on earth. The only way I could bring Brenda Lee home was in that camera!

B.K: An encounter as positive as that can set a person on a career path.

J.R: That’s right. That’s why I call it The Night Brenda Lee Changed My Life!



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