The rock photography legend on clickbait headlines, lighting Kate Hudson’s face and who’s still on his photography bucket list.
Whether you know his name or not, you’ve seen Neal Preston’s work. It’s as inescapable as rock itself, documenting moments in rock history that might have otherwise been forgotten. Preston was at Live Aid to capture that iconic image of Freddie Mercury onstage at Wembley Stadium, he took the shot of Stevie Nicks as her flowing white dress picked up wind on the roof of a six-story building and he jumped on the moment Robert Plant caught a dove while performing in San Francisco. Preston has also photographed professional athletes and worked on television and movie sets (does Almost Famous ring a bell?), but working with musicians is where he shines best—and what he enjoys talking about most.
Several months before Preston’s latest exhibit opening at the Leica Gallery in West Hollywood (open now through December 2), Preston appeared at the National Association of Music Merchants’ winter gathering in Anaheim to host a panel about Exhilarated and Exhausted, a collection of photographs he published in 2017, some of the proceeds from which went to charities The NAMM Foundation and Behind the Scenes. Both at the panel and during an interview the day before, Preston seemed to derive no greater joy than when he was sharing stories. He’s on a first-name basis with everyone from Paul [McCartney] and Jimmy [Page] to Ann [Wilson] and Kate [Hudson], and it excites him to share the kind of behind-the-scenes moments that’ll make any rock fan’s jaw drop.
Beyond the glitz of anecdotes like Ace Frehley inhaling too many toxins from prop snow during a Creem photoshoot, Preston has seen the music industry through decades of change. Music hasn’t had quite the same dramatic shift as Hollywood over the last several years of gender politicking, but many think that moment could arrive at any time.
Photography in entertainment and the arts can be vulnerable to judgment when taken out of context. After all, it’s not always obvious who picks the direction for a photo shoot. Is it the label that drives the message? The photographer? The artist themselves? This question has higher stakes through a 2019 lens when it comes to the representation of women in rock photography. According to Preston, it’s one of the variables that can change through the course of a shoot. What he appreciates most, regardless of who he’s photographing, is someone who has an idea of what they’re trying to achieve but remains open to suggestions.
As time has passed, there is one shift Preston’s noticed that’s especially significant: More women now than ever before are making a name for themselves in music.
How have you seen the representation of women in rock evolve?
Because there are now more women in the music business as artists, there are more photographs of women. It’s not about the sexualization of women in these photographs; they are rock musicians. Someone like Stevie [Nicks] has always been attuned to her image in photographs. She has really great artistic instincts. She’s also, believe it or not, the best picture editor. I’ve always told her, and only half-jokingly, ‘If this rock ‘n’ roll thing doesn’t work out for you, there’s a picture-editing job waiting for you.’
She’s a killer editor. But beyond that, she’s beautiful—always has been—and she was very aware of that fact. But it’s about the music. And her style. And yeah, there’s the Buckingham/Nicks cover that she talks about, but she had that problem early on. Nancy [Wilson] had that problem early on because of the first or second Heart record, with the ads that the record company took out that made it sound like they were lesbian lovers and sisters. That obvious stuff aside—because it’s well-documented and there are a few cases here and there—photographically over the years, the image of women in rock and roll has evolved no differently than men. Better photos, worse photos, you name it. I don’t see any one thing to pin it on.
How much do you discuss the direction of a photo shoot with an artist before it begins?
It depends what our assignment is. Is it an album cover, a magazine cover, general tour coverage for ongoing uses in the future? Are we trying to do an ad? Is it an endorsement photo or interior photos for a magazine article?
When I’m on the road with The Who or Zeppelin—obviously not Zeppelin anymore—it’s usually because we know we want a live album cover or we’re doing general coverage for various uses, and I’m left to my own devices, which I prefer. A studio shoot for an album cover, people will want to have a concept going in.
I’m the kind of guy who will take the concept and blow it off 15 minutes into the shoot because it’s either working or it’s not. Tell me what we’re trying to go for and I’ll get that, and the rest is gravy. Magazine covers are a little different because each magazine has their own kind of style, so to speak.
When we were doing Almost Famous, our cinematographer was a guy named John Toll, who’s considered the top guy in the world. He was very careful on how he would light Kate [Hudson], and they have a stand-in, so you light the stand-in, and then they bring in the real person. But they ended up having to let Kate’s stand-in go, because even though she looked like Kate, her skin reflected more light than Kate’s did. So they’d have to re-light, and time is money on a movie set. I love that story—it just shows you things you wouldn’t think about.
Now it’s a lot different than it used to be because magazines will retouch, and the subjects are able to exert more control over the magazine articles, which I think is wrong. With all due respect to all people in publicity and publishing, I don’t think that’s right. It’s sprung out of the internet and too many outlets, and it’s a lot worse now than it ever was, because god forbid Bradley Cooper stubs his toe—it’s a headline somewhere. And that is fake news.
Everyone’s trying to get a scoop on something. I understand that; I’m in the media. But at some point, you have to trust the magazine or outlet or photographer.
Who’s still on your photography bucket list?
Two people I always wanted to shoot were Courtney Love and Christina Aguilera. I was able to shoot Courtney, and she was so great. She’s incredibly bright, I think she’s gorgeous, and I knew that we’d click. It was really fun. I love the picture we got. I was supposed to go on the road with Christina years ago, but the tour was canceled.
I worked with Ann and Nancy [Wilson] for years and years. I remember getting a call once from their PR person saying, “Ann’s going to call you about the next album cover.” They’d been working on this album that didn’t have a name or a cover, and they had like five days to go. They came up with a name, and I had to come up with some concept. So I talked to Ann and Nancy and said, “One of my favorite album covers is MC5’s Back in the USA,” which came out in 1970. They’re kind of sweaty, and there’s a vibe to it. It was shot by a guy named Stephen Paley, one of my photographic heroes. I said, “I want to do a women’s version of that,” though of course there were three guys in the band.
So that’s what we did. We shot it in a gym, a health club in the Valley in a steam room. It wasn’t about people being naked; they were fully clothed. But I wanted them sweaty. I can tell you—it’s not a good idea to do a shoot in a steam room with a lot of Jack Daniel’s and cocaine around. You’ll last about 10 seconds. I had my camera in underwater housing, and it kept fogging over with steam. I had something to put on the front of the housing, some anti-fog, but it would still fog over after 20 seconds. But we got the cover.
You wrote in your book that Pete Townsend was your favorite subject. Is he still your favorite?
He is my favorite guy to photograph. If you’re hired to shoot Pete or Jimmy or Freddie Mercury and you can’t get a good photo with these guys: Quit your job, sell your camera and go work at Walmart or Home Depot. Pete is the best, and just under him would be Freddie and Jimmy. I was lucky enough to have shot them for the first time in 1971.
How do you handle a musician who approaches a shoot shy or hesitant?
Generally, people who perform for 50,000 people aren’t really shy offstage. I’m very fortunate because my personality tends to win people over. There are very few people I don’t get along with. Even when I’m photographing shy people who are not necessarily musicians or who aren’t used to having their picture taken—we’re doing a glamour shot or something—I win them over. They understand very quickly that I’m not a stereotypical guy. We’re here to make great pictures and have some laughs. If you can’t have laughs in life, why bother?
It’s tough for any man or woman, because you’re “branding” yourself, to use the current term. I think the first woman musician I did a one-on-one shoot with might have been Rita Coolidge. I’d be no different shooting her now than I was then. I like smart people: I like smart men, I like smart women, I like people who can think and don’t trade on their looks. People like Patti Scialfa, Bruce [Springsteen]’s wife, has definite opinions about not only what looks good but how she wants to look on a cover. We had a blast shooting for two days, because I’ve worked with her and Bruce for so long. Anyone who brings ideas and energy to the table, you’re in.
What’s one example of a photoshoot that took an unexpected turn?
The stuff with Stevie on the rooftop: We shot all day at her condo, and I just didn’t have “the shot.” We both said at the same time, “How about going on the roof?” She was living in a six-story condo in Venice. We literally said it at the same time—it was one of those things, like, “Oh my god!” So she put on that white dress, the one that picks up the wind, and of course the second I go up there, the wind starts picking up more. It worked for the photos. What you don’t know was there was an assistant on his stomach holding her boots, because if a really bad gust of wind came, she would have flown away like Sally Field in The Flying Nun.