“I was always a fan. I’m still a fan, and that never ends.”
You’d be hard pressed to find anyone involved in Chicago’s music scene who doesn’t know of Paul Natkin. Widely considered the city’s foremost music photographer, Natkin’s work has been published in every music publication under the sun, from Rolling Stone to Newsweek. His resume is impressive, but even more so is his dedication to the dignity of the artists he photographs. Since 1975, Natkin has earned a reputation with universally renowned musicians such as Prince and Keith Richards for being the most trusted music photographer around due to his human-centric approach. Natkin’s tenacious principles, as well as his razor-sharp eye for a compelling concert portrait, has paved the way for a preeminent body of work that spans almost four decades. However, Natkin insists that such a distinguished career is owed simply to being in the “right place at the right time” - as demonstrated by a fortuitous radio advertisement inspiring his first ever project.
Paul Natkin’s first book, Natkin: Moment of Truth, is available now. This 288-page, casebound monograph contains work covering every music genre from jazz and country to punk, blues, rock & hip hop. It is also available in five limited-edition paperboard slipcases featuring some of our favorite images from the book.
Tell me a bit about the first concert that you ever shot. What do you remember from that first concert?
I used to be a sports photographer, and I was shooting a tennis match one day up in Evanston, Illinois, at Northwestern University. After the tennis match was over I walked over to my car, and as I was getting ready to go home a commercial came on the radio for a concert taking place, believe it or not, about five feet away from where I was sitting. It was just a total coincidence that I had parked next to the venue where the concert was taking place.
I had all of my equipment with me, and I had always wanted to be a music photographer. I had kind of heard of the woman who was playing by the name of Bonnie Raitt, and I just figured that as I was really good at bullshitting my way into pretty much any sporting event that I wanted to get into, maybe I could do the same thing with a concert.
I shut off the engine, got out my equipment, and when I went to the backstage door I was all ready to tell a big lie. I had made up a lie about how I was working for this new magazine that I'm sure nobody had ever heard of called Rolling Stone. And it was a total lie. I had never met anybody from Rolling Stone. But before I could say anything, the guy at the backstage door looked up and saw all my camera equipment hanging around my neck and said, “Oh, you're with the press. Go inside and do whatever you want to do. Just don't get on the stage.” That was the first time I ever shot a concert. I thought, “This is great. If I can do this all the time I could hear a whole lot of music.” It’s about being in the right place at the right time.
What made you want to take your camera out at these shows instead of simply bobbing your head along to the music? Why isolate these moments in time?
It was never a matter of taking my camera out at the show. I didn't go to a show unless I was taking pictures. My plan was always to take pictures, way before I even got to the concert.
What made you want to begin this career in music photography in the first place instead of simply being a fan of the music?
Well, I was always a fan. I'm still a fan, and that never ends. I just like music. I like hanging around with musicians. They're usually pretty interesting people for the most part, and they’re fun to photograph.
Does your career as a concert photographer ever change your mentality as a music fan? Does the work enrich the experience of the music for you?
Oh, no, it's actually just the opposite. Once a band treats me like total dog crap it's really hard for me to listen to their music anymore. There's a radio station in Chicago named WXRT, and I'd say that with a third of the bands that they play, as soon as the music starts, I want to turn the radio to another channel.
Oh, wow. So this happens quite often, then?
In the mid '80s the whole music business changed and people started putting restrictions on photographers which affected the quality of my work considerably. It started out being just one or two bands [placing restrictions] and ended up being pretty much every band out there. It made it impossible for me to really do my job in the way that I thought it should be done.
And that restriction is not being able to photograph the band after those first five minutes of the show?
Well, the first restriction is that you can only shoot the first three songs which usually comes to about 15 minutes. And the problem with that is that the best part of the show is at the end of the show. The show builds to a climax, and if you're not allowed to shoot the climax, what's the point? I decided in the mid '90s, that I wasn't going to continue unless I could shoot what I needed to shoot to get the right pictures. I thought they were going to say, “You're right. We're gonna let you shoot whatever you want to shoot.” I drew a line in the sand and ended up losing 90% of my work.
But there are still some musicians now that do allow you to work in the way you need to work?
Maybe…one out of 100? One out of 200? It's mostly instances where I'm friends with the band. I went from, 10 years ago, shooting 300 concerts a year to shooting 8 concerts in 2019.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship with your subjects. Do you find that you need a degree of separation to develop your best work, or is there a certain degree of familiarity that's necessary?
It definitely helps to know the band. I'm good friends with The Black Crowes, and they got back together and did a tour this past summer. The first thing I said to Chris Robinson was that I needed to get off-stage pictures of the whole band. I had been photographing The Black Crowes for 30 years, and I had shot every incarnation on the band, but I needed to shoot the guys the way they were that day because, except for the two brothers, the band is filled with all new people. And he said, “Of course, just tell us when you want to do it.” In that instance it was good to know the band.
You have a repertoire now where bands trust you to photograph them. But when you were first starting out, did you ever feel the pressure of those thousands of eyes in the background that were going to view your work in the magazines, coupled with wanting to portray the musicians accurately? Or was it all a much more serene experience?
I like what you said about portraying musicians accurately. I made a point to always make them look good. I was shooting Rod Stewart once way back in the beginning of my career. At one point he stuck his hands down the front of his pants and stuck his tongue out. Which is, you know, just him being wacky. I took a picture of it, but I decided that Rod Stewart shouldn't be seen like that. I never sent that picture to anybody.
It seems that you’re guided by an ethical compass when it comes to what you choose to release and what you don’t.
I never wanted to be thought of as the paparazzi. The paparazzi have made it way more difficult for anybody that photographs celebrities, because they don't care. And now what happens is that whenever a celebrity sees a person with a camera, their automatic reaction is, “That person is the enemy.” That puts me at a disadvantage simply because of what I'm holding in my hand. I have to fight like crazy to get people to understand that I'm on their side.
Since the 1970s, Paul Natkin has photographed most of the major artists in the music business, shooting album covers for Ozzy Osbourne and Johnny Winter and countless magazine covers, including Newsweek, People, Spin and Ebony. The Moment of Truth collection is Natkin’s documentary as a witness to the music industry during his illustrious 40-plus years as a photographer and fan.