Indianapolis, 1975. A frozen motion of Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page chugging a bottle of Jack. The composition, the “decisive moment” of arched-back abandon, is so perfect that the 2010-era viewer would naturally assume it was staged. But if you look closely, you’ll notice the many “imperfections” of real life that muss up the canvas and simultaneously serve to authenticate it. Tumbled luggage in the bottom left side of the frame.
A cluttered backstage rider table of fruit and bottles. A random man whose face is mostly obscured by Page’s elbow. Nobody is looking at the camera. Nobody is even looking at Page. Robert Plant seems to be caught in an unflattering mid-sentence gesture. And two other figures have their backs turned.
You can’t see him because he was on the other side of the lens, but rock ’n’ roll photographer Neal Preston was also in that backstage dressing room. Zoom out 35 years and that photographer is sitting across from me on the couch in the rock library in the “Altered States” suite in the new wing of the Hard Rock Hotel. He’s here to promote the June 17 unveiling of a special photo exhibit of 30 new photos at the Hard Rock and his energy is contagious as he shuffles through photos of his life, America’s life, in music. With his curly gray hair, he wears the glow of one who has been to the top of the mountain.
“Sometimes a photo of someone’s back is more interesting than a picture of their front,” Preston says, quoting advice from former People photo editor M.C. Marden. “Which meant, don’t always be concerned about people looking at the camera; come back and let the scene happen.”
In this case and in many others—he’s famously shot the Rolling Stones, Queen, U2, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Pink Floyd and Michael Jackson—the advice proved golden. If you want to know what it feels like to be backstage at a vintage Zeppelin concert, this photo shows you. The genius is the absolute back-turned casualness of it. Page is taking part in the quintessential rock-star act and nobody seems to notice or care, revealing its quotidian nature. This is what reality TV wishes it could capture, if only it had the patience, freedom and integrity to “let the scene happen.”
In fact, media’s loss of quality, honesty and access is, to Preston, one of the main reasons that photojournalism isn’t what it once was. “If I ever did a book that really told my feelings about everything, the title of the book would be The Publicists Finally Won, and you know, that says it all,” he says and then harkens back to the golden era of both photography and rock music. “If we were doing a People magazine cover, we used to be able to shoot three, four, five days and there weren’t publicists hanging around and watching what you shot, and telling people, ‘Don’t let him shoot that. Whatever you do, don’t let him shoot that.’ You just did what you do, and there was a certain amount of trust.”
Likewise, the Jimmy Page-Jack Daniels photo is the exact type of image that today would be forbidden and then later staged by an army of publicists, stylists, makeup artists and following re-touchers. “It’s really a shame what’s happened, certainly in terms of magazine photography,” Preston laments. “It’s either super set-up, super-contrived, faux-intimacy or it’s paparazzi stuff.”
Erik Kabik, a local rock ’n’ roll photographer who also has photos hanging at the Hard Rock, is a bit envious of Preston’s access. “I’ve been looking at all his images over at the Hard Rock the last few months, and I pretty much know all of them because he’s shooting these artists that certainly I don’t have access to anymore,” Kabik says. “That’s something I’d love to be able to have—more access to the artists.” I caught up with Kabik at a 20-year retrospective of his photography at Mandarin Oriental (dedicated to rock photographer Jim Marshall), which means he got his start a good 15 years after Preston did. Kabik lists Preston as one of his heroes. “The way he captures light, and he’s shooting on film. I’m shooting digital now. … So I look at the photos and I’m just in awe of how beautiful they are as pieces of artwork because I know how hard it would be to capture those images. … They are artwork. They’re not just concert shots.”
Perhaps used to operating behind the scenes, Preston humbly dismisses his fans. “I always tell people, because they get so reverential and they love the stuff so much, and I always say, ‘It’s not me that you’re responding to, it’s the people in the photographs.’ ‘No, but you were there, you were there.’ Everyone wants to touch the guy that touched the guy.” But Preston is selling himself short. He may enjoy proximity to greatness—such as getting to call singer Stevie Nicks his muse and director Cameron Crowe his best friend—but through his photos, he also helped create the greatness he gets to be near. For example, can anyone imagine the Dionysian glory of Led Zeppelin without such debaucherous backstage candids?
Preston’s photos document a “high-water mark” (to invoke Hunter S. Thompson) in both music and photography that has since faded. But that’s the great part about photos; they preserve what’s gone. And in this case, whenever you feel nostalgic, you can always go to the Hard Rock and “visit your friends” (to invoke the film Almost Famous for which he shot the film stills). They’ll be right where you left them. Hanging on the walls and for sale in the Hard Rock retail store.