Rock’n’roll photographer Tony Mott has led the kind of life that for the rest of us seems like a surreal dream. Travelling with Paul McCartney. Partying with Queen. He has photographed everyone from Prince to Rihanna to Marianne Faithfull. But when he talks about his work, what’s clear is his unbridled passion and affection for music and its creators, regardless of genre or fame.
Lockdown has offered many artists the rare chance to sort through archives. Mott was initially inspired to dig through 40 years of negatives by a message from Tom Petty in 2013, who was looking for a photo of himself with Bob Dylan to publish in his biography. Mott remembered the photo as being under low light and therefore no good to use, but when he found the negative and had a closer look, he was excited at the possibilities.
“With negatives on film, in the old days if the negatives were thin, you just didn’t use them, you couldn’t print them, you just printed the good ones,” he says. “But with the digital age, with the scanner, stuff that you would have disregarded years ago can now be used.”
He was surprised by what he discovered in his filing cabinets and started publishing some of them on Facebook – an A–Z of musicians, a treasure trove of previously unseen photographs, each with a story to tell: teenage Avril Lavigne beside a bullet train in Tokyo, whose management took the entourage out to dinner in a brothel; Stevie Nicks, who had the tendency to get lost, and mistook the gig venue for the gate lounge at an airport; Johnette Napolitano from Concrete Blonde, who was told by her US record company not to wear black, so she put on dark lipstick and clothes and was photographed in a cemetery.
Mott says that when he’s standing in front of the stage or behind the scenes, he’s looking to capture the essence of the artist. “There’s a yin and yang,” he says: live performance and portraiture. But he always comes prepared, waiting for that split-second, the mannerism, the trick that defines his subject. When asked which performers excite him most, he pounces immediately on Chrissy Amphlett from the Divinyls. He shot the band more than 100 times. “She was completely unpredictable but she always delivered something on stage,” he says. He would wait for a particular song, Don’t Go Walking. “She’d go ape at the end of the song … [a] completely ballistic, screaming banshee.”
Getting the perfect shot can be high pressure. When Mott tours with a band or musician he has access to the whole gig, but when he shoots for a magazine or the press he sometimes can only shoot three songs or less – “a nightmare”. Mott confides that this three-song rule came in after a Blondie tour in the 1970s. “Deborah Harry wore an amazing amount of black mascara and she started noticing that at the three songs it ran so much she didn’t like the results. So she introduced the first three songs rule and then everyone just followed.”
Some musicians are notorious for playing in the shadows. Mott remembers a particularly tough shoot trying to capture Nick Cave with Kylie Minogue at the Big Day Out in 1996. “She’s in complete darkness and he’s got one red light on him.” After Tony spoke to his manager, Cave agreed to put the lights on for 10 seconds.
Mott has a history with Minogue and Cave. After an on-site shoot with the latter, Mott’s camera gear got stolen. The pair of musicians agreed to do a spontaneous 20-minute shoot to help raise money for his equipment. The results are lively, the dynamic between them unusually intimate.
Mott says that creating intimacy is about listening to what musicians want – a collaboration. He likes to have a cuppa with them before the shoot. When he met Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth, who he says “defines cool”, he gave her a gift, a photograph he had taken with her hero, Iggy Pop. But some performers, like Lucinda Williams, will never be comfortable posing. “She’s one of the greatest singer-songwriters … There’s no musician on the planet that doesn’t think she’s fantastic [but] she’s not meant for the public.”
Working for four decades, he’s seen many musicians grow up through his camera lens – Kasey Chambers, Jessica Mauboy, sisters Vikki Thorn and Donna Simpson from the Waifs – and, in particular, PJ Harvey. Citing her in his “top five artists of all time”, he remembers seeing the transformation from girl with a “massive Gibson guitar” at Glastonbury to the woman owning the same stage three years later in a tight pink jumpsuit, completely in control of the performance and the image.
Given his access to nearly every musician on the planet, is there anyone he has not photographed who he wishes he had? He alights on two, Kiki Dee and Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine, redheads from different eras.
But in these times of no travel or live music, Mott seems both happy and overwhelmed in his studio, sorting out the masses of black and white negatives. What’s next?
He laughs. “I haven’t even started on the colour. I’ve got one, two, three, six filing cabinets full of colour!”
The article was adapted from theguardian.com.