Hollywood, CA (The Hollywood Times) 12/6/18 –
Jimmy Steinfeldt: How often do you clean your lens?
Neal Preston: (big laugh) Oh you mean like when I take my t-shirt and wipe it? Not that often. Whenever necessary…. in other words, not nearly enough!
JS: What photographers influenced you?
NP: More than anyone I’d say David Bailey, along with Richard Avedon, and Art Kane. As far as music photographers are concerned- Ethan Russell (the greatest of them all), Gered Mankowitz, and Stephen Paley. The fact that these three music photographers who I’ve admired for so long are now my friends still blows my mind.
Photographer Ken Regan was as close as I’ve had to a big brother. He was really my mentor. Ken owned and ran a photo agency called Camera 5 out of New York, and I’d see their photos everywhere. I wanted to be part of Camera 5 because it seemed so prestigious to me- and luckily Ken took me in around 1977. I was with them for nine years. I learned a lot from Ken by watching, listening, and keeping my mouth shut.
Ken was the ultimate photojournalist. He knew the business end of photography better than anyone and he was well connected beyond belief. He could have Bob Dylan on one telephone line and Ted Kennedy on another line at the same time. He could shoot anything: wars, sports, entertainment, you name it. In 1972 he even shot the ultimate terrorist photos at the Munich Olympics. Ken opened up Time- Life for me as a client, and it led to me having a People magazine contract for twenty years. I’m proud to say I am the most assigned photographer in the history of the magazine with over 700 shoot days.
Jim Marshall was a master of photography. If they ever put photographers in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Jim will certainly be number one.
I appreciated Jim for his craft; his ability to catch the Decisive Moment. His sense of humor, not so much. One day I was so tired I crashed on the living room floor of the house on Mulholland Dr. I shared with Cameron Crowe. Cameron was out of town and I was home alone and had left the front door open. I’m lying on the floor about to fall asleep at 12 noon and suddenly I feel something against my head. I open my eyes and it’s Jim Marshall and his .44 Magnum is cocked and ready to fire. He says to me “One quick move and I’ll blow your brains out you Jew bastard.” Funny….yeah, really funny. Where the real Jim Marshall and the character Jim Marshall began and ended were hard to distinguish. I watched him badger a waitress and then tip her $100 cash over and above the tip he put on his credit card.
JS: Who influenced you besides photographers?
NP: Women. My sister bought me a famous book titled “The Birds of Britain”. On the cover was a tight shot of a beautiful blond (Pattie Boyd) and she had a beetle on her nose with the Union Jack painted on the beetle. The book really turned me on to British photographers.
I was also influenced by my love of music. My dad had a lot to do with that. He was an important guy in the theatrical world, specifically the Broadway musical theater world. He was the production stage manager for the original productions of My Fair Lady, Camelot, The King and I, Fiddler on the Roof, and others. Years later when I was doing my book Exhilarated and Exhausted I realized the reason I’m so comfortable being backstage is because it reminds me of going to see my dad at work. My dad could also sing- he had a great voice. He taught me so much about classical music; he turned me on to Bach, Handel, Haydn, and even light opera like Gilbert and Sullivan. He would take me to Lincoln Center to see Leonard Bernstein conduct the New York Philharmonic.
JS: What was your first camera?
NP: Other than a Brownie my grandpa gave me as a kid, my first camera was an Ansco Speedex 4.5. You’d push a button and a bellows with a lens would pop out. I loved that fucking thing. I took it with me everywhere, it never left my side. The first on stage shot I ever did was of an actor during a performance of Fiddler on the Roof. I actually found the original chrome and we used it in my book.
I used to walk by a camera store in my hometown of Forest Hills, NY and stare endlessly at the cameras in the window. I asked the owners so many questions about cameras and photography I think the took pity on me- and hired me for a summer.
JS: What camera are you shooting with these days?
NP: Mainly Nikon. I also have a Leica point and shoot. For medium format I used to shoot Mamiya 6×7 for years, as well as a traditional Hasselblad 6×6 kit. Lately I’ve been using the Leica S.
JS: What was the change over from film to digital like?
NP: I still shoot film whenever possible but not often anymore because clients don’t know what to do with it now. The first magazine to go digital was Sports Illustrated. They realized they could get an extra day of sports coverage that way. They could go to press with the late Sunday night and also Monday night football games.
The last movie I did stills for on film was “Elizabethtown” and that was in 2005. Since then, I worked on “We Bought a Zoo”, “Aloha”,“Roadies”, and “A Star is born”, and I had to shoot digitally on all of those. The studios are not set up anymore for a film workflow.
JS: What films did you like to use?
NP: Ektachrome X, High speed Ektachrome, Ektachrome Type B, Kodachrome, Kodachrome Type B, Fuji Velvia. Polaroids, which I still miss shooting, Plus-X, Tri-X, 3200 ASA Kodak recording film. And the best black and white film ever made- Panatomic-X (32 ASA). They stopped making it around 1987. I was in Buenos Aires in around 1989 and a camera store I walked into had 200 rolls. I bought every single roll. It was not cheap but I was the only one in L.A. who had it for the next five years.
JS: Is there a camera you always wanted but never got?
NP: That’s a good question. Not really. However Leica let me use the Leica S with 5 lenses for a couple of months while I was shooting photos for a coffee table book to be released in conjunction with a movie’s release, and I liked it a lot. A bit cumbersome to use in the field; it’s really a studio camera.
JS: Is there anyone you’d like to photograph that you haven’t?
NP: For a long time Courtney Love was one but I got to photograph her last year. That was pretty wild. We’ve become friends. She’s a smart, fascinating person. The other person I’d always wanted to photograph is Christina Aguilera.
JS: Some of your photos of Queen were part of an exhibit recently at the Morrison Hotel Gallery at the Sunset Marquis Hotel. Can you share a Queen story?
NP: I spent a lot of time with Queen…more time with them than any other band. I was very close to the guys in their crew. Brian May was the only rock star to visit my mom and dad’s house. One of the high points of my career was when we went to South America in 1981. They were the first band to take their entire stage show down there and we were treated like the Beatles. All night the fans would gather outside the hotel chanting Freddieee Freddieee Freddieee. There were 150,000 people some nights at the soccer stadiums. All the stadiums had fences and moats around the pitch because the crowds are nuts down there!
Queen let me do my job the way I like to do it. I now believe my Queen photos are the best photos I’ve ever done. That was the golden gig of all time.
JS: A story about Led Zeppelin?
NP: I was the only person ever hired by them to be an official photographer. I had a retainer deal with Atlantic Records from 1972 to 1974. I got to know Danny Goldberg through Atlantic although I knew him earlier when he was a rock writer for Hullabaloo Music Magazine (which became Circus Magazine). I’d shot the Swan Song launch party in L.A. and I told Danny I knew Zeppelin was going on the road the next year and said if you’re looking for someone to come on the road with you I’d love to throw my hat in the ring. A couple months later he calls me and says if you’re still interested we’d like you to come out with us. I couldn’t believe it! Turns out the reason Zeppelin wanted a tour photographer was because by 1975 Led Zeppelin was bigger than The Rolling Stones but Zeppelin weren’t getting any press. They needed new tour photos. Zeppelin was very distrustful of the press but they were going to have to embrace the press if they wanted good coverage.
Peter Grant, Zeppelin’s manager, liked me so that helped. You couldn’t pretend to be the fifth member of the band. That would be a one-way ticket home. When I’m hired for that kind of a job I’m part of the crew. There was a lot of pressure. I had to get the film developed every night and then have six copies of every black and white proof sheet. There was a massive amount of work I had to do beyond just taking the photos. I don’t know how I did it.
At the Knebworth gig in 1979 Peter wanted me to do aerial shots of the crowd. The chopper I’m supposed to go in is just landing at the makeshift helipad, and Jimmy Page gets out and a moment later I get in. I’ve got one bag with two camera bodies, two lenses and about five rolls of film. We fly over Knebworth at about 5000 feet and I’m instructing the pilot to bank left and right so I can get the shots. The door had been removed from the chopper and I’m leaning out of the opening. I’m wearing a skinny little seat belt but I’m not scared. The only thing I’m worried about is that a lens or even a roll of film might fall out and land on someone’s head and kill them.
About a week after I get back to L.A. my phone rings and it’s the lady from Swan Song. She says take the photos of the crowds you shot and put them in an envelope. A man will come to your house tomorrow-will you be home? I said “yes.” She said don’t ask the man any questions, just give him the envelope. It was very James Bond – like. The next day the man came and I gave him the envelope. Turns out Peter was convinced the promoter was going to jack him on the head count. Peter ended up getting paid for 105,000 people when there were actually 150,000 people at the concert. However, Peter had gotten access to some new computer program used by NASA that could accurately calculate crowd size by making a huge blow-up and counting heads digitally. These days it’s no big deal but back then it was a HUGE deal. I was the insurance policy in case Peter decided to sue the promoter, which he did, and he won, thanks to my photos.
John Paul Jones was a great, sweet guy. He could walk down the street relatively anonymously, even in 1975. He didn’t mind not being recognized. Every band needs that guy.
Robert Plant was the guy I naturally gravitated to. The outgoing guy. One night I finally got into bed at a reasonable hour, around 3:30am. I was averaging 45 minutes of sleep per night for a month. I’m in bed, had just turned out the light. All of a sudden there’s a huge crash. Robert had taken his boot and kicked my door down! I’m completely startled and Robert says “It’s the Prince of Peace come to call…do you have you a joint?” so we smoked a joint. Me in bed, and Robert sitting on the edge of the bed.
The story I like to tell about Jimmy Page is about the first time I did a photo approval session with him. I used to travel with a slide projector and slide trays. I spent a lot of time editing my photos and loaded up the slide trays with a lot of the very best photos I had taken. A few of the photos were perhaps very good as opposed to the very best. I enter Jimmy’s suite at the Plaza Hotel and it’s dark and he’s running the movie Lucifer Rising as he often did over and over on a movie projector. I set up the slide projector and Jimmy said with his soft British accent “Let’s look shall we.” So we start looking at the photos. These are beautifully lit, perfect fucking photos. Jimmy says “Hmm, it’s alright.” Click to the next one, which is even better. “Hmm, crow’s feet.” Click to the next one, which was one of the lesser photos. “Wait, I love that.” Every beautiful, pristine, perfect, crisp, gorgeous picture is being passed over for these weirdo, freaky misses as opposed to hits. I said “Jimmy can we stop for a minute I just want to ask you something.” He quietly says, “Yes.” I turn the lights on and I say, “I’ve picked out all these slides that I think are great and you’re going for stuff that’s left of center. What are you going for?” He said “It’s very simple: Power, Romance, Mystery, and The Hammer of the Gods.” I told that story to Cameron Crowe and he put it in the Rolling Stone cover story.
Bonzo (John Bonham) could be the nicest guy on the planet unless he’d been drinking and then look the fuck out! There’s a reason they called him The Beast. He came into John Paul Jones’ suite when no one was around. Jones’ suite opened up to my room as well. So a drunken Bonzo thought Jones had a three-room suite while Bonzo had a two-room suite. Bonzo destroyed my room and I had to sleep on Jones’ couch for the rest of the nights we were in Cleveland. The night of the last show of that leg of the tour was a makeup date for when Robert had been ill. We flew from Newark to St. Louis to do this one show. This is the end of the tour for me. Now I can get some sleep. So I drop a blue Valium at the beginning of the encore. I drop another blue Valium before I get in the limo. I drop two more blue valiums by the time we get to the plane to go back to Newark. It’s gonna be a three hour flight and I’ve staked out my place on the plane. I drop my bag down. I’m about to sit down to head off to sleep with 40 milligrams of Valium coursing through my bloodstream and a completely hammered John Bonham comes over to me and says “Let’s see your knob.” I didn’t know what to say, I laughed nervously. This enraged him. “I said let’s see your fucking knob!” He sent over three security guys and they de-pants me. I’m on the floor butt naked. Jimmy Page is now standing over me and seemingly not impressed with what he saw.
JS: The Who is an important band to you.
NP: Peter is a very interesting guy. His autobiography is exactly what I expected it to be. A six hundred-page rant on self-doubt, self-torture over this woman or that woman. He can be both delicate and crass. He said the stuff on The Who albums are written with the audience in mind and the stuff on his solo records are written with himself in mind, stuff that he’s going through. There’s no one in the world better to photograph than him.
JS: Tell me about shooting movie stills.
NP: Yes, I’m a member of the local 600 Cinematographers and Publicists Guild. I got into doing movie stills through my friend Cameron Crowe. When he was a rock writer on the road with the Allman Brothers I was his photographer. The scenes in the movie Almost Famous were based on things that happened in real life and I was there when the real life stories happened. So it made perfect sense that I should be the still photographer when Cameron made the movie. Cameron knows me better than anyone on the planet and he wasn’t sure I’d be comfortable doing stills on a movie set. I’m a type A personality and he wanted to make sure I could fit in with everyone else. After two days he knew I was the right guy for the job. I related to everyone because it was like being on a Rock tour.
The hours people put in on a movie are insane. 15 and 16 hours days. I don’t know how Cameron does it. Everyone wants a piece of the director. Everyone’s got comments, and it never ends. He loves directing and he’ll always be a world-class writer. He told me he liked my writing and that gave me the strength to get through writing my book Exhilarated and Exhausted. I thought writing my book would be the difficult part. I was wrong. It flowed out of me like water. It’s crazy, the picture selection ended up being the hardest part. I’ve always been a frustrated writer and news junkie. My mom loved reading. When I was a kid we had five newspapers in New York City including the Times, The Daily News, The Post, and The Journal American. My dad would bring them home every night after his show ended.
JS: What advice would you have for a young person who wants to pursue photography as a career?
NP: Start saving those pennies to buy those cameras. Try to learn photography on film before you go to digital. With digital you are not only the photographer, you’re the lab. I don’t have the patience to sit at a computer for hours. I’ve been too busy shooting the photos. The last time I was in a darkroom was 1977. Just because you have a camera in your phone doesn’t mean you are a photographer. However a good photographer can shoot on a Kodak Brownie and do a great job. It’s in your DNA. I never took a class in my life, I’m self-taught. There are a lot more places today that you can get your photos seen but it’s going to be a while before you make any real money.
People always ask me how do I break into music photography. Pick a band you love, become their biggest fan. Don’t let them out of your sight. Go to all their gigs. Tell them how great they are and show them your greatest pictures and you will become that band’s guy. Ride that ticket as far as it will take you. Also the pit is not always the best place to shoot. I learned from a famous sports photographer David Burnett. He said most photographers want to be at the finish line when the runner breaks through the tape. David wanted to get a different photo than all the other photographers. He said when you see a lot of photographers together you should run the other way. So at a concert I’m all over the place. Onstage, offstage, under the stage, in the crowd. Anything that interests me.
JS: Is there a cause that you support that you’d like to mention?
NP: Dog rescue. The New York Humane Society. The best dogs on the planet are waiting for you right now. My dog Bailey, the love of my life, I had to put down about seven years ago, I miss him everyday. I believe I’ll see him again. He’s up there with my mom. I also support AIDS charities, Rock for M.S., and others.
JS: What’s next for Neal Preston?
NP: You should ask him! But seriously, I like to run at 105% of capacity. That’s when I’m most efficient. Things I’m working on include turning my book into a six or eight part T.V. series. Also a coffee table book for a movie. A big exhibition at the NAMM show in January, like 70 prints. I’ll be involved in The Almost Famous play coming up soon for Broadway. I want to do a Who book. I might even put my files up for sale. I want them in good hands when I’m not around anymore. I’m not, however, putting my cameras down. I actually want to shoot more photos than I have recently. I did shoot seven days on A Star is Born. They asked me to shoot the whole movie but I didn’t have time.
JS: Where can I point readers to learn more about you?
NP: My website. Also my book is available at the publisher Reel Art Press out of London and also at Amazon, The Hard Rock in Vegas, Book Soup in L.A., and Rizzoli in New York.