Jill Furmanovsky Retrospective

Before the opening of her retrospective at Lucy Bell Gallery, photographer Jill Furmanovsky speaks about rock’n’roll and the values of rebellion

When she was in her early teens, Jill Furmanovsky began her career as a music photographer with one impressive photograph. It wasn’t paid work: she was just a hardcore fan of the Beatles, an “Apple scruff,” and happened to be outside Paul McCartney’s house with her Kodak Instamatic.

Rock’n’roll really was rebel music, and rebellion is not for the faint-hearted

This was in the mid-1960s, at the height of British pop and rock. Furmanovsky had just emigrated from Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) and was swept up by all the excitement.

Fast forward 50 years and Furmanovsky is now one of the most respected music photographers in the UK. She has shot the likes of Bob Marley, Blondie, Pink Floyd, the Police, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Oasis. The exhibition 30/30/30, which will be held at Lucy Bell Gallery, Saint Leonards on Sea, celebrates Furmanovsky's career with some of her best known works.

Out of all your encounters with musicians, which one comes up the most in conversations?

Strangely, Bob Dylan. Even though he is the one I've worked with least but want to the most – perhaps that's why.

At present, rebellion keeps raising its head in an ugly fashion. Is rock music satisfying peoples need to rebel against the establishment?

A question back: does rock music have a role in the second decade of the 21st century and is it to fulfil people's need to rebel? Indeed do people still have a need to rebel and if so, against what?

The black musicians in the US of the early 1950s, who began the rock’n’roll revolution, had a lot of serious stuff to rebel against – not least of which was their grandparent's memories of slavery and ongoing racial segregation. Those individuals had nothing to lose by taking on the world whatever way they could, and those who made it in music did change things – Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, James Brown and Hendrix to name just a few.

I’ve also had to face the fact that the music industry doesn't really exist anymore and neither does the music press

Those pioneers influenced the white working class of the South, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, and of course Elvis, and were joined by like-minded musicians in the North – Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. When blues, jazz, swing and early American rock’n’roll music hit Britain – it inspired working class teenagers, who were rebelling against their weary post-war parents' generation. Lonnie Donegan, the Beatles and especially the Rolling Stones seemed like dangerous rebels to the establishment. In pop music, it wouldn’t be until Bob Marley and reggae, and the Sex Pistols and punk, that the term ‘rebel music' had any meaning again.

Then it stopped. And for many years now rock’n’roll has been mainstream; you can even study it at uni. Early rock’n’roll really was rebel music, and rebellion is not for the faint-hearted. It starts from within and is a chemical process that bursts, out of necessity.

I would say that until the next generation of musical rebels are born – ones with talent and something to say that touches common people – the rock’n’roll era as we know it is over. My aim was – and still is – to record and celebrate it in pictures.

How has the experience of photographing changed for you over the years?

I still shoot pictures of musicians with passion. I go to gigs and work with new and old artists on a regular basis. The main differences are technical – I had to learn to embrace digital photography which took a while, and I don't like digital data as much as negatives and contact sheets.

I’ve also had to face the fact that the music industry doesn't really exist anymore and neither does the music press so there is less chance to earn money from it as a profession. But for me it was always a vocation not a means to make a salary – so from that point of view nothing has changed. Talent is timeless and always awesome.

What is the key to taking a great portrait?

The hunter's instinct – stalk the prey, lay low and invisible, and then pounce suddenly and accurately.