Interview with CARL DUNN

The Rock Lensman

October 2003
dunnThese days, when the television and video take the spotlight away from music, the art of photography is all the more precious. This may sound strange, yet sometimes a still picture has more life to it than any super-modern DVD can provide with all its trickery. When we talk rock, it’s even harder, because there’s too many a fleeting instant to pinpoint for posterity. But, thankfully, people like Carl Dunn, who recently compiled his great works into a book called “This Is Rock & Roll“, can do miracles. How? Let the master do the talking.

– Is is hard to be enjoying the show while looking for the best angle and perspective?

I very seldom encountered a problem with respect to angle and perspective when shooting, having full access, and being the only photographer that had this sort of access, so it was easy to enjoy the entire event, and shoot pictures at he same time. Being familiar with a group’s music would prepair me for most photographic opportunities. I became so used to this arrangement that it was difficult for me to sit or stand in one place for any length of time during a concert. After going away from music photography to pursue other interest for many years, I have returned to some limited shooting. I still find my concentration better when I’m looking through the camera lens and listening at the same time.

– Who’s the most easy to take a snap of, “straight” performers or showmen like Ian Anderson or Alice Cooper?

Performers such as Ian Anderson and Alice Cooper offer a wide range of expression in the course of their performance, and in most instances provide a broad spectrum of photographic images from subtle expression to passionate display. Generally it is easier and very exciting to photograph this type of performer. On the other hand, to capture a moment of passion in an artist less animated requires more concentration. In both instances being familiar with the artists music alway’s helped me in my photographic approach.

– You must have witnessed some historic moments like TRAPEZE bringing down the Houston theater or URIAH HEEP‘s Gary Thain being electrocuted, as there are photos from those concerts in the book, yet there’s no pictures of those particular moments. Why?

When I began selecting photographs for the book, my main criteria was to show these artists in moments of artistic expression. I realize that there is a certain amount of sensationalism in capturing a moment of extreme anxiety. That’s the moment that every journalistic photographer might long for: the instant when circumstance and timing allow a brief window and an opportunity to experience photographic immortality. I never gave it much consideration, and out of respect for Gary I included something that represented him being mesmerized by the moment.

With respect to TRAPEZE, I had some shots from behind Dave [Holland]’s drum kit of the crowd during the encore, but since Houston’s Music Hall had an orchestra pit, and the crowd was unable to get close to the stage, and there was insufficient light to illustrate their enthusiasum, I was unable to use anything I considered satisfactory.

– What’s more important to you, then: capturing an occasional great moment or an overall vibe or a gig?

dunnbookTiming is everything when you are trying to capture only great moments. Unfortunately, every concert didn’t necessarily provide that event. I think there is more opportunity in capturing the overall vibe, so I tend to direct my focus to that end.

– A stupid question, but… What was the most memorable concert you took the pictures of?

That’s not a stupid question. It is a very difficult question. Jimi Hendrix concerts conjure my most vivid memories simply because you could never expect him to do the same thing twice. He was one of those artists that you could not take your eye off, because you would miss something.

– Is it a great reward to see your photo chosen by an artist to grace his record’s cover?

It is indeed a great reward to have this sort of acknowledgement, when you consider the competition that existed among photographers of the time, and the fact the art directors were either in New York or Los Angeles.

– The book’s cover bears a shot of Jeff Beck. Does this mean he’s an ultimate rocker in your eyes?

I choose that picture of Jeff because of his status as one of England’s most recognizable guitarist, not only from his profile, but from his brief tenure in one of England’s most enovative and enduring bands, THE YARDBIRDS, to this day one of my favorites. I was able to give that photograph to Jeff at a later concert. He received it very graciously, which increased my admiration for him.

– Don’t you find it sad to see some of the people you’d taken the pictures of dead and gone? And glad when somebody made it big, like Glenn Hughes moving from TRAPEZE into DEEP PURPLE?

I was very shocked and saddened to find many of the artist were deceased, but I am refreshed each time I hear their music because of the vivid memories I have of them as young and vibrant musicians playing from their hearts. I was ecpecially glad to see Glenn make a move to DEEP PURPLE having been close to Glenn during his time in TRAPEZE. He has never forgotten our friendship and some fond memories through the years.

– There are some DEEP PURPLE photos taken at the infamous show at the California Jam Festival. Why only PURPLE if there were other great acts like BLACK SABBATH or ELP, Ok, there’s one picture of Geezer Butler, not mostache-less Iommi…

At the time of the California Jam I was shooting ELP for a possible album cover. As a result, they took most of the stuff from that entire tour. I never got any of it back but I did get the cover of the 1973 live album [“Welcome Back My Friends”]. As far as the other groups that were on the show, aside from DEEP PURPLE and ELP that played during the day… I am not necessarily fond of pictures taken in daylight, although I do use one occasionally. I tend to favor the contrast and mood of stage lighting, however, so I considered the picture of Geezer interesting even though it was taken in daylight. I found other photographs from the show less dramatic and therefore not suitable for this book.


Two Carls: Palmer and Dunn

– How do the black-and-white and color formats appeal to you? How do you decide what format’s more suitable for the shot?

They both appeal to me for different reasons. When I first began shooting, I had no formal training and no real understanding of film, cameras, lens, light etcetera. Concert lighting was generally very harsh, no color gels, no overhead lights, no back lights, nothing but super trooper spots. It is a challenge to shoot under those conditions and took me many hours of experimentation to settle into a method that would produce consistent results. At the beginning, I shot very little color because of the expense and my lack of experience. In time, I would become comfortable with it and for a short time gave up the black-and-white. In retrospect, that was a mistake for even though black-and-white prints can be made from color slides they are never as good a prints made from black-and-white film. I would ultimately shoot equal amounts of each, loading one camera with black-and-white and the other with High Speed Ektachrome. There would be times when I would make an active choice. The book cover is one such instance. I have never seen such an intense blue before or after I took that picture of Jeff. A contributing factor was the closeness of the light source. It is often times hard for me to make an instant judgement. Both formats are very capable of capturing the moment.

– Are there any other “live” rock photographers whose work you like? Dare I guess this could be Robert Ellis?

Robert is a great “live” music photographer and was always very cordial and helpful to me. I also admired Fin Costello’s work as well as Ed Carreff and, later on, Neal Preston. Bare in mind that there weren’t many music publications in the US during the Seventies, so in order to see what was being published you either went for the record covers or to the British music press. At any rate, most of what turned up in the media was in the form of record covers and very few of them contain “live” photographs. Most music photographers of the time were concentrated on the East and West coast. At the time I photographed HUMBLE PIE in Madison Square Garden, nearly every photographer in New York City was there. And I met Fin Costello at that show. Most of them spent their time during the show jousting for postion. I thought it was hilarious.

– Is pinpointing a certain picture to a certain date only in the end of the book, without putting a date in a caption, a deliberate game with the reader?

No. When I designed the layout for the book, I took ideas from other books I had seen. I may have been a little arrogant in not providing detailed information on each photograph simply because I knew every player, but I considered a lot of these photographs to be rock portraits and text would distract from the mood of the photographs. The compromise, since this is a picture book, was to give some detail at the index. I thought that it might encourage a closer look at the book since there are some photographs containing bits of subtlety.

– For how long have you been keeping a log in order to always know a date of a concert? There seem to be some wrong dates is the book, like with CREAM who couldn’t play in 1969, as they folded in late 1968…

Sorry about that and thank you! I know, there are some mistakes. Quite frankly, most of the dates I was able to retrieve came from date codes on color slides. Most of the color slide film that I shot was processed by Kodak and conviently had the month and year on the slide mount. At other times, I would have the date and location on whatever storage method I was using at the time. Unfortunately, at the time I was doing this I never gave a moments thought to keeping an accurate log of my travels and concerts. Hopefully, this will not be a haunting oversight.

– Does ” Volume 1″ tag means there’ll be another great book like this one? And is a 1995’s picture of Ian Anderson a teaser for it?

dunn2Yes, there will be at least one more and maybe two additional volumes. However the picture of Ian was not meant as a teaser, rather a contrast between the Ian Anderson I had seen in the Seventies and the Ian Anderson I was invited to see in the Nineties. He’s still a great artist with much passion but slightly less hair.

As I look back at these pictures of these incredible artists, I consider myself among the few who were able to capture these young men and women at their absolute best. For that I’m very grateful. I would like to thank each and every one of them for the pleasure they have given me throughout my life.

Many thanks to Ms Lucy Piller of for helping us get in touch.

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