BOB DYLAN AND ME: AN INTERVIEW WITH JILL FURMANOVSKY
"And Dylan walked past us as we were chatting. And as he walked past I pulled out my book and gave it to him saying that I'd like him to have my book. He took it very graciously, a photography book, thank you, and he smiled and he went off with it to his Porto cabin in his Wellington boots in the mud. I thought fantastic, at least I've done that. And then he emerged a few minutes later with an unlit cigarette in his hand and he said 'Did you write me a letter?' so I said 'Yes.' He seemed to have heard of this letter. That's how I remembered it. I think he might have recognised my name because he's one of these people who knows what's going on and my name has been around for many years. And then he said 'I could do with a good photographer.' And I thought 'You certainly can.'"
Richard Marshall Interviews Jill Furmanovsky
COPYRIGHT © 2002, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
ABOUT JILL FURMANOVSKY
JF: I've been shooting for thirty years professionally. In 1972, when I was a 19-year-old student at the central School of Art and Design, a first year student doing textile design, I did a two-week photography course and during that time I went to the Rainbow Theatre to see the band Yes. And from the balcony I could see the press photographers and I went down with the college camera, wasn't stopped and got chatting to the professional photographers. One of them offered me the chance to come and work at the Rainbow Theatre. So I got a job. I didn't know what I was doing but it was enough. It was fantastic. Unpaid, but I had a pass giving me access to all areas of the Rainbow Theatre.
I saw Pink Floyd rehearsing, The Faces rehearsing, gigs by everything from The Temptations through to Liza Minnelli or whatever else was on at the Rainbow. So that's how my career began. Then I worked for the music press until I graduated. Using the college facilities for the next couple of years. Then I was doing live stuff first, then feature stuff when punk started. I worked for Sniffin'Glue magazine and then in the 80's I worked for The Face with Nick Logan until the mid 80's when I attempted to get out of the rock and roll business. I thought I was a bit too old for it. I tried to get out but I kept being offered more work, which drew me back in. So eventually I decided that the music industry is kind of what I'm there for.
3AM: Is your biggest interest photography or the rock industry?
JF: I had to ask myself that question and still do from time to time. I think photography just has the edge fortunately. It's a question I ask my students because I can understand why a young girl would be seduced into wanting to go into the rock industry. Or young guy actually!
3AM: So what are you trying to do by taking these pictures. Is it a matter of getting behind the glamour?
JF: I'm fascinated by the greats in all walks of life. The same criterion applies to a great writer, actor, musician, childbirth doctor or statesman. I've photographed Nelson Mandela, I've photographed De Niro, but ,in particular, musicians have been my speciality. We all know that there's a human being in there and I'm interested in showing conclusively that underneath the genius there is still that human being. Which gives us all the chance to aspire to great things really.
3AM: Have you ever done a picture where you feel you've been able to show something about the person that no one had seen before, or you didn't know about before? Have there been surprises like that?
JF: Not really because I expect to find that human being and generally I do. So it's not a surprise. Sometimes it can be shocking. Like in the case of Mandela for example, I have a shot of him where he looks extremely vulnerable. And at the same time it's not really surprising that Mandela would be so vulnerable even though he is so great. And then you can find the opposite. The strength of Liam Gallagher, despite his vulnerability. It's not a surprise.
3AM: What do you think your subjects are thinking of as you snap away at them? Are they happy or is it an invasion?
JF: Well, most people in the media know that it's part of the job. Your problem with them is that they co-operate to the point of you not getting anything. That's the difficulty. Most people including my own child, are not happy at being closely observed. Only a few people -- actors for example -- seem to like it. People who naturally perform. But most politicians and performers and entertainers see it as part of the job. So they're professional about it and that gets in the way. What keeps me going is getting behind this. This is the carrot. A photograph is generally only 125th of a second. You've got a lot of opportunity to capture something in a face, its expression, a body is expressive but nevertheless it's still a very difficult thing to do. So you go into a strange time zone of observation that is rather seductive, a bit like hunting or shooting where you start to concentrate in a very mercurial way. There are problems with relationships getting in the way of a shoot. In some ways it's a lot easier to work with someone for ten minutes so you don't have a relationship with them. I do like to be liked and I get quite upset if I'm falling out with people. So dealing with that is part of the puzzle.
I'm thinking here of De Niro. I remember I had ten minutes with him -- it was the usual sausage machine where another journalist was waiting, the PR woman was looking at her watch -- a very typical situation really. De Niro was not particularly wanting to do it anyway but feeling obliged to, and I shot whilst he was talking to the journalist, which is one kind of picture, and I had a portrait to do for the cover of Time Out and I had a studio set-up. And he was wheeled out for my ten-minute slot. I took some Polaroids, which took me five minutes so I had five minutes left. He started giggling but not in a way that was actually producing great pictures -- he was irritated. Then the PR appeared and I was trying to wind up the shoot and I lost it a bit. But it was a controlled 'lost it'. I went up to him and said 'Look, I've got a job to do in this ridiculous short space of time and I am trying to do it well. I need your full concentration right now!' And I walked back and shot the picture and I got it. And I had a similar encounter with Liam Gallagher when I started photographing Oasis. You're wasting my time, I tell them. I'm trying to be professional.
3AM: Does being a woman help in those situations?
JF: On the whole it's been helpful because I mainly work with men but it's not always the case. I noticed when working for The Director Magazine and photographing company chairmen and the like, that as a woman photographer I had no trouble disarming these powerful men -- they all want to look good! You are in a position of power when you are holding a camera. You can abuse it. It's interesting.
3AM: Oasis. You were their official photographer. How did that come about?
JF: They chose me to work with them in 1995. I was just finishing a book of my work that I was trying to publish for years called The Moment. It is a visual diary. It starts with the incident I told you about at the Rainbow. And I needed an ending with an up-and-coming artist. And Oasis were up and coming at the time. They'd had one hit or something. A friend of mine recommended that I went and photographed them at a gig. I me them afterwards and was a little bit of a legend to them because I had photographed the Sex Pistols and so they gave me co-operation. After the show I sent them the results and the next thing they asked me to go to America with them. Then my book came out. So it started with the Beatles and ended with Oasis. Their careers were taking off to such a degree that Noel quite liked the idea of having somebody on their side, documenting what was happening. So that's what I ended up doing. I was old enough to be Liam's mother. And also we share a birthday. So we have a bit of a twin thing going there.
3AM: It's 25 years since The Sex Pistols came along. What were they like?
JF: I didn't know The Sex Pistols well. I didn't have a relationship with them like I did with Oasis, but I did photograph them and they were in the same building as Miles Copeland who managed The Police and Sniffing Glue magazine, we were all in the same office. I used to see them coming in, kicking the milk bottles and the film crews on the doorstep. And I saw them at The Roxy. I was very much around in punk, not particularly with The Sex Pistols. I photographed The Buzzcocks quite a lot and Sham 69. I used to get sent the hard core ones from the record companies as they came out. During that eighteen-month period shooting for Sniffin'Glue I photographed The Clash, The Jam and the wannabes like The Police. And Americans. Chrissie Hynde. Television. Blondie. Iggy Pop.
3AM: Tell us about your book that's coming out.
JF: Well, the funny thing is that you say the book is coming out but I haven't done anything about it. I've written it and produced the visuals. It's all connected with Rock archives. Bobquest and Rockarchive came at the same time. I 'found' Dylan in 1998 when I felt I had shot enough on Oasis after 3 years. My whole career has been like that. I stop and think I've done it and then immediately something comes in. I'd finished with Oasis. They were taking a break and I didn't feel they needed documenting to the degree that I had been doing anymore. I'd had enough anyway and it was time to take a break. I was having a terrible time in my personal life, my marriage was breaking up, the other life was an emotional mess. By chance I heard 'Love Sick' from Time Out Of Mind at that time. I'd never been a Dylan fan in my life. I didn't think he was overrated or anything like that because I knew he was great, but I just couldn't listen to his stuff. That whiny voice, all the worshipping. I'd seen him play once and thought it was terrible. I just wasn't interested really.
But when I heard this song played on GLR radio by Robert Elms, it struck a chord and whether it was just the timing in my own life or whether it was just that he'd made a record that I could relate to -- it was probably a mixture -- I thought it was amazing. I ground myself to a halt, glued myself to the radio, bought the album and thought it was fantastic. In a passionate show of appreciation I wrote to Dylan's management, which Chrissie Hynde eventually put me on to in America, and said 'I haven't been a fan, but I am now.'
I saw that Dylan was coming to Glastonbury and Wembley and asked his manager in a letter if I could photograph him? And I didn't hear anything but I'd left it very late. It was early June 1998 that I wrote the letter and Glastonbury was three weeks later. But I felt very strongly that I must try and photograph Dylan. I bought tickets for Wembley and I arranged press accreditation for Glastonbury. I was determined to hear him. I didn't even realise that he had a thing about being photographed. I thought he was just like one of those big artists that gave you three songs to shoot and then chuck you out. I didn't know anything more. I went to Glastonbury on the Friday and it was so appalling weather I left. I thought -- forget Glastonbury. I'll go to Wembley. But then by some strange chance my tickets went astray. So I had to return to Glastonbury or not see him at all. So I went back to Glastonbury on the Sunday. I felt like the worst idiot ever with heavy cameras and Wellington boots no backstage pass just a ticket to this disaster area which was Biblical. I felt so puzzled by my own behaviour. That's how the book begins.
When I got to the backstage area I was allowed into the BBC area because I'm friendly with John Peel and Jools Holland. They made me tea and stuff. Dylan had been rescued by Michael Eavis and I photographed them arriving. He went into the artists' dressing room area, which I didn't have access to. But it bordered onto the BBC area and through the fence in the Pulp dressing room was my mate from Oasis, the bodyguard who was off the road with Oasis and was in there with Pulp. We greeted each other and he said to come over and walked me in. I had to put my cameras away, but I had my book, The Moment, with me. I was wanting to give it to Dylan if I could.
And Dylan walked past us as we were chatting. And as he walked past I pulled out my book and gave it to him saying that I'd like him to have my book. He took it very graciously, a photography book, thank you, and he smiled and he went off with it to his Porto cabin in his Wellington boots in the mud. I thought fantastic, at least I've done that. And then he emerged a few minutes later with an unlit cigarette in his hand and he said 'Did you write me a letter?' so I said 'Yes.' He seemed to have heard of this letter. That's how I remembered it. I think he might have recognised my name because he's one of these people who knows what's going on and my name has been around for many years. And then he said 'I could do with a good photographer.' And I thought 'You certainly can.' Any one who has seen Time Out Of Mind knows what I'm talking about. Most of his visual stuff is terrible because he controls it. So I told him that I wanted to take some pictures and he said 'What, here? Now?' and I said 'Yes.' And he said 'Ok'.
I wasn't nervous. I wasn't even surprised because it almost seemed like destined that we should have this chat. We were talking away. I think he does do this. I've seen him subsequently with other people. Once you're talking to him in an ordinary way he's quite happy to chat. He likes that. Anyway, we talked and then he said I could photograph him. He asked if he could see the pictures and I said yes and then he wanted me to take him round the site which I didn't recommend obviously. And then I went to get the cameras and nearly got thrown out because I didn't have a backstage pass but Dylan's people had been told by Dylan that I was coming so I went on the stage with him. I took the pictures. Even his bodyguards couldn't believe this was going on. Then I sent the pictures to America a few days later.
Then he rang me up at home. And in the course of the conversation he said that he felt what I shot at Glastonbury was not from the best angle for him, but he liked my work. He'd read The Moment and we chatted about that. He'd seen my Oasis book and he really liked that too and I said to him that if he didn't mind giving me the sort of access Oasis gave me then I was sure I could do that for him too. He said that I could photograph him at anytime I liked. I said 'Fantastic, I'll fix it with your office.' End of conversation. And then I could not get back to him. And that was the start of the Bob quest. Because he said I could photograph him whenever I liked and until he personally took that back I felt justified in taking pictures of him. But how do I find him again? How will I ever go back to that point? So then I started to photograph him as a kind of a quest. And because it was difficult and because it was interesting and because it brought up all these questions because of the fans and the whole phenomenon it turned into a bit of a thesis. And then I think it became a bit obsessive as well. I lost the plot a little myself.
It took two and a half years before we met face to face again. In the meantime I had communication with him that was very peculiar. And I began to experience this thing that he does which is to blow hot and cold and leave a smoke screen. If you start to become a fan it puts him right off. He starts to back off. At the same time he must have known that he had a little bit of responsibility for this strange position and in a strange way he might even of enjoyed it. Because every time I was ready to drop it some little encouragement would come my way, which kept me going. It was a bit like a relationship that's going wrong but neither of you can quite give it up.
But then eventually I cornered him when I was in Ireland with Elvis Costello last year, and managed to discuss with him, very briefly in a very hilarious conversation how he wished to proceed if at all. And that is how the story ends. So I thought I'd publish the pictures and narrative as Bobquest because it is a fascinating and entertaining story.
Bob Dylan is a great, great artist, the world's greatest living rock/folk musician/poet -- which is not to say that he's the world's greatest man. One of my conclusions in Bobquest is that unusually for a musician, the act of performing is very more intimate to him than having a portrait taken. I think it gives too much away to photograph him live because I think he puts himself on the line. Which is what is so marvellous about him. The best part of him is always there on the stage. So I think he can't bear for that to be recorded. It would disturb him too much. I think he could sit here and have his picture taken more easily. I think he's instinctive in how he works. When you look back at what he's doing it has a meaning but at the time it is some sort of instinctive behaviour. He controls his image almost to the degree of Michael Jackson. Which is extraordinary really.
3AM: It's interesting then that he asked you along because you're someone who could destabilise this.
JF: Yes, he asked me along but then he wouldn't let me come along. So what do we read by that? It says as much as anything else. Come and photograph me. But on the other hand, maybe not! If Bob had bought the rights to the pictures and hired me as his photographer they would not have seen the light of day because he controls his image very carefully. So it's been quite advantageous that he hasn't. It's all much more revealing this way.
3AM: So, having been with the great Bob, where do you go now?
JF: If Noel Gallagher rings me up then I love doing the work so I'll do it. I'm flattered. But I'm not looking for the work. I'm working on Rock Archive anyway, which is a big project. A database of all the photographers I know. This is my baby. Our oldest photographer who is just coming on board, Terry Spencer, is 85. He did the Beatles and stuff. And incidentally, Dylan at the Isle of White. Now that's fascinating.
He shot four rolls of film of Dylan and The Band. Life magazine used a couple of sharp ones and printed them in that issue -- small probably -- and they'd put the rest of the negs back into the envelope. So I went through them and I went absolutely wild. There are some fantastic images there. Most of us photographers used to shoot the event and print three and the rest would be chucked into a negative file. So I found out that half my colleagues have got huge archives that no one has looked at. Including my good self. I haven't looked at mine. So this is where the idea for Rock Archive came from. The archives are there. All that rock history. What the hell are we supposed to do with it? They're part of British cultural history. So I thought at least I could make some of these photographers and their work known if we all put a few pictures into Rock Archive. Then we started a Rock Archive gallery and that's taken off. So that'll help fund it a bit more. So I'm trying to remove myself again. Doing the best I can. I've got lots of personal projects.
3AM: You've something happening in May?
CP: When I did the Oasis exhibition I had to build a rig for it. It was all sponsored and it's been in storage ever since. I've just donated it to The Roundhouse. So what's happened is that we've been asked to do a Rock Archive exhibition in the crypt at The Roundhouse whilst the Royal Shakespeare Company is there (2 May - 11 May 2002). Then Rock Archive has a touring exhibition that will be in Bath Spa University for July and August, in the Assembly Rooms at the Edinburgh Festival and in Liverpool in September/October. While we're at The Roundhouse we might do another Bobquest reading because Rock's Back Pages and Dave Stewart are around and we'll be showing some of the unseen pictures of Dylan. Of course Dylan will be over at the time. We'll invite him to come maybe!
Brought up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Jill Furmanovsky moved with her parents and brother Michael, to London in 1965 in time to join in with Beatlemania. She became one of the 'Apple scruff' teenagers that hung around outside Abbey Road hoping to catch sight of the Beatles. Her first rock shot was of Paul McCartney standing outside his house with two of her school friends, taken on a Kodak Instamatic.
Following a foundation course at Harrow School of Art, Jill studied textile and graphic design at the Central School of Art and Design. After only two weeks training in photography, she had a lucky break when she was offered (and gleefully accepted) the unpaid job of official photographer at London's premier rock venue, The Rainbow Theatre in 1972.
Artists photographed in her 30 year career include many of the biggest names in rock music: Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Eric Clapton, Blondie, The Police, Led Zeppelin, The Pretenders, Bob Dylan and Oasis. She has also made videos for Oasis and The Pretenders.
Jill's books The Moment - 25 Years of Rock Photography and Was There Then - A Photographic Journey with Oasis are seminal works in the genre. She has recently completed the third part in a trilogy of rock tales, Bobquest - three years in the shadow of Bob Dylan, which she hopes to publish in 2002.
Jill has won many awards for her music photography including The Jane Bown Observer Portrait Award for her classic Charlie Watts portrait in 1992. In 1998 she was honoured with the accolade 'Woman of the Year' for Music and Related Industries'.
Article about Bobquest
More pics by Furmanovsky