For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.
Rock photography is dead. Blame publicists. Blame managers. Blame overzealous, predatory photographers. Blame all the people who made access to musicians near impossible. As the newest book by legendary rock photographer Neal Preston proves, when it comes to the best in music photography, access is everything.
Exhausted and Exhilarated, (Reel Art Press, 2017) is filled with never-before-seen photos of unguarded backstage moments, shots from behind amps on stage and in limos and hotel rooms, of all the biggest musicians of the 1970s and ’80s. Preston captured some of the most notorious rock tours of all time: Led Zeppelin, at their absolute peak; The Who in their full Keith Moon raucousness; Frampton filling enormous stadiums.
Photos like these just don’t happen much anymore, at least not without clearance from a phalanx of publicists and managers and lawyers and only after signing away all rights to the photos. Not that Preston didn’t have to get through Led Zeppelin’s notoriously gruff manager Peter Grant before getting the greenlight to shoot them, but the photos in his book have a loose familiarity about them that feels absent from a lot of music photography today.
Preston didn’t just focus on the candid backstage moments. Those just happen to be among my favorites. His live shots are on fire, putting you right there, front and center, or often right on stage with the musician. You can feel the sweat. And he captures excellent pensive moments in the studio, like Bruce Springsteen standing as if he’s studying the microphone before him.
Preston, now 65 and living in Los Angeles, earned his reputation by being a well-rounded photographer, able to bring out the best—or at least capture something real—in the musicians he photographed. The portraits convey a connection that can be hard to coax out of famous people who are so used to being documented.
The list of bands covered in the book is far too long to even dip into. Basically, if they were popular between the very late ’60s into the early ’90s, they’re likely in here. Sprinkled throughout, Preston shares vignettes and bits of wisdom about touring as a rock photographer, including this vital ego-checking nugget: “You are not a member of the band.” He goes on, “Almost all musicians, (other than the obvious key ones) are expendable and photographers are no different.” It’s as much fun reading as it is flipping through this heavy 336-page volume.