The Man Who Shot Led Zeppelin: A Conversation with Neal Preston
Neil Preston has had what he has described as many fan’s “dream job” photographing the mighty Led Zeppelin during their 1970s glory years, but he has shot many other subjects, inside music and elsewhere, as well as served as a unit and special photographer for his lifelong friend and filmmaker, Cameron Crowe. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Newsweek, Time and Rolling Stone, as well as sporting events such as the Olympic Games, and legions of episodes of the groundbreaking VH-1 documentary series, Behind the Music, where he was the primary photographic source.
The photographer has also authored numerous collections of his work over the years, from large-scale coffee table books to his current illustrated volume, the all-digital, interactive book, Led Zeppelin: Sound and Fury. The book offers an interactive experience, as well as an exploration of many unpublished Zeppelin photographs, plus some more iconic shots from on stage and backstage, and images shot on the band’s two private planes they chartered during the heady 70s—the Starship and Caesar’s Chariot.
Preston was the right photographer at the right time, but he stays humble about his work, knowing that many people have somehow took his images to heart for four decades, instilling a life-force in his work that he is only now beginning to understand. Indeed, the artist has been immersed in his body of work for so long that, while Sound and Fury offers the reader the opportunity to engage with his Zeppelin catalogue of imagery, it also gives its creator a unique chance to reassess his own craft and the impact it has had on not only music, but countless lives, while one gazes at his famous photos now and beyond.
RR: As Led Zeppelin has turned into myth over the years, I find myself returning to your photos of the band, as much as I listen to their music. Other than Jimmy Page, himself, I feel I can make an argument that your work has also been a key component in enhancing the Zeppelin mystique.
NP: Yeah, well, or, the legacy, if you will.
RR: Right. I am wondering if, at the time, in a parallel process to the music, you ever imagined that your work would have such a lasting impact.
NP: You know what? There was no way that I would have had any idea. And, in fact, it’s only really dawning on me now how much a part of the legacy of this band that I have created, at least visually. You don’t know when you are in the middle of it, you don’t know it when you are in the eye of the hurricane. Of course, back in the day, you know…well, you have to have the gift of hindsight because none of us knew that pictures were going to become as important as they’ve become today, or that the records were going to be as important today as they were to us back then. There is no way to know that, and I’ll tell you what—it’s been a little bit of a mindblower lately (laughs); hearing people talk about [the photos] in semi-reverential terms like you have done and other people have done is more than flattering; it’s mind-blowing.
RR: I’ve looked at your work quite a bit over the years, and what amazes me is that these were not setup shots. These were photographs that were taken in the moment, in a spontaneous way, and, for some reason, beyond your natural talent, you just had the ability to capture the rock ‘n roll spirit better than anyone else. I feel that much of that, of course, was due to the right subjects at the right time for you.
NP: Well, that is really nice of you to say. I’ve worked a long time in the business, and I’ve worked really hard. Mind you, I’m not finished working. I’m still relatively young, and I have no intention of stopping, and I still shoot. It may not all be music stuff, but I certainly still shoot. To be able to look, to go down in that room in my house where I’ve got all the file cabinets, and say that this is a significant body of work—I think I’ve done my job well, so it means a lot to me to be able to say that to myself. When other people notice it, it completely blows my mind. (laughs) I’m not kidding, and thank you.
RR: Let’s talk about your new work, Led Zeppelin: Sound and Fury, and the platform and application you are using to show this work. I find the format to be innovative and refreshingly present, as always, with your other Led Zeppelin work. What fascinates me is that I’ve got some new Neal Preston work out there that I can also move and interact with, as well.
NP: This was a little bit of a leap of faith that I had to take in doing this project because there was no road map, there was no instruction booklets, or litmus tests to really compare it to. I had never really done anything like this, but no one had ever really done anything like this. It’s looking a little ahead into the future of publishing and where it is leading. It is inevitable; someone will have to do something like this, and I just decided that it might as well be me. There’s a bit of the ‘blazing a new trail’ aspect involved here. I certainly realized early on that there was going to be a learning curve involved. I didn’t quite realize how much of a learning curve it was going to be, to be perfectly honest, because there are inherent differences in doing this kind of a book, as opposed to the traditional coffee table book where you have ink on the page and you turn the pages.
Traditionally, you have an art director on a book who helps you with your layout and design and you look at galleys and that’s one kind of a process. This kind of a project, you have a software developer who, ultimately, acts as your art director. You are at the mercy of what the software can and cannot do and I’m not a real tech guy. I’m not a geek, or anything. I know enough about this stuff to be very, very dangerous. (laughs)
There was a certain amount of leaving the technical issues to the technical people because I’m not a guy who can step in and go, “Version 2.0 can do this, that, and the other thing.” You’ve already lost me. It’s fun and it’s been educational for me to do this, but it’s really been different, it’s way different than doing any kind of other project that I’ve ever done. It’s been crazy, man.
RR: For the older fans, it is a way for them to have access to the material they didn’t quite have before, and for new fans, Neal Preston’s Led Zeppelin work is right there. Also, this is a rare chance to look at your photographic gear and technique, which you have not really done in the past.
NP: No. That was a way to add a little more color and character to the book. Frankly, it allows me to put more of myself into this. This book and this project was never conceived as a biography of the band, or as a documentary, or “let’s tell the story of this band.” That’s not what this is. This is a look at them through my experience of having worked with them. I’ve worked with a lot of other bands. As you know, they are not the only ones I’ve worked with, but this was a way to bring the reader into my world. I’m the guy—a lot of people have told me that I’ve had the dream job: “You had the job that I always wanted. You were always at the places that I always wanted to be.” Well, this is as deep as you are going to be able to go and not be me. (laughter) I mean…I don’t know how else to put it. That was the prime goal that I wanted to achieve and I wanted to meet—give people the experience; have the whole project be experiential in nature. Come backstage with me. Come behind the velvet rope a little bit. Call it what you will. I like to say that everybody likes to ‘touch the guy who touched the guy’, and this is the way to do it, more so than with a traditional book.
RR: 30 years ago, August 1983, Cameron Crowe wrote the introduction to your first photography collection, Led Zeppelin: Portraits, which came out on Mirage Books.
NP: My little company, yes.
RR: Tell me about your relationship and friendship with Crowe back in the 70s as he covered the band as a young Rolling Stone scribe while you shot photos.
NP: Yeah, absolutely. Cameron is five years younger than me. From the day I met him in 1972, I believe it was, we’ve been together ever since then. Cameron was always older than his years. When you are five years older than someone, and you are 20 and they’re 15, that’s generally a bigger gulf than five years. And, yet, it wasn’t with him. We’ve always had the exact same sense of humor, and, I don’t know, we started working together on Rolling Stone assignments. Keep in mind, he couldn’t drive at the time. (laughs) He would take a Greyhound bus up from San Diego and I would pick him up from the bus station in downtown L.A. and we’d drive over to the Hyatt House or the Beverly Wiltshire or wherever and do the interview stuff. Sometimes, I would either drive down, or fly down on PSA Airlines to San Diego, and a girlfriend would pick me up there and take me to the Sports Arena in San Diego, just like in Almost Famous when the kid’s mom drives him over there. She said, “Don’t do drugs.” And that’s exactly how it was. We’d interview or photograph a Deep Purple concert and stuff like that.
We’ve always been very, very, very close, and he’s my closest friend in the world. There was a day in 1977, and I remember it like it was yesterday because we were in the lobby
of the Beverly Hilton Hotel. I don’t remember who we were there to interview, or what have you, but he had broken up with a girlfriend of his, I had broken up with a girlfriend of mine, and I was living in a tiny little two-room house in Laurel Canyon. He needed a place to live, and I couldn’t last much longer in this little place I was living in, so we decided to get a place together, and we were roommates for six years—from ’77 to ’83. That was right around the time he wrote that little piece for me.