The Man Who Shot Led Zeppelin: A Conversation with Neal Preston
RR: Cameron Crowe traveled with the band during the ’75 tour, but his involvement goes back to the ’73 tour, right?
NP: Yes, I believe he wrote an L.A. Times story on the band in 1973.
RR: Page liked the piece and he was allowed into the inner circle in ’75.
NP: Yeah, that was his kind of his entrance. He came on the ’75 tour. He was invited to go on the 1977 tour, but didn’t. I don’t recall why.
RR: Do you feel he is lucky that he didn’t?
NP: No, I think I was bummed that he didn’t. I’m still bummed that he didn’t, but I honestly don’t remember what the circumstances were. But he certainly was able to crack the Rolling Stone nut. You know how Jimmy felt about that magazine.
NP: And probably rightfully so.
RR: “Power, Mystery, and the Hammer of the Gods”—the quote which was attributed to Jimmy Page, and referenced in Crowe’s introduction in your debut book. Do you want to detail the story behind that legendary quote?
NP: Yes, it was said to me.
RR: Why was that aura and presence important to Page in regards to your work?
NP: You know I didn’t realize it was important to him until I literally had that conversation with him. The fact of the matter is that you have to understand that I was shooting everything that went on around me. That particular conversation with him (as iconic as it became as far as the language and verbiage that he used), don’t forget, was a result of a photo-editing session that I was having with him. It was an answer to a question that I had posed, which was “What are you looking for? I don’t get it.” I think the words I used were “Help me out here because I’m not clear on what you’re looking for.” And as a photographer hired to do a job, I want to know what the client wants to get out of it, whether it is Jimmy Page or Jimmy Smith.
It’s not like I altered the way I was shooting after that conversation to achieve what I had heard him say. I was already shootin’ that stuff; I just hadn’t been showin’ it to him. See—that’s the difference. Look, that was his way; what he said to me was his little flourish, but that’s the way he spoke. I remember after he said it, I remember going back down to the room and calling Cameron in his room and saying, “Wait until you hear what he said to me.” He would say stuff like that. If you read Cameron’s article about the ’75 tour in Rolling Stone where Jimmy talks about finding “an angel with a broken wing.” I think at the very end of the piece, he says, “It’s not easy to find at the Plaza Hotel.” That was Jimmy. They all kind of spoke…Robert [Plant] used to speak like that, too. Robert was a quote machine, an unparalleled quote machine, obviously.
RR: Speaking of Robert Plant, I was one of many teenagers that had your shot as a poster up on my wall—Plant on stage in 1973 at Kezar Stadium, holding a dove in one hand, and a cigarette and a bottle of Newcastle in the other. It is extraordinary your work has endured, as mentioned, but, back then, did you know how many of your photos had been turned into posters lining the walls of America?
NP: No, I didn’t. Not until I got married in 1989 that my ex-wife finally copped to me a year later that she had my Lynyrd Skynyrd photo on the wall. (laughter) I knew I had photos on posters. I knew I had photos in magazines. I knew that people read magazines. I knew that people would read Creem and Rolling Stone and Circus. What I didn’t realize or think about was how deeply some of that stuff is ingrained into people’s DNA.
Only now am I even realizing it. We did a movie called Almost Famous that covers a lot of that ground, and I was there for every one of those things that happened in real life in 1973. I’m just not written in as a character in the movie. It’s a movie about what it means to be a fan, and how family figures into that, but really about how important that music was to a lot of us. That’s what that movie is about. The photographs, and the stuff that I have done, is one part of that. It’s just one sidebar kind of issue that makes up the entire world of what music means to fans. It’s important and it’s just one component and if you want to look into that further then see the movie. That’s what I tell people.
RR: You probably saw your subjects change around you. Did you change, and how did you maintain your core and balance while doing all of this work?
NP: Oh, well, it depends on what you mean by balance. (laughter)
NP: You know…I’ve…look…I managed to get out from behind a horrific cocaine problem and I’ve managed to keep my sanity, more or less, and I’ve managed to put together a body of work that I’m proud of. I’ve managed to go beyond rock music and shoot and photograph subjects in other areas of life like sports, hard news, and my People magazine contract that I had for years. I’m really proud of being able to do all that stuff and be alive and make it through what has been a very, very, very stressful career—more stressful than most people would think.
RR: Touching upon your other historical contributions, you’ve also had a distinct one with VH-1’s landmark series, Behind the Music.
NP: Yeah. That was an outgrowth of a deal I ended up doing with VH-1, which was almost done out of necessity. They were calling me for so many pictures and they were obviously doing a lot of those shows. I was dealing with so many producers and researchers and everyone going back and forth to my office that it was starting to be unwieldy. The mechanics of just getting them what they needed—photo-wise and print-wise and things like that—was starting to become very cumbersome, so I ended up saying, “Look, let’s just do a flat deal. You pay me so-and-so per show, and you can use however many photos that you want per episode. If it is episode on Madonna, or whomever, you could use 20 photos, or you could use 200, if you want.”
So, it became win/win for [VH-1] and for myself because they had the ultimate in photo source from which to draw upon, and I didn’t have to worry about “did we invoice the right thing? Are they fuckin’ me around on what they want to use? Do they really want to use more, but they don’t want to spend $300 more here, or $600 more there?” And that is why that deal was made. Happily enough, it became lucrative for me. People don’t realize that a lot of those photos are mine. I don’t expect them to realize. They might realize the odd ones—the photos of Jimmy and Robert, the photos of Fleetwood Mac, or the photos of Marvin Gaye, or whatever—but, I don’t expect, nor am I surprised, that people don’t recognize a lot of those photos of being mine. Why should they?
RR: Stevie Nicks, along with Dave Grohl, was on the cover of one of our recent Relix magazine issues. She also wrote a fine introduction in your new digital-only work, Led Zeppelin: Sound and Fury.
NP: Yeah, I was supposed to shoot that cover, actually. We were supposed to shoot it in L.A., but Stevie got sick, so they shot it a week later in New York [by Danny Clinch]. Stevie has been a very close friend of mine for a lot of years, and probably the closest thing that I’ve ever had to an actual muse in my work life. She was the first person to actually sit in a chair and look at a collection of my prints of Led Zeppelin and say, “You know what? This stuff is beautiful. You’ve got to do a book. You’ve got to do this.” And that was back in 1980, 1981.
Therefore, from that first incarnation of that book, it’s all her fault. (laughter) So, when it came time to do this one, Cameron had done intros for me, and I thought, “I’m going to leave Cameron alone on this one. We worked together on enough stuff. I don’t want to go to the well one more time.” I said, “I think Stevie would be a great person to write this introduction” because she was one of the people who implored me to do a book because I
know she loved the band and I know she’s a great writer and I know that people may not have read examples of her long-form writing, as opposed to her lyrics. I called her up and said, “Do you want to do this?” And she said, “You bet.” And there it is.
RR: She was right about your work in 1980, 1981, and she is still right today.
NP: That is very, very sweet of you. I just want to say two things in closing and those things are that I know that the real Led Zeppelin fans out there can get their hands on this digital book and I know you have to have an iPad to see it and everything, at least now, but they are going to love it, and they are going to feel like they got to see something and experience something that they would not be able to see and experience otherwise.
And, the other thing is that there is a lot of myself in it. I put a lot of myself in this book—my writing, which I’m proud of, by the way, the photographs, my sense of humor, all that stuff is in it and it is as much of me as I have ever put in any project. It’s a little dicey to put yourself…you feel a little naked when you do that, but I’m really proud of it.