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All Access with Janet Macoska

While the Beatles inspired people around the world to pick up an instrument and start a band, photographer Janet Macoska used her love for the Fab Four to jumpstart what has become a four-decade career documenting music history.

“They totally transformed my life. If four young lads from Liverpool could have a worldwide impact with their music and personalities, I knew a kid from Cleveland could do anything. What I wanted to do was be close to the rock and roll music that I loved.”

As a 12-year-old, this Cleveland native created her job position, replying to deejay fan mail, at a local radio station. It was there that she had her first photo published – Sonny & Cher answering listener phone calls. “I got paid $2.”

She followed that up by starting a section devoted to rock music for her college newspaper. Cleveland may have been suffering from the 1970s recession but its music scene was one of the nation’s strongest. Radio station WMMS supported artists early in their career, i.e. Rush, and there were numerous concert venues including Municipal Stadium, the 21,000 capacity Richfield Coliseum and Agora Theatre (site of Bruce Springsteen’s classic Aug. 9, 1978 ‘MMS radio broadcast).

She chronicled punk rockers, new wavers and stadium acts. Photos of Springsteen, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Genesis, Ramones, The Clash, Blondie, Queen, DEVO, Rod Stewart, The Police, B.B. King, Cheap Trick, Hall & Oates, Sensational Alex Harvey Band and many many more are among thousands of artists she encountered and a portion of more than a million images she shot.

Her work has appeared in “Rolling Stone,” “Creem,” “The New York Times,” “The Times (of London),” “American Photo,” “People,” “US,” “Vogue,” “16 Magazine” and VH1 and other TV and film productions, and hang in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, the National Portrait Gallery in London and David Bowie’s home in Switzerland.

Macoska compiled select shots into All Access Cleveland: The Rock and Roll Photography of Janet Macoska.

Despite it being localized to a particular city, her photographs and anecdotes have a universal quality to them. They present a time when music still exhibited a free-spirited innocence before media was overwhelming and an artist’s public persona was completely refined, calculated and marketed.

Macoska is so pleased with the results that she’s just announced that she’s working on a sequel with Peter Chakerian, MORE ACCESS – Vol. 2 of The Rock and Roll Photography of Janet Macoska.

JPG: A lot of photographers are inspired by another photographer’s. You were inspired by the journalistic and life-capturing moments in LIFE magazine.

JM: Yes, telling a story with photos and the idea of a photographer – and you know it doesn’t happen anymore because we get three songs and then we’re out – being there with a subject. In the slower days of photojournalism you would take your time and you would reveal a person’s character and spirit just by taking the shot when you felt it was time.

I keep thinking of some photojournalist who went with James Dean back to his hometown in [Fairmount] Indiana. (Photographer Dennis Stock chronicled the experience in “James Dean Revisited.”) James Dean would have been a hard guy, I guess, to get to know but put back into his old hometown, going to the barbershop or wherever revealed much more of him. It finally broke a wall down where he wasn’t James Dean, actor in his characters; he was that person, which I found very compelling to be able to do something like that.

When I started I could because all the performers were about my age and things were more innocent. We were all going towards the same goal. They wanted to sell records and be in magazines. I wanted to take photos and put them in the magazines. So, we were always on the same page.

In terms of my photography I wanted to tell a story about that person. So, I didn’t want to just show them onstage although that is also their true self. I wanted to be able to do other kinds of photography. It was a more well-rounded portrait of a person and a photo story rather than a couple shots of them onstage.

JPG: I was going to comment on that later. There are a number of quality concert photos in it but the behind-the-scenes shots and portraits that you were able to get – The Clash, Debbie Harry, The Ramones, Joan Jett. And even as bad as the experience was following Lou Reed around, you still got a couple great shots.

JM: It was an opportunity to be a more well-rounded photographer than what’s offered up today for photographers to do.

JPG: Other than the Sonny & Cher photo you took as a pre-teen, there weren’t a lot of photos from the ‘60s. Was it a matter that you didn’t attend shows or like what you had?

JM: I was 10 years old in ’64 and when I started hanging out at WKYC radio downtown [Cleveland] I was probably 12 and 13. That’s ’66, ’67. I probably didn’t even go to my concert.

JPG: Do you remember what your first concert was?

JM: It was the Monkees. I couldn’t get tickets to the Beatles. So, the Monkees were like the pretend Beatles. I don’t know if it was ’67 or ’68 but anyhow that was my concert and I was in nosebleed heaven, could barely see the stage. I didn’t start going to concerts a lot or bringing the camera until ’73, ’74.

JPG: So, Genesis was one of the earliest shows you documented.

JM: Yes, it was one of the first. And that image where Bruce Springsteen opened up for Wishbone Ash…actually, Lauren Onkey [formerly of] the Rock Hall told me, “You have his first show in Cleveland!” I said, “I do?” “Yeah, he opened up for Wishbone Ash.” I said, “Oh, those pictures are awful.” “No no no. We need to see those.”

JPG: That’s always the difficult part, to decide what photo works and what doesn’t work.

JM: Historically speaking, too, the Springsteen shots she was talking about I had just started with the Tri-C (Cuyahoga Community College) newspaper. They gave me a 2 ¼ Mamiya, the big film camera, and I didn’t know what I was doing. You had to stand and look down into the camera to take a picture. It was a horrible thing to take photos with at a concert. It was a very bad experience. As soon as I got back to the newspaper the next week with my one roll of film I said, “I don’t want to use this thing anymore,” and I bought a $100 used Minolta 35mm camera because there’s just some ways you have to shoot a concert and it’s not with a big cumbersome thing like that.

JPG: As far as getting established, being young and being female did that work against you or for you because the music world was much more male-dominated at that time.

JM: What got me in originally was because I was with a college paper. I thought, “How funny is that?” I’m getting further being with a college paper because all those bands and the promoters – Belkin Productions used to give me a set of tickets for every single show they did, which was like nirvana – because they wanted coverage of their shows because college kids are the ones who buy the tickets to go to shows…and high school kids. They wanted to reach that audience and I was a way into that audience.

Being female, I think bands, promoters, venues, wherever I showed up for the first time, I know I was looked at with a question mark. “Is she seriously here to do a job or is she just gonna hang out with the band and be groupie?” Number one, I didn’t look like a groupie. I’d show up in blue jeans and denim jacket. I didn’t go for that. I didn’t act like that. And I kept coming back with photos and stories. So, it was like, “Oh, I guess she really does want to do this.” The whole thing was shoot the photos, do the story, bring them a copy of the newspaper the next week. You just do that consistently and pretty soon they’re getting an accurate perception of you, and that is that you’re here to do the job.

I didn’t feel like I had that magnifying glass on me all the time. As I started in the business, I just had to make sure that I kept producing the work and showing them the work. Then, it was like, “Okay. Leave her alone. She’s doing the job.”

JPG: Did it help at all locally that promoters knew Jane Scott (“Plain Dealer” music writer since the mid-‘60s) and were a little beyond the male-dominated thinking? They recognized you as someone else that could promote their bands.

JM: I still think it was the boys club. There always was. It still is. Even though people will say now that Jane’s gone, “Wasn’t she cool?” and “Wasn’t it neat to have her around? She was like somebody’s aunt or grandmother…”

David Bowie used to call her “Dear sweet woman.” I think there was something about that, which is why Springsteen and all these people had taken to her and loved her so much. They thought that was very cool someone their mother’s age or even their grandmother’s age was doing something like this.

There were people in Cleveland that just thought she was this ditzy old lady and why doesn’t she hang it up. Sometimes she got respect. Sometimes she wasn’t treated with respect. But, the best thing about her was she got the job done no matter what. Even when people were putting up barriers for her she got around them. She was a damn fine journalist.

When you’re bound and determined, there’s just a certain mindset about people who love what they do and want to do their job well. You don’t give a shit about all the other people who may be saying something. You know when people are putting up barriers and if somebody won’t let you in the front door you get in the side door. If you can’t get in the side door you go in the back door. Really, that’s what a journalist does.

JPG: Music then and now. How has it changed for you? The inspiration of taking concert shots or finding new artists changed in what way?

JM: When I started and through most of my career…and it helped to be in Cleveland with radio stations like WMMS that was playing cutting edge stuff like four or five cuts into an album instead of one song. It just was a different time. So, you could discover a band or feel like you discovered a band at the beginning and adopt them and help them move up the ladder.

Once, I did that in the ‘70s and ‘80s with music I went into shooting for the teen magazines, 16 and Teen, in the ‘90s. We were doing the same thing. Part of what we were there to do was find the Next Big Thing. So, for Boy Bands I was looking at videotape of the Backstreet Boys before they had a record deal. I was going down to Orlando to shoot them at their houses and the different locations because we were writing about and photographing the Next Big Thing.

After that if I settled back into my photography mode, which I did in the 2000s and up, I’m then working for the Rock Hall or Playhouse Square of the Cleveland International Film Festival and that’s not my job anymore. What do we do at the Rock Hall? We have all the oldies-but-goodies, the greats and not-so-greats wandering through and I photograph them. What do I do at the Hard Rock Rocksino? Pretty much the same thing. We don’t have a lot of up-and-coming edgy new bands. We have classic rockers, country people and we’ve had a couple like Alabama Shakes that are newer modern groups. But, we don’t do it that much.

So, in the last 20 years my function in music has changed. It’s not to find the Next Big Thing or bands on the way up. Now, it’s to shoot whatever’s put in front of me and have fun with it and make a living.

JPG: What brought you back to rock ‘n’ roll?

JM: 9/11 changed everything in the publishing business, strangely. 9/11 changed everything in the world. It was a terrifying time in America but…I don’t really know why psychologically why this happened but every business got conservative. The teen magazines, for example, got bought up by one big company. They were run by different companies and I pretty much worked for everybody, but 16 and Teen Beat were owned by one company and they had a stable of five, six, seven different teen magazines. So, the work got distributed among a bunch of them. A company seeing that, “Well, I own the competing company. I only have one or two magazines.” They bought up the company and then they squished those magazines out of existence with one big swipe.

So, I took three years off after the ‘90s after shooting all my teen magazine stuff. Film photography was turning into digital photography, and that was scary. I ended up being the marketing director of Tri-C JazzFest for three years, having never been a marketing director in my life. They wanted to find new audiences and I had done marketing in a smaller way…it was big fun. The way I sold myself to them and perceived my function to be there was I’d been on the other side. My feeling was the more information and photos and access you gave a reporter meant we got more coverage. Why wouldn’t people want to do that? And we got a lot of good coverage. Then, after I left JazzFest in 2004, I started easing myself into the world of photography with the digital camera.

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