In 2007, Janet Macoska was photographing music legend Patti Smith. It was a wet, dreary day, and as they prepared to leave for the concert, Smith asked Macoska where her umbrella was.
Macoska remembers Smith telling her, “You’ll catch your death of cold!”
“And I thought, ‘What? No! I don’t want a “mom moment” from Patti Smith!’”
A longtime music photographer and current house photographer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, Macoska was speaking to a packed crowd last week at the Durham Museum in Omaha. Her presentation was part of the “Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power” exhibit, running through May 5.
Macoska sold her first photograph at age 13, back in 1974. It was a shot she took of Sonny and Cher doing an interview at the radio station where she volunteered. She was paid $2 by a teen magazine.
photo of Janet Macoska by Jean Schnell
“I came at (music photography) first and foremost from a fan perspective,” she said. “I had no talent for instruments, but when I found the camera, that became my instrument.”
That fan perspective started with The Beatles; Macoska said when she first heard them, it changed her life.
Later, she was selected by Paul McCartney as one of eight photographers to shoot one of his concerts, and one of her photographs ended up on display at the National Portrait Gallery … right next to a portrait of John Lennon shot by Annie Liebowitz.
“That was pretty neat.”
In those days, there weren’t nearly as many rules, she said. Anybody could bring huge lenses and SLR cameras to shows — no one needed a pass.
“As rock ‘n’ roll became big business (in the ‘80s), they started putting restrictions on photographers.”
An example she gave would make any younger music photographer’s jaw drop: In 1980, she shot a Led Zeppelin concert. All three hours of it. Without a pass.
Nowadays? You’re lucky if you get to shoot the first three songs, and even then, you need some kind of credentials. A lot of bigger acts now try to claim the copyright to your photos, too, she said, adding that she hardly ever photographs non-Hall of Fame shows anymore. A photographer for the CenturyLink Center was in attendance, and she confirmed that she has to sign away the rights to her photographs to almost every band that plays there.
That won’t change, Macoska said, unless you have unity among photographers that such demands aren’t OK.
Another thing that’s changed since she started almost 40 years ago? Film is now professionally obsolete. Macoska said she initially resisted going digital, but soon succumbed.
“I love that I don’t have to be in a dark room with a bunch of smelly chemicals,” she said with a laugh.
When asked about how she was treated as a woman photographer in a male-dominated industry, Macoska said her time shooting baseball was actually worse. She photographed the Cleveland Indians for 13 years, and was the only female.
She recounted being physically pushed out of the way at opening day in 1974, having baseballs thrown at her head, tobacco juice spat at her feet.
But she didn’t give any ground.
“Once (the male photographers) realized they couldn’t terrorize me, they started to accept me.”
She used her background in music to get on the players good sides: When she wanted a particular shot, she bribed the players by giving them records.
But music photographer is clearly her passion, as she showed slide after slide of some of her favorite pictures from the last four decades.
Among those was a photo she took in 2008 of Slash, the guitarist for Guns N’ Roses, with his trademark dark sunglasses, leather jacket and opulent waves of curly black hair. In the picture, he’s posing with guitar virtuoso Les Paul, who looks every bit the mild-mannered grandfather.
In his hands, Slash is holding something he’d brought specifically for Paul: a package of gummy bears.
“Everyone is a fan” of someone, she said. “Everyone starts (by) admiring someone (else).”
Advice for photographers:
“Use the lighting stagehands set up and play with it.”
“Photographers have 1/60th of a second … you have to anticipate. You have to know what a performer might do, what side of the stage they play to.”
Interview your subject first, if you can, to build a rapport; they’ll be much more comfortable in front of a camera if you’ve had a conversation first: “It’s about connecting with people.”
“You do shoot a lot (more pictures at a time) with digital, and I think one of the important things is to slow down.”
Always have a camera bag packed and ready to go on a moment’s notice.
On the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum:
Only 9 percent of the inductees are women: “We need to do much better.”
The Hall of Fame inductee process is very secretive … and doesn’t always seem to make sense: “I mean, Heart got in, but Joan Jett didn’t.”
On some of her favorite performers:
David Bowie: “You couldn’t go wrong with David. He was trained in theater. He actually frightened me!” (She laughed.) “He looked like someone from a different planet.”
Bruce Springsteen: “You want someone who comes at an audience and has that physicality.”
The Ramones: “The Ramones were really sweet (people), especially Joey.”
What’s she’s listening to right now:
Hilary Stohs-Krause is looking forward to her fifth SXSW next week. She gets her Nebraska local music fix through HN and as a beer slinger at Duffy’s Tavern. For more on Nebraska women making music, tune into the “X-Rated: Women in Music” radio show every Thursday from 1:05 to 3 p.m. CST at 89.3 FM KZUM in Lincoln or streaming live at kzum.org. Find “X-Rated” on Facebook at facebook.com/xmusicnebraska.