It’s Always Rock and Roll: The Work of Photojournalist Janet Macoska
For over 40 years, Cleveland-based photojournalist Janet Macoska has been capturing some of rock’s most legendary performers through the lens of her camera.
Her work has appeared in Creem, Rolling Stone, People, 16, Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times and the London Times. David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and the Kinks are just some of the artists who have used her photos on their CDs. One of Macoska’s proudest accomplishments is a photo of Paul McCartney that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London. Several of her photos were featured alongside those of Annie Leibowitz, Mark Seliger and others in a 1996 issue of American Photo devoted entirely to rock and roll images.
45 framed black and white photographs
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What drew you to focusing on rock musicians in photography?
When I was ten years old in 1964, I discovered rock and roll when the Beatles came to America. At the same time I discovered my parent's camera in the front closet. My Mom subscribed to LIFE Magazine and I loved the pictorial stories, the behind-the-scenes look at life and celebrity via photography.
It didn’t take long for me to connect the dots and decide that I could get close to the music that I loved with photography. I called up a couple of my local disc jockey heroes, Jerry G and Big Jack Armstrong, on WKYC Radio (Top 40). They were both kind like big brothers to me and I started coming down to the station with my camera. I answered fan mail, ran Big Jack’s fan club and took photos of the musicians who came by the station for promotional events. I took my first published photo when I was 12 years old - it was a shot of Sonny and Cher from 1966 and showed the pair answering listener calls on the Big Jack show. Teen Screen Magazine published the photo and I was paid $2.00. A career was born! That image is a part of my collection today.
Do you have a musical background?
I can’t play any instrument. In my teens I tried to play the acoustic guitar. I was horrible. My instrument is and always will be my camera.
What do you appreciate most about rock? What are your Favorite eras/genres/bands/artists?
I grew up in the 60s and I lived with a transistor radio attached to my ear. I loved Motown, surf music, British Rock (the Beatles, The Kinks, The Who, DC5 - all favorites of mine) and Psychedelic "Flower Power" Rock. I loved Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and Cream.
I was still too young to actually be a photographer amongst them, so I paid very close attention to the photographs and photographers of the times I admired. Henry Diltz, Jim Marshall and Baron Wolman were all heroes of mine. I was drawn to the intimacy in their photography. This was an era where photographers were often hanging with the musicians backstage and pre-show. Their photographs resulted from casual, real and organic relationships.
In 1974, when I started writing and shooting for my college newspaper, WMMS Radio and concert promoters Belkin Productions gave me near unlimited access to their shows. Being covered in a college newspaper helped them reach exactly the audience they wanted: The young people who would buy records and concert tickets. I covered every single genre of music I could, because I was young, learning and wanted to soak up everything I could. I could photograph a show with The Marshall Tucker Band (southern rock) opening for Foghat (British dueling guitar rock). Today audiences might think a bill like that could be strange, but concerts back in the mid-70s emulated progressive album-oriented radio and brought variety to shows too.
What defines your photographic style?
My offstage portraits of my subjects are neither staged or directed. They are candid, in the moment and use mostly natural light. No fear behind the lens - even when Lou Reed is flipping you off.
Performance shots are my favorite because I am invisible. I approach shooting a performer as a fan would see them, feel them and hear them; I truly love the music and the honor of visually recording each onstage moment. In the pit, I go quiet and open my heart to wait for the dance of my subject with the music and the lights. Whenever possible, I wait for a backlit moment so depth and drama appear in the image.
In these digital days, the lights truly become another element for onstage photography. What you see, you can record in the moment. You had have more precision in the days of film. You could attempt to capture the moment, not knowing if you'd failed or hit a home run.
For example, Angus Young of AC/DC thrashes his head throughout every show. That’s just part of his persona. Going into shooting AC/DC, a photographer knows they have to use the highest speed film possible and may even have to push it to a higher speed anyway. Developing the film longer than normal gives you the ability to stop motion, like a thrashing Angus. You'd have to wait to see if you were successful.
In 1986, I went into the AC/DC show knowing that was my task; but I also wanted to see what would happen if I stopped the action of Angus’ thrashing head with a backlight behind him. It worked. His head was stopped mid-thrash but the hair and sweat kept shooting off his head. It looked like his head was blowing up! People all over the world know that shot.
A one line answer to the question is that I want my photos of my subjects to make them look like the stars they are. That’s how people want to remember them. Whether you are a rock star or any other subject I am shooting, I will make you look like a rock star. Because that is how I see you.