FEATURE: Life Thru a Lens: The Iconic Shots of Michael Putland




Life Thru a Lens

IN THIS PHOTO: Bob Marley, Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh backstage at a Rolling Stones concert at the Palladium in New York on 19th June, 1978/ALL PHOTOS: Michael Putland 

The Iconic Shots of Michael Putland


I was listening to Lauren Laverne’s show…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Michael Putland captures a smoking Marianne Faithfull in 1982

on BBC Radio 6 Music earlier in the week. She was speaking with the legendary photographer Michael Putland about his work and life. He claims to have never taken a day off during the 1970s and I could tell, when listening to their conversation, that the passion still runs deep. If you are unfamiliar man then, to get acquainted, let me introduce him to you:

Born in 1947, Michael grew up in Harrow where he took his first pictures at the age of nine before leaving school at sixteen to work as an assistant to various photographers including Time-Life photographer, Walter Curtain and the legendary motor racing photographer, Louis Klemantaski. In 1969 he set up his own studio and by 1971, he was the official photographer for the British music magazine Disc &Music Echo. His first assignment for them that year was to photograph Mick Jagger in London.

From the editorial work for Disc and Music Echo, Sounds and later Smash Hits & Q magazine amongst others, to the 1973 tour with The Rolling Stones that led to a long-standing relationship working with the band, Michael has shot prodigiously including for major record labels including CBS, Warner, Elektra, Polydor, Columbia Records and EMI. Relocating to New York in 1977, it was here that Michael founded the photo agency, Retna which went on to become one of the most respected music and celebrity image libraries in the world.

Music photography has taken Michael around the globe touring with acts as diverse as George Michael in Australia & Japan, The Cure in Brazil, Eric Clapton in the U.S., The Stones as well as intimate shoots with artists at home: David Bowie painting his ceiling at Haddon Hall, John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the White Room at Tittenhurst Park, Roger Daltry in his Kitchen, Jeff Beck with his beloved hot rod cars, Billy Joel by the fire in Michael’s own apartment, Keith Richards at his Upstate New York farmhouse, Robert Plant at home in Wales … and being a music lover, Michael always enjoyed the privilege of sharing a recording studio with some of the great artists of the last 50 years from Paul McCartney, Stephen Stills, Rolling Stones, Marc Bolan, Yes and Dave Gilmour to Stephen Sondheim recording Elizabeth Taylor in ‘A Little Night Music’ and Stomu Yamashta with his percussive World Music.

It has been said that Michael photographed everyone from Abba to Zappa … when looking at his archive this is actually true.

Now living in East Sussex, recent exhibitions include “Off The Record” at The Lucy Bell Gallery in Hastings showing images both on and off stage including previously unseen contact sheets; Autumn 2014 saw Michael’s 50 year retrospective at the Getty Gallery in London: “A life in Music, 50 Years On The Road”.  whilst Ono Arte in Bologna, Italy has hosted a David Bowie show and ‘Glad to be Glam’ in 2018.

IN THIS PHOTO: Arun Gosh captured in 2016

2019 has already been a busy year with the launch of Michael’s 350 page photographic career book ‘The Music I Saw’ launched with an exhibition at Paul Smith shops in New York and London.

Michael continues to shoot the artists he most admires – likely to be jazz, classical and world musicians, who have always provided an alternative narrative to his rock music portfolio.

“It has been a fantastic ride through an incredible period of music history, which combined my two great loves … music and photography. Little did I appreciate, when my Uncle Alan encouraged my photography back in the 1950s, that this would lead me to photographing nearly all of my heroes … and thrilled to be still finding new ones. A great never ending journey.” Michael Putland”.

The reason I wanted to put Putland under the microscope is because, in an age of quick snaps and Instagram accounts, how much attention is paid to the music photographer?! Putland was saying, when speaking with Laverne, how things are so much harder now for photographers. When he started out, there was not all this technology; not everyone could do what he did and there were very few crutches. A lot of his shots, as you can tell from his website, are these perfect moments that seem to capture artists in their element. I do think many people take photographers for granted and assume that their role in music is minor. I have lied a bit about this being a bit random: Putland has a book out, The Music I Saw, that is well worth getting; it collects all his fantastic shots together and gives you a real sense of the man behind the lens.


I have so much affection for music photographers because they are charged with capturing artists in their prime; that rare shot that defines them or shows a unique side to them. It is not as easy as idly snapping and then sharing it with the world: so much skill and technique is required. The patience to get that exceptional shot is, well…you need a lot of it. I do think many assume that, in this age, anyone can do what a music photographer does – that couldn’t be further from the truth. The elder Putland is still shooting artists and provides incredible inspiration to those coming through. I think it is very hard in the industry. One cannot underestimate how difficult it is getting into photography but I would urge anyone with that spark to keep going and not give up.

There is less money available to photographers and, with so many people able to take their own pictures, where does that leave them? The thing is, the average musician/person cannot take a shot like a professional. I have had my photo taken by a professional and there is a lot of work that goes into a shoot. There is the need to set the mood and get the right setting. A lot of shots are taken and, as the photographer speaks with the artist, it is all designed to get them in the right frame – to capture that image that will live forever. Michael Putland, you can tell, had a great relationship with those he photographed. From Mick Jagger through to David Bowie, there is a glint in the eye and a trust; the knowledge that they were in safe hands and being guided by someone who had a deep affection for that. The trust between photographer and their subject is key – but it is more than that working relationship.

 IN THIS PHOTO: David Bowie at his home in Beckenham, South-East London on 25th April, 1972

Anyone, yes, can take a photograph but there is a naivety regarding the complexity of photography. That shot of Bob Marley, Mick Jagger and Peter Tosh in 1978 is a truly iconic shot – Putland’s favourite, as it is said – and unites three truly wonderful artists. The fact they were in New York at the same time is amazing but to get them into that one shot and make it look that good – you can tell how happy all three are! Putland captured David Bowie doing some D.I.Y. and he has shot artists on stage doing their thing. A photographer needs to match their subject with the scene; shoot something that nobody can and get them to feel relaxed yet real. It is hard, that: making sure the artist is not playing up for the camera but they are aware it is there. I see so many photos on the Internet and there are few that catch the eye. Conversely, there are some great music photographers emerging that are producing some truly wonderful shots. Whether they are band portraits or incredible live shots, they are proving how necessary they are and what talent is required. One has to consider so many factors when composing a photo and getting that right look. Michael Putland has been in the game for decades but he, like all the young photographers coming through, started at the bottom and learned his craft.

 IN THIS PHOTO: A relaxed Lizz Wright is captured by Michael Putland in 2016

The reason I wanted to write it (is) because Putland is a great reason for people to get into photography. I have included a few of his best shots in this feature but, in reality, there are many more. The man is a master when it comes to taking these big artists and making them feel relaxed; capturing them in a new light and revealing them to the generations. There are people who recall some of Putland’s best work of the 1970s but now, in 2019, there is a whole new wave of photographers who can learn a lot from the master. We are told – by those ignorant – that music photography is dying and pointless but, whilst it is hard to get into the business and earn money from it, I feel the results are priceless. Classic shots last forever and musicians always are on the look-out for great photographers. Marrying the artist with the photographer is a beautiful union and now, more than ever, music is a visual medium. Michael Putland spoke with Lauren Laverne and did express his sympathy with those starting in a tricky business but he also talked about the wonders of photography. I feel too many people listen to music and never really think about the artist behind the sounds. I think music is and always has been reliant on visuals and photography. It tells a story and, when you see a wonderful photo, it gives you such an insight into an artist.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Mick Jagger alongside his wife Bianca Jagger in Berlin on 20th October, 1973

Michael Putland is definitely one of the finest music photographers ever and the reason he is so famed is because of his dedication and passion. He has experienced tough times but, as he said, he was a busy boy in the 1970s! Always on the hunt for a great photo, the man captured some of the biggest names of the day. He was (and is) not in it for the fame and celebration: rather, it was about bring something from the artist nobody else had seen; nothing that we could detect from the music. His warmth, humour and kindness put musicians at ease but the sheer determination and talent he had ensured that, time and time again, the world was given these rare and wonderful shots! I do think that, the more artists that come through, the more we need photographers. I know some great photographers but there are others that are wary. It is a tough time for venues and the industry in general but I do think one can start modestly and make a success of things. They might need to start at the ground-level and work their way to the bigger leagues. Photography is a tough profession but it is endlessly rewarding. The reward of capturing a fabulous shot and seeing that work preserved for years is beyond comparison. Maybe it will take a while but, for those with desire and patience, there is no reason they cannot reach the same level as Michael Putland. Still shooting after all these years, it is amazing to look at his work and marvel at the brilliance on display. For anyone doubtful about being a music photographer, take a look at some of Putland’s work and realise what can be when you and the artist are…

 IN THIS PHOTO: Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music) with backing singers Jacqui Sullivan (left) and Doreen Chanter in London in October 1975

BLENDED in perfect harmony!