Paul Natkin learned the moment of truth before he began photographing musicians. Working along with his father, Robert Natkin, a photojournalist and one of the first photographers for the Chicago Bulls, Natkin learned to watch for the right moment. “If you’re shooting a player dribbling, the ball has to be just coming off his fingertips. If the ball is lower, it looks like he dropped the ball.” And he soon learned to apply that to music when he began shooting rock and pop artists in 1976.
In Natkin’s 46-year career as a Chicago-based music photographer, he has seen revolutionary changes in equipment (from carrying three Nikon cameras and 20 rolls of film to digital minimalism), and from darkroom to computer for image development and filing. And the way photographers are allowed to cover concerts has changed radically over that time too—and not in a positive way.
Natkin’s new book of music photography is more than a gorgeous coffee-table book with almost 300 pages of photos of icons like the Rolling Stones, Prince, Miles Davis and Bruce Springsteen. It’s a pictorial history of popular music over the last four decades. His long career included gigs as the official touring photographer for the Rolling Stones and the only photographer allowed into Prince’s 26th birthday party. He continues to attend shows and shoot portraits at his studio on the north side. I interviewed Natkin in 2015, when his exhibit Paul Natkin: Superstars was on display at the Ed Paschke Art Center. (You can view an array of Natkin’s photos here.)
Natkin’s book features a fond introduction, titled “Paul Natkin Observed,” by Chicago writer Dave Hoekstra. Hoekstra tells stories about Natkin’s work and notes that 1984 was his breakout year: he shot Prince, Springsteen, and Michael Jackson within one month. Natkin is supremely organized, Hoekstra says; he has digitized most of his work and also keeps files (and cross-files) on the artists he has covered. Natkin learned early on that he needed to protect his work and adopted a policy of maintaining control of the copyright on his images and licensing them to the client for specific uses. (That is a common practice today in the photography business.)
Natkin’s career flourished in the heyday of rock and roll in the last few decades of the 20th century. He would travel from show to show and his camera documented rising stars as well as rock icons. In those early decades, photographers would take a place in front of the stage and shoot throughout the show. Today, to the dismay of all photographers, they are usually allowed to shoot only during the first few songs played. This is unfortunate, Natkin says, because “all the good stuff happens at the end.”
Natkin’s work has included album covers and covers for magazines like Newsweek, People, Spin, and Ebony, as well as publicity images for the performers.
The book is divided into 12 sections by musical genre (from metal to punk, grunge, blues, hip-hop, and a lot of glam rock). Photos are all captioned with artist, location, and date of the image. The book, in proper coffee-table style, is made up mostly of photographs, but most subsections open with a comment from Natkin. In the first one, he quotes Henri Cartier-Bresson, a founder of modern photojournalism, about that “decisive moment,” which Natkin calls his moment of truth.
Natkin confides how he became friends with Ted Nugent’s mother and was occasionally invited to dine on “something Ted had shot.” He got a great photo of John Lee Hooker and his star-studded socks, and he photographed John Prine and his friend Steve Goodman playing a few songs. He was asked to shoot Springsteen while the “Dancing in the Dark” video, directed by Brian de Palma, was being produced in Minneapolis. Natkin got to sit in on a five-hour Springsteen concert, he says—five hours of one song.
He tells a story about photographing a Miles Davis concert at Park West in 1983. He got there early and knelt on the hardwood floor to shoot. His knees ached after a while, but he was determined to stay there until Davis, who was playing song after song with his back to the audience, turned around. Finally, at the end of the concert, Davis picked up his jacket, turned around to wave to the audience and walked off. And Natkin got a perfect photo that has always been one of his favorites. (I recently rewatched the 2019 PBS film, Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool, and yes, Miles often played with his back to the audience, saying he was communicating with his band.)
Paul Natkin: The Moment of Truth is available from booksellers and from Chicago’s Trope Publishing Co. Trope also has available some favorite images from the book in five exclusive paperboard slipcases. These limited-edition slipcases are only available on Trope.com.
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