Fame in the frame

The gripping Scottish accent of celebrated rock music photographer, Ian Dickson, turns into laughter as he relives the moment he traveled to London to further his career with a camera in hand and musicians as his muse.

“In 1972 I came back to London for the Roxy Music tour and traveled on the bus. Well you know, if you’re going to do it, do it right. We had a laugh all the way just playing cards.”

The ‘70s is an era now only experienced in memories, music and of course the iconic snap-shots of the time. However, these precious records are only available to us thanks to the perseverance of people like Dickson who documented and preserved them for future generations.

Ian Dickson
“I am completely self-taught. I bought a camera, I got hooked on it and that was it, I learned by trial and error – mainly error.”

“We used to say ‘we do our bit to make life better for humankind’,” adds Dickson jokingly. “You see, musicians like Ziggy [David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust] are just human beings. They are ordinary people doing extraordinary things to make people happy and what more can you ask for? It’s a wonderful thing to do.”

Dickson’s career as a music photographer spanned more than 30 years from 1972 to the turn of the millennium when he began to focus on promoting his work in the memorabilia and collection world.

His photographs were frequently published in renowned music magazines and newspapers such as the New Music Express (NME), Disc, Sounds and later, ZigZag – all pivotal publications in a once thriving industry that Dickson now feels is “shrinking” and “virtually unrecognizable”.

The images he captured tracked musicians and bands as they started their rise to fame, many of whom we still cherish today including Rod Stewart, Led Zeppelin, and The Clash.

Brought up in Clydebank, a Scottish shipbuilding town west of Glasgow, Dickson moved to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1963 where he attended the College of Art and Industrial Design. It was not until 1970, that he discovered the 35mm second-hand Zenith B camera that started his passion for photography.

“I am completely self-taught. I bought a camera, I got hooked on it and that was it,” Dickson explained with a genuine and surprised tone. “I learned by trial and error – mainly error,” he adds with another chuckle.

Dickson found his first photography job working as a stage photographer for theatre productions at City Hall in Newcastle. Apart from the actors and actresses taking the stage, City Hall also played host to a fan-frenzied line-up of bands touring around the UK and its manager, Bob Brown, helped Dickson discover that musicians would be the next focus for his lens.

“Bob Brown was the catalyst. He was my guardian angel. I managed to find the 35mm camera for myself but he showed me where to point it.”

Dickson had been taking pictures for about six months when he put together a portfolio and traveled to London’s Fleet Street to make his first contact with music publishers.

“A guy called Gavin Petrie, who was the editor of Disc, looked at my work and told me I was in the right place in Newcastle – which I thought was a bit odd at the time,” he says. “He said Newcastle City Hall is where a lot of bands started their tours and it was true. I was taking first night pictures on a regular basis.”

The Jam performing.Ian Dickson’s skills with the lense are completely self-taught. [Courtesy of Ian Dickson]

Humble beginnings

It was while working for Disc at City Hall that Dickson met Roxy Music, which was “the second most important thing after Bob Brown” to happen. “The amount they paid me for just two nights’ work was just unbelievable and they persuaded me that I had to go to London.”

A mixture of luck, talent and timing then launched Dickson into the wild world of rock and roll photography. Refreshingly honest and down to earth, he still appears baffled by his own experiences.

To be given the chance to witness this music generation up close and personal is something many people can only dream of but for Dickson it is a flash of fond memories: “I remember taking all of my pictures. Me and my pictures are very, very close and very good friends.”

In Dickson’s archive of 6,000 scanned images and approximately 18,000 original film prints those musical icons live on in all their glory. Dickson can tell you the stories behind the faces, behind the stages and most of all about the humanity of his famed friends.

“Bob Marley was a kind, sensational human being who died far, far too young. I met him for the last time backstage in 1980 [the year before his death]. When I think of him playing Freedom Song on his acoustic guitar that night it still makes me emotional today. Bob Marley’s music was magic.”

Ironically, Dickson says he was “never a music fan, although that sounds strange”. He explains: “I liked all music. I could listen to reggae, punk, classical and pop.”

After taking a thoughtful pause, Dickson describes his photography style as simply “classic” and inspired by fashion photographer of the ‘60s, Jeanloup Sieff. Most importantly he emphasises his methods of ‘doing a shoot’: “With stage photography you’re reacting to the situation rather than controlling it, so it’s more of a reporter than anything else. You are more inclined to capture things you see rather than set things up.”

“All my photography has been done on film. I would go back to the studio after the gig and process the films at about 3am. It took about four hours, depending on how far I had to travel. I submitted them by hand. When I was working at the New Music Express [NME] we had a night porter at the front desk to take the package – these places were open 24 hours-a-day.”

In comparison, the speed of today’s technology allows photographers to submit their images almost as soon as they have taken the shots. Digital camera technology is, in his opinion, “absolutely wonderful” because it allows photographers to take pictures in difficult conditions.

“The rock music business is not the business that I was working for,” Dickson says, reflecting on how it is not just the technology that has changed. “Music doesn’t command the same iconic stature as it used to. Kids think Playstations are far more important. Music is a form of entertainment and it’s competing against every other form of entertainment.”

Dickson’s pride and nostalgia for the music industry as he remembers it, is an eye opener for many whose work is still inspired by these iconic artists: “You’ll never have another Rolling Stones, never have another Led Zeppelin, never have another Bob Marley, never have another Sex Pistols – it’s all been done.”

Despite his achievements Dickson is still surprisingly modest and critical of his own work, honestly exclaiming that he finds it: “Embarrassing that people think my pictures are good enough to put up on their wall.”