Jimmy Steinfeldt: How often do you clean your lens?
HOLLYWOOD (Perfect Music Today) 10/31/17/–Gene Kirkland: I never even thought about that. Probably when somebody has bumped into me or spilled something on it. If I’m about to do a shoot and I haven’t done one for a while I’ll clean the lens and the filter. You’ve got to have a filter. A $25 filter has saved a $2000 lens many times. The lens is the most important of all the camera gear.
JS: What photographers influenced you?
GK: As a kid I liked nature photography. Everybody likes Ansel Adams and I liked him but I liked him more after I heard the stories. He was a raging, drinking guy with a flask in his back pocket. Lugging all the gear by himself up mountains and cliffs. So whether you like the photos or not, how he got them is a journey. The photographer I really liked and looked up to and got me to decide to do this was Fin Costello. I’ve never met him but I’ve met Neil Preston, and Neil Zlozower who’s a good friend. Some other photographers I should mention are Ross Halfin, Mick Rock, Bob Gruen, and Henry Diltz. Henry taught me the art of gum chewing. It’s just a little something I can do to take the edge off, remove the nervousness that can come with setting up and doing a shoot. I also learned from Henry that working with natural light is the best. Henry is a good cat. Most photographers have their style. People ask me what’s my style and I say I don’t have one. I go with whatever the mood is. Any planned photo shoot is bound to go wrong. So you improvise.
Fin Costello was a major influence for me to look at the credits. I love looking at the credits whether it’s an album or tour book or movie. I used to always buy the tour book. If I had extra money I’d buy a t-shirt or a poster except they’d get split on or wrecked but I’d always buy a tour book. I was looking at an old Queen tour book from A Night at the Opera. I figured out what bands used to do. They would put photos in the tour book from the previous tour. One of my favorite memories of Queen was the tour in 1977 or 1978. They played at the L.A. Forum and it was around Christmas. So they had a huge Santa Claus come out on stage during the show. He was carrying a gigantic red sack. He grabbed presents from the sack and threw them to the audience. After he did this for a while and it appeared the sack was empty Freddie Mercury popped out of the bottom of the sack. I loved Queen and I always wanted to associate my name with big bands. I never got to photograph Queen but I got to photograph Brian May including on his tour. Some of my photos ended up on a Brian May compilation that is called Queen. So I have ended up on a Queen record.
JS: Who influenced you besides photographers?
GK: Bands! I loved music and tried to play guitar but I couldn’t do it. I thought when I was young it would be fun to be out front. I decided I wanted to be behind the scenes. I remember opening up Circus magazine and there was a photo contest and the winning photo was of Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. It was taken in such a way that you got to see the audience all around the band. That photo influenced me and I have taken hundreds of photos like that because I like to see the crowd too. Besides photography, music is everything to me. I especially like live albums. I’d get a live album and my ritual was to put it on the turntable relax on my bed or couch and start reading the credits and looking at the photos as the album began to play.
JS: If you were alone on an island what albums would you want to have with you?
GK: Ronnie James Dio fronted Elf, Rainbow, Black Sabbath, and his own band. He gave me my start in this business. He was and is in my mind still one of the greatest singers, performers, front men I’ve ever got to see. Aerosmith, especially their early albums. Queen, Led Zeppelin, UFO, Rush, I could just go on and on. Just music you can drive down the highway with and just get lost. That’s the hard-rock side but I also like the more melodic too. Like Elton John’s Madman Across the Water or Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy. I miss record stores. Record stores were my home. Licorice Pizza, Peaches, also the little stores like Middle Earth records in Downey, CA.
JS: What was your first camera?
GK: Nikomat, I still have it. My parents got it for me when they found out that I needed a camera for the camera class in school. The school had cameras but not enough for you to have your own. I was lousy, lousy, lousy at photography until I took one photo that got published in the newspaper in Downey. Then things started to happen. Much like a band that hadn’t yet found their audience or sound. That photo I took was of a wonderful man who is still a good friend to this day. He was my photography teacher. Michael Coppenger we all called him Mr. C. Our photography class went on a field trip to Catalina. The idea was to just roam around. The school supplied the film and we developed the film ourselves. I wasn’t getting anything good but as we were leaving the island I saw my photography teacher asleep on a bench. He was probably exhausted from looking after the whole class on this long weekend trip. I worked for Mr. C. as his lab assistant later on when he moved on to a college. I also saved up money as some of my photos got published and I got a Nikon FN, an all manual camera.
JS: What camera are you shooting with now?
GK: Whenever I can get away with it I use my Mamiya RZ67 and shoot black and white film. It’s the perfect camera. I’ve blown up photos and they look great. I use a Canon 7D most of the time. With a 24-70mm lens, which covers just about anything I need to shoot. There are newer cameras but cameras today are so expensive. I used to be able to buy two camera bodies and several lenses for the cost of just one camera body today. The only reason I went to digital cameras is because years ago my camera bag was stolen with everything in it. Two or three bodies, seven lenses all prime lenses. I didn’t really believe in zoom lenses. I set my camera bag down for a minute, went over to someone to say hello and it was gone. Also I never buy used cameras. Two things you should never buy used: condoms and cameras!
JS: Is there a camera you always wanted but never got?
GK: A small, compact, medium format camera that looked like a35mm called the Makina67.
JS: Have you done movie stills?
GK: No. But I’ve done stills on about 200 video shoots. That worked out fine because the music playback on a video shoot is loud and you don’t have to worry about your camera making a noise. I thought about doing film stills but I already had things going good in music photography. I have done a few shoots for TV like for Dick Clark Productions, and also Lucha Underground wrestling for The El Rey Network .
JS: Is there anyone you’d like to photograph that you haven’t photographed?
GK: Without sounding morbid, the Artists that I would have loved to have photographed well, they’ve all passed away. Among the living I’d like to say maybe Jimmy Page or Robert Plant but it would be great if I could go back to the era 1976. It would all depend on the circumstances, if I could have it my way, I don’t like rules, like only shooting 3 songs or you only have like 10 minutes to shoot. I hate being told how to do my craft and do it fast and without restrictions Actually as I think about it I’d like to photograph someone like George Clooney. I think he’s got a personality that’s funny, animated, and fun or maybe someone like Jennifer Aniston, those just come to my mind at the moment.
JS: What advice would you give a young person who wants to be a photographer?
GK: Don’t do it! I don’t mean that completely. Have a backup plan. Have a job. If you give your work for free one time and cut them off that’s one thing but if you give your work for free always that’s a problem. I support anyone who want’s to give the arts a try. If you think you would like to try something do it.
A few years ago I found myself in a panic. I needed to go to work and I couldn’t find my car keys. I was already thinking I might need to call my friend and borrow his car. I sat on my couch and looked out the open door to the screen and my keys were in the door lock. As late as I was for getting to work I just stayed there laughing my ass off. I undid my camera bag and took a photo of the keys in the door. It must have been a reminder to myself that the last thing I need to do was lock up. I just had to take a picture of it. So if you see something that catches your eye even if it’s just for you, go for it.
There is no music business anymore. Everyone is out for themselves. In the early days Neil Zlozower told me to go to Isgo Lepejian to have my film processed and printed. I lived far away but I’d drive to Hollywood to have Isgo Lepadian do my film because I knew he was the best. His son is my friend Baret Lepejian had made a comment to me a few years ago. “We live in a world where everybody wants something that’s just good enough.” That’s sad. It doesn’t have to be great or good, just good enough. I’ve noticed through the years, people will sometimes say “We’ll fix it.” Some people still put in a lot of work to make things right. If you go to your dentist do you tell him you’ve only got fifteen minutes so just fix it, make it just good enough? I’m glad I didn’t hear that when I was starting out. That’s the world we live in now. Oh and btw, if I seem to bounce around and I’m all over the place with your questions and as I’ve said to you before I tend to have a clash of OCD/ADHD and tend to answer a question before it’s even asked.
JS: How do you get your photos published these days?
GK: I do it myself. People tend to know what I have and contact me if they want to use my photos. I have an agent for some foreign territories but I have had some bad experiences with agents through the years. There is a giant black-hole out there where photographers send their images and many are never returned. Those original photos are lost forever like in the last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
JS: What’s next for Gene Kirkland?
GK: Gonna get my oil changed today! That’s my sense of humor but I am doing that after our interview. You know what, I don’t really plan anything out. The one amazing thing about what I do, I never know when the phone will ring or an email will come through. “Are you available on this date to shoot this?” It could be anything. You never know what kind of job is going to come up. As for right now my wife recently prompted me to more fully catalog my images and get them more sorted out. Also my dear friend has Black Lightning Gallery and he sells my images as fine art prints. I had a showing last year of my Guns N’ Roses photos and it was fun because it included many photos I hadn’t seen in years. I couldn’t even remember being at some of the places where I had shot them. Some of the proceeds from the photos I sell I like to donate to charities including The Ronnie James Dio Stand Up and Shout Cancer Fund, and when I can’t give any proceeds I like to give my time. I’ll always be a part of The SUAS charity. I believe in giving back to the people who helped you get your start. They gave you their time so it’s always good to give something back.
JS: Where should I point readers who want to learn more about you?
GK: I don’t have a website but one of these days I’m gong to do it. I do have a web page. Maybe over Christmas I’ll design a proper website. People can reach me best on Facebook. I always answer their questions. https://www.facebook.com/
JS: Anything you wish to add about your career?
GK: I just wish I had done certain things differently. Like shooting more black and white. There is something magical about black and white. Like demanding an hour to do a shoot when I was told I only get fifteen minutes. Things like that. However, you use the hand you are dealt with. One of my favorite quick photo shoots almost didn’t happen. It wasn’t even a photo shoot it was just a moment where I saw Ozzy Osbourne in the hallway when he was doing his video. I was doing photos for the video and the video included doves. The doves were leaving and I thought this was the best time for Ozzy to make peace with the dove and not bite its head off and not hurt it. Artists tend to do whatever you want them to do. So with two rolls of black and white film in five minutes I made one of my favorite pictures. Ozzy with the dove holding it nicely.
Yes, anything can happen. I went from sketching little doodles of band logos in school, to reading music magazines and seeing the photos, to shooting music photos seen around the world.
287 S.Robertson Blvd, Beverly Hills, CA 90211