By Karen A. Brown and J. Marshall Craig
Lisa Johnson is a photographer to be reckoned with. With her groundbreaking vision she traveled the world to photograph the most exquisite guitars of our favorite rock stars! We sat down with Lisa to get details of her incredible journey with her new book 108 Rock Star Guitars.
I’ve enlisted my buddy J.Marshall Craig to assist me with this interview as he has written both Eric Burdon’s autobiography, “Don’t Let me be Misunderstood” and “Between Rock and a Home Place” with Chuck Leavell.
KAB: Welcome Lisa! Thank you for joining us today. You’ve been touring with 108 Rock Star Guitars. Finally your own tour! How does it feel? Any wild stories from the road to start us off?
LJ: Well this whole past 17 years of creating the book and now launching it has truly been the ride of my life! My first official book launch event was kicked on in NYC on October 8th (10/8) at the infamous “Cutting Room” and I was thrilled to have the current Les Paul Trio perform at the event with Lou Pallo at the helm. We showcased guitarist Porl Thompson, formerly of The Cure, whose guitar is in the book. And it was indeed super wild that my Father got to play two songs with the Trio. It was the thrill of his life and mine too so see him perform so well.
JMC: You once worked for Kodak, but not as a photographer, is that correct?
LJ: Yes, I worked as a Technical Sales Representative for Eastman Kodak. My job was to visit professional photographers and the photo labs that serviced them and make sure they were using Kodak products. Most of us at Kodak were also photography buffs and we had to understand our product so we were always testing the films, paper and chemistry we were selling.
JMC: Where did the idea for 108 guitars come from?
LJ: I am a yogi. I teach, practice and study yoga philosophy and the number 108 is a significant number in yoga philosophy. So significant the number 108 has its own page on Wikipedia if you google it! I had traveled to India in 2009 and was staying with my yoga teacher, whose family astrologer came over to give me a reading. I told him I was trying to figure out what I would call my book. I knew I had to be something like “Rock Star Guitars”. He suggested adding the 108 to it and I knew instantly that was it! While I have photographed over 108 guitarists guitars, I thought that was a perfect stopping point and would lend a cosmic element to the book instead of the regular 100 or 101 greatest.
KAB: The angles, the light, the positions you must have placed your body in in order to get the shot you wanted. Tell us about how much of a contortionist you had to be shooting the guitars.
LJ: Yea, well that question brings me back to yoga! It’s true, I have laid on the ground and shot up, and on my stomach and shot across, have crouched in some pretty tight corners to get the shot and definitely used yoga breath, contracted my abs and entire body to get a lot of these shots! I would not say I’m a contortionist, but it has been very helpful to be limber and flexible to get some of these photos.
JMC: Which was the most difficult to photograph ~ and why?
LJ: Jeff Beck’s guitar shoot was one of the most difficult because of the small space I had to work in. But it was cool because the space was behind a black curtain that flowed perfect with the black background I had laid down. Only problem was that I did not have much room behind me so did not have much leeway to move around at all. I did lay on the floor and shot upwards toward the guitar. It was tough to pull it off quickly and know that I got the shot I wanted that would be creative and interesting, but I ended up being very pleased.
KAB: Which was the most fun to photograph and why?
LJ: I absolutely LOVED photographing Roger Waters iconic 1970’s Fender Precision Bass in one of the coolest locations ever… directly underneath The Wall, just moments after sound check. It was in Athens, Greece in one of the Olympic Hall buildings, in which I had been in before because I had staffed the Olympics in Greece for Kodak. Prior to the shoot I got to sit and watch the sound check, in which Roger was completely in charge of on stage, orchestrating the children’s choir with The Wall animated films projected on the Wall. Absolutely fantastic moment in the creation of this book.
JMC: Do the guitars have personalities, just like their owners? Did any take your breath away to be right there, photographing?
LJ: They definitely do. Which is why I never ask for the photographers to be in the shot. My work is all about showing the wear and tear details of the guitar that personify the artist without them being in the photograph. The guitars tell a story in and of themselves about the artist by what they leave behind. You can tell a lot about how the guitar is handled and played and they do take on a personality of their own that also portrays the soul of the guitar and perhaps its owner. When we opened the case to Jimmy Page’s 1968 Gibson EDS 1275 SG double neck, it was pretty breathtaking and a whole lotta love and soul emerged out of that case!
KAB: Your book is stunning. Is the final result everything you had hoped for?
LJ: Yes, I am so pleased with how it turned out. Even I have to pinch myself when I look through the pages and say wow I took that photograph! But aside from the imagery, my design team at SMOG Design in Los Angeles did a superior job. They have a real talent for listening to their clients and they masterminded exactly what I wanted.
JMC: What guitar took the longest to get the approval to photograph?
LJ: Jeff Beck and Rick Nielsen! Both held out on me for a long long time. But both shoots were very much worth the wait! I got Jeff’s Fender Stratocaster that has a 1993 Neck affixed to a 1995 Body, and it has a nice bit of tender wear on it. I got a Fender Tele guitar of Rick Nielsen’s I hadn’t seen before at all called the “Rick of Diamonds”, with uber cool crystal work on it, alongside a vintage Les Paul and a couple of his infamous Hamer guitars.
KAB: Did any of the guitar owners play an impromptu private show?
LJ: Yes… Robby Krieger came over to my house for the photo session, which was wonderful because I have a great studio here in a controlled environment. As I photographed each guitar, he would play one of the other ones for me. Noteably he started playing Spanish Caravan on his 1963 Jose Ramirez Flamenco Guitar. Michael Wilton of Queensryche also plugged into a little amp after I photographed his skull crushing 2009 ESP MW Custom Signature Model-“Skull Guitar”. Such cool moments in the life of this project!
JMC: Is there a guitar you didn’t get to photograph that was on your wish list?
LJ: Many! Angus Young, Mark Knopfler, Pete Townshend, The Edge, Jackson Browne, John Fogherty, and many more were all requested but have not manifested yet.
KAB: How much traveling did you have to do?
LJ: I’ve been all over the USA including NYC, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Seattle, Louisiana, Nashville, Dallas, Austin, England, Greece and more. It’s been a fun journey. (see attached fact sheet)
JMC: What was your favorite ~ and why?
LJ: One of my favorite shoots was working with Nils Lofgren. He has a beautiful collection of guitars that are all very well worn yet well taken care of and they all have stories behind them. I got to go to Nils home and we spent several hours together photographing his guitars in a huge studio he has made on his property. There is just so much love energy in his presence. His lovely wife, and many dogs and just Nils is a beautiful human being who not only plays for the Boss in the E Street Band, his also has a very impressive catalog of his own solo material. I love the way his guitar images grace the pages of the book, including one acoustic Martin guitar that Neil Young gave to him when he was 17 or 18 years old. Nils has had a wonderful career and I adore him and his music. From what I understand you will see several of the images I took of his guitars on his forthcoming box set that is soon to be released.
JMC: Les Paul wrote the foreword — tell us about your friendship with Les.
LJ: When Eastman Kodak transferred me from Memphis, TN to NYC I had already been studying the photographing of guitars for about 6 months or so. When I arrived in NY I knew that I wanted to continue photographing guitars and decided that it may as well be famous ones. I noticed that Les Paul was playing every Monday night at The Iridium Room so I trekked down there by myself with an envelope of prints in my hand to show what I was doing. At the time it was Black and White images that I would hand tint with oils. I sat at the bar at the back of the room and eventually Paul Nowinski, the fiddle bass player in the Les Paul Trio at the time, came over to get a drink. I introduced myself to him and asked if he thought Les would let me photograph his guitar. Paul made it happen and the next thing I knew, I was on the stage photographing Les’s guitar that he had left on the stool he sat on for the shows. The next time I came in, I brought B&W hand tinted prints for Les and I got to personally deliver them to him. The next time he saw me he said “Hey there’s that girl who does that guitar art!” That made me so happy. I would go to Iridium as often as I could while I lived in NY and then after I moved to Las Vegas, I would always make a point to go and see Les when I would return to visit NY. Lou Pallo and Paul Nowinski would always help me out and make sure I got back to see Les. It was always exciting for me to sit and talk with him, and show him my prints of the latest guitars I got. He would encourage me. He told me one time that my images would inspire young people to buy a guitar because of the way my images illustrated how the guitarists would personalize them. He loved to have young people come up on stage and play a song with him. I wish he could see the book now that it is done. I think he would be proud of me. A percentage of the book proceeds will benefit the Les Paul Foundation to help fund music education and the hearing impaired. I had to do that in his honor and especially for being so kind as to write the foreword for the book.
KAB: Is there anyone you were particularly starstruck to meet during the journey?
LJ: Well I didn’t get to meet all the artists in the book, but I did meet a lot of them. I’m not really that star struck kind of person. I was so happy to get to meet Nancy and Ann Wilson and got to present a book to them. They are the coolest women in Rock and their music means so much to me. It was a true honor to meet these women who have inspired me so much.
JMC: Do you play guitar?
I can play a few chords! But am really just learning. I have a great teacher in LA who comes out to my house. I can’t wait to shred one day!
KAB: Did you play any of the guitars you photographed?
LJ: No, I never ask to play them, I have so much respect and reverence for the guitar and the opportunity to have access to photograph them that I would never want to overstep my bounds or timeframe I said I could get the session done in. Maybe when I get good enough I will ask!
JMC: Do you choose subjects according to your own taste as a fan?
LJ: For the most part I do. Sometimes I may not be a regular listener of some of the artists, but I have tremendous respect for the work they do. A couple of the guitars in the book were suggested to me by people that said I just had to get this one or that one, but for the most part I have requested artists that I grew up listening to or are listening to now.
KAB: Were the artists there when you photographed their guitars?
LJ: Some were there and those were some cool shoots. Robby Krieger, Nils Lofgren, Steve Earle, Steve Lukather, Mark Farner, Wayne Kramer, Hutch Hutchinson, Kim Thayil, K. K. Downing, Michael Schenker, Porl Thompson and many more guys where there hanging with me during the shoots. So fun!
JMC: Tell us the Lou Reed story!
LJ: I love the images of Lou’s guitars in the book. I only met him once, after the photo session was done. I got access to his guitars because we had a couple of mutual friends who both went to him and told him what I was doing. So he agreed via communication through them. I went to his house in Manhatten, no one was home, it was just me and his assistant who gave me carte blanche to his guitar room. It was quiet and beautiful with a real art vibe. His was one of the first guitars I ever photographed and I used a very special Color Infrared film that Kodak had made especially for NASA to shoot vegetation from space. It was quite appropriate to use this film on Lou’s guitars. I’m so pleased he got to see the prints before he passed and he posted my favorite image from the set onto his Facebook page just a few days before he passed. Lou’s music and soul was a true gift to the world.
KAB: Thank you so much Lisa. And thank you, JMC! Fabulous interview! If our readers would like to order your book, 108 Rock Guitars, they can order here on Amazon.com Lisa Johnson: 108 RockStar Guitars
The rich saturation of color in Lisa Johnson’s ground-breaking photographic vision documents not only some of culture’s most important rock star guitars, but also recounts how the instrument itself has become the essential symbol of rock. Her bold use of unusually low depth-of-field photography visually caresses the instrument in the way a skillful musician might – zeroing in on subtle gradations in a guitar’s patina or hugging the curves of another’s silhouette. Johnson accompanies her images with text cultivated from interviews with the proud guitar owners, revealing the personality of the musician who plays the instrument while her images revere the instrument itself. Johnson provides up-close inspection of guitars, including those of Eric Clapton, Les Paul, Jimmy Page, Billy Gibbons, Rick Nielsen, Brian Setzer, Chrissie Hynde, Ace Frehley, Carlos Santana, Jack White and many others. Here, the guitar is made exotic, sensuous, and evocative – it transforms from an instrument into an artwork.
Includes padded-leatherette hardcover book, 16-page booklet describing inspiration behind project, and black guitar pick printed with one of three holographic foil designs. More at http://108rockstarguitars.com
ALL PHOTOS COPYRIGHT 2013: LISA JOHNSON