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Gallery shines a light on rock and roll's most iconic moments

The Morrison Hotel Gallery is a backstage pass, of sorts, where fans can celebrate their favorite artists from The Beatles to The Who, and photographers serve as guides to rock and roll history.

By Patrick Prince

The lineup reads like a rock and roll fantasy camp. The Beatles. Jimi Hendrix. The Rolling Stones. Johnny Cash. The Police. Bruce Springsteen. Led Zeppelin. The Who. Eric Clapton. The Grateful Dead. Janis Joplin. The Clash. The Doors. Bob Dylan. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York

The Morrison Hotel Gallery is home to some of the finest rock and roll photography ever taken. Featured artists include Gered Mankowitz, Bob Gruen, Ethan Russell, Lynn goldsmith, Terry O'Neill, Henry Diltz and Ken Regan. Goldmine photo by Patrick Prince.

All of these artists have graced the halls of The Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York City in photography exhibits designed to inspire and inform. For fans of the musicians and the memories, the gallery offers a tangible way to celebrate their favorite artists, many of whom left this world far too soon. It’s a backstage pass, of sorts, where the photographers serve as guides to music history.

Peter Blachley, who co-owns the gallery with former independent record store owner Richard Horowitz and photographer Henry Diltz, chatted with Goldmine about the gallery, its photographers and how a simple one-second click of a shutter can create a timeless moment.

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Goldmine: A lot of the photographers are into music history — probably more than people would think.
Peter Blachley: It was necessary for them to be, because they documented it. The credibility of someone telling you a story about The Rolling Stones is the fact that they were there, and they were shooting them. There was only one degree of separation between you and the artist. And I find in this business that people purchase the photos because obviously they love the band, but secondly, the stories. When they hear the stories surrounding them, they love that. And that’s why we bring them into the loft. We tell them, ‘We’ve got Ethan Russell coming in, or any of our photographers, and we’ll have a slide show for them. Our photographers go through their slides and tell the stories behind all the photos, and, man, that’s like a rock concert.

GM: Do many people know enough about the actual photographers?
PB: Well, that’s the interesting thing. No. When I started Morrison Hotel Gallery 10 years ago, what I wanted to do was focus on the photographer at that time. In the first nine years, I didn’t do shows about artists. I did shows about photographers, because I thought it was important. Coming out of the record business and looking at how a record company deals with its roster of artists, I thought it was more important to deal with the roster of photographers I had — to get them more front and center, for the public to know who these people are. I figured if we could do that, then their work would become even more sought after. Every photographer I had, like Henry Diltz, for example, who shot [the Doors’ album] “Morrison Hotel” — which is why we call it Morrison Hotel — Henry shot Crosby, Stills & Nash on the front porch and “Sweet Baby James” with James Taylor. For a photographer, these are hits, just like for a musician. You know, for The Turtles “Happy Together” was a big hit. We all know that; that’s how we associate it. Well, I thought, ‘How do I associate these hits with the guys who did them?’ So, Bob Gruen: John Lennon in New York City with the T-shirt, and that’s a hit. Michael Joseph: “Beggars Banquet,” the interior shot. So it was really that purpose of getting in the photographers, bringing them in, letting people meet them, letting people get to know them. And then once they hear their stories behind these photographs, people are blown away, because the stories are amazing. Some of them, you can’t believe that they’re true.

Crosby Stills and Nash photo by Henry Diltz

The photo used for the cover of Crosby, Stills and Nash's debut album was shot by Henry Diltz before the musicians had settled on a final name. There was no chanc eto re-shoot the photo a week later to get the members in the group's proper name order on the couch; the home had been demolished. Photo courtesy Morrison Hotel Gallery/Henry Diltz

GM: What do you look for in a photographer’s work?
PB: What I try to look for — and I’ve had a lot of photographers come to me over the years — are the ones that had the shot that nobody else could get. So, those are usually photographers that were either friends with the band or were hired to hang out with them or go on tour or do whatever. So, for example, the shot of Keith [Richards] and Ronnie [Wood] on a Learjet by Henry Diltz. Henry knew the tour manager really well, on this tour, the New Barbarians tour [1979]. So the tour manager made sure that he said, like, ‘Henry, get in the Learjet with those guys,” because he wanted the shots, and he knew Henry would get it. So when I see a photograph like that, I say, ‘OK, that’s a Morrison photograph.’ It’s not a million people in the front section of a concert shooting away. It’s only one guy, and there are only four seats in there, and, boy, what access. You just don’t get access like that. Or like Gered Mankowitz, who shot The Rolling Stones in the studio and Paul McCartney comes by. Things like that, that’s really who I consider Morrison photographers, the ones that really capture those intimate moments that only they could have captured ...
When it comes to live [concert photography], I probably don’t have as much live as a lot of people do. However, when I do have live, I think, in my own opinion, I think there were a few great live photographers. I do have Neal Preston, and I think Neal Preston is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, live concert photographer there is. The guy is just good. When you see his stuff, it has a quality and a point of view that I haven’t seen with other live photographers.
And Ethan Russell is also fabulous. He did the ’69 and ’72 Rolling Stones tours. And I think he did some things that were simply amazing live. One of his photographs I call “Keith Coors,” and we’re looking at Keith onstage but we’re behind the amplifier stack with a bunch of booze bottles all over it, and to me, that’s the live shot nobody could get ... What I try to look at are more of the journalistic, fly-on-the-wall moments you would look at and go, ‘Oh my God!’ as opposed to a lot of photographers — and this is true with a lot of Rolling Stone photographers through the ’70s and ’80s — who would have a session with a particular artist and set their cameras up and say, ‘All right, here’s how I see you. Take this bottle of milk and pour it over you, and I’m gonna start shooting away.” Well, that’s fine. That’s part of the art of photography. It’s OK. But I always felt that was more the photographer’s image of who they thought this artist was, as opposed to who this artist really is. So, again, I tend toward the shots that show who the artist really is. And, also, the more comfortable they are... like Henry Diltz in a Learjet with the Eagles, and they are passing a joint around and Glenn Frey’s taking a big hit ... that stuff is priceless. Today, forget it; that would never happen.

GM: One of Ethan Russell’s shots taken on the ’72 Stones tour — Keith Richards standing next to a water fountain and Drug Free America poster — seemed so natural.
PB: They were in U.S. Customs. Keith was standing there next to the water fountain. And Ethan Russell, being the great photographer, Ethan saw it and he said ‘Hey Keith!’ He took two shots until the security guy said ‘Hey, you can’t do that. Get away from there.’ I mean, how ironic, the word Coke on his jumpsuit ... (laughs) just a brilliant, brilliant photograph.

GM: If a collector came into the gallery and said, “I love this particular band but I know nothing about photography. I want to start collecting it,” where would you lead them?
PB: Most people buy these photos because they love the photo. There’s something that connects with them, to that particular group or artist, that concert, maybe they were there, or that particular album. Many things set them off that they need to have it.
But if somebody said to me, ‘I’m a collector and I want a particular type of photograph, then I would steer them toward what I would consider the great Stones photographers — the ones who captured them early on. I always like to find a band at their zenith. I think The Rolling Stones — kind of like The Beatles but even more so — had a very large arch of amazing work over many many years. Some people think the ’69-’72 period with Mick Taylor was their peak, and those are the photos they want. And we certainly have a lot of photos in that era. If people thought that the Brian Jones era was appealing, we have a lot of amazing stuff in that era. Strictly from a photographer’s point of view, I find that the earlier ones are more in demand, and the value higher.
You also look at the editions. Are they selling out? How close are they [to selling out]? Once they sell out, they’re gone. That’s it. Is that photographer still alive? Do we have any signed pieces? Barry Feinstein — Barry died last year— and “Beggars Banquet” is very valuable, and not many of them left. Jim Marshall — Jim is no longer with us — a signed Jim Marshall, that is very valuable. I’d probably say to someone, if you want something with real value, that’s probably one right there, a signed Jim Marshall. You look at it from that point of view as well. You kind of customize a collection for someone.

Keith Richards photo by Ethan Russell

Keith Richards assesses the choices at a makeshift on-stage bar during the band's 1972 U.S. tour. The moment was captured by Ethan Russell. Courtesy Morrison Hotel Gallery.

GM: Are there certain types of prints that are requested more?
PB: As far as photography and choices, there are the old-school prints — I call them the old-school prints — which are black and white silver gelatin. We have platinum palladium, we have digital and we have color-dye transfer, very rare but we have some. When we first started in the early days, we had a lot of call for platinum palladium prints and silver gelatin. We still carry them; we still have them. Many of them are extremely rare now, just because there are not a lot of people that print them. I’ve noticed over the 10 years I’ve been here the decrease in the amount of printers and labs that can even do that work any more. Or the increase in inkjet digital equipment getting better and better. The photographer actually — many of the good ones — prefer the digital format, because they can manipulate their tones and shades and grayscales to what they really saw in that photograph a lot more than they could with a silver gelatin or a platinum. The platinum palladium prints, though, are phenomenal; they’re beautiful. They come with a higher cost. For the real serious, avid collector, that’s the way to go, absolutely.
And I tell people that in our gallery ever single photograph that you see is made by the photographer, and they hand-sign them and number them. They make sure they are up to their standards, and then we put them on the wall and/or make them available. And the other thing you have to look at is that when you collect these photographs, they last a long time. A platinum palladium print will last hundreds of years. The digital, now, the inks are getting so good now, they’re gonna last a long time. So you look at these like, will my kids want a Beatles or a Rolling Stones or a Who from what I call the Renaissance of popular music which we had from about 1945 to ’75? Will they want this years from now? What will it mean then? How will it value? I guess if we had prints of Mozart or Beethoven, who knows what they would be worth. But, No. 1, I think it’s important to select the really good, iconic photographers, the ones who were at the center of this and doing most of the work. Those guys — men and women — are very important in this whole genre. And that’s why we maintain their work so carefully, and also we maintain the editions and the accounting for the editions.

GM: What is the average Morrison Hotel Gallery customer like?
PB: Most of our customers, interestingly, are men, from ages 25 to 85. And it’s that heroic thing. Guys love that whole heroic thing. When Neal [Preston] comes in and talks about when he was on the plane with Led Zeppelin on one of the tours in the ’70s and all the stories with them, the guys go crazy. They LOVE those stories. There are many things that happened and things you never expected to happen.
I relate everything to the music business because I’ve been in it for so long, but I look at Morrison Hotel as a little independent label. We’re private. There are just three of us: Henry, myself and Rich. We’ve always been self-financed. I love it that way, because I’m so independent, and I can stretch out and do some great things. And I think all the photographers that work with us know that, and they love that.