By Susan Sliwicki
Mark Weiss was just 14 years old when he started the path to his career — he just didn’t know it yet. The enterprising New Jersey teen struck a deal to cut his neighbor’s lawn in exchange for a 35mm Bell and Howell/Cannon camera.
He snuck his camera into Led Zeppelin, Queen and Grateful Dead concerts. He paid off security guards to get him into the first 10 rows to take pictures. He developed the prints in his parents’ bathroom, and sold them at school (and back at the venue) the next day. He made enough money to build a darkroom in the back of his parents’ garage.
Everything was going great, until KISS came to town for a three-day-stint at Madison Square Garden. The young photographer was busted for selling KISS photos and spent a night in jail. It served as a wake-up call.
“I knew I had what it takes to be a professional photographer, and being unwilling to spend another night in the clink, the following day I walked into the offices of Circus magazine, the leading rock and roll magazine at the time, with my portfolio. The timing was right. The art director was off deadline, and the editor welcomed me into his office,” Weiss says. “My first published work was a centerfold feature of Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler in June of 1978. A few months, later I became a major contributor, which led to a staff photographer position for Circus, and I began shooting their covers and features.”
Weiss went on to photograph a variety of artists, including spending time on the road with Motley Crüe (where he picked up his Three Stooges-inspired nickname, Weissguy, from guitarist Mick Mars).
In this issue of Goldmine, we get to share both a variety of Mark’s fine rock and roll photographs, as well as his story. You can learn more about Mark — and check out his photos — online at www.WEISSGUYgallery.com.
Goldmine: What formal training have you completed for your craft?
Mark Weiss: I was self-taught; it was all trial and error. I put a roll of film in the camera, followed the meter reading for correct exposure and looked forward to the results. I would develop the film in my parents’ bathroom, and when I started to see an image appear, just by putting a blank piece of paper in a solution — as a kid, I was always amazed by magicians and illusion, seeing things appear and disappear — I felt like I was creating magic.
GM: What made you keep with it?
MW: Being a fan keeps me going. I still love being in that photo pit, looking up, capturing moments and then turning around and capturing the true fans that keep these icons coming back to perform. To have access to the dressing rooms and capture a bit of history to share with the world is what I love. The countless friends I made in this business, and to be part of pop culture and even a bit of rock and roll history is mind blowing. I still photograph bands playing small clubs now that once played to sold-out arenas. I have always been there for the artists who were there for me when I began my career. We’ve all had, and continue to have, peaks and valleys to overcome in our personal and professional lives. Without their loyalty and belief in my craft, I would have never been able to continue making my rock ’n’ roll dreams a reality.
GM: If you had not discovered your knack for photography, what career path do you think you would’ve have followed, and why?
MW: Probably exactly what I was doing when I got my first camera: mowing lawns. Maybe I would have progressed into landscaping (laughs). When I was a kid, I was always changing my room around, switching things up. I guess that would be similar to composing a photograph. When I was 13 (a year before I got my first camera), I had a dirt-bike accident and subsequent head injury, which affected my memory and retention. Photographs help me remember. I made a lot of friends with my camera, which was something hard to do for a shy kid. Photography helped me connect with people. It was and still is my tool for communication.
GM: What was the first concert you ever shot? What do you recall about that experience?
MW: Peter Frampton, Madison Square Garden, Nov. 21, 1975. I snuck my camera in by putting the lens in my Frye boots and hung the body of the camera around my neck under my clothes. I ended up in the Garden’s nosebleed blue seats situated all the way up top. I just figured it didn’t matter how far away I was, I would just blow up the photo from the negative, and it would be fine. When I got home and developed the film, I was excited to put the negative in the enlarger and make a print. I quickly learned about grain. Unfortunately, Peter was unrecognizable; his face was a big, white spot. I realized the trick was to get close to the stage, and that was my next quest.
GM: Other than the obvious (photo pass, camera, flash), what’s the one thing you always like to have along when you’re at a shoot, and why?
MW: My bandana. It keeps my hair out of my face and looks cool!
GM: Do you prefer shooting on film or shooting digitally?
MW: I am a digital guy now, though I fought it for a while. I have been working with a weekly German magazine called Bravo for the last 30 years, and when they insisted on digital because of their deadlines, I had no choice but to cave in and go digital. I had just spent thousands of dollars on large-format cameras, so it was hard to switch. I spend countless hours scanning and retouching dust and scratches on the original negatives and transparencies. It was also costly to shoot Polaroid film to test the lighting at shoots, as well as the time spent waiting for the image to show the subject, which always slowed down the shoot and the momentum.
GM: If you could go back in time and change one thing with your career, what would it be?
MW: I developed a relationship with Ozzy Osbourne after I did my first shoot in 1981 for the cover of Circus magazine. The following year, I set up a shoot in New York at a hotel to shoot Ozzy with his band in the morning, which included guitarist Randy Rhoads. I was coming in from New Jersey, and there was an accident in the Lincoln Tunnel. I was late, and there were no cell phones back then, so when I knocked on the door of Ozzy’s hotel room, the tour manager answered and told me the band had been up all night waiting for me to shoot, and now they were sleeping, so I was sent on my way. Later on in that tour (March 19, 1982), Randy died in a plane crash. I often wonder what images I would have captured that day if I had not been late. My only shoot with Randy was at the Capitol Theatre in New Jersey on April 24, 1981. After his death, Rolling Stone magazine used my photo in their tribute article on Randy.
GM: What do you enjoy more: Shooting an artist or band for publicity photos, or shooting the artist or band in a performance setting? Why?
MW: I enjoy capturing reality — on the road, backstage, live on stage. It is natural, free-flowing, exciting and unpredictable. When I photograph album covers and publicity shoots, they are well planned out, including stylist, hair and make-up artists, locations, etc. A lot of setting up. It’s a lot of work, but I love the outcome, especially the album covers. It is always a rush seeing a photograph I took 25 years ago in a digital jukebox or on a rack of CDs in a record store.
GM: If you had to guess, how many rolls of film do you think you’ve shot (and developed) in your career?
MW: I have over 50, five-drawers-high filing cabinets in my house, and each drawer has over 1,000 sheets of 20 slides. Lots!!
GM: Many fine artists have a “signature feel” to their work, where the viewer instantly knows who created the work. What do you feel is your personal touch or signature feel to your work?
MW: In the ’80s, when I shot the metal and hair bands, my trademark was about jells and smoke. I feel if you look into the subject’s eyes and get that moment of connecting — that makes your shot. I also feel that hands in my photographs are a big part of my style — hands tell a story. It is my job to connect with whomever I am shooting to pull out their inner self and capture an image caught in time.
GM: What’s artist photo is your favorite of all that you’ve ever shot, and why? Favorite album cover?
MW: Ozzy for sure — just a lot of fun. Makes me laugh. I have been shooting him since 1981. I have unprecedented access and still remain close to the family. I photographed Kelly Osbourne’s album cover “Shut Up” in 2002. I have toured with Ozzy since 1981 on all his solo tours, as well as Black Sabbath on all their reunions. I was honored when his son, Jack, interviewed me for his father’s documentary a couple years ago.
GM: As a rock and roll photographer, you’ve basically gotten a backstage pass into the lives of some legendary artists. During your assignments, what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever witnessed? Funniest? Wildest?
MW: Funniest was when I put Ozzy in a bunny suit in early ’80s. The photo was just released this past Easter on Ozzy’s Facebook page; it had been in hiding. When I shot the photo, it was just a joke. I shared my studio with another photographer who had a few outfits lying around from a shoot he just finished. I showed it to Sharon and asked if it was OK to get him in it. Her words were “have fun” before she left. That was the first time I heard Ozzy scream “SHAROOOOOON!!”
Craziest: Being on tour with Motley Crüe. I was the go-to guy if you wanted photos in the rock magazines, which helped me establish myself with bands and managers. I loved the access it got me. So when Motley invited me to go with them on the tour bus in 1984, I was ready to go. What I wasn’t ready for was Tommy Lee sitting in the driver’s seat on the tour bus and Nikki (Sixx) escorting me on the bus. As I entered the bus — Tommy held me while Nikki started biting my leg and then told me to “draw blood.” I had no idea what he was talking about. As he continued to bite me, he shouted out again, “Draw blood.” I finally figured out Nikki wanted me to bite him back. Mick (Mars) was on the bus and smirked, and Vince Neil passed by me with a chuckle. After 20 minutes of him biting my leg — and several shots of Jack Daniels to numb the pain — I finally gave in and bit him back. They allowed me on the bus; it didn’t happen again.
Wildest: Hmm. Wait for the book. Ha!!
GM: What has been your best moment as a photographer? Your worst?
MW: Best moment was when I was at a newsstand in NYC and opened up the June 1979 issue of Circus magazine with The Beatles on the cover. I opened up to the centerfold to see my first published photo — Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and saw my photo credit.
My absolute worst moment took place in L.A., off Gardner Street and up the street from Johnny Rockets. In 1985, I was hired to shoot the album package and publicity photos of Poison for their new release, “Flesh and Blood.” I shot the band for 10 hours in numerous setups — more then 50 rolls of film. I went to meet a friend for dinner before my flight. My equipment was in my car, and I thought to myself, where would the film bag be safer: In the car or with me? I took the film bag with me, and on the way back to the car, my friend and I got mugged at gunpoint. They pistol-whipped my friend and threw me to the ground, taking my wallet and the bag with the all the film. Police took a report, but nothing happened. I put out a reward for $10,000 to the sanitation workers, as I was told by the police that they probably dumped the bag in the garbage. Nothing showed up. I told the band after it happened. They weren’t mad — just concerned that I was OK. They flew me to Canada the next week to reshoot, which made it on the back cover of the album.
GM: Who are your artistic heroes? What image captured by another photographer do you wish you could’ve shot?
MW: I was always envious of the photographs that came out of the ’60s. I would have loved to photograph the three J’s: Jimi, Janis and Jim. One from Joel Brodsky is my favorite: the iconic 1967 photo of a shirtless Jim Morrison.
GM: Which artist/group would you most want to go back in time to photograph, and why?
MW: The Beatles, during “Beatlemania.” Because they are The Beatles!
GM: Do you have any kind of “bucket list” for your career? If so, what’s on it?
MW: I look forward to archiving and sharing my 35 years of photographs in books. It wouldn’t suck to go on tour as The Rolling Stones’ photographer.
GM: Do you collect vinyl records? If so, what’s in your collection, and how big is it?
MW: My collection began in 1974. I went to the local record store on a mission to buy an album. I had bought 45s of the Top 40 songs being played on the radio. I thought it was time to step it up and be cool. I walked in and saw an album cover which caught my eye. It looked like a comic book with big pink letters ... the first Rush album. When I got it home and listened, I was pleasantly surprised. To me, it sounded like Led Zeppelin on speed, and it is still one of my faves.