Shooting from the inside out – the rock & roll photography of Michael Zagaris

Michael Zagaris has a fascinatingly broad photographic catalogue. Since the late 60s his freelance work has covered politics, culture and music, whilst his sports photography has been syndicated in pretty much every major publication in America. A recent Time Magazine cover features his image of controversial 49-ers quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, who has been the centre of a media storm in the US after refusing to stand for the national anthem in a show of solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Zagaris’ new collection, ‘Total Excess’ details an array of rock royalty in their heyday, much of it occurring at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco – a venue that the photographer first visited whilst still working out a vocational path in his early 20s.

Indeed, it could have been very different for Zagaris. Having initially majored in Sino-Soviet relations at law school, he actually planned a career in politics, only for dramatic events to direct his ambition elsewhere.

‘I had always taken pictures from the time I was 4 or 5 and never thought of it as a career’ he says.

‘John Kennedy was elected when I got to high school, so my new plan (in an ever-changing array of plans) was that I’d be a professional football star for 8 or 9 years, and then I’d run for Congress, and then the Senate, and then I’d be President.’

As such, Zagaris found himself working on the doomed Robert Kennedy campaign team through 1967-8.

‘After Bobby was assassinated, I had to fly back to law school and we had a final exam. Up until then I was number two or three in the class. They handed out the exam and I filled eight blue books about how America was fucked and murdered its leaders […] so that was the end of law school.’

‘At that point, I only knew what I didn’t want to do’.

Pete Townshend  © Michael Zagaris / RAP

It didn’t take too long to find his calling. It was around 1970 that Zagaris’ approach to photography actually became professional. At this time, he would interview and photograph touring musicians at the Fillmore for local press.

‘I’d go back stage – access was easy back then […] I’d have a couple of joints, a tape recorder and the camera in my pocket. I had previously done an interview with Eric Clapton, and when Cream broke up, he was playing with Delaney and Bonnie, and we were just talking the kind of philosophical discussions that you have when you’re getting high, and he was going through a transcript of the interview we’d done while I marked proof sheets.

‘At one point he said “What you got there?” and after I showed him the images he said “Man, this is great. Fucking hell, can we use these?”

‘I said “For what?”

‘He said “Songbooks, albums – look man, we’ll pay you”.

‘He said “Look – the writing’s alright, but you should be doing this [photography] for a gig” and that is how it happened – it was one of those moments: Right place right time – and I’d always done it before, [so] that is how I actually started shooting music.’

While the collection is remarkable for the fame and charisma of its subjects, there is a consistency for composition and energy in Zagaris’ practice that helps the work come alive. These are images of youthful exploration that attempt to take the viewer into the musical ensemble itself.

Zagaris is typically direct describing his own creative development:

‘I dropped acid, in search of self, in search of truth. I was reading Herman Hesse, I’d read ‘Doors of Perception’. On that first acid trip, I learnt more than in college – it was like the veil had been pulled away.’

Jimmy Page © Michael Zagaris / RAP

‘I fell into it – I’d never taken a course in photography. How I really learned more [was being] a magazine junkie. I remember Creative Camera & French Photo alongside Italian, German and British Vogue. You saw all the great photography that way; people like Sarah Moon, Deborah Turbeville, David Bailey, Richard Avedon […] Diane Arbus, Robert Frank. They were my teachers just by what they did.’

There is an undeniable joy in the hedonism depicted: joy in this a cultural environment of gonzo blagging, wild inebriation and free love.

But there is also something sinister under the surface. Something dangerous woven into the fabric of excess. I ask Zagaris if he ever felt threatened by the situations to which his work led?

Zagaris: ‘While I was working on Bobby’s campaign, There was a big festival at Santa Clara, and everybody was there; The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and I thought “I wanna go to this”, so I called in sick to the campaign, and went.

Mick Jagger © Michael Zagaris / RAP

‘[…] I conned my way into the pit – in those days all you had to do was say “Yeah I’m working for San Jose Mercury News” – you didn’t need credentials – and halfway through this show there’s this photographer with a corduroy coat and a hat, and six cameras round his neck. He’s bossing people around and at one point he got into it with a security guard from San Jose state, and pulls a knife on him!’

‘I’m like “Holy shit!”

‘So I said ‘Is that knife real?`

He turns and puts the knife to my neck and says ‘Yeah motherfucker!’, and he reaches into the back of his pocket and pulls a gun and he says ‘And this is fuckin’ real, too!’

‘And I said ‘Who are you?’ and he said ‘I’m fuckin’ Jim Marshall, who the fuck are you?”’
‘When I was doing rock & roll photography, the camera was an entrée – a way in to document it – but also [a way] to be in the band. What I would do with my pictures is I would try to shoot the scene from the inside out.
‘Photography is a mirror of your vision, of how you see life, how you look at life. And it’s also enabled me to re-live it again.’

Total Excess by Michael Zagaris is published by Reel Art Press priced at £40 / $60. For more info, see here.