Tony Mott has probably photographed most of the world’s rock stars and experienced the lifestyle of the rich and famous first hand … but, speaking to him, he’s a down to earth, funny guy who’s passionate about music and the moments he can capture through his camera lens. His exhibition, What a Life, can be viewed at the Glasshouse – and you can meet Tony in person too!
Hi Tony. I’ve read that you were born in the UK …
That’s not my fault!
Of course not ha ha … but I’m curious as to why you wanted to visit Australia in the first place?
Because I’m incredibly old (I’m 61 now), I came to Australia first in 1975 – and there were no such thing as backpackers back then. People just emigrated to Australia!
You know, it’s a good question – and I don’t have a hundred per cent answer, except to say I was working in a restaurant in the south of England, and one of my friends had an Australian girlfriend from Sydney – he’d already been to Sydney. He said I was mad; I should go there!
I was a French chef by trade. I remember ringing my dad to say I was thinking about going to Australia, and he’d been in the Second World War, and he told me that they just bloody drank and played cricket!
I always thought Australia in the mid-70s was the world’s best kept secret. I came out, and it was fantastic! It was so much better than England … Although to be fair, that wasn’t that difficult.
I always had a love of music and photography because of my travels. I’d been to India with a friend, and they did black and white portraiture, which I fell in love with …
When I finally settled in Sydney in the early ‘80s and was working as a chef, Australia had the greatest live music scene in the world. I’m qualified to say that, because I lived in both New York and London, and Sydney knocked the socks off both of them. Seven nights a week you could go out and see great bands.
Going to see all of these bands, I thought they’d be very difficult to photograph … and that’s when I started photographing Chrissy Amphlett, who at that point wasn’t famous.
So, at the time you started taking photos of Chrissy and other bands, you were still working full-time as a chef?
Yeah. The first photo I sold was for a tour photo of Chrissy Amphlett and the Divinyls, and they paid me and put my name on the door. I was obsessed with music and bands.
I’d been photographing for four or five years, when it dawned on me that it could be a profession! But, I wasn’t confident enough to give up my job. My two jobs basically worked well together, because cheffing finished at 9pm, and then I could go out and watch bands. Eventually the photography took over, but there were a good four years of doing both!
Your photographic career has really taken off since then – 30,000 photographs published in 20 countries, and your images have appeared on 400 posters and the covers of 500 CDs and more than 900 magazines. Many people have this image – the stereotype – of the “Rock” lifestyle as being all about partying, drugs and booze. What are your experiences – are the clichés true?
Not really. I think the lifestyle appears a bit like a “dream” to most people. Back in the day, I’d mostly end up at Sydney Trade Union Club, which was three levels of entertainment with bands, and I’d stay until six in the morning. It’d be fair to say I did my share of drinking and the “Rock ‘n’ Roll” lifestyle – but I don’t know how to describe it, other than it seemed quite normal to me. It never seemed glamorous … I’m a drinker, but I’ve never done drugs, because they never appealed to me. I’m quite hyperactive, and when I’m having a good time I’ll dance ‘til the sun comes up …
You’ve spent a lot of time travelling around with celebrities like Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones. What’s a funny moment you’ve experienced?
I was shooting the Foo Fighters … and I learnt quite early on that you really need to direct a band – I’d been shooting and noticed they had some strange expressions on their faces. For the very last lot of shots I made them back up into a pond – a very filthy and slimey pond, I must point out, and I got them all to laugh! It seemed like an extreme way to get them to laugh at the time, but it worked …We got some great shots.
There are so many funny incidents over the years …
Session photography versus live shots …How do you handle this with bands?
Whenever I do talks, and I’ll be doing one in Port Macquarie with a slideshow – this is one of the things I talk about. Rock ‘n’ Roll photography is like Yin and Yang … the good news is that with live photography, the musician is in their natural environment, and you don’t have to worry about them. The bad news is you have no control over the light, the audience, or circumstances – so it’s difficult to get the shot.
When you’re doing a portrait, the good news is you’re now totally in control of the light and the situation, but you’ve taken the musician out of their natural environment. Contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of musicians who aren’t comfortable in front of a camera – so your first job is to develop some kind of rapport. When record companies give you an hour/an hour, that’s not a lot of time! I prefer to spend 10 – 30 minutes developing a connection before I stick a lens in someone’s direction.
Which do I prefer? Whatever works! I learnt very early on not to be demoralised by numbers … if you take heaps of photos and get one GREAT shot (not just a good shot) it’s worth it!
Final say …
Come down and see the photos, because they’ll show you the passion behind the music and why music is important to people. There’s a nostalgic point of view, but new stuff too. I don’t think you’ll be bored!
Interview by Jo Robinson.
See What a Life at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery from 10th Feb – 1st April. Artist talk with Tony Mott on 10th Feb at 11am. This is a State Library of NSW Touring Exhibition. Visit glasshouse.org.au for more details.