Bobby Talamine clearly remembers the instant time stood still. He was in his early teens when he knew his calling was rock and roll photography.
Album covers and photos in top music industry magazines—Circus, Crawdaddy! and Creem—smacked him right between the eyes. He became insatiably curious about how professional photographers captured the essence of these rock gods.
“I knew in my gut that I wished I could do this,” Talamine says, adding, “I knew that I could do this and I wanted to do this.”
At the age of 14, he managed to get access to the photo pit at the 1974 Led Zeppelin “Physical Graffiti” tour in Chicago. Like a scene out of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, rookie Talamine found himself alone with one of his idols—Neil Preston, Led Zeppelin’s official photographer.
“He was the largest rock and roll photographer in the world—the King of Kings."
It didn’t take long for Talamine to shoot through his two rolls of film. But he kept firing the flash on his Pentax while he studied Preston’s every move. Talamine remembers thinking, “This is more difficult than I thought, and it’s expensive.”
Flash-forward four decades. Talamine has achieved Preston’s status as one of the premier rock and roll photographers in the country. He’s photographed Led Zeppelin and an amazing array of other notable musicians, including Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, the Police, Rolling Stones, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, U2, the Who . . . the list goes on.
“I’m one of four photographers with the power to shoot where, when and what I want,” Talamine says.
His photos appear in national publications and are distributed by Pollstar, the top concert industry trade magazine. But his biggest thrill is when bands love his work and buy his photos. Talamine’s photo of drummer Jimmy Page is posted on Led Zeppelin’s website.
From the outside looking in, the life of a rock and roll photographer seems glamorous. But Talamine has earned his success through dogged persistence, a willingness to outwork other photographers and, at times, being “totally ballsy.” He hates hearing “no.”
Most groups give Talamine free access to move around near the stage so he can be in the right place at the right time to get great photos. When denied access, he works that much harder to overcome the obstacles.
That was the case when he tried to photograph Tool at a recent Lollapalooza concert in Chicago. Talamine says Tool prohibits access to photographers beyond their first two songs. But he needed more time to come up with killer shots. So he talked the band’s road manager into letting him take photos as a member of the audience.
That was the good news. The bad news was that Tool has what Talamine calls “a devoted fan following of younger metal heads.” Their concerts attract hordes of frenzied fans that form mosh pits in front of the stage, where they thrash about in frantic, physically exuberant ways.
Talamine knew security had been ramped up for the Tool performance and he was concerned about his safety. But he bravely forged into the crowd to jockey for position and lost control right away.
“I was yanked up and was body surfing into the eye of the storm—a mosh pit with a thousand kids,” he says. “I fell on the ground and crouched over to protect my gear. I was being pummeled and had Doc Martens boot prints all over my back.”
He spotted four Marines nearby and yelled, “Huddle up, Marines.” He offered them $100 in exchange for protection while he was photographing and they readily agreed.
“I was shooting from the eye of the mosh pit with bodies flying by me,” Talamine says. “The Marines were happy to be pummeling people to protect me. Meanwhile, I’m getting the best pictures of Tool they’ve ever gotten.”
The next day, Talamine showed his work to the band’s manager and, “He was blown away. It was 100 percent worth it. They’re one of my favorite bands of all time.”
Talamine tends to speak in superlatives about whichever band he’s discussing. After decades of documenting the rock music scene, he shows no signs of slowing down or burning out. “I’m a 17-year-old in a 53-year-old body,” Talamine says. “My idol of idols is John Peel, a British DJ who introduced new music until the day he died. He was massively influential, but humble.”
Rock and roll photography is the perfect combination of Talamine’s two loves: music and photography. He grew up in Lincolnshire among classically trained organists in his mother’s family and gained an appreciation of all kinds of music. Then the rock and roll scene of the ’70s catalyzed his interest in photography.
Now living in Chesterton with his wife, artist Janet Bloch, Talamine’s studio is a testament to his dual passions. Nearly a thousand books on rock and roll photography and some 10,000 music CDs line multiple shelves. Several file cabinets are filled with archival film and have expanded into dozens of boxes bursting with his work to date.
The biggest coup of his career came in May 2011, when he was the only photographer at a much anticipated reunion of Pink Floyd’s original band members. Roger Waters, the creative force behind the band’s album The Wall, had been engaged in legal wrangling against the others for several decades.
The consensus among professional photographers was the reunion would take place during Waters’ 2010 fall tour of The Wall. When it didn’t happen, the reunion was dismissed as just a rumor. The following May, Waters committed to six performances of The Wall in London. Talamine’s persistence kicked in and he arranged to be at all of them.
”I knew in my gut that, if it hasn’t happened during appearances in the States, it’s going to happen in London,” Talamine says.
The magic moment came on May 11 during a performance of "Uncomfortably Numb," the only song band member David Gilmour wrote for the iconic album. As it opened, Waters pointed to the top of the 35-foot-high prop wall.
“He said, 'Look up,' and there was David,” Talamine says. “The audience was about 80 percent men and by the dozens you could see these grown British men crying because [the reunion] happened.”
Talamine instantly realized he needed to be farther back to capture both performers in one frame. “I darted back 50 yards to get the shot,” he says. “The next day, I released the photos to classic rock publications and within 24 hours they were all dying to get the shots immediately.”
Talamine has a fascinating story for every photo. The black-and-white photo of Paul McCartney hanging on his living room wall was taken at Chicago’s Wrigley Field on a hot night last June. McCartney was six songs into a set and singing “Baby You Can Drive My Car,” when Talamine noticed the famous Beatle was breaking into a sweat and really getting into the music. Those are the photographic moments he lives for, rather than the typical shots of a performer at a microphone.
“I like more esoteric shots, when a performer feels it or is looking dreamily out into the ether,” Talamine says. “Paul had the Hofner bass guitar that he’s used since the Beatles days. It only comes out for two or three songs. That’s what I want to shoot.”
Talamine constantly scours the current music scene through YouTube and conversations with DJ friends. He’s energized by discovering unique new groups and has been photographing the Bellwether Syndicate, recently formed in Chicago by William Faith, formerly of Faith and the Muse.
“I love working with bands from the get-go if I’m totally enthralled with the music,” Talamine says. “My goal is to be involved with their artistic vision. His [Faith’s] music is so glorious. No matter what he creates it will definitely be worthwhile. The stuff is genius.”
Talamine isn’t ready to quit his day job as a leasing agent with Apartment People in Chicago. And he isn’t about to abandon his calling as a rock and roll photographer. In fact, he has ten shows lined up through September.
“I can’t think of a higher calling than to keep pursuing your discovery of music. Nothing turns me on more than discovering new bands and being involved with that.”