Can’t make it out to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? Photographer Ron Pownall’s Somerville studio is a pretty solid substitute.
The walls of his loft at the Brickbottom Artists Association are lined with decades of rock history. Here’s the guys in Boston, passed out in their tour bus as they travel between cities. Here’s the iconic 1976 image of Elton John leaning out the window of a New York City hotel, photographed for the explosive Rolling Stone cover story in which the musician came out as bisexual. There’s Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, applying his makeup backstage or, in a charming series of 1977 shots, engaged in a beer-chugging contest against the band’s road manager.
“This shot, I’ve had hanging here for years,” Pownall says, gesturing to a photo in which the Aerosmith guys are grinning. It’s one he took during their “bad boys from Boston” days, when the band rarely smiled in shots. “I could never, ever replace it.”
It goes on like this. Bruce Springsteen. Tom Petty. The Rolling Stones. Bob Dylan. Debbie Harry. One wall houses dozens of photos of David Bowie performing throughout the years. And it’s all the more incredible when you learn that he stumbled into rock photography somewhat accidentally.
In 1968, a 20-year-old Pownall landed a summer job as a photographer with the Chicago Tribune, where he started shooting the Vietnam War protests at the DNC. By far the youngest member of the paper’s photo department, he began taking concert assignments largely because his coworkers didn’t want them—they were married with kids; they couldn’t be out all night shooting shows.
His first four assignments: Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Cream.
Pownall’s next big break came in ’74, after he’d moved to Boston. Queen was on their second headlining tour, and he was asked by a local organizer to photograph the band during their Boston dates. “In those days, you’d go home, develop the film, make prints in the morning and then try and peddle them,” he explains. But when he showed up to do the peddling part the following night, their management wasn’t thrilled… turns out, he hadn’t gone through the appropriate channels. “He’s literally having me thrown out the stage door, and I said, ‘Well, I shot them last night. Can I show you the pictures?’”
Queen’s people liked them, and they put Pownall in the photo pit. When those photos were good, too, they offered to fly him to New York to shoot Queen for three nights at the Beacon. It was the beginning of a relationship that lasted 25 years. “That one link of getting almost thrown out of a Queen show,” he chuckles. The LA publicity group that managed them would eventually connect him with everyone from Liza Minnelli to Elton John.
Pownall is full of stories like this, where he somehow managed to be in the right place at the right time—but of course, he still had to know where the right place was. Here’s the advice he gives students when he’s invited to speak at career fairs: “I tell them that luck is really important. But what’s luck? It’s the intersection of preparedness and opportunity.” Pointing to an intimate photo of Paul McCartney tuning his bass, he recalls creeping through the stadium during soundcheck, snapping away. He wasn’t technically supposed to be there, but Sir Paul saw him winding through the stands and invited him to come down to the stage.
Perhaps the best example of the right place, right time, hard work formula came when Pownall connected with Boston’s favorite sons: Aerosmith. It was 1973, and he’d gone to a sock hop at Boston College’s Roberts Gym to photograph the opening act, a local band called Duke and the Drivers. He stayed for Aerosmith too, and, well: “It’s the earliest shots of them live,” he says.
The band and the photographer struck up a deal: He’d shoot them for free, but they’d pay for film, processing and contact sheets. Pownall captured everything from live shows to posed portraits to those relaxed, behind-the-scenes moments from tour, images that would appear in album liners and ads and on posters. Aerosmith would come to his house in Harvard Square, and they’d all sit down together to watch a slideshow of his latest shots, approving the ones they liked for print.
He ended up working with them until the ’90s, and he’s spent so much time with the band he’s practically an Aerosmith historian; when the History Channel was working on a show about them, he acted as a consultant, filling in the gaps and sitting down for an interview in his studio space.
Of course, these were different times. “I think at the Paradise, I shot Tom Petty, Billy Joel, Aerosmith—these people were playing that little club,” he recalls wistfully. “Bette Midler, she played five nights.” Pownall doesn’t shoot shows as much these days, citing the increasing corporatization of the industry, among other factors, but says there’s still nothing like the rush of capturing a band’s live performance on film.
And for all of his good luck and preparedness, even he has the one that got away. While he’s hit the road with Aerosmith and photographed everyone from Meat Loaf to Jeff Beck to Tina Turner, asked if there’s anyone he never got the chance to take a photo of, he hardly stops to think before replying.
“I have two: Prince and U2.”