James Fortune was in the right place at the right time when he was thrown quite suddenly into the world of photographing the greatest rock n’ roll bands of the 20th century. I had the honor of being able to speak with him about his experiences and what he has learned in his career spanning 44 years.
The ART of (TAO): You started photographing bands at a very early stage in your career. What did these different bands and artists teach you during that time?
James Fortune (JF): In 1967, I was the photo editor of my college weekly newspaper “The Roundup.” Just for the hell of it I started calling a few record companies. So, I might get to interview and photograph some of my favorite bands and get free albums. To my surprise, Electra Records called back and asked me if I would like to photograph The Doors. Yes, was my answer. Jim Morrison and The Doors were my favorite new band. David Anderle from Electra said I could meet the band at Sunset Sound Recording Studio in Hollywood and spend a few hours watching the band lay down a few new tracks for their second album. It was due for release in late 1967. Learning to push my film speed and overdevelop the film in low light situations was the most important thing I learned in those early years of my photography career. That’s how I photographed The Doors using no flash and just photographing them as they worked on their new songs. You have a great picture of Paul McCartney just coming out of the pool and striking a pose. What was it like snapping photos sometimes during very intimate moments? In April 1975, I received a call from Marsa Hightower with Salters and Roskin. I had photographed Led Zeppelin for them in early 1973 along with other artists in 1973 and 1974. Paul was in town for a week because he was up for an academy award for the soundtrack of the movie Live and Let Die. Marsa told me I was to meet Lee Salters of Salters and Roskin and Robert Hillburn, the music critic for the Los Angeles Times at the hotel swimming pool. As the other fellows sat down on the lounge chair, Paul emerged from the pool and grabbed a towel. Lee turned to Paul and said, “This is my photographer, ‘James Fortune.’” Just as I looked at Paul, he turned toward me and in a flash, held a white towel up to his body in a great imitation of Gypsy Rose Lee, the famous stripper. Without even thinking, I snapped the photo as our eyes met. This turned out to be one of my favorite exposures of a music star. I loved photographing live concerts but intimate photographs of stars off stage were my favorite. Most of the time I was the only photographer at offstage photography sessions and I could ask for a pose this way or that way. Keith Moon and Elton John were my favorites.
TAO: How has photography changed for you (and maybe in general) over the course of your career?
JF: Digital photography is the big change for any photographer that has been doing it for over 20 years. In 1997 the US Army (whom I was working for at the time) changed to digital photography. I was not impressed with the first results, a Nikon camera body attached to a Kodak digital back. The capture size was not impressive. Digital photography has come a long way since then.
TAO: Are there any projects you are working on now that you would like to talk about?
JF: I retired six years ago. Last year I started to publish my own photography books. To date I have published two ebooks, Celebration Day, shooting Led Zeppelin in America, 1973/1975 and 36 Rocks Per Roll, A Photographers Odyssey through the 60’s & 70’s. These two books are available now on Amazon.com. Soon I will publish a few hard cover editions of these books to be used in art galleries which sell my signed limited edition prints. I also plan to publish photo books on Paul McCartney, Elton John and The Rolling Stones. Plus, a Volume #2 of 36 Rocks Per Roll.