If you’re a music fan, the chances are that you’ve seen some of Adrian Boot’s work, whether you know it or not. One of the music world’s most popular and enduring photographers, he’s captured images of everyone from Bob Marley to the Buzzcocks. His talent is in capturing those candid, on-the-fly moments, which reveal more about the subject that even they might be aware. However, when it comes to staging pictures, Boot seems to have a knack for finding the pose, backdrop and moment that is equally exposing.
For the uninitiated, Boot was born in London in 1947 and, after school, “hung round university as long as he could.” He headed to Jamaica in 1970, to work as a physics teacher. While out there, Boot started snapping pictures of up-and-coming musicians and capturing images of the seedier side of Jamaican life.
A diehard music fan, he returned to the UK as a freelance photographer, and was soon working for the likes of the NME, The Guardian, and The Times. Within a few short years, he found himself the staff photographer for Melody Maker magazine. Since then, he seems to have been present, camera in hand, for almost every important music event on the planet, from Roger Water’s Berlin Wall concert, to Live Aid and the Nelson Mandela concert, Freedom at 70. He’s produced countless collections of books and is still exhibited across the world.
But what is it that sets Adrian Boot apart from the crowd?
Regardless of its technical attributes, the key thing that makes a Boot photograph so special is its honesty.
While there might be plenty of other pictures of a particular band, many of them suffer from making the subjects look as though they’re being observed; as though the photographer is an outsider, looking in. Boot’s pictures give the impression that they’ve been taken by someone who’s part of the gang and part of that moment:
“Photography is not so much about cameras, film and the process; it’s about the interaction with people. It’s about having enough bottle to knock on the dressing-room door.”
Having enough bottle aside, the focus is on authenticity and creating the perception that the viewer is in on the act.
Speaking about how he does what he does, Boot said:
“it’s not just spontaneity” and having a camera to hand at the right time and the right place: “I record people and events – they already exist and if I’m lucky my presence doesn’t intrude too much”.
With his roots as a professional photographer very much mired in the punk scene, Boot was lucky enough to be asked to photograph up-and-coming bands of the time, such as The Clash and the Sex Pistols. While they might have been lauded as icons and demi-gods by their growing fan-bases, to the young photographer they were little more than “a bunch of kids from the local council estate trying to form a band and doing their own magazines.”
Being able to separate the subjects from their star-status gives Boot’s pictures a candid quality that’s hard to replicate. When asked if there were special moments or connections he had with any of his subjects on a shoot, he replied:
“I’m often asked what it was like shooting Bob Marley, or the Clash, etc. At the time it was just a photo session and they didn’t get famous until much later. So, for me, it’s like being asked what it was like photographing anyone.”
This guile-free attitude is evident in all his work: the subject feels as confident as the photographer and the result is something that doesn’t fall into the realms of hero-worship. What you see is what you get.
Back in the day, Boot’s photographic arsenal was, by contemporary standards, fairly basic. Favouring a Nikon camera, he opted for a fixed 200mm lens, and two wide-angle lenses: one a 28mm and one a 90mm. He also packed two Leica 45s and “an array of lenses, but they were useless for live concert photography. In fact, they were useless for most things except street photography and reasonably close-up stuff; they did have a telephoto lens, but it was a pile of junk.”
However, something else that appears to have helped Boot cement his own style is the scarcity of colour film in his early days as a photographer. While he has since gone on to use colour, the majority of his iconic photographs are in black and white. Consciously or otherwise, Boot seems to have an affinity with shadows, using them to accentuate the feel of a photo, from the dark and gritty pictures of the Buzzcocks, to the sleek and sultry images of Grace Jones. However, if you want to see how he works with colour, check out his images of the Sex Pistols in Oxford Street or the otherworldly shot of Peter Gabriel, taken in 1981. Music Poster is stocked with some of Boot’s best.
The key to his work seems to lie in the sharing of a moment between the subject, the photographer, and the viewer. He is on record as saying that he doesn’t consider himself as a studio photographer, believing that “studios are for stylists and art directors. Studios are where you create images to order. I much prefer real situations.”
Popular music has been well documented since the early 20th Century, with stars and artists immortalised on film. Boot’s pictures seem to add an extra dimension into the equation, removing the filter of adulation and allowing the viewer to see an aspect of their musical hero that they may not have seen before.
Having photographed the likes of Led Zeppelin, Blondie, and The Rolling Stones, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Boot might feel he’s an authority on the subject. However, the humility with which he approaches his subjects is evident in his pictures:
“Don’t forget, for a long time I just considered it to be a sabbatical. I thought that sooner or later I’d have to go back to teaching or get a proper job. I guess it was that that helped me through – the fact I didn’t really care gave me a bit of a cavalier approach. If I’d taken it too seriously, I wouldn’t have done what I did.”
However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Boot was once refused a photo shoot with Bunny Wailer, “on the basis that I was stealing his ghost”. While that might not have been entirely accurate, Boot’s ability to capture the essence of an artist is something many have tried to imitate, but few have succeeded.
Do you have a favourite image of Adrian Boot’s? With over 3,000 shoots up his sleeve, there’s sure to be one that you think needs to be talked about. Browse our collection of Adrian Boot images or drop us a line in the Comments and let us know which one ticks all the right boxes.