Chicago’s premier rock and roll photographer talks about 37 years of incredible access to The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Bonnie Raitt, The Who, and everybody who’s anybody in popular music. On the eve of a new, interactive exhibit of his photos at the Elmhurst Historical Museum, we visited Paul Natkin in his home studio and on assignment shooting the Chicago Blues Fest. We revisit the story on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. View a photo gallery of Natkin's work.
Shutter to Think: The Rock & Roll Lens of Paul Natkin exhibit tells the stories behind many of Natkin’s photos of rock icons. The exhibit has been open since May, and a mini-exhibit of Natkin's photos of Disco Demolition Night, including some of Steve Dahl's personal memorabilia, opened in July. We spoke with Lance Tawzer, Curator of Exhibits at the museum, to learn more about the exhibit.
It’s been extremely positive and people are coming in with their kids, because a lot of the artists, like Bruce Springsteen, have been around for a long time, so there’s a lot of cross-generational communication going on. With history exhibits, it doesn’t always hit both, and this one does.
People make a connection with Paul because he’s a very down-to-earth, working class kind of fellow. He had to scratch and claw and do whatever he could to make money doing what he loved, and he was able to do that. I think people connect with the way he’s very matter-of-fact. He doesn’t glorify rubbing elbows with rock stars. People are really interested in seeing his images and hearing the stories behind them.
Why did you decide to feature Paul Natkin?
It’s tough to make cultural history fun and accessible, so we thought this would be an opportunity to tell the story of someone from our community who has had a really interesting career and rubbed shoulders with a lot of interesting people who are a part of our cultural consciousness.
In a nutshell, we chose to highlight Paul because I think he represents what’s great about the Chicago area. He’s a regular, working class guy who learned his trade from his father. He exemplifies the struggle that we all kind of face, and people really relate to him. In many cases history museums look for people who are long gone so the legend can be told, but we saw this as an opportunity to highlight someone who is still around but has had an impactful career.
For the exhibit, we chose 15 major themes that kind of cover the arc of his career. Some of the highlights are the video interviews that coincide with the imagery. In most cases, he’s there telling the story himself on a television screen that is next to the image. We blew up some of the iconic images really large, like one of Pete Townshend that’s 10 feet tall.
He’s done everything from John Mayer to Buddy Guy. The exhibit is a mixture of all his work, including album covers and publication covers, divided by subjects. There’s also a light-up trivia element, and a nice video piece on his tour with the Rolling Stones. There are some artifacts too, like a camera that his father used. We try to really cover all aspects of his career.
What’s your favorite part of the exhibit?
I would say the section where we talk about how his career amplified and moved up in June of 1984. It starts with Prince, then Bruce Springsteen, and then the Jackson 5 victory tour.
My favorite photo in the exhibit is the one he shot with Randy Rhoads on Ozzy Osbourne’s shoulder. It was taken here in Chicago in 1982. Randy passed away soon after the shot was taken and it’s basically his most requested photo. I like the photo’s story. It’s one of those situations where he was talked into sticking around and it really paid off for him. He would have rather gone home and watched the Super Bowl, so that photo shows that any moment you shoot can be important, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time.
You teamed up with Tribeca Flashpoint Academy to create the exhibit. How do the interactive elements of the exhibit enhance the experience?
They did this wonderful treatment to the video interviews with Paul. He would tell the story, and they would amplify it by using images and interesting treatments and effects.
That’s just fun. It’s a great picture Paul took of Keith Richards. It’s an opportunity to make your own rock and roll magazine cover. You can grab a microphone and strike your best pose next to Keith Richards.
Paul Natkin is Chicago’s premier rock and roll photographer. What are some of the most unique characteristics of his work?
I would say he captures a live performance better than most. And he’s mastered the ability to recognize the decisive moments. One of the things he always tried to do was recognize and capture a decisive moment. His younger colleagues will shoot thousands of images, and he’ll shoot a couple hundred. He captures the drama and passion of performers. He also talks about how he’s not a very tall guy, so he has utilized his height to his advantage.
Award-winning Chicago Sun-Times writer Dave Hoekstra wrote the narrative for the exhibit. How did his contribution help bring the story to life?
I would say what he brought to the table was the ability to organize and chronicle it the way a good newspaper man should. We were looking for stories that were sort of milestones, and Dave was good at getting them out of Paul, identifying their significance, and getting the major points outlined. He’s known him since 1981 so Paul trusted him, and I think there was a real benefit there.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Paul Natkin talks about shooting photos at Prince’s birthday in 1984 in the following web extra video:
Shutter to Think: The Rock & Roll Lens of Paul Natkin is open through August 25 at the Elmhurst Historical Museum, located at 120 E. Park Ave. in Elmhurst.