Picturing Music History with Photographer Paul Natkin

Whether touring with the Rolling Stones or taking photos of Ella Fitzgerald here at WTTW, photographer Paul Natkin has snapped many a memorable image of music giants.

Rock, reggae, jazz, folk, R&B – he’s captured it all. Producer Marc Vitali caught up with Natkin, and he shared stories and pictures worth many thousands of words.

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“When I was starting out, I made this conscious decision from the beginning that I wasn’t just going to shoot the bands that I liked and the music that I liked. If I did that I’d be shooting pics of John Prine and Steve Goodman all day long, but I figured I’ve got to be well-rounded and I’ve got to shoot everything,” Natkin said. “So I made friends with the promoters and I’d go to a concert every night. I would go to a thrash metal concert one night and the next night I’d go and shoot Rodney Dangerfield.”

WTTW met Natkin in his home studio and combed through nearly 50 years of archives. Some work ended up on magazine covers – other pictures fill the first book dedicated to his photography.

“I like to shoot anybody that puts on a show, anybody that jumps around, even if I don’t like them as people — which I do like most of the people that I photograph — but I will shoot the Rolling Stones any time they’re in town,” he said. “Buddy Guy I worked with for over 40 years.”

In 1983, he snapped one of his most recognized photos.

“I took a picture of Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhodes back in 1983,” Natkin said. “People tell me it’s the most famous heavy metal picture ever taken.”

That image even ended up on a limited edition snowboard.

“These guys are not like aliens,” he said. “They’re normal human beings that just happen to have some kind of talent that propels them to a stage, and they like to have fun too.”

VIDEO: Photographer Paul Natkin toured with the Rolling Stones in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Here, he tells the story of playing pool with Keith Richard and other famous friends.

Even with exceptional access, some pictures are tough to get – including one specific photo of Miles Davis.

“He played the whole show with his back to the audience,” Natkin recalled. “And I kneeled on the hardwood floor at Park West and stayed for two hours until he turned around to leave and waved to the audience, and I took one picture.”

The music industry has drastically changed in the nearly 50 years he’s been on the job.

“I don’t shoot much anymore. Back 10 years ago, I shot 200 bands in a year,” he said. “The year before the pandemic I shot eight. And it’s because bands and managers and publicists don’t want to be photographed anymore. They want their friends to take pictures with their iPhones. And they all have the same answer when I ask them why — they say ‘Because you guys make too much money off of us.’”

Natkin said that is very much a misconception.

“If they ever looked at my sales report from the agency that represents me, they’d just start laughing, because more than half the pictures that they license of mine, my share of the sale is under $2, but they just look at me with all my expensive equipment and think ‘This guy must be making a fortune,’” he said. “So they restrict how much I can shoot, they restrict where I can shoot from, and they restrict who I can sell the pictures to.”

And while Natkin celebrates his book release, he’s not sure where his archive of music history will end up.

“I haven’t quite figured that out yet,” he said. “They’ll probably go to a museum or an art department in a college somewhere. Who knows?”

The book, “Natkin: The Moment of Truth,” features more music industry stories – including the time he was shooting pool with the Rolling Stones and photographing Prince on his 26th birthday. You can also see more of his photographs.

VIDEO: Paul Natkin’s big break came in June 1984, when he was invited to photograph Prince’s 26th birthday in Minneapolis. Here he tells how that assignment turned into work photographing Bruce Springsteen and the Jacksons.

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