The Who? Led Zeppelin? I'd rather photograph trees

For the best part of 35 years, Ross Halfin has been the king of rock photography, taking iconic images of some of the world’s biggest bands. But the thrill is not what it was - what really inspires him these days is landscapes.

By Jonathan Wingate, August 25, 2011
Halfin (right) with guitarist Jimmy Page

Halfin (right) with guitarist Jimmy Page

'The terrible thing about digital cameras is that they make everyone think they're a photographer," says Ross Halfin almost as soon as we have sat down in a dark corner his favourite Japanese restaurant in Soho. "It's the same as someone having a laptop and assuming that they are a writer. It's a ridiculous idea, isn't it? Although I do use digital occasionally, I think the idea of photography as art has been totally devalued in the digital age. Photography takes years to master, if you're actually destined to do it for living."

Halfin had no idea that he was destined to become a photographer until he dropped out of Wimbledon School of Art, where he was studying as a painter. Disillusioned with the school's preoccupation with Modernism, he started shooting pictures of groups like Led Zeppelin and The Who.

"I actually enjoyed painting, but all of the tutors had this holier than thou attitude towards modern art. They concluded that I was ignorant because I refused to accept modern art. It all seemed to be about things like that Warhol movie where he filmed the Empire State Building for 24 hours and expected people to watch it, and I was like: 'Please tell me where this is art?' I originally really wanted to go to art school, but when I actually got there, I found it extremely disappointing.

"I always used to look at pictures in magazines and go: 'I could do better than that," Halfin continues, shovelling a forkful of soba noodles into his mouth. "I queued up for 11 hours to get tickets for The Who in 1975, and I remember this really snobby lecturer saying to me: 'What's more important? Going to see this pop group or going to your drawing class?' I told him that seeing The Who was far more important to me, and I made a conscious decision to give up painting for photography. I got a job working in a guitar shop, and in the evenings I'd take my camera to shows and I started selling pictures to the music papers, although the money was terrible."

In 1980, Halfin became chief photographer of music magazine Kerrang! and spent the next 20 years shooting iconic pictures of the biggest rock bands in the world, capturing the essence of everyone from Iron Maiden to Metallica, whose lead singer - James Hetfield - calls him "the best rock photographer of all time".

American glam metal band, Kiss

American glam metal band, Kiss

"For me, an iconic photograph is one that looks like it was taken yesterday, even if it was actually shot 25 years ago," says Halfin. "Some of the pictures I've done of artists like The Who, Phil Lynott, Keith Richards and Led Zeppelin have that quality about them. You really just know instinctively which shots are going to be good, but you certainly don't know they will become iconic when you're actually shooting them.

"You can see a tangible difference in the pictures when a photographer has a good relationship with an artist, but relationships can crash very quickly in this business because they're all so egotistical. You can certainly have a good time with the artists, but very few of them are your friends. They really just want you to do the job."

Did he live a very hedonistic lifestyle in the '70s and '80s? "Oh, I was quite a bad boy, but then you just sort of grow out of it," he shrugs. "You'd always see these drunk middle-aged men in the pub and think: 'I wish that idiot would go away'. Then eventually you realise that you've turned into him.

"You can get a buzz out of taking photographs the same way you can doing drugs. I certainly don't get it all the time, but I still get that buzz now and again."

Although it would be a huge understatement to say that Halfin's life in rock 'n' roll has been what you might call interesting, his own family sounds almost as extraordinary as the stars he has been shooting for the past 35 years: "Yeah, you could certainly say that my family background is pretty colourful. My dad - Lazarus - was a Russian Jew who worked as an actor before becoming a music publisher. He wrote a song called I'm A Pink Toothbrush, which was number one for Max Bygraves in 1957. My uncle Dennis was a commando who was captured by the Nazis in Crete during World War II. Because he was Jewish, he threw away his ID and said he was Canadian and then spent four years as a prisoner of war in Colditz."

Halfin may be more in demand than ever in the music world, but these days he is far happier shooting landscape photography and is about to publish Sojourner, a limited edition collection of his travel pictures. "This book will make people aware of Ross's other side," explains Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page in his introduction to the book. "He's a damn fine photographer."

"I suppose the main difference between travel and music photography is that with landscape stuff, the subject matter is always happy that you're there," Halfin says with a wry smile.

"Also, a tree isn't going to shout at you and it doesn't have 10 people around it screaming: 'We've got to wrap this up right now, mate'.

"I hope my travel pictures make you stop and think, because that's what music originally made me do. You want to transport people. Most of the travel photographs in the book were taken in the last 10 years, so my big regret is not paying attention to it all while I was travelling around the world with these bands when I first started. Artistically speaking, if I could make a living shooting landscape photography, I would never shoot another rock photo."

'Sojourner: Ross Halfin Travels', the signed limited edition book of 650 copies worldwide is available in two bindings from Genesis Publications; Tel. 01483 540970 or visit; price £145 and £325

Last updated: 11:56am, August 25 2011