Shooting Iggy and Sir Paul

Howard Barlow has spent 20 years photographing rock icons.

By Debby Elley, March 12, 2009
Barlow braved being crushed by fans to get this shot of punk band The Ramones.

Barlow braved being crushed by fans to get this shot of punk band The Ramones.

It was clear from the start that Howard Barlow was going to need some serious resilience to pull off a career as a rock photographer. The year was 1977 and the 23-year-old art college graduate was in the pit at Manchester’s Apollo theatre, clicking away at The Ramones. A wild, testosterone-fuelled crowd surged forward and smashed through the barrier separating stage from audience.

The upshot was a sweaty pile of punk rock fans on top of him. “The stage was damaged,” he recalls. “The band were playing on and the bouncers came out with planks, nails and hammers and started putting the stage back together. I was still taking photos with people climbing all over me.”

The resulting shot of The Ramones, featured at his Rock Icons exhibition in Manchester, became one of the best-selling photos of his career. It has been used for the front cover of a re-mastered live Ramones album.

During Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life tour the same year, Barlow captured the star as he threw a flamboyant pose while tiptoeing on a chair at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall. “The next minute, he got off the chair and threw it at me,” the photographer recalls. “It just missed.”

He maintains that Iggy — now enjoying a new lease of fame in car insurance advertisements — was worth it. “Every shot I took of him could have been in this exhibition, because of his stage presence and his theatrical poses. He was just fantastic to photograph.”

Barlow was born in Solihull in the West Midlands but has spent most of his life in Cheshire — he and his wife Kerry are members of Manchester’s Menorah Reform Synagogue. Over the past 20 years his work has appeared regularly in national newspapers.

Barlow’s three children, now in their twenties, have become used to celebrity, having accompanied their father on assignments from a young age. Even Paul McCartney was a slight disappointment to Barlow’s daughter, Sarah, when they met six years ago — she had turned up at the shoot hoping to meet his fashion designer daughter, Stella.

This was not the first time that Barlow had photographed McCartney. The exhibition, which includes his images of Queen, David Bowie, Debbie Harry and Morrissey, features a publicity shot of Wings — the group McCartney formed after the break-up of The Beatles — taken aboard the Mersey ferry in 1979, with the Liver buildings visible in the distance.

“There were all these journalists from around the world, and Paul McCartney spent most of the time talking to a tea-lady,” says Barlow. “I spent a lot of time talking to [McCartney’s Jewish wife] Linda about photography, because her family, the Eastmans, were closely connected with Kodak. She wasn’t at all affected by fame, nor was Paul.”

Barlow believes the key to a good rock photo is a successful combination of opportunism and vision. “I think the secret is creating it in the first place to look natural,” he says. “It has that spontaneity to it, and yet you’ve created that moment.”

This approach was critical in capturing a unique image of the Eleanor Rigby sculpture — inspired by the Beatle’s eponymous song — unveiled in Liverpool in 1982. As the throng of photographers snapped the lonely figure, Barlow got wind of the news that Father McKenzie, the very same clergyman mentioned in the song, was present in the crowd, along with John Lennon’s Uncle Charlie. “I kept it quiet and waited until the pack had disappeared. Then I set up the shot [of them by the sculpture]. I like that one particularly, because Father McKenzie’s a classic figure in Beatles history.”

Rock Icons: the Troubadour Gallery, Manchester M21 until April 11. Details at or 0161 718 9174

Last updated: 11:24am, March 26 2009