Gered Mankowitz initially felt his first photo session with Jimi Hendrix was a failure. Now one of the images he shot is an iconic rock portrait, writes David Clark
Image: Jimi Hendrix, Mason’s Yard, London, 1967. Photograph by Gered Mankowitz © Bowstir Ltd. 2012/Mankowitz.com
Jimi Hendrix was one of the great rock stars of the 1960s, a gifted singer-songwriter with charismatic stage presence and a groundbreaking approach to playing the electric guitar. However, when the 24-year-old Hendrix walked into Gered Mankowitz’s photographic studio in February 1967, his brief but meteoric career had barely begun.
The Seattle-born musician had arrived in London in September 1966 with his new manager, the former Animals bass player Chas Chandler. Chandler soon teamed him up with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience. By February 1967, the band had released a single, ‘Hey Joe’, which peaked at number six in the charts.
Mankowitz, although just 20 at the time, was already established as a music photographer with his own studio in Mason’s Yard in London’s West End. He had shot album covers including the Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons and had toured America with the Stones two years before.
Three months earlier, Chandler had arranged for Hendrix to perform for members of the press and music industry representatives at the Bag o’ Nails club in London. Mankowitz was introduced to Hendrix at the club and soon afterwards arrangements were made for him to shoot a photo session with the band.
‘At that time,’ Mankowitz recalls, ‘Jimi hadn’t consolidated any sort of success, although we all thought he was absolutely phenomenal and extraordinary-looking. Although he was wild and extrovert on stage, off stage he was rather sweet and modest, and funny in a quiet and self-effacing way. He was a very charming, polite and laid-back person to be with.
‘My brief was to create a photograph that created a defining image of Jimi at that moment; one that could be used to put on a single or sheet music cover, poster or advert.’
For the shoot, Mankowitz used a Hasselblad 500C medium-format camera with a 50mm lens (roughly equivalent to a 28mm lens on a 35mm camera). He was using black & white film. The first part of the shoot was done using a white background (see contact sheet) but Mankowitz soon changed it to grey.
Contact sheet of the first roll of film in the Jimi Hendrix shoot. Photograph by Gered Mankowitz © Bowstir Ltd. 2012/Mankowitz.com
The initial shots in the session showed all three band members. Mankowitz recalls that Mitch Mitchell had a sweet and boyish face, and the others kept laughing when he tried to look mean and sexy. During this part of the shoot, Hendrix wore a vintage Hussars military jacket with various additions of his own. The jacket had been bought from a shop in Portobello Road named I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet.
‘Jimi took to the fashion of the time like a duck to water,’ says Mankowitz. ‘Everything that was current at that moment just looked as though it had been created for him. He just threw it together and it looked fabulous.’
The first 11 images of the shoot showed the band in various formations, but the last frame on the roll shows Hendrix alone. Mankowitz was shooting slightly above eye-level and Hendrix was facing the camera with his hands on his hips. Its impact comes from the simplicity and directness of the image, together with Hendrix’s powerful appearance and the symmetry of the pose. Mankowitz’s choice of lens was also a factor in the picture’s success.
‘I loved using the 50mm lens because it gives you that marvellous perspective without appearing to be distorted,’ he says. ‘In this shot it pushes the hips back and makes him look a little narrower. I wasn’t overly conscious of cropping the head, because I was very focused on the eyes and trying to draw the viewer into the subject’s face. I felt that just cropping the top of the head made the image more dynamic.’
This was the only frame from the entire shoot that showed Hendrix by himself against a white background. ‘Either I was super-confident and felt that I’d got the shot I wanted in one frame, or I was just incredibly lucky,’ he says.
However, his initial feelings about the portrait session were not positive. ‘Although my pictures had a considerable amount of use during the “Hey Joe” period and the build-up to the first album, I didn’t feel they were a huge success,’ he says.
Image: Gered Mankowitz, photographed by University College Falmouth Students
‘I was hoping that one of the pictures would be on the cover of the band’s first album [Are You Experienced, released in May 1967]. However, because I was pig-headed and opinionated enough to want to do my session in black & white, because I thought it was a more dignified and serious format in which to present him, I didn’t shoot any colour. And when it came down to the cover, the record company insisted that they have a colour photograph.
‘So although he was lovely and looked fantastic and I was thrilled to work with him, in an odd way I felt a bit of a failure over that session because the band went on to shoot the cover with another photographer.’
Mankowitz photographed the band again six weeks later because Redding and Mitchell had permed their hair and Chas Chandler wanted updated pictures. Hendrix’s appearance had also undergone some refinement. ‘He had already begun to lose that wild, untamed and rather unsophisticated look,’ he says. ‘The clothes were all made for him and they’d lost that fantastic spontaneity. So I was privileged to photograph him before he changed. He was at his best in the first session.’
Hendrix went on to have worldwide success with songs including ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘The Wind Cries Mary’. However, his life was brought to a tragically premature end when he died as the result of a drugs overdose in September 1970.
Mankowitz went on to have a successful photographic career specialising in portraits of rock stars, but the Hendrix portrait remains his favourite. ‘I love it,’ he says. ‘I’m very proud of it. It has a life of its own and consequently it’s become my signature image. Looking at it today, I feel terribly lucky to have had the opportunity to take an image that has become so famous.’
Books & Websites
Books: Mankowitz’s book on his Jimi Hendrix portrait sessions, The Experience: Jimi Hendrix at Mason’s Yard, is available from www.insighteditions.com. His recent book on the Rolling Stones, Rolling Stones: One on One, is also available from the same website.
Websites: Gered Mankowitz’s official website, www.mankowitz.com, includes a range of his work, including more images from the Jimi Hendrix sessions. A video of Mankowitz talking about photographing Hendrix can be seen on www.youtube.com.
Events of 1967
- 14 April: In San Francisco, more than 10,000 people march in protest against American involvement in the Vietnam War
- 28 April: World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali refuses to take part in military service in Vietnam. He is stripped of his title and is refused a licence to box in the US for three years
- 28 May: Sir Francis Chichester arrives in Plymouth after becoming the first person to sail around the world single-handed by the clipper route, in his yacht, Gipsy Moth IV
- 1 June: The Beatles release their landmark album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It remains at the top of the album charts through what has become known as the ‘Summer of Love’
- 25 June: The first live international satellite TV programme, Our World, is broadcast to around 400 million viewers. It includes a live performance by The Beatles singing ‘All You Need is Love’
- 30 September: Official launch date for BBC radio stations Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3 and Radio 4
- 18 October: Anti-Vietnam War demonstrations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison result in 76 people being injured
- 3 December: Cardiac surgeon Christiaan Barnard carries out the world’s first human-to-human heart transplant in Cape Town, South Africa