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Interview: Former NME photographer Alec Byrne on the pictures that speak a thousand words

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He worked for NME and Melody Maker and photographed the biggest rock and roll stars the world had to offer in the 1960s and 70s. We spoke to Alec Byrne about his new exhibition, London Rock: The Unseen Archive, and an iconic decade with photos that truly speak a thousand words.

In the MTV generation, it can be easy to forget how much of a key roll photography played in the rock and roll era of the 60s and 70s. Quick iPhone pictures really hold no comparison to the unique negative taken of a once-in-a-moment snapshot of time. This could not be more true than for the new exhibition of Alec Byrne, London Rock: The Unseen Archive; a collection of the incredible rock and roll stars, which shaped generations for years to come.

To begin with, I asked Alec how he got into the photography industry. 

'I got a job when I was 16 years old for an agency in Fleet Street as a dispatch rider, which sounded very glamorous at the time. All I was doing was racing to news events, collecting film from photographers and bringing them back to be developed. I used to hang out with the dark room guys, which is where I saw my first photo come up in photo dish; when the first image comes up its like 'wow'. I was hooked.

'I got a camera and started to shoot some bands, I was a young kid and a fan of these rock and roll concerts, I sent to my photographs to music papers, like NME & Melody Maker. And that’s how I got into photography.'

To not only see the rock and roll 60s and 70s - which is such an iconic time in itself - first hand, but to actually capture it on film, Alec summed up in one word: 'unbelievable'.

What was your favourite photograph to take, or what was the most memorable shoot you experienced?

'It’s a hard one to choose a favourite but the only date that’s ever stuck in my head was 4th May 1967. It was the day after my eighteenth birthday and I was shooting at Top of the Pops when Jimi Hendrix was performing – I had heard he was going to be there and I knew I had to go.

'I was standing backstage and could see someone standing watching the show, it wasn’t until Hendrix came out and went over to speak with him that I realised it was Mick Jagger. I went over and said, ‘Can I take a picture of you?’.

'It was their first picture ever taken together and I only took the one. The first time I ever saw the photograph was five years ago and it was remarkable.'

Your work remained hidden for such a long period of time [four decades], what was it that made 2012 the right time for you to reveal the photos?

'I got out of rock and roll photography when the punk scene took over, I shot a few concerts and it just wasn't the same, so I decided to start photographing in Hollywood. For years my negatives lay undeveloped in storage boxes.

'It wasn't until years later when I met Drew McLean and he was in my office admiring a photograph of the Beatles which I'd taken. When I told him where the negatives were he begged to get them developed and I eventually let him. I headed off on holiday and came back to Drew setting up the One Night Only exhibition in LA, putting my pictures on display for the first time in decades. 

'It was a one night show with 30 images and 1000 people turned up.

'To see how emotional people got from the pictures was amazing, hearing things like "Oh I was at that Led Zepplin concert all those years ago, I remember being in that crowd."' 

Photography is obviously so different to back then and a lot of that would have to do with social media. Do you think things like this have ruined photography of musicians and the whole industry?

'Oh yes definitely. Now it's all about contracts - to photograph Taylor Swift you need to sign so many contracts to even get to do so, and then she owns the photographs! Every image I've took is my own, a treasure trove that belongs to me.

'Everything is so different now, not like it was back then. I'll always remember photographing David Bowie; he wanted to meet in a park near his home. He arrived alone; no entourage, as basic as you could picture it. We were both London boys, we had plenty to chat about and we just walked around the park and talked and then I photographed him.  Nothing like that would ever happen now.'

Visit Alec Byrne's exhibition at London's Proud Gallery until January 28th, and order London Rock: The Unseen Archive on Amazon here.

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