From Bob Dylan to Norman Schwarzkopf: A Conversation with Dylan's Official Photographer Ken Regan
Ken Regan has personally witnessed some of the most astounding events of the Twentieth Century. As a photojournalist for over forty years he has seen wars and famine overseas, he captured the instant that Muhammad Ali delivered a knockout blow to the seemingly unbeatable George Foreman in 1974 and forged a close personal relationship with the Kennedy family. He is perhaps best known, though, for serving as Bob Dylan's official photographer for more than thirty years, during which time he photographed some of the most iconic images of one of the most fascinating characters in rock and roll history. He lives in New York where he runs Camera 5, a photo agency.
Ken Regan is currently exhibiting a collection of pictures taken during Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour in the mid 1970's at Dublin's Gallery Number One. John Balfe caught up with him at the opening of this exhibition and discussed his career up to this point and the enigma that is Bob Dylan.
Images © Ken Regan/Camera 5
You began in the field of sports journalism. What led you to beginning there?
I was an athlete in school, I ran track. I also did high jumping and broke a couple of high school records as a freshman, and then I played on the football team. I was really enjoying track. I'd never really run before, except from the police!
That's the best way to learn!
It sure is! So I played football, I loved football but then I broke my nose the first year and then damaged my ankle. The track coach said to me, "listen, you have a really promising career as a track athlete and I can almost guarantee that I can get you a scholarship into college, but if you stay with football they're going to kill you. You're too small". So that sounded like a good idea to me! Anyway, when I was about eleven I was given a camera for my birthday and I used to go to a lot of sporting events. So I think a combination of that, taking the camera to basketball games and shooting pictures, or at a baseball game led to where I am now. Then I became the photographer at school.
How did that progress to shooting musicians, politicians, things like that?
Basically, I was lucky. I was shooting photographs at 16 years old for Sports Illustrated.
How does that happen, how did you get that opportunity?
My best friend's father worked for the New York Yankees and he got us seats next to the dugout, some of the best photography seats available. The Yankees were playing the Detroit Tigers and at about the fifth or sixth inning, a fight broke out! One of the fiercest fights I ever saw at a ball game. They were punching, kicking each other, swinging the bats. It went on for about ten minutes before the cops came out and broke everything up and I was shooting everything. About two innings later some guy comes down and taps me on the shoulder and asks who I'm working for. I told him it was for the school paper and he then asked me if I'd be willing to contribute these photographs to Sports Illustrated, who he worked for. So I asked "how much money is involved?" (laughs). He said he'd guarantee me $100 and cab fare to and from their offices. They wound up using four pictures across two pages and paid me another $200 and I decided that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
Do you remember the feeling of seeing your pictures in print for the first time?
Oh my God, yeah. It was amazing. And with my name on them too! So then I started pursuing sports because it was something that I was very interested in. Then I started working for Time and Newsweek and the sport magazines. I had just started with Newsweek actually and they called me up in July and asked if I was free in August to do The Olympics. Turns out the photographer they assigned to go there broke his leg and he couldn't go. This was the Olympics in '68.
You've covered a lot of things throughout the years, one of which was the 1972 Olympics in Munich, which is remembered for the massacre that took place there. Of everything that you've witnessed, what has affected you the most personally?
The time I spent in Ethiopia during the famine. I've done wars and murders and riots, I did a lot of work for Time and The Sunday Times Magazine in the 70's covering the Mafia, and growing up where I grew up (The Bronx) swimming in the Holland River we'd see floaters all the time, so I was used to seeing dead bodies. But the famine was incredible. The first week I was there I spent seven days in one of the camps and you'd see these poor starving children. There was a little child, maybe four or five beds away from where I was sleeping on the floor with a bloated stomach. I woke up in the morning and he was dead. In Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, there was warehouse upon warehouse, and I'm talking warehouses the size of football fields, filled with food. But they couldn't get it out to the camps. They tried to airlift it in, but there were riots. People got killed. Then they tried to send it out in convoys but the rebels would knock over the trucks and steal it. A year or two later I was the official photographer for Live Aid, which was great because all that money went to help the starving people in Sudan and Ethiopia.
Is there anything that you wish you hadn't seen? I can't imagine a much more harrowing scene than the one you just described with the starving Ethiopian boy.
I was in Kuwait, and I had been in the Desert Storm war for about four or five months. I got there just as the Iraqis were leaving, I was one of only maybe four or five journalists that managed to get in because they had locked down the border. The United States had put a ban on any kind of freestyle journalism; they were controlling everything both in text and print by creating their own press pool. When the Iraqis started to pull out they took the pool to the Kuwaiti border and locked them in an airport hanger for two days, but some of us got across the border. I met the leader of the Kuwaiti underground resistance, the son of one of the Sheikhs of Kuwait. I only met him because I had this beautiful reporter working with me (laughs). She was a knockout! So anyway, he said that he wanted to show us some things. He took us in his jeep to some of the homes where the Iraqis had tortured people. They were rounding up the bodies and just putting them in a dump truck, there must have been twenty or thirty of them. I got up on the back of the jeep to take a wide angle photograph, and I slipped and fell into all the bodies. I was freaking out. I got out and went straight to the hospital to get a tetanus shot. Later that afternoon, he (the resistance leader) said that he wanted to take me to the most horrific thing that he'd ever seen and we went to the road to Basrah where the Iraqis had been leaving. There was a cloud of smoke from the burning oil fields and you and I sitting here wouldn't be able to see each other, that's how thick it was. They were leaving with Ferraris, with Mercedes, with jewellery, they had pillaged the entire town in Kuwait. But a wind had come along and blew away their cover. The F-15s (U.S. Warplanes) were coming along and saw it. They bombed the back of it, and they bombed the front of it and then they dropped napalm all over these people. It was just an horrific scene. One of Colin Powell's assistants had found out we'd been up there and told Time Magazine that if they used these pictures they'd never get access to the White House ever again. Dan Rather and CNN got the same threat.
Are you able to threaten Time Magazine like that?
The Bush (senior) administration didn't give a sh*t. Colin Powell assembled about 1200 journalists a while before they entered the war and said that people are never going to see images like those in Vietnam ever again. They weren't going to allow it.
You also had a close association with the Kennedy family. What did you learn about them in the time you spent in their company?
My initial relationship with the Kennedy's started with Bobby. I was working for him as a volunteer. I started taking pictures. They were a little reluctant to have anybody around, but I got to know Ted really well. He became a good friend. I began photographing the campaign when Bobby was running for President in '68. I was working for Newsweek and was in Los Angeles with Bobby. The assigning editor called me back to New York saying that they didn't need any more photos of another primary. That was June 6th. I was on a plane when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. I got home and I was wiped out, I'd been working for two weeks straight. I was in the bathroom and I heard a report on the TV about the Kennedy assassination and I thought "why are they covering this five years on?", but it was Bobby. He died in the hospital and they then flew him back to New York. I was in the airport when the casket arrived. I was allowed, because of my relationship with the Kennedy family, not only into St. Patrick's Cathedral but I was one of only three photographers allowed on the train taking his body from New York to Arlington. That train ride should have taken about four hours, but ended up taking over eleven. Every time we pulled into a station there were thousands and thousands of people on the platforms crying. Two people got run over by the train and another got electrocuted.
Switching gears slightly, tell me about the exhibition you have here in Gallery Number One.
I love it. I feel so proud and so lucky. I've never done that many exhibitions because I've never had the interest or the time. About three years ago I was approached by a small publisher in New York and they wanted to re-release a book I did with Sam Sheppard about Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder tour. I didn't know why they wanted this. It was supposed to be a big coffee table book but Random House pulled the plug on the budget halfway through and shrunk it down so much that we tried to get our names taken off it. Thirty years later they wanted to put it out again and I really didn't know why. They said that copies of the book are selling on eBay for $500. I said "you're joking, I have six copies of it!" I then did an exhibition in the States which was quite successful and then another one on The Rolling Stones. Then I had a book come out last year called Knockout: The Art of Boxing, all the work I had done on boxing from Muhammad Ali to Mike Tyson and we did an exhibit of that, so this one in Dublin is only the fourth one that I've done.
Dylan, during the Rolling Thunder Revue in the mid seventies, that was one of his more eccentric phases with the fedora hats and the white face paint.
The most. That was when he opened up completely and came out of his shell and I had total access. I took 13,750 photographs of the tour.
You can get arthritis in your finger from doing that! What did you discover about Dylan's character during this time?
As we all know, he's very reclusive. He was my idol; I loved him and loved his music. He was like the Howard Hughes of folk songs. Let me step back a little... I had a call one night at about 3am. Time Magazine asked me to photograph the last week of the last leg of the tour he was doing with The Band. I had already had a couple of pictures of Bob published, just from being in the audience at his shows. But they knew I knew Bill Graham, who was promoting the tour. I called Bill to ask for help, but he said it was going to be a tough one. But a few days later Bill called and said that Bob had said I could come up for a few days. But he said don't get in his way, don't bother him and that I couldn't ask him to do anything. I was just to be a fly on the wall.
So I met Bob and we talked for a couple of minutes. He said that he knew my work but just to not get in his way. The thing that really bothered me was that I wasn't allowed backstage so I could only photograph the concert. So I was taking pictures of the audience to get their reaction, the screaming, the yelling, the crying, whatever it might be. And here in the third row was this elderly woman. She had a really interesting face but she looked really out of place. She was about forty years older than anyone else in the crowd. I just figured she was a music freak. I come back the second night and she's there again! So I photographed her a couple of times. The third night I was there, the last night of the tour, she was there once more! I took more and more pictures. She was sitting there with this big smile while all these kids were screaming and yelling around her. I asked Bill Graham if he'd noticed her. He goes "yeah, that's Bob's mother. Don't bother her, don't take any pictures of her". I'd taken about four dozen of her! He told me not to release them because I'd never be let within 500 yards of Bob ever again. I turned all my film in after they were processed, but I pulled out all the pictures of Bob's mother and didn't send them to Time.
Afterwards, I sent Bob some photographs through Bill Graham a couple of weeks later with a note along with a photograph of his mother in the audience. I told Bob that I saw this woman there and I didn't know how she was, but it was an interesting photograph. I told him that I didn't send the pictures to Time Magazine and that they were in a locked file in my office and thanked him again for allowing me to be there. There was no response from him at all, which really kind of bummed me out. About a year later I'm in bed one night with my girlfriend and the phone rings and it's Bill Graham's partner enquiring what I'm doing over the next three or four months. I was going to be here, there and everywhere. I had no idea. So Bill passes the phone to a guy called Lou Kemp, who I would later discover was Bob Dylan's boyhood friend. He tells me that they were putting together this tour called The Rolling Thunder and that Bob was going to headline it, along with an incredible bevy of people and that Bob would like to meet me and if I could bring him a sample of my work. Then Bob gets on the phone!
He was there the whole time?
Yeah! He apologised for calling so late and then told me that he had me in mind as one of three photographers they were looking at to photograph this tour. He then said "by the way, that note and the photographs you sent of my mother and the fact that you didn't release it was so touching and I really appreciate it". The next day I met with them and they hired me and I've been working with him for thirty years.
I recognise a lot of the shots you've taken of Dylan, various publicity shots and things like that, one of which was the album cover for Desire, which is my favourite album of his.
Mine too. It was my first Dylan album cover, that might have a little something to do with it!
Do you remember anything about that particular shoot? It's almost like he's smiling and I can't remember many others like that, except for the cover for Nashville Skyline.
I think we were up in Maine someplace. It was the first day he wore that coat and the colours and the jacket were so not Bob at that time. He wore black all the time up to that point and it just kind of stuck out. We had just been to Jack Kerouac's grave.
Oh, those pictures of Bob and Allen Ginsberg were taken there.
Yeah. The mood and the colour, everything was just right.
Do you think that jacket, and the change in his style that it signified, was a precursor to the pageantry that was to come during the Rolling Thunder tour?
Yes. He wore that jacket on several occasions. There's one of him wearing it in the exhibition, a black and white shot in the snow.
Yeah, that's on the inside cover of the Rolling Thunder album live album release isn't it?
Yeah it is.
Was Dylan a willing subject?
Well he'd always been reclusive but I had total access. I could walk into his dressing room at any given point and photograph anything he was doing. You were never allowed to photograph his kids though. He did actually allow one photographer many years ago to do this and this guy sold the pictures and Bob cut him out. I have a big locked file in my office, with a skull on it that says 'Do Not Enter' for pictures like this.
People have a very defined perception of Dylan. You've worked with him for thirty years and you're obviously a friend of his. How does the Bob Dylan you know compare to this public perception of him?
I just find him to be an extraordinary talent. He's a brilliant writer. He's a brilliant poet. You know, he's going to be 68 at the end of this month and he tours 200 days a year. He doesn't care if the audience is 600 people, 5000 people or 50,000 people. He just likes to play.
It just seems to be what he does, like he doesn't know anything else.
He asked me to come out to Telluride, Colorado a few years ago and I took pictures there. I had been travelling for a while at this point and I had maybe two hours sleep. I was fried. So I went to the hotel room to get some sleep. After a while I hear a knock at the door and it's Bob and he wanted me to go out with him to a bar that Butch and Sundance used to hang out in. I grabbed my camera and went out. It was a beautiful setting, outdoors with mountains in the background. Right after the concert that night we were told to pack up real quick because we had to get to Arizona. I was packing up and one of the roadies comes up to us and tells Bob that he's needed right away. I catch up with Bob a little while later and ask him what's going on. "You’re not going to believe this", he says. "Guess who's here?" There had been a rumour all day that Eric Clapton was going to play with him, so I asked him if it was Clapton. Bob just smiled and said "No. Norman Schwarzkopf."
He was sitting out in the audience and he asked someone if he could come backstage and meet him. Bob turns to Suzie, his assistant, and says "get my best hat!" So Schwarzkopf comes out and here are two icons from totally opposite ends of the world and he's going on and on about how he loves the music. "Bob", he says, "I just want to say something to you. The Times They Are A-Changin' was the most prolific song that was written in the 20th Century". I almost fell over dead. I took all these pictures of Bob and Norman together. We've never released them.
Then, just like that, he was gone - whisked away by his PR people to rejoin the masses of people looking for a moment of his time. What was originally intended to be a five minute interview had snowballed into a sprawling thirty-five minute conversation, most of which is reproduced verbatim above. In speaking to the man, you really get the sense of why it is that people like Bob Dylan, Ted Kennedy and Mick Jagger felt so at ease in his presence. He's a likeable man, an easy going man with a keen eye and a sharp sense of humour and possessor of the all the necessary traits required of a photographer whose duty it is to chronicle some of the most important and sobering events of our lifetimes.
Bob Dylan's The Rolling Thunder Revue by Ken Regan is showing in Dublin's Gallery Number One until 1st July 2009.
All images credited to Ken Regan/Camera 5 except Desire album cover credited to Ken Regan/Camera 5/Columbia Records.
john @ entertainment.ie
Story by EI Team | 09:00 | Friday 8th May 2009 | Other