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Photography and folk music: Roger Liptrot's life in focus

The power of photography is well known.
From the Northern Echo's curmudgeonly old Bill Oliver, with his huge box camera, to the brilliant men and women who capture war, humanity and style on film, probably every photographer I have worked with regards us reporters as mere caption writers. A good picture is worth 1,000 words, they'll say. Even my friend and fellow-reporter Bill Taylor calls himself 'a journalist by profession but a photographer by choice'.
All journalism looks better if text is accompanied by strong images. Salut! Live  may be a  marginal music site but is no different in that respect.
When things goes to plan, and the photos have not been supplied by the artists or borrowed from Wikipedia Commons, you can usually find I have credited Roger Liptrot or his site,
With great kindness, Roger allows me to dip into his vast archive for images to illustrate this site. I invited him to share his thoughts on a lifetime of photographing musicians ...

Tift-MerrittTift Merritt: a photographer's dream opportunity (see below)

Can you explain how you first became interested in photography?

By fluke. I was given a Kodak Instamatic camera as a birthday present in my early 20s, it was a small pocket camera with a cartridge containing the film. The results seemed good at the time but then I took it with me to Wembley Stadium in 1974 to takes some photos of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the Band and Joni Mitchell.
While there I saw a guy sitting in the crowd with a camera on a tripod and a massive lens attached to it. I asked him if I could have a look through it and found that I could make out the strings on Neil Young’s guitar.
When I got my photos back, the artists were dots on the horizon and not even sharp. So the week after I treated myself to a 2nd hand Zenit B Camera and a telephoto lens for £35, which seemed a fortune to me at the time, and started taking better quality photos.
Fast forward to 1976 and I won a weekend ticket for the first July Wakes Festival at Chorley in a Manchester Evening News newspaper competition. It was meant to be the North West’s answer to Cambridge but only lasted for two years.
I bought some films and set off along with tent and camera. The guests included the McGarrigles (first UK visit), 5 Hand Reel, Fairport Convention, John Prine, with special guest Steve Goodman, Otway & Barrett, Jack the Lad, the Chieftains and more providing some great sets and some terrific opportunities for my first taste of taking live music photos.

Why folk musicians? A meeting of two passions? Which other genres have you photographed a lot?

Although I enjoy many different genres of music, the first concert that I attended was Creedence Clearwater Revival at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall and I have also seen the Stones, Led Zeppelin, Lou Reed, Family, Streetwalkers, Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen with various bands and solo at Manchester Apollo plus plenty more non-folk.
My love for folk music started on first hearing Bob Dylan’s Desolation Row while I was at school.
My classmates were all into the Stones and Beatles but I was knocked out by Dylan’s use of words compared to other songwriting at the time (1965). I also became aware of his influences such as the Clancy Brothers and Martin Carthy and, as the years progressed, I discovered other singer songwriters such as Tom Paxton, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Harry Chapin, Loudon Wainwright and Bruce Springsteen.

Unthanks14 Becky and Rachel Unthank: thumbnails of two of my favourite Roger Liptrot pictures, the only ones in this piece not chosen by him

Initially I took the photos for myself. This was long before days of the internet and although there were music magazines around such as NME, Sounds and Melody Maker. their coverage of folk was limited to the odd article with few, if any. photos of the musicians themselves and hardly any of my local ones from the North West of England.
By taking the photos I built up my own diary of some the shows and folk clubs that I had attended. The the introduction of the internet allowed me to share them with a larger audience.
I always enjoyed the music however, so if the room was too dark, I would never use flash as I thought it was annoying for most artists and audience alike. Or if the music was quieter then I always put my camera to one side and would just enjoy the music. I think I’d describe myself as a music lover with a camera as opposed to a music photographer.
Apart from taking photos of musicians it’s been mainly photos and portraits of family and friends.
For a few years in the early 2000s I was asked by a local professional photographer, who’d seen my work, if I’d ever considered wedding photography and for the next few years, until the emergence of digital photography I took wedding photos with her at weekends.
It was the most rewarding, whilst at the same time the most stressful work I’d ever done, with one chance to get it right and so many things that you don’t have control of what's happening.
Also I was using roll film that gave you 12 exposures before you had to replace it. This taught you to concentrate on quality not quantity, something that I try to remember in these days of digital cameras and the ability to take hundreds of pictures at a time.

Was it difficult to get access you needed at gigs?

Not really as in the early days for most of them I would have paid to see the performance or it was friends that were performing.
Then, in 1997, I signed on an evening course at a local college for website building. We were asked to think of a subject for a site and for me it was a no brainer, two galleries of photos of local folk musicians along with some text, relevant links etc, I passed the course collected my certificate and my folkimages site was born.
Over the years it just got bigger as more photos were added along with more informative pages after suggestions were received from visitors to my site.
In the early days a search for “folk music” on Google had me as the number one result. But as the years passed I continued to use the same template, as the site had too many photos to start again, more and more folk sites appeared online and my ranking plummeted.
People still seemed to find me when looking for photos of artists or by word of mouth and a number of artists and magazines also found me and began to use my photos which, in turn, gave me access to more gigs to allow me to take photos.

The photos you’re most proud of?

An interesting question as I don’t really look at them with pride, seeing more the stories behind them.
Some examples would be:

Kate&ChaimKate McGarrigle and Chaim Tannenbaum

• A number of those taken at the 1976 July Wakes Festival at Chorley have proved most popular for re-use. I was asked by Dane Lanken for copies of those of Kate and Anna McGarrigle, as it was their first appearance in the UK and he wanted to include them in his book Songs and Stories. Sadly, the promised copy of the book never appeared and it’s now out of print so I just hope they did.
Another photo of them was included in Kiri Lake’s There Will Be Rainbows: A Biography of Rufus Wainwright which I did receive a copy of, whilst one of John Prine and Steve Goodman appeared in Steve Goodman: Facing The Music, by Clay Eals. Then, in 2016, I was contacted by Chaim Tannenbaum, who’d played with Kate and Anna at Chorley. He was releasing his first solo CD after 50 years of performing and wanted to use a photo of him and Kate taken there as part of the cover.
I found it great that a photo I took in 1976 was being used 40 years later and it was good to meet up with him Hebden Bridge Trades Club, supporting and playing with Loudon Wainwright, to have a chat and receive a signed copy of the CD.
• The photo of Stonewall was taken in 1994 for a publicity poster for the band. I’d met their singer Peter Belsten at a Singers’ Night at a local folk club and we’d become friends. So when he needed some photos he gave me a call and we visited a number of locations in the Rochdale area to shoot them. I love the one taken at the gates of the Church of St Mary in the Baum in the town centre that was eventually chosen for the poster. When I look at that photo now I remember the day and the various places we visited.


• I love the photo of Steve Ritchie and Al Parish, two more friends of mine, playing in Tanglefoot which was taken at New Brighton in 2005 and reflects their sheer joy while performing. At the same show I also took a photo of Al that he loved and used for the cover of his solo CD Propensity for Joy

Steve-Ritchie&Al-ParishSteve Ritchie and Al Parish

• I bought a ticket for Tift Merritt’s UK debut tour at Manchester's Star & Garter in July 2002, saw her promoter at the gig and asked for permission to take photos receiving the standard “First three numbers only and No use of flash” reply.
But when I saw the stage was lit by a solitary light bulb and you could hardly see Tift let alone take a photo without using flash, I hung the camera by my side and started to enjoy the show. then she suddenly bent down under the bulb to tune the guitar, I grabbed the camera and took three shots using the available light. I was so pleased with one of them that I sent her a copy. On another tour she told me how much she liked it and that an American artist had used it to produce a tour poster based on it for her.
• Another time I was taking photos of Dave Swarbrick and Martin Carthy when a gentleman introduced himself to me as Lars Kjaedegaard, a Danish musician and good friend of Swarb. He asked me if I would take a photo of the pair of them for him. I obliged, sent a copy and received a lovely reply. The next thing I’d received a copy of a CD of the pair of them performing together with the cover bearing the photo. This was quickly followed by a copy of their double DVD ‘Accompanying Dave Swarbrick’, which I highly recommend, again using the photo for the both the cover and the DVDs. I think Lars approved of it.

Swarb&LarsSwarb and Lars

Any you wish you could have taken again?

In the early days some of my films from Chorley and Leeds Festivals were ruined by the company who were developing them for me.

All you got back in those days was a replacement film for the one they’d ruined.

 I’d love for the opportunity to take those again. I was especially looking forward to seeing those of Richard Thompson at Leeds.

I also wish that I’d started taking photos at a younger age. My school had its own camera club but my family didn’t have a camera ...

My first festival was Bickershaw where I sat feet away from the Grateful Dead, Captain Beefheart, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Dr John, the Kinks, Country Joe McDonald, the Incredible String Band, Donovan and many more.

With hindsight it would have been great to have had a camera with me and the knowledge to capture some great memories

A music editor once said ´I love the way that if I have a query, you just say you’ll ring the artist and check'. Do you have similarly close relationships?

Not really, it must be nice though. In all fairness a lot of the artists on my site wouldn’t know me from Adam, although they might recognise the name

Which artists have you formed a bond with?

I’d like to think that I’ve a friendship with most of those that I’ve taken on a number of occasions and chatted to.
Sadly quite a few of those such as John Wright, Dave, Alan and Martin of Jolly Jack and Michael, Barrie and Clive of Auld Triangle, who were good friends, left us too soon but the photos provide some great memories for me.
I've a great affection for Sam Baker.  Remember his background. In 1986 a terrorist bomb exploded in his train compartment when he was touring Peru and he found himself surrounded by dead and dying. He managed to survive, has constant tinnitus and the fingers of his left hand were left gnarled. Despite it all, after a number of operations, he started to recover, managed to teach himself to play his guitar left-handed, started performing again and continues to write wonderful songs. He also has a fantastic attitude to life and living which rubs off when you meet him.

And what are your own musical preferences?

Too many to mention here but, if push comes to shove, I’d say that my three favourite records were Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks but I could easily add many more.

Did any artists you really wanted to photograph turn out for whatever reason to be elusive?

On a couple of occasions, I haven’t been given permission to take the photos but I shan’t name the artists concerned as it could well be down to someone else such as the promoter of the event.

You mention a few commissions. Any you can tell us about?

I’ve provided a number of publicity photos for Clive Gregson over the years and especially enjoyed taking some when his band Any Trouble reformed. For one of the shots we recreated their Where Are All the Nice Girls? LP cover which was good fun.

Any-Trouble-Any Trouble

On another occasion Toby Shippey asked me to take some photos of Salsa Celtica for a live CD booklet. For anyone that hasn't heard them, they are a terrific band featuring any number of musicians from Scotland, Ireland, Venezuela and Cuba, they mix Celtic and Latin themes and, as a result, have a following among salsa dancers round the world as well as folk fans. As a spectacle they are second to none.

Best tip you’ve ever had for photography and the advice you’d pass on?

As self-taught I’ve not really been given any technical advice but the professional photographer that I worked with said that getting along with your subjects made for the best photos.
As an audience member, I’d always recommend considering the audience who have paid good money to see the show.
For anyone interested in music photography I can recommend an article by Elspeth Mary Moore in the Jan/Feb edition of ‘RnR’ magazine

With-Sam-Baker The snapper snapped: Roger Liptrot, left, with Sam Baker

Tell us a little about yourself ...

Like most today I’ve had a number of jobs and had to keep retraining myself over the years.
I left school and enjoyed many years in retail, various jobs from working in the warehouse, the shops, marketing and finally on sales systems only for a competitor to buy us and close us, putting 1100 people on the dole.
I then got a more technical role in IT which lasted for 10 years until 80 jobs were transferred to Mumbai and I was out of work again. This time round I started working in data security which lasted until I retired and then Covid hit which scuppered any plans for the time being.


Bill Taylor

Fascinating interview. And some lovely images. I've only done a bit of this kind of photography, enough to know how difficult it can be. Some has been done actually from the audience in a pretty big venue - it helps to have good seats! I even got what I think is a really good curtain-call portrait of Al Pacino from the orchestra stalls of a Broadway theatre.
Unlike Roger Liptrot, I don't think I'd even have tried with a film camera. Working with available light can give some very interesting effects but I find I need to bang off several shots to get the one I really want. Another advantage of digital is the ability to see immediately what you have and, if necessary, to try shooting it again. I've used flash in a couple of small clubs but that, while giving much better detail and focus, also tends to freeze the subject too much. Even if a naturally lit image is a little soft around the edges, I prefer the spontaneity it offers.
Obviously, though, the closer you can get to your subject, the better. Annie Leibovitz, doyenne of music photographers, wouldn't have been Annie Leibovitz without the access she was given.

Roger Liptrot

Great comment. I liked that Bill stated "I need to bang off several shots to get the one I really want" compared to my "concentrate on quality not quantity, something that I try to remember in these days of digital cameras and the ability to take hundreds of pictures at a time"

A couple of years ago I attended a weekend festival and took about 250 shots all weekend, a friend and fellow photographer came along just for the Friday evening and took 800 plus on the night informing me that he had two crackers when he checked them all. To each to his own although I prefer to review fewer photos in order to chose the ones to publish.

Bill Taylor

I do try to edit images in the camera whenever I have a moment from shooting. There's nothing worse than dumping everything into your computer photo program and finding you have a couple of dozen pretty much identical shots! As it is, I admit I'll sometimes shoot a hundred or so pictures and wind up with four or five keepers.
When I was a reporter on the Toronto Star, in the days when photographers were still using film, our guys' stated average was one or at very best two usable images per roll of 36. So if they wanted to give the photo editors a choice of maybe 10 pictures, they'd go through up to 10 rolls. Of course, they weren't paying for the film so it was easy to be extravagant!


Ah Tift (sigh) Merritt, the title track from her debut album brings back memories that I couldn't possibly recount here....

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