Visual Storytelling in Today’s “All Access” Era

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1985 Ken Regan (Weekly FM Japan June 3-16 1985) preview 300

Access. It’s the most valuable currency of celebrity journalism. Photojournalists Bob Gruen and Ken Regan built celebrated careers by getting access to coveted rock stars such as Madonna, whom Ken Regan photographed as she was about to become a star. Regan, who passed away in 2012, was welcomed into the homes of rock stars not only because he had undeniable talent, but he handled access with discretion. But in today’s era of stars granting “all access” to everyone through social media, what’s the role of the great professionals like Gruen, Regan and Annie Leibovitz? At a time when anyone with an iPhone can become a photojournalist, what sets apart great visual storytelling from pedestrian photography?

I asked that question and a few others as I re-acquainted myself with retrospectives on the careers of Gruen and Regan: Rock Seen, which covers some of the landmark moments of Gruen’s work, and All Access: The Rock & Roll Photography of Ken Regan.

Both of the books are vivid reminders that rock and roll is as much a visual medium as it is a musical one. Sometimes the rock stars just explode off the page, as in this photo of Jimi Hendrix taken by Ken Regan:


Or as in this image of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, taken by Gruen:


But Regan and Gruen also illustrated many other dimensions of rock, such as this reflective:


John Lennon photographed by Bob Gruen 

Gruen and Regan photographed rock history. Regan’s images of Live Aid are powerful, as are Regan’s photos of the Sex Pistols shaking the foundations of rock.


Tina Turner and Mick Jagger performing at Live Aid, as photographed by Ken Regan


Bob Gruen’s iconic photo of Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols

As I immersed myself in their worlds, I formed two conclusions:

  • The stars are always on. They understand the difference between being a musician and a celebrity. In All Access, Regan recounts the story of Mick Jagger asking Regan to photograph Jagger’s newborn son James in 1985. When Regan agreed to do the shoot, Jagger declared, “I’ll let you do the exclusively. What do you think the value of the photographs would be?” Jagger then proposed to Regan that they sell the photos of his newborn to the news media and split the revenue (a deal that fell apart when images of newborn James were ¬†leaked accidentally.) Regan regales the reader with many other insider stories of stars such as Stevie Nicks welcoming him into their homes for private photos shoots and always being conscious of their dress, appearance, and manner, even in in so-called spontaneous moments. The stars may have given access; but they never let down their guards, even in their most private moments.


Stevie Nicks at home with Ken Regan

  • The stars have become their own paparazzi. Regan and Gruen emerged at a time when the gap between rock stars and fans was widening. The Stones and Led Zeppelin became self-contained entities in the early 1970s, surrounding themselves with layers of security to shut out everyday fans as their celebrity stock skyrocketed. The superstars during rock’s golden era did not take selfies and post them on the Internet as Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga do liberally today. They thrived off of their mystique and valued their privacy. Carly Simon refused to allow Regan to photograph the faces of her children during a personal photo shoot on Martha’s Vineyard. Mariah Carey freely shares photos of her family on Facebook. Today’s stars give access freely, photographing themselves for millions of fans.


It’s one thing for stars to share of themselves freely; it’s something else to do it well. And that’s why the Bob Gruens and Ken Regans still matter. The great photojournalists possess that combination of talent and instinct that separates them from the amateurs. Keith Richards says it best in the preface to All Access:

SHUTTER SPEED: the blink of an eye and to a photographer may be almost the same thing. But to capture a “moment” you need something else. You have to know the moment before it happens. To sense it, to feel it . . . Maybe like hearing a song before it has been written. Whatever this intuitive sense, is what my longtime friend has. Many times I’ve been onstage only to see Ken’s beady left eye drilling through me with that wry grin under his camera and know he’s got the shot he was after. I know a lot of photographers and they all have personal style. When I see Ken in front of me, I know what he’s waiting for . . . the moment!


Annie Leibovitz shared a similar sentiment in a 2013 Fast Company article. The legendary photographer indicated that the secret to her success is her instinct, not her technical skills as a photographer. As she said,

Photography came along long before we had the equipment. What is going to happen now is that we are the sensitive matter. You, the photographer, are the sensitive matter. What makes an impression on you is what will been seen. In this day and age of things moving so, so fast, we still long for things to stop, and we as a society love the still image. Every time there is some terrible or great moment, we remember the stills.

Today, anyone can become a photographer, thanks to the proliferation of digital apps like Snapseed and Instagram. But being a great visual storyteller means having the sensitivity of an artist and a knack for capturing the moment. The master visual storytellers are artists.

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