Capturing Greatness: A Rock Photographer’s Story
What does it take to be a great rock photographer? Skill, timing and that instinct…. The knowing. The knowing of the exact moment to snap the shot. The best shooters make it look easy.
Today’s article is about a shooter who worked hard to take her place among notable concert photographers. She has had the good fortune to capture rock royalty in action, while they in turn have had the good fortune to have their likeness captured by a gifted shooter with that elusive combination of timing and instinct that separates the best from the rest.
We don’t like to drop names, but let’s. Bands such as Aerosmith, The Eagles, Metallica, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Queen, David Bowie, Prince, Rush, and U2, and many more greats have been subjects of this photographer’s lens.
Yeah, we’re talkin’ about Dee Lippingwell.
Her photos place you in the action. As the onlooker, you understand immediately who you’re seeing and why that’s important. When I look at Dee’s photographs, I can not only see the artist but the connective tissue between shooter, subject and audience, forged by her lens. I can hear the artist’s voice, and I can feel their music.
It’s like having a moment with an icon of rock and Dee’s lens is making that connection possible. She is the glue that allows your gaze to connect with the subject. Somehow, in that moment, something unique is revealed and you are its witness; You’re having a moment with a real rock star and he or she seems to want you at the party!
And now, an interview with esteemed rock photographer, Dee Lippingwell.
VP: Tell us about this crazy journey… How did it begin?
Dee: It was 1964 and The Beatles were in town. I was living on Granville Street and out walking with my young son when this motorcade came rolling down the street… Like a parade! A crowd lined the street. They had gathered to welcome The Beatles who were making their way from the airport to downtown. It was a curious site. As it turned out, we were close enough that when the limo stopped right in front of us, the Fab Four could see my son from their limo. Several hands reached out from inside the limo to shake my son’s tiny waving fist. Both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr shook that little hand! And, I couldn’t help but notice the photographers that followed along.
The next few years, I worked to try and find “the fit.” As a mother and wife, and then as a unit clerk at St. Paul’s Hospital in the late sixties. I actually opened BC’s first daycare but realized that changing the poopy diapers of other people’s kids was sure not my dream job.
But there was the radio, and there were concerts. It was so easy and cheap to go to concerts back then ($5 to see the Rolling Stones!) After I got divorced, I lived with a few roommates and we’d take turns watching the kids, so we could see the great bands coming through town. I had always loved photography and would take shots whenever I could with my little Instamatic. It really just was a hobby that I enjoyed very much.
“I first got involved in the music scene when there was a problem to be solved and I knew I could help.”
I first got involved in the music scene when there was a problem to be solved and I knew I could help. You see, after the 1972 Rolling Stones riot in Vancouver, the city decided to ban rock concerts for a time. This happened to be when Led Zeppelin tour was rollin’ into town. We all had tickets, but the show was cancelled. When the concert was moved to Seattle instead, I decided to figure out how to rent buses and help people get to the show. (Border crossings were a lot easier back then). Anyway, it all happened, we got to see the show and the band actually thanked me!
After that, my brother won tickets to the Pink Floyd concert. By then I had a 35 mm camera. I got close to the stage and although I didn’t have a flash, I shot some pics. Days later I took them to the local Shoppers Drug Mart to get developed. When I went to pick them up, the envelope containing the photos had a gold star on it… The staff were pretty excited by my pictures!
A short while later, I was walking down Broadway and the local record shop had a sign reading “Pink Floyd concert pics inside”. Curious as a cat, I went in to check them out… Turns out, they weren’t very good… Kinda awful in fact. I just happened to have my Pink Floyd pics on hand. When I showed them to the shop owner, he pulled down the ones on display and asked to use mine instead. It was there that it began and grew. People just really liked my work!
VP: What happened next?
Dee: I continued to go to concerts and shoot whenever I could. Bob Geldoff was the Photo Editor at the Georgia Strait and I had been sending him my pics. After a fair bit of rejection, he finally agreed to add me as a staff photographer. It paid literally nothing, but it was a chance to gain experience and build on my work .
VP: Your very first gig! How was it?!
Dee: As a woman photographer down in the pit with the men, I had to fight to be taken seriously. The other shooters dismissed me as a groupie. They were pretty rude and pretty awful. I quickly realized that my conduct, what I wore, and how I acted were extremely important. My credibility relied on being professional at all times. As the only woman photographer in the pit, the guys were not impressed. But whatever, I thought… Just watch me! I hung in there and I got the shots. It wasn’t long before I had replaced most of the guys in that pit. I had basically taken their jobs.
From there I started to get assignments with all the big record labels, shooting their top talent. I worked for A & M, CBS, WEA, Mushroom Studios, Little Mountain Sound, and more. But I needed to diversify to make a living and so I taught myself the techniques to be a successful commercial photographer, shooting promotional photos, album cover work, headshots for models, actors and even weddings, bar mitzvahs.
VP: So good! At that point, did you feel like you had reached the height of your career?
Dee: No. You know the song, Cover of the Rolling Stone? It’s true! Having your work in Rolling Stone magazine was considered the golden standard for a serious rock photographer. And although I had been published in Canada and Europe, I didn’t have any presence in the US (yet) I began to watch the photo credits to see who was getting published. And it might be bold, but I started to wonder how I would feel when I saw my work published on those pages. So, I set goals to make it happen, but again, I kinda feel like fate had a hand.
VP: How so? Tell us about it.
Dee: Well, the Nor’Wester ’76 Rock Festival, was coming up. It was being held in Stateline, Idaho and offered 3 days of camping and concerts on a speedway track with headliners Bachman Turner Overdrive and Blue Oyster Cult. I begged my boss at the time, Dan MacLeod, to let me cover it. Woodstock was already history and I just felt like this event could be an important happening. I wanted to go bad enough that I offered to pay for my own accommodations… A small tent. He eventually agreed to send their journalist, Tom Harrison, and me. My girlfriend Roxanne also travelled with us and we even got to stop and visit my mom on the 750 mile drive.
As it turned out, the event had been poorly organized, was deeply in debt and an actual riot ensued. And, we just happened to be there to capture it all. Some of the crowd basically burned the place down. I used my press credentials and was able to move about to capture the riot in real time.
VP: You weren’t kidding! What happened next?
Dee: After covering the story, we drove back through the night, and I immediately developed the photos. As it turned out, Tom had fallen asleep, so I had to write the story and then couriered the bundle to…The Rolling Stone. They published the story! A week later I was standing there with an advanced copy of the magazine and a $100 cheque from the magazine. There I was, staring not only at my photo credit, but at a byline credit too. Afterall, I had written my first and only story! Can’t tell you how proud I was at that moment.
VP: Chills! Such a great story… Such powerful beginnings! Now, I hear you’ve published a couple of books?
Dee: Oh yes, I have, The Best Seat in the House which is a picture book of all my favourite work over the years, up to 1986. I was also one of the official photographers for Expo 1986 and my work is in many of the official publications from that time. As, well, I have a coffee table book, First Three Songs… No Flash in which I share a few stories...
VP: That’s very modest…This is a 210-page opus of rock history! I’ve have the opportunity to read through a few of these stories and literally consume the photos. You’ve shot pretty much everyone and met most of them too!
Dee: [Laughs] Well yes, I’ve been shooting famous musicians up close for 45 years now. It’s been a wild ride!
VP: In the intro to your book, First Three Songs… No Flash, you mention that after your encounter with the Beatles, you would stand in line to buy their singles. Our readers will want to know, do you still have them?
Dee: No, sad to say they went the way of the past. The Beatles, the Roy Orbison’s… Where do they go?
VP: That’s definitely too bad. Now, I could ask you all the usual, who-was-your-favorite-artist-to-shoot, kinda questions, but I feel like our readers would be far better served by just ordering a copy of your limited edition books and spending some time in rock’s golden past. [Link to listing]
Dee: There are a lot of fun stories in the book…looking back, even I was surprised. It’s different living the history and then looking back. Would I change a thing? Nah.
What a story! We highly recommend ordering up a copy of Dee’s books. [Link here]. In particular, “First Three Songs… No Flash,” provides an insider’s peek behind the scenes. Both entertaining and enlightening, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about your favourite artists and learn about the business of rock. Dee’s own website has a store with all sorts of merch featuring the iconic images she is known for.
Dee recently announced an upcoming book detailing her time as a shooter for the Merritt Mountain Music Festival. For those of us who had the chance to attend this odyssey in its heyday… Well, you know what I’m sayin’. This book promises to be a seriously good time and also meshes nicely with Dee’s more recent work and acknowledgement by the country music industry.
Dee, thank you again for spending the time with us. We look forward to your next book and are grateful for the stories and the work you’ve shared with our readers.