If Ron Pownall were a band, he’d be The Beatles. The Fab Four all rolled into one. If he were a soul singer, he’d be James Brown. The Godfather. The hardest working man in show business.
But he need not be them. He’s him. And in the vast realm of rock ‘n roll photography, that’s about as good as it gets. As Oscar Wilde wisely counseled, “Be yourself, everyone else is already taken.”
Ron Pownall picked up his first camera in college. In his own words, he “fell in love with photography…I loved documenting things.” Over decades of capturing moments through the viewfinder and the lens, he has chronicled the evolution of the rock-photo artform that has defined his generation. Along the way, he has earned his rightful place at the very pinnacle of his craft. Pownall has scaled the summit of Rock & Roll Mountain. And we’re not talking Blue Hill here. This would be Mount Everest. Hendrix, Joplin, Cream, McCartney, the Stones, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Boston…the list is seemingly endless. The Pownall pedigree is unrivaled. His live images capture the spiritual pact between band and audience and seem to penetrate the psyche of the artist.
Ron got his start as a rookie summer replacement covering riots at the Democratic National Convention in August of 1968 for the Chicago Tribune. That summer would take him from the streets to the stage. His first assignments back then were Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Righteous Brothers and Cream. Soon his journey would lead him to Boston in 1970, the launching pad to a true rock ‘n’ roll life on the road. That road has taken him many times around the world.
“I was lucky…I loved what I was doing. I loved music and I loved photography…what a combo…especially in Boston.” It was all film back then, the digital world still decades away. “I learned early to be prepared, never run out of film, always be on-time, and to get something good at the front end of the shoot…because you never knew how long it would last.”
A mentor back then was David Krebs, of Leber/Krebs, Aerosmith’s management company. “Aero was starting out, as was I…we were growing at the same time,” Pownall says, and he was there to document it all. Krebs gave him some good advice: “You’ve got to be not just a photographer, but a shrink, too…you’ve got to figure-out how to get me some good images, even if the band is not in the mood for a photo session.” Somehow, Ron did just that. Those were words of wisdom that served him well, whether at a live show or in the studio for portraits, album covers or magazine spreads. Pownall has done it all, for the biggest names in the business.
Perhaps one of the most memorable was the Elton John shoot for a Rolling Stone magazine piece in 1976. During the interview, Sir Elton came out for the first time. There is an iconic image Pownall captured of Elton leaning out the window of the Elizabeth Taylor suite at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in Manhattan, high above 5th Avenue with a growing crowd of restless, screaming fans down below, Elton now captive to his own fame. Pownall has dubbed the shot The Lonely Man. “It’s a symbolic image to me. He was at the height of his early fame, but he couldn’t leave his own room. There were fans everywhere.”
The performers whose essence Pownall captured with such grace and precision knew he was not just along for the ride. No, he is, in fact, one of them. A gifted artist, and a star in his own right.
Just ask Chuck McDermott, founder and leader of the ‘70s roots band Wheatstraw, and a steady, prolific presence on both the local and national stage. Many times, he has been in the crosshairs of the Pownall lens. There is, he says, a uniquely captivating quality to Pownall’s work. “A photo will always capture an object or person from the outside. But Ron’s photos so often capture the INSIDE of his subjects – the performer’s passion, focus, fear, humor, pleasure or pain. He knows what he’s looking for – and he gets it. That’s why we stare at his images; we never just glance.”
And while Ron’s reach is worldwide, he has made his home in Boston. As Johnny Most was to the Boston Celtics in their glory years, Pownall has been combination play-by-play man and color analyst in the hallowed ground of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll town in the world. He loves our city and has beautifully preserved the history of our bands. The Hall of Famers and the hard-working club acts. The dreamers, the strugglers and the superstars.
“I didn’t really make any distinction between local bands and the big names,” he says. “I just loved to be in the midst of it, to capture that perfect, spontaneous moment.” Whether in the studio or on the road, Pownall captured more than the moment. His is a legacy that will endure. “I was never on the clock. Whatever the project, I just wanted the images to be great. My goal always was to do something above and beyond.” Hard work, passion and persistence have propelled him higher and further than even his fondest dreams could have foreseen.
So if you are an aspiring photographer with your focus on rock ‘n’ roll, be ready. Be prepared to go out there and be all you can be. But remember, you can’t be Ron Pownall. He’s already taken.
(by Henry Eaton)