Paul Natkin: Decades of Exposure

With over 40 years of experience and over 4000 artists photographed, Paul Natkin has made photography a lifestyle. His photos have been on the cover of Newsweek, Time, Playboy, Ebony, Rolling Stone, among others, and most recently the cover of Downbeat magazine featuring Buddy Guy. He has covered almost every musician he has wanted to cover through perseverance and a dedication to continually shaping the way music is seen. His father was a team photographer with the Chicago Bulls and when Natkin learned of the perks associated with the assignment, Natkin instantly decided to follow in his father’s footsteps.

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Bluesletter: If you weren’t a photographer what would you do?

Paul Natkin: I have no idea. I have 40 years experience as a photographer. I would probably go to get a job at a mission helping the homeless.

BL: How did your father respond to you wanting to become a photographer?

PN: He thought it was cool.

BL: What is your personal definition of what it is that you do?

CBF20060610-083PN:  I capture the excitement of a person, event or whatever is there.

BL: After doing this for so long how do you stay excited?

PN: Making it fresh ain’t easy. That’s why shooting Buddy is so exciting. He walks off stage or walks outside. The spontaneity makes my job easier.

BL: What kind of camera do you use?

PN: A Nikon D700.

BL: What do you believe are the setbacks and strengths to digital photography?

PN: I think it’s the same without the smelly chemicals. I spend the two hours in Photoshop that I would have spent in the darkroom. Digital is cleaner except the cameras cost much more per year. Each time a new one comes out I have to buy it. Money wise, it costs a fortune to keep up with what I do. Before digital, I filled 12 4-drawer files of stuff.

BL: Do you trust someone else to edit your photos?

PN: No one ever edits any of my photos.

BL: Tell me more about your take on this idea of on location shooting versus live coverage.

PN: I have shot a lot of on stage, but I prefer off stage because I am at the mercy of what ever is going on at a concert. I had the Downbeat photo shoot and the cover was in-the- moment. I put a few pool balls over the pool table, brought the background lights and produced the photo. 

BL:    This is kind of a weird question, but do you feel like the media is so interested or so obsessed about finding the ‘next big thing’ that they often give publicity to artists who maybe aren’t as talented as say, someone who can afford to get their name out there?

PN:    Oh, there’s a ‘next big thing’ every week, and 99% of them are working at Burger King a year later.  If you look at the Billboard charts for the last five years, I can’t even imagine how many of those bands that had a number one single, and are now either no longer together, or they’re playing at some oldies bar and they’re done.  But you can probably count on one hand the bands that, in five years, kept on getting bigger and bigger.  Those are the ‘next big things’. But, you have to play the game.  Every time somebody tells me I should go and shoot a band because they’re going to be the ‘next big thing’, I’ll say, “Well I’ll tell you what, give me a call back when their second album is a million seller.”  Then at least I know that they played the game to get there.  In the old days, I would shoot everything.  I’d be out so much, every night of the week.  It didn’t matter who they were.  I’ve shot – my list is up to 4,300 at this point.

BL:    Would you say that you did that just because you really loved doing that?

PN:    Well, that’s part of it. In that era, my guess – I couldn’t give you an exact number, but my guess is 30% of the bands started out, at least from here to here, if not from here to there. The way I judge it is if a band starts out by playing the Metro and then three years later, they’re selling out the Aragon, and then three years after that they’re selling out the Allstate Arena or Alpine Valley or Soldier Field…you know. I was ragging on Bon Jovi before, but the first time I saw Bon Jovi, they were opening for Ted Nugent at the Rosemont Horizon.  And, I’ve shot them maybe 30 or 40 times over the years.  They went from being an opening act, playing some little clubs – and then they had some big hit record back in ’87; and all of the sudden, they were playing at the UIC Pavilion. Then, they came back a year later and were playing at the Rosemont Horizon, and now they’re playing Soldier Field.

BL:    Right.

PN:    For every Bon Jovi, there’s 50 bands from that era that you never hear from again. Or, they’re playing at Joe’s on Weed Street and they’re an oldies band.  It doesn’t make it bad, but they’re not really famous anymore.  I mean, it’s great that they’re still earning a living.  When I read the paper and see Rat is playing in Chicago at Joe’s – I mean, there was a time when Rat sold out a 25,000 seat venue in Hoffman Estates; and now they’re selling 200 tickets on a Friday night.  Maybe they should just give it up, but maybe it’s kind of cool that they’re still doing it.     But, they certainly weren’t the ‘next big thing’.

BL:    It’s weird to think about that – they love doing it, so…

PN:    Oh yeah, it’s probably better than working for a living.  You have to wonder how much money they’re making, or if they can even support themselves.

BL:    Yeah, at what point do you draw that line and say enough is enough?

PN:    At some point it’s like you have to build some kind of level part of your career, and then keep on working to stay there.  You can’t be full of yourself, and you’ve got to be available.

BL:    So, at what point would you say – in the beginning, you bite the bullet and do the two or three song set.

PN:    You have to. But, here’s the problem – if there are ten photographers in front of the stage, nine of them are shooting the first three songs, and I’m there shooting the whole show – they can’t compete.  Now, at some point, how are they ever going to get from point A to point B if they never get the kind of pictures that will allow them to compete with the people that are doing it right that will allow them to get the better magazine assignments? If they can’t do that, they’re never going to have the clout to say to somebody, “Hey, I’m not going to…” You know, the Crossroads show was a perfect example – there were 50 photographers there – 45 of them were on a platform at the 50 yard line – in the sun, for 12 hours.  The stage was further away than that building across the street.

BL:    Okay.

PN:    So, they had to bring 400 mm lenses – lousy angle, lousy everything.  Five of us were right in front of the stage – and we also had access to go back stage any time we wanted.  Like hey, there’s Buddy Guy and Ron Wood standing there, let’s get them together for some photos. So, how could those 45 or 47 people compete with what we got?  Even if they got the greatest picture they could possibly get from that spot, it was still from the wrong angle.  You need to shoot up at people with background behind them and the whole thing.

BL:    Absolutely.

PN:    We all sell our pictures mainly through two or three websites – there’s Getty Images and Wire Image – I’m on both of them.  So if I go home that night and I post 75 photos from Crossroads from the front of the stage, and these guys are all posting their best stuff from the 50 yard line, unless they got a guy jumping off the drum – and most of the people at Crossroads were in their 70’s and don’t do a lot of jumping anymore. You know, there wasn’t a lot of show biz stuff.  So, how can they compete?

BL:    As enjoyable as it can be shooting an artist on the stage, what do you like better?

PN:    There isn’t better or worse – just different. That Crossroads weekend, two nights before Crossroads, Jeff Beck came in here [Legends], and I have no illusions that I’m anybody famous or anything, but I managed to get myself in great positions and get some great shots. I got into this business because I love music. I especially love blues. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I would meet Buddy Guy, as opposed to shooting the day that he rehearsed for Crossroads out at Bridgeview – I drove out and picked him up at his house and brought him over to sound check, you know?  I mean, that’s a big jump of faith. But, also the idea that standing upstairs in Buddy’s room with him and Jeff Beck – and then the following night with Ron Wood and Buddy, and then shooting them on stage.  Then, after they played at Crossroads, I walked back in the dressing room and I was sitting there with Ron Woods, Tedeschi, Derek Trucks and Buddy Guy, you know?

BL:    Does it feel like, for lack of better words, a dream come true?

Keith RichardsPN:    Oh yeah, oh yeah. I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve had the greatest life on the planet.  It’s just being in the right place at the right time.  Back in the 80’s, my neighbor wrote for the Sun-Times, and he called me up one day, just out-of-the-blue and said, “Listen, I’m going to do an interview in New York tomorrow and you might want to come with me to take pictures, I’m interviewing Keith Richards.” He said they were too cheap to send a photographer, so if I paid my own way, slept on his couch in his hotel room, that we’ll go and do these photos.  How do you pass that up?  So, I went and bought a plane ticket – at that time you could fly to New York for 100 bucks – so, I got up in the morning in this fancy hotel room that I didn’t have to pay for, went over to Keith’s manager’s office and I did this photo shoot which I got the most famous picture I ever took of him where he’s giving me the finger.

BL:    Right, a classic photo for sure.

PN:    So, I got home the next day and sold three or four pictures to the Sun-Times, which paid all my expenses, and that would’ve been enough to be a dream come true.  Then, I made a couple of prints and sent them to Keith’s manager. I wrote her a note and I said, “Hey, I heard during the interview that you guys are going out on tour, and if you need a photographer, give me a call.”  And I just threw it in the mailbox and forgot about it.  Three months later, on Thanksgiving eve, at four o’clock in the afternoon, my phone rang.  It was Keith’s manager who said, “Hey, we need a photographer.”  And I’m thinking – okay, that’s great.  Let’s figure out a time I can come out and we’ll do some stuff, and she said, “No, no, no, can you be in Atlanta tomorrow afternoon?”  You know, I had to call my mother to tell her I wasn’t coming home for Thanksgiving Day.  I flew to Atlanta the next morning and got on a bus with Keith Richards and The Expensive Winos. And that could’ve been the ultimate experience.  We get home around Christmas.  It was about four weeks long – I had all my mail waiting in the vestibule at my house.  I ended up doing three and a half months on the Steel Wheels tour, and that was all just because Don called me from next door and said, “Hey, do you want to go to New York tomorrow for a little photo shoot.”  Since then I’ve been to Keith’s house, I’ve done photo shoots with him at his house – you can’t ask for anything more than that.

BL:    So, do you find yourself looking back on certain situations like that and saying, what are the chances?

PN:    It’s pretty astronomical, especially living in Chicago because people in New York or LA can go and schmooze people in person all the time.  Now I can do it with my website, but it used to be that I’d have to send them portfolios to say, “Hey, look at my work.”  Now I can just e-mail them and say, “Hey, I heard you guys are going on tour – here’s the link to my website.”  They can tell that I know what I’m doing.

BL:    And I think this comes back to the conversation about people with cameras and photographers is that – real photographers, not paparazzi, but photographers have a certain level of professionalism…

PN:    And people know they can produce.

BL:    Right.

PN:    I worked for Farm-Aid, and a couple of years ago Farm-Aid was in Philadelphia.  I ran into this woman back stage – she was an old friend of mine, and I said, “Hey, what are you doing here?”  She said, “I’m Willie Nelson’s publicist now.”  So we started talking – I hadn’t seen her in ten years.  She used to work at Columbia Records.  She used to be Billy Joel’s publicist.  And she said, “Hey, give me your card.  I know you moved and I need your new information.”  A week later, she called me up and said, “Can we hire you?  I work with this guy named Toby Keith and can we hire you to shoot a couple of his shows?”  I mean, it was one of the biggest pay days I ever got.  I just basically had to get in my car and drive to Green Bay for two days and shoot two Toby Keith shows.  It was because I ran into her back stage, and I’ve known her for 20 years, and she knew if she sent me up there to do it, I would get the pictures they were looking for.

BL:    I’m not trying to float your ego at all, but that speaks to you personally – I know just from speaking to people all the way from managers to bar backs here at the club – they all speak so highly of you, and how nice you are, and how you’re very generous.

PN:    It doesn’t do you any good not to be nice.

BL:    Exactly.

PN:    When they were putting these bars together, Brian Moravec [Legends, General Manger] called me up one day and said, “Buddy wants to know if you could just make up a bunch of pictures of blues guys that we’re going to put in the bar.”  So, I just printed up a bunch of stuff. If I went through here, I could probably point out which ones are min, but there’s probably 50 of them between the two bars.  It’s really cool to come in here and sit at the bar and know that some of these pictures are mine.

BL:    I know exactly what you mean.  Actually, there are a couple of photographs that you took which were used for laminates last year.  It’s interesting – I see those up on the bars and that’s pretty cool.

PN:    It’s pretty cool to look around the club and say, “That’s my picture of Otis Rush.”

BL:    And even though probably 90% of the people here will never know…it’s still the feeling that you get – it’s for free.  And, in my opinion, that’s some of the most satisfying.

PN:    It’s just really cool to be a part of it.  And it’s also really cool to be treated with respect – which in the music business, is few and far between.  So, the fact that I could walk in here anytime I want and just walk in the door – I don’t do that, you know?  I don’t just show up unless there’s something going on. But everybody knows me and if I have somebody with me, it’s like – come on in, no problem.  And that’s worth gold.

BL:     Absolutely.  And you never know who might end up where some day.

PN:    Right.

BL:     Like you were saying with your friend who became a publicist.

MadonnaPN:    I once went to New York to meet a publicist for a record company. The guy had an emergency and had to go have a tooth pulled.  I showed up at his office and I’m all bummed out – like I came all the way here to see this guy and he’s not there.  His secretary said, “Hey, could I look at your work?”  My first thought was – no, I want to go get a bagel or something, but I thought, okay, I’m here – I may as well show her the work.  I had never met this woman.  She is now Madonna’s publicist – RAM’s publicist.  She was vice-president of Warner Brothers for 15 years – head of publicity.  And, I can’t tell you how much work I got from staying there and showing this secretary my photographs.

BL:     That is crazy.

PN:    I didn’t do it for that reason.  I did it because it’s a nice thing to do.

BL:     Right.  It’s professionalism.

PN:    Right, yeah.

BL:     That is, as you said, few and far between in this business.

PN:    I always preach that – a lot of bands ask me for advice, a lot of photographers ask me for advice.  [pullquote]Professionalism is showing up when you’re supposed to, doing the job, not getting in anybody’s way, and treating the fans with respect.[/pullquote]  I never stand up in front of anybody because these people are paying money to see this – I’m not.  It’s funny because I have this whole conversation with publicists all the time about why do you let people only shoot three songs, and why does everybody treat photographers like crap?  I was talking to a publicist on the phone a couple weeks ago – we talked for an hour – and in the middle of our conversation, all of the sudden she says, “You know, there’s one thing that you’re not really saying about this whole point.”  And I said, “What?”  She said, “I’m not talking about you, but there are some photographers that are total assholes.”  And at some point, if you’re a band or a manager or a publicist, it’s much easier just to not let anybody have access than to try to figure out who the good guys are and who the bad guys are.

BL:     Right.

PN:    And when I see people walking into the photo pit and they put their camera bag on the stage, or they stand on a chair in the pit and block the view of the people who paid the most money for their tickets, I’d get them kicked out.  Well, maybe not kicked out – I have no place to do that – but I go over and reprimand them – like, “Hey, take your bag off the stage.  You’re making all of us look bad.”

BL:     Yeah.  Well, whether or not you have a place, I think that’s debatable.

PN:    But it’s not my job to do it.  I know if somebody’s doing something like that in the photo pit, it’s very possible that somebody could come in and say, “Okay, you photographers, all get out of here.”

BL:     Exactly.

PN:    And then I can’t do my job.

BL:     In a way it’s looking at it not only as self-preservation, but the preservation of photography.  Because eventually, that’s what’s going to end up happening is they’re just going to say, well just take studio shots or something like that.

PN:    Or they’ll hire somebody like they hired me to shoot Toby Keith, and pay me a lot of money, and then give away the pictures for free to every publication in the world.

Ozzy Osbourne & Randy RhoadsBL:     Right.  And then you’ll never have another Ozzy Osbourne…

PN:    It’s part of the cultural history of America.  Let’s face it – photographing news is not…it’s just different. But photographing Buddy, photographing Clapton, photographing B.B. King – you know, the people that have contributed to the culture.  It’s part of the history.

BL:     Absolutely.

PN:    And the history is not being captured now because nobody’s allowed to shoot the real part of the whole thing.

BL:     I myself have just started trying to shoot every once in a while, and I actually find myself army crawling on the floor just to make sure that I’m not getting in the way of any of the patrons.  As often as we hear it, how many people really listen – in without them, there’s no music…

PN:    Oh yeah.  Without them, there’s no reason for the club to exist, or for the bands to exist to play on stage.

BL:     Which is imperative.  Like you said, in a way, it is eventually the future of the industry.

PN:    But it’s also just simple logic.  I’ve worked for Farm-Aid for 25 years, and I’m kind of in charge of the photo pit at this point.  There are 100 photographers that show up every year to the concert.  The pit is divided into two halves – one half of it is about five of us that work for Farm-Aid.  On the other half is everybody else.   So, they used to run people in and you could only shoot one song of each band and then you’d have to leave.  I said – you’ve got to give people better than that.  Why don’t you let everybody stay in the pit for the whole show, until it gets too crowded because a lot of people don’t show up until the end.  So, about every two hours I’d go over and give all the photographers a lecture saying, “It’s a little crowded in here, but why don’t you guys all work together and make sure everybody gets a shot, and I’ll keep you in here as long as I can – until it becomes unmanageable.”  I remind them that the people in the front row are paying $50 to $100 a ticket – so don’t get in their way.  Invariably, it’s usually somebody from New York, will climb up on something and then the guy in the front row complains.  Then the security people come to me – so you’re the one who told them they could stay there, but now they’re screwing it up for the audience and I have to say, “Okay, kick ’em out.”  There’s one guy who causes 50 people to be kicked out.  And if you confront that guy, he never thinks he’s doing something wrong, because he’s a journalist and a journalist does anything to get the shot.  I’m not really buying that.

BL:     I think that should be true up to a point.

PN:    Yeah.  The journalist – if it’s a fire and a guy’s falling out of a third story window, then you can crawl under a barricade to get a better angle.  But, we’re not talking war, we’re talking about a guy up on a bench playing a guitar.  If you take a picture from here or from here, it’s not really going to make that much difference.

BL:     Right… I apologize, I can’t remember exactly which band, but you had talked earlier about how you had gone to see him, and he ended up putting on an unexpectedly great show.

PN:    John Prine.

BL:     Yes, that’s what it was.  Then, you had said you’d also seen a band that was supposed to be great…

PN:    Muse.

BL:     Yeah, okay.

PN:    Also three guys on stage, who totally sucked.

BL:     And they had brought a crap load of stuff for the show, right?

PN:    Seventeen trucks full of equipment.  John Prine had a card table with two picks on it and a bottle of water. Here’s the thing – John Prine grew up in Maywood, Illinois – he was a mailman – he used to climb into an empty mailbox at the end of the day and write songs in the sixties.  And he’s been doing this for close to fifty years now.  Muse has been around for eight years, maybe.  They played the United Center.  My guess is that next time Muse comes to town, they’re going to be playing the Riviera.  And then we’re never going to hear from them again.  But, I guarantee you that John Prine is going to be playing for another twenty years.  Given a choice between those two careers, I’ll pick John Prine over Muse any day.

BL:     Sure.

PN:    [pullquote]Give a choice between going to one of those shows – I’ll pick John Prine over Muse any day. [/pullquote] And the biggest thing is, John Prine told a story in every song.  He’s one of the most gifted songwriters on the planet. Muse had absolutely nothing to say.  But they had smoke screens and elevators raising them up and down on stage.  They were basically masking the idea that they had nothing to say.

BL:     Right.

PN:    And John Prine stood there with a guitar for three and a half hours, and every song could’ve been a Faulkner novel.  Not a single person in the audience left, not even to go to the bathroom while he was playing.

BL:     There are no words to describe that.

PN:    Well that’s the difference between an artist and a rock star.  I use rock star in a derogatory sense.  I don’t use it in a positive sense.

BL:     That’s what I figured.  I’m not sure that you could use it in a positive sense.

PN:    Well, you know, there are people that are both.  Mick Jagger is a rock star, but he’s actually also a great artist.  You know, there’s a reason they’ve been around for 45 years and could still sell out Soldier Field if they put on a tour and came here next month.

BL:     Well, I’d go see them.

PN:    Yeah, yeah.

BL:     Do you think it’s possible for the music industry to turn around and make a come back?

PN:    No.  I think it’s possible for a musician to keep on making great music and making good livings doing it, but I think the music industry itself is dead.

BL:     If you were a musical artist, would you say that promoting yourself is the way to go?

PN:    Absolutely.  I know tons of bands that were on major labels – there’s a band coming to the Chicago Theater next month – one of the greatest bands in America called The Black Crows.  They were on major labels all their lives, then four to five years ago they said, “screw it,” we’re going to do it ourselves.  They’re making way more money than they were making before.  They’re just as popular.  [pullquote]They’re playing the same size venues that they were playing before, they’re getting the same publicity, and they’re making more money because rather than getting a dollar a record after they recoup all their expenses, they’re making five bucks a record every time they sell one.[/pullquote]  Their records aren’t in stores, cause what’s the sense of having your records in Best Buy?  Why not sell directly to your audience by putting them on sale at your show where people come to your shows because they’re fans of your band.

BL:     That’s another thing – CD’s.  They seem to be kind of…

PN:    Phasing out?

BL:     Phasing out.

PN:    It certain generations.  People my age don’t buy CD’s.  I could honestly say….

BL:     I love CD’s.

PN:    Yeah.  But, I could honestly say that I’ve never downloaded a song from ITunes.  But I have 3,700 songs in my ITunes folder.  And it’s all because I’ve got 4,000 CD cases on the shelves in my house.

BL:     Amazing.

PN:    And I ripped my favorite songs off of all those and then they’re all in here.  You know, I plug it into the dashboard of my car and drive to California and never listen to the same song twice.  You don’t need a record company.

BL:     Right.

PN:    I know local bands that are recording on their laptops.  They get a small version of Pro Tools that costs 500 bucks, they make a record, and every time they do a gig they just burn twenty copies of the CD.  It costs them 30 cents a piece.  They could sell it for $5.  They make a huge mark up.  Maybe if they really want to get creative, they can go to Kinkos, make a really cool cover and Xerox 50 copies on a label with little sleeves.

BL:     They can even make a face plate for the CD’s themselves.

PN:    Oh absolutely, absolutely.

BL:     You can get a cheap printer now.

Another iconic photo by Paul Natkin: Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter
Another iconic photo by Paul Natkin: Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Johnny Winter

PN:    You can get a $100 printer and do that.  So, do you really need a manufacturing facility in Terre Haute, Indiana to be making 50,000 copies of your CD when you only have 1,000 fans?  And then the record company says, “Well, we can’t give you any money this year because we haven’t sold any of your CD’s.

BL:     I’ve seen you use the work, “yikes” with two exclamations.

PN:    Well, that’s just my favorite word right now.

BL:     It’s a great word and it’s a great description for what’s going on now.

PN:    Oh yeah.  I have a feeling I’ll find another word because people are going to start getting tired of it after a while.  But it still works.

BL:     Thank you so much for taking the time to share your opinions with me. We really appreciate it.

PN:    Anytime!­­­





BG is a free magazine bringing you stories about Buddy Guy's Legends, blues music, and music generally. Please direct submissions to [email protected] for consideration.

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BG is a free magazine bringing you stories about Buddy Guy's Legends, blues music, and music generally. Please direct submissions to [email protected] for consideration.