Rock’s Royal Photographer

October 5, 2014
Featured image for “Rock’s Royal Photographer”

by Alex Hannaford / The Telegraph (UK)

How did Alan Messer, an ‘upstart snapper’ from Kent, become a friend and confidant to some of music’s biggest names?

It’s common for would-be photographers to begin their careers helping established photographers. It’s known in the trade as “assisting.” Not so common, perhaps, is a first gig assisting on a photo shoot with Jimi Hendrix dressed as Santa Claus. But that’s where Alan Messer found himself in December 1967.

London was swinging and Messer, a starry-eyed 16-year-old born in Kent, was working at the Gerrard Street studio of music photographer Dezo Hoffmann. Hoffmann had made a name for himself photographing such luminaries as the Beatles, Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Duke Ellington.

Hoffmann had a contract with the now-defunct music newspaper Record Mirror and the paper had commissioned him to shoot a Christmas cover of Hendrix dressed as Father Christmas. “Jimi and the band came in,” Messer recalls, “but Jimi didn’t want to take off his hat so he put on the Father Christmas outfit on top.”

Fast-forward 47 years and Messer, who now calls Tennessee home, has spent his career photographing some of the biggest names in music on both sides of the pond – from John Lennon and The Who to Diana Ross, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. He’s working on a book of photographs of Cash, who he was close to until the musician’s death in 2003, some of which have never been seen before.

Messer lives in south Nashville. He still has an English accent, despite 30-plus years in the States. He shows me a couple of the many album covers he’s shot: Steve Earle’s Guitar Town; a gospel album for Al Green; Stevie Ray Vaughan’s In Step. His first shoot as principal photographer was of the Small Faces. “I wasn’t nervous,” he tells me. “Because I knew I could do it. I had a few minutes up on the roof of a building with the boys and I got the shot.”

Messer recalls a brief cover shoot he had with Keith Richards for Ray Gun magazine. “I set up my background and lights and waited for Keith to come in. But he didn’t arrive till 9:25 pm and by 9:30 pm he was on stage with the Stones. He was in the room with me for three-and-a-half minutes and I had three minutes to shoot. I thought, if the Stones can sell their new single on Top of the Pops in three minutes, I can get the picture I want in three minutes too.”

He also took some of the first pictures of John Lennon together with Yoko Ono – but not until Lennon himself said it was all right. “I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to photograph them together,” Messer says, “He was still married but John, I think, picked up on [my hesitation] and asked if I could take some pictures for him.”

Messer got the taste for North America in 1972 when he spent four days in Canada on a music junket. But a trip to Nashville four years later sold him on Tennessee. Soon, he’s made a niche for himself photographing stars of the country music scene. “The photography in Nashville at the time was terrible,” he says. “In England the UK press couldn’t use the American pictures that were being sent over – they were so predictable. Country music stars grinning against the backdrop fo a tree.” Messer’s pictures stood out.

He first met Johnny Cash (who he called John) in 1976 but it wasn’t until a decade later that Messer was asked to accompany him on tour. He says Cash and his wife June Carter were like his “American uncle and aunt.” In 1999, he spent a week in Jamaica with the couple.

“Professionally, John is the Man in Black – morose, dark, brooding – but the real John was a laugh-a-minute. He’s run practical jokes on his friends until they paid off,” Messer says. He tells the story of a shopping trip in which Cash insisted he bouth Messer a photographer’s jacket. Messer refused the git, but months later, one afternoon at Cash’s house, Cash appeared wearing the same jacket, took it off, and handed it to him. “I want you to have this,” he said. Messer couldn’t refuse.