Michael Putland (27 May 1947 – 18 Nov 2019)

A tribute to the great music photographer who died on 18 November

Michael Putland (photo by Jake Vine)
Michael Putland (photo by Jake Vine)

The highly-respected and long-established music photographer Michael Putland, who Jazzwise was honoured to work with over the past six years, died at home of cancer on 18 November, aged 72.

Born in Harrow on 27 May 1947, Michael had photography and music in his blood from a very young age, listening to Lonnie Donegan, Nina Simone and Ray Charles on Radio Luxembourg and taking his first snaps on a Kodak Brownie Cresta when he was nine years old. Encouraged by an amateur photographer uncle, who also introduced him to the music of Miles Davis, he left school at 16 and got a job as a photographic assistant in Pimlico while exploring London’s exploding club scene of the mid-1960s, seeing Graham Bond, Georgie Fame, John Mayall, Tubby Hayes, the Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, Julie Driscoll/Brian Auger Trinity and the early happenings of the psychedelic counterculture, often with camera in hand. Unlike today, there were few music photographers around and were rarely seen at live gigs unless big pop names were playing.

After taking his own space in a shared studio he began pitching his work to the big music weeklies in 1968 – Melody Maker, NME, Disc and Music Echo and later Sounds – who had enormous influence worldwide throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s for forward-looking journalism and cutting-edge photography. Disc and Music Echo were impressed and commissioned a Rolling Stones session which ended up on the cover, and Michael became the paper’s house photographer. He was in the right place at the right time, building a reputation for his sharp eye, imaginative composition and friendly manner, capturing musicians in relaxed and informal situations as well as dynamic up-close live shots, rather than the more formal portraiture then practiced by the few long-serving lensmen on the scene. Access is everything and in those days the doors were often open, whether it was the Stones, the Beatles, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin.

Musicians felt comfortable around Michael and when he decided to become freelance he was asked to be tour photographer for the Rolling Stones, as well as being invited to shoot major names inside their homes, including John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Jeff Beck, Keith Richards and David Bowie. Michael often said that during the 1970s he simply never stopped working, and many of his photos from these decades have become known worldwide: intimate windows onto an unrivalled period in contemporary music.

I first met Michael briefly in 1977 when I first joined Sounds music paper, but he was a much in-demand figure and soon relocated to New York where he opened the photo agency, Retna, which he built up into one of the largest independent photo agencies. His burgeoning reputation led to fashion shoots and with celebrities from the film and media world, but music always drew him back, whether it be worldwide icons such as Prince, Madonna and Paul McCartney or increasingly a preference for working with jazz artists and a return to the music he so loved from his early years. Not surprisingly, after his exhaustive 50-year international career, he became more at home at Ronnie Scott's watching Lizz Wright, Branford Marsalis and Kurt Elling weave their magic rather than the corporate entertainment overload of Wembley Stadium and the O2.

I reconnected with Michael in 2014 after he expressed an interest in shooting for Jazzwise. To meet up again with this talented, warm and generous individual and to have the opportunity to feature his work on the cover and in several interview pieces, as well as share his company at home in Sussex, was indeed a pleasure. Among his more recent work was Kamasi Washington at Love Supreme and Wayne Shorter at the Barbican, while a large format book of his work from over the last half decade, The Music I Saw, was published in 2018. Our thoughts go out to his wife and family.




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