Some time ago east coast photographer Lisa Johnson had an idea for a book that conveyed a new angle to appreciating the art that rock musicians create, by celebrating the art form on which, and from which their art emanates; their guitars.
MC: 17 years in the making…when you took that first photograph with Les Paul, what did you think? When did you realize it was going to be a book?
LISA: From the beginning. When I decided I was going to photograph guitars I thought I may as well photograph significant ones, and I’m in New York, and Les played every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club, I thought, ‘I’m going down there and see if I can photograph his guitar.’ I always had doing a book in the back of my mind on guitars…if I can get enough. When I had about 80 or so already photographed, which was about 15 years into the project, I met my publicist, Jeff Albright who has been in the rock-and-roll business for a very long time. He and I engaged services, and just ‘went to town’ over the next two years photographing the rest of the guitars for the book.
MC: More than 500 photos, drop some names of the artists.
LJ: Jimmy Paige, Chrissie Hynde, Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton…
MC: Obviously you’re well connected.
LJ: You know, it’s about picking up the phone over and over and over again, being persistent helped me to be successful in garnering access to these guitars. I truly have to pinch myself looking at the book and say, ‘Holy crap, are these my pictures? I took these? How did I do this?!’
MC: It really is an artistically shot compilation.
LJ: Well thank you. I did want to illustrate the guitar as an object of art. And celebrate work by the musicians, and also show the wear and tear details of the guitars that personified the artists without the artist being in the image. Showing fans what they cannot normally see, because they can’t get that close to the guitar. It gives the fan a portrait of the player’s cherished guitar.
MC: And there are accompanying descriptions with the pictures.
LJ: Oh yes. Every image you see in the book…there’s a tiny description of what you’re seeing. I didn’t want to overwhelm people with text in the book…I want them to be overwhelmed with the imagery. There are little technical quotes about the guitars like, ‘It’s a 1968 Gibson…’ and then there’s a story about my photograph, and my interaction with the artist. It’s real behind-the-scenes intimate information.
MC: Were any of the guitarists difficult to convince of your motive?
LJ: Some happened easily. The more I photographed, the easier it became. But there were and are many that have eluded me. I still don’t have Angus Young, or Mark Knopfler, The Edge…you know, there’s a long list that I don’t have yet, that I plan to put into Volume 2. Sometimes my persistence worked, like when I first requested Rick Nielsen’s guitar, I happened to be in New York, and Cheap Trick had a gig here. I emailed his people and said, ‘Hey, I’m in town, is there any way I can photograph Rick’s guitar?’ I got a one word answer back…NO! Then I happened to get invited to a party where Nielsen was going to be, and I met him! And told him I was doing this book and that I had requested his guitar, but his ‘people’ denied me. And he said, ‘Well sure you can photograph my guitar. Who told you that you couldn’t? He’s fired!’ (laugh) It all paid off, because four of his guitars are in the book.
MC: And the actual time it took to shoot each guitar?
LJ: It was easy to shoot them, but the post production was the hard part, the editing. I took 200 to 300 shots of each guitar, if I shot multiple guitars, I came home easily with more than 1000 images that needed to be edited.
MC: You began 17 years ago, technology has changed a lot.
LJ: When I started I had already been working for the Eastman Kodak Company for about ten years, so I was always testing film, I had to know what my film was ‘doing’ because I was selling the film to other photographers. So not only is the book historical in its own right documenting all the guitars, but it’s historical in that it documents the last film Kodak ever made for Kodak Professional as it transitioned into digital. And I transitioned from a Kodak digital camera into a Nikon digital, and now I shoot Canon digital. It’s pretty cool.
MC: You had an especially hard shoot with Eric Clapton’s guitars?
LJ: Oh my gosh, yes. I photographed all the guitars he auctioned off in 1999 to raise 5-million dollars for his drug rehab center called ‘Crossroads,’ and I had only a couple hours to photograph 105 guitars. I was shooting under florescent lighting at the Christie’s Auction showroom, and at the time I was testing what was called a ‘cool film,’ a color infrared film. But the florescent lighting, mixing with this cool film, it transposed everything I shot into a yellow color. While the images still looked unique, it wasn’t a true representation of the essence of the guitars. So what we did was make black and white inter-negatives and printed them onto black and white paper, and they turned out gorgeous. It’s as if I photographed with black and white infrared film. They are very ethereal, which I love because Clapton’s collection is sold now, and each guitar has it’s own, different owner somewhere out there in the world.
MC: Talk briefly about your association with the Les Paul Foundation.
LJ: He supported me from the beginning, so I love supporting his cause now. The foundation helps kids realize a musical education, while also supporting the hearing impaired. A percentage of my book’s proceeds will go toward the Les Paul Foundation.
MC: Do you still shoot weddings on the side, you know…just for extra cash?
LJ: Ha-ha! Never! I’m a rock-and-roll girl all the way, I don’t even go to weddings, much less photograph them. (laugh)
A short list of the 108 rock stars whose guitars are in the book:
Joe Walsh, Lou Reed, Ted Nugent, Randy Bachman, Peter Frampton, Sheryl Crow, Dewey Bunnell, Nils Lofgren, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Satriani, Rick Derringer
The Significance of 108…
The number 108 has been considered sacred for centuries, making itself evident within everything from ancient ruins to classical literature to astrology; there are twelve houses and, including Pluto, nine planets. 9 x 12 = 108
A prayer garland usually has 108 beads signifying the chanting of a mantra 108 times.
Stonehenge’s Sarsen Circle is 108-feet in diameter.
The distance between the earth and the moon is 108 times the moon’s diameter.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Penelope has 108 suitors.
Lisa chose the Les Paul Foundation to receive a portion of the book’s proceeds because it honors and shares the life, spirit and legacy of Les Paul by supporting music education, engineering, and innovation to pay homage to his technologically pioneering music, his contributions to the world of music, and for his support of her endeavor. Visit lespaulfoundation.org