An interview with Music Photographer Paul Windsor

An interview with Music Photographer Paul Windsor by Robby Allen.

I first met Paul Windsor when I was 18 years old. He was four years older than me – an age gap that seemed enormous at the time. He described me as young and shy and he seemed out of reach because he was a professional artist and it felt unlikely I would be able to hold a mature conversation with him. At the time I was in a band called the Magic Roundabout, a precursor to the more successful Mild Mannered Janitors. Even in those early days we all knew that he was a gifted photographer. What I regarded as an uncanny ‘knack’ of being in the right place at the right time was only partially true because it ignored an incredible skill that is modestly referred to in the following conversation.

How did you get started?

At school a lot of friends picked up guitars; that never appealed to me but at the time I was an avid reader of NME. I fell in love with stuff from Penny Smith and Anton Corbijn. Then I saw a film called ‘Blow Up’ that had a David Bailey type character. I thought that looks quite cool, I’ll do that and try and photograph bands at the same time. I’d always gone to see bands. I bought my own enlarger, got chemicals, got trays and turned the lights out. The first gig I went to photograph was New Order. I had a little Olympus Trip camera. The photos turned out rather well. They were one of the main bands at that time and mates said they’d like prints of them. It went on from then really…30 odd years later I’m still doing it! I didn’t photograph that many bands at first because the chemicals and paper back then were relatively expensive. When I started to photograph more I organised that gig with Magic Roundabout and the Prisoners at Kimballs [Portsmouth] which is the only gig I’ve ever promoted. We sold all of the tickets so we were not going to lose any money and I was quite relaxed about it all. Then I was told that the lift was not working and Jamie Taylor was refusing to carry his organ up the stairs. So I had to ring round and get half a dozen people to carry a Hammond organ up the stairs!

You get three songs?

Music photographers only get three songs. It’s a rule that goes back to the early 1970s with David Bowie’s manager who didn’t want photographs of Ziggy Stardust’s makeup and his face and so he said just three songs, that’s your lot then bugger off. As far as I’m aware that’s when it first started and it’s become and Industry standard now. It’s a pain if the lighting is crap because quite often you can’t use flash. For most shows that’s ok, but sometimes you come out of it with no photographs whatsoever or just one or two. With dry ice and backlighting it can be quite tricky.

Do you start with a plan of what you would ideally like to get?

You don’t really get time to think. You have to react to what is going on onstage. If you’ve seen a band before you have an inkling of what they are going to be like. Because you only have three songs I generally stick to the lead singer basically. If you’re with an agency you need to have certain number of photographs for each band member. But I stick to the main actor if I’m strictly limited for time. If you know a band and say, the guitarist is going to leap around a lot, you might switch to them. If you know in that song at that point the guitarist is going to do a scissor kick you get there ready for it. I worked with The Dub Pistols and because they know me they gave me more time and I had more scope to get backstage. When they know you as a photographer they kind of play up to the camera a bit and you have to react to that as well.

I’ve heard photography described as finding the moment – how does it work with you?

Henri Cartier-Bresson said that it is a split second between your brain and your forefinger when you press the button. Even back in the day you would be lucky to do one roll of film – 36 frames. I rarely used two rolls of film. Iggy Pop at Isle of Wight I used two rolls and Slipknot I used two. Even now with digital, when there is no limit to the amount you can take, I still generally stick to 30 or 40 pictures for those ten minutes. Other photographers just bang away and they’re not really thinking about what they’re taking. In three songs they can take 300 shots. With a band like The Damned for example where each song might be two and half minutes – for three songs you do not have a lot of time. You have a split second and that’s what you photograph.

Out of all the photographs you have taken – which are you most proud of and why?

I had the privilege of photographing The Who, which was amazing as you can imagine. I still think they are astonishingly good. I wanted to get a photograph of Daltrey and Townshend together but they didn’t do that very often in the first three songs. Had to get close. They had these big speakers at the front of the stage and when Townshend did his power chords it was so loud it literally rattled my ribcage. Such a force of nature it was quite extraordinary. The following night was one of the most important set of pictures I took – which was David Bowie. It’s a bit touch and go because they don’t allow everyone to take photographs of them and keep it down to six or seven agencies. I only found out about an hour before the show, I’d never seen or photographed him before. I found my spot and banged away at what turned out to be his last ever UK show with Oasis, it was a really early show and the first time anyone wore a football top on stage with Liam wearing a Man City shirt. I was stood next to Kevin Cummings, quite a legendary Manchester NME photographer; we got virtually the same photographs only mine are in black and white and his are in colour.

At the last Victorious Festival Lewis Capaldi was playing. It was the most packed I have ever seen. Before him was Professor Green and as I got to know the stage manager at Castle Field he let me on stage. I got to the lip of the stage and I took a wide shot of this crowd. In the Portsmouth News it was the front-page picture. They’d never done a whole picture as front page, in the past it had always been two or three pictures – I was quite chuffed about that! That photograph illustrates the music scene at the moment where the culture has changed so much. Annoyingly, when you go to a show now everyone has a mobile phone out.

Have you ever had any run-ins with musicians you are photographing?

With Jesus and The Mary Chain in the 1990s they basically played in the dark and you couldn’t use a flash. I thought I’d hang around until they chucked me out. At about song seven William Reed [guitarist] leaned over to me and said, “you can fuck off now son!” With Slipknot I had two cameras and I put a camera on stage, one of the guys from the band – the one with a mask with a really long nose, came over and picked my spare camera up. I thought he was going to trash it, as it was complete chaos. They wore these red jumpsuits so I literally grabbed hold of it and him. He was pulling away and I was trying to get my camera back. He actually took a wide shot of the crowd. Later I was marshalled out and in the corridor this American guy shouted at me “you went past three numbers, I told you it was only three numbers!” I told him: “it’s carnage out there and it’s difficult to tell one song from the other quite frankly!” He said he wanted the film from the camera. I said: “you’re not.” He said if I didn’t give him it he’d throw me out – I said that was fine! The reason why I didn’t give him the film was with REM I went in without a photo pass, I got a tap on the shoulder from security and the tour manager grabbed my camera and opened the back up, ripped the film out and chucked it on the floor. He said if I stopped taking shots I could stay, so I went back in to watch the rest of the show…with six other rolls of film in my pocket. You can’t take your camera into a show without the proper accreditation; although everyone has now got mobile phones. Woh-betide you if you turn up with a camera for 90% of the shows. They’ll drop you straight away.

Credit Paul Windsor

What advice do you have for anyone starting out in the field?

The printed media is a lot less now, hanging by its fingernails. The most difficult thing is to get accreditation. You have to be working for a newspaper or magazine or a decent music website. Because I’ve been working for the news for 25 years I can do most shows I want. I shoot what I want. Without accreditation you’re stuffed really. I do this part time now. People have asked why I don’t do it full time, but I think that you would have to live in London to do it. I know people who are premier league [music] photographers and even they can’t make too much out of it. Digital makes it so much easier to do it. Back in the day you had a film camera and you couldn’t see what you had until it was developed. I also say to people when was the last time you bought a CD or album – when they say they have spotify I say “there’s your answer!” If they don’t buy albums, CDs – artists have to make that money somehow. Basic economics.

I’ve been working with the news since 1994 and I say to editors do you get lots of young photographers knocking on the door asking ‘can I photograph so-and-so. I’m told: ”no I don’t.” All you’ve got to do is start shooting a few [local] bands, develop a relationship with them and do stuff for their website or whatever. Do a little review for the news. Take it from there. You’ve got to be quite passionate about it. The hardest thing is editing. A lot of people will put 30 or 40 pictures on their Facebook page; when I look at them, after three or four I’m bored. I say put four max – edit it down to the best. Anton Corbijn used to drive NME editors nuts because he would send them just four pictures. They’d ask for the rest and he’d say ‘that’s what you’re having’ because he had edited down to what he thought were the best pictures. That’s my attitude, I send what I think is best because I’ve thought about it and edited down to the best. After a while you get to know what the sub editor wants.

I’m quite quick off the ball too so for example I get a notification when Paul Weller is on tour and I apply for a photo pass in the morning. He was going to play in April but it’s been put back to March I think.

Paul Weller – Photo Credit Paul Windsor


If you want to engage Paul Windsor for your band or project or to purchase prints you can contact him via Facebook messenger.

Interview by Robby Allen & photos owned and credit to photographer Paul Windsor.

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