Ian Tilton Interview - 6th July 2002

  Photographer IAN TILTON caught the Roses at their peak, with his photos adorning the sleeve of the Roses' classic debut. His association with the Roses goes back even further than that though. While most of the music press was slow to catch on to The Stone Roses, Ian was championing their cause from the outset, telling the Live Editor of Sounds to cover the band. Also, he was the first photographer to do a Pollock shoot with the Roses.

His photo of Kurt Cobain crying (Seattle, 1990) was voted the 6th best rock 'n' roll image ever for a Q magazine special edition in 2002. He has photographed a wide range of leading artists, including The Smiths, Guns 'N' Roses and The Cure, to name only a few.

Ian kindly sent me some never before seen photos from his personal collection, to accompany the feature.

Thanks to Ian for taking the time to answer these questions, and Damian Morgan for making the interview possible.

Q1) Can you detail the first and last occasions on which you shot the band ?

The manager Howard Jones wanted to take some shots for publicity purposes - I'd been round to his house to look at some snaps of the band from Boots that were awful. The guys were really small in the pictures. They were in that bandana wearing period and he told me they had changed image since then.

So the first time I met and shot them was when they came to my studio - Rob Hampson was in the band at the time - even then they had definite ideas about what they didn't want to look like and always wanting to do something a bit different, but not quite sure what constituted a bit different.

It was John's idea, I think, not to do a whole band shot, but to do two groups of two. I put Ian and John together. John and Ian were wearing dark colours; Rob and Reni were wearing white. That's why I put them together. We just did various poses using the Pollock painted guitars. The other interesting thing about that shoot - they brought along a Pollocked style canvas that they used at gigs on-stage and said I could use that. I scrunched it up and placed it in between them - in between their heads - again just to do something a bit different. I liked the fact they said, "Yeah let's try it out". They were open to my ideas and trusted it would look good. I've a colour shot of John and Ian from that session, the only colour shot I took.

Years later, one of the band roadies said to me - Chris, I think - said he thought the scrunched up canvas looked like a rose shape, which was totally unintentional - but when I looked at it - I thought 'f***in' hell it does !' It looked like a stone rose !

The last time I photographed the Roses together was Glasgow Green.

The last time I met Ian was the day before he got arrested for air-rage and I went to a rehearsal studios in Heaton Moor, and photographed Ian solo for Q. He was great - full of life and gave me a hug. I didn't know how he'd react to me - how time might have changed him - it was great to be so welcomed in such a way.

Q2) How different a band were they from the 1987 shoot you detailed (apart from personnel) to the one that graced the Sounds front cover in August 1989 ?

There were very little differences in the band between those two sessions. Having a bit more fun and enjoying the acclaim in the Sounds feature, but always superbly confident, fresh and energetic. That's what I really liked about them - especially Ian - that wonderful giving energy. He gave a lot and was interested in life. That's what I always got from him particularly.

Q3) Were you surprised at how slow the rest of the country outside Manchester caught on to the Roses ? From your comments in the John Robb book, I get the impression that you had to goad the Sounds Live Editor into covering them. The Editor was unsure as to whether they warranted covering prior to the Hacienda 1989 show. And you replied "They'll pack out the Hacienda".

I phoned Shaun (live editor of Sounds) two weeks before the Hacienda gig and said, "Do you want to cover it ?". Shaun 'hmmmmed' and 'aaaahed' and said he'd tell me nearer the time. I phoned up a couple of days before the gig and asked him again. And he said "Not very sure about this, maybe not". At which point I recommended he really should because they were gonna pack out the Hacienda, which he obviously didn't realize so he changed his mind.

No, I wasn't surprised that the London papers were out of touch with what was happening with the Manchester scene then. A good editor is one who doesn't necessarily know everything that's going on but relies on his stringers (journalists he regularly employs). Someone who builds up a really good team and takes their advice. What did amaze me was how little certain editors of other papers didn't know about music at all. The great thing about Sounds was everyone was a music fan. It was like a fanzine with lots more money behind it.

All the writers and editors had their own fanzines at one time or did writing previously for fanzines. That's what made it so good in my opinion.

Q4) When did you first get that feeling about the Roses, "this band is gonna be big" ? Were the band an assured outfit, confident they were going to make it ?

They gave me the 12" of Sally Cinnamon and I played it over and over. I loved it. I knew they were good. I didn't really have any previous experience of predicting if a band I liked was gonna be big. Didn't think about it but I was really happily surprised when the LP took off.

An interesting story, I went over to John's and he played me the tape of various tracks from the debut while they were recording it. They played me Don't Stop and I didn't like it. I thought it was really retro 60's and un-cool. But it seemed to go down really well with the public. What I really love about the Roses was their harmonies, particularly Reni's contributions. Without him I wouldn't have liked them quite so much. Reni's contribution has been understated. He never got the acclaim he deserved.

I went on holiday to Cyprus and took that album with me. I played it for 10 days over and over. Brilliant holiday album to play !

Q5) The Roses had every kind of vice thrown at them by the media. As someone who had close access to the band, how would you describe the personalities of each member ?

Ian - (see answer to Question 2)
John - thinker, talented introvert, doesn't like parties, would sit in his bedroom, playing guitar for hours and hours and hours. Political. Mysterious.
Reni - probably the most talented of them all musically, but having to take a back seat. Frustrated drummer. Pissed him off more than he let it show.
Mani - mate of band that couldn't really play bass but fitted in perfectly because of his attitude.

The band altogether ? A gang. A non-violent gang. Just so motivated to create something wonderful. The confidence they had always came over - inspiring in their confidence. Ian did it all his way. The band weren't scared to be influenced and show their influences: The Clash, Pistols, John with his art (Pollock), etc.

Q6) Did you strike up a good relationship with any of the Roses in particular ?

I've never gone out of my way to make friends with any person I've photographed - it helps in photos to have a certain distance from people. When friendships happen with me they kind of evolve but I was travelling round the world for a few years. And it's difficult because you're like a rolling stone gathering no mossy friendships !

Q7) Probably my favourite Stone Roses poster is this Elephant Stone promo poster, featuring a shot from the 'Pollocked Glass' session. Can you tell us about that 1988 session.

It was at Gareth Evans's house / farm - he always called it 'the farm'. It's near to where Johnny Marr lives now - not far from Dunham Massey or Tatton Park, Cheshire. We went over with the main idea of photographing through a sheet of glass that John was gonna paint. It was probably John's idea.

The roadies brought over the glass - 7 foot square approx. and really f***ing heavy ! It needed lifting very carefully. You had to make sure to carry it vertically - not horizontally or it would break. The roadies (one of which was 'Chris the piss') carried it with thick leather gloves to stop cutting their fingers.

I said we should take it to the middle of the field. John took his paint and did his Pollock type design.

And then I shot them looking through the glass on infra-red black and white and then infra-red colour film. The one on the poster had a yellow filter over the lens, but I did other variations, some of which have never been seen. A purple one turned out brilliant. I might actually bring that one out. In some shots, we captured the edge of glass, making it really obvious how the effect was created. We did a lot of variations and then the roadies carried the glass back to the van. But it broke under its own weight ! "Christ", I thought to myself, "I really hope we don't have to do a reshoot !"



Pollocked glass photo session at manager Gareth Evans' farm in Cheshire, 7th September 1988.

Q8) Regarding that Pollock session, you commented in an interview with Damian Morgan:

'John painted the sheet of glass under my instruction, until we were both happy.'

Did you have much knowledge of Pollock's work also ?

John came over quite a few times with his canvases and we spent many minutes pondering just which section of those canvases to photograph. If you'd seen us, it would have been amusing ! Us two staring silently for minutes until one of us said "I like this bit over here". Him going, "we should move a bit to the left", "I like this swirly bit or the way this paint merges with that bit there." Whilst scratching our chins ! But really enjoyable. That gave me quite an insight into how exacting and precise he was about his seemingly slapdash pictures. He really enjoyed seeing how certain things looked - studying them in detail. I have quite a few photos from that shoot, including some slides never used.

I had no knowledge of Pollock's work - my input was to say "it needs a bit more there", "don't put the paint on too heavily because I need to see your faces through the glass. The choice of colours was down to him, his intuition. The thing about the colours on my photos though - because it's infrared film, it will be completely different from colours he used. That's the way infra-red works - e.g., green grass turns completely white.

Q9) How much of a hand did you have in the image put across by the band in photoshoots. You were responsible for quite a few of the signatures of the band, from Ian's 'monkey pout' to capturing the 'Pollock look.'

They came to me and said "We want something different every time" and every time we did.

In shoots I would say to Ian, "I want you animated so talk to me while I'm taking pictures". So he's going "you're a f***ing cunt", whilst jabbing his finger at the lens. While I kept saying over and over "say it again". Pretty comical ! We always wanted to achieve something different. For example, in the first shoot, we never did a four-piece band shoot. Instead we did two groups of two.

I made Ian do the 'monkey face' for the Sounds cover feature. Ian was always up for looking cool but didn't mind making a monkey out of himself (literally !). It was just so different. Can't say it was really cool at the time but he made it cool by his supreme confidence. I can't imagine anyone else pulling that off.

Q10) You are probably not Reni's favourite photographer though, given the stick he received over that Sounds chin shot !?

The Sounds piece came out the week we all went to Blackpool. The band nicked my camera when I was down the front of the bus and took photos of each other jutting their chins out. I didn't know they'd done this until I developed the film. Even though Reni was pissed off, he took it in good spirit. And he took the piss out of me by using my film up - he and the Roses didn't know how to use the camera properly though, and the shots were out of focus !

The Stone Roses on their way to Blackpool, August 1989.

Q11) Can you talk us through your August 1989 Sounds session with the Roses, when you had them on the cover.

They came over to the studio knowing we had to do a cover shoot in colour. I said "let's do group shots but if we do individual shots and they turn out good, then well we'll use that". I wanted to just have a rose colour background and let the ideas evolve. I've always been one for putting animation into stills and not using people as props, like so many photographers of the time did. It also never interested me to make people look good, to the annoyance of many bands I photographed. I wanted to make bands interesting through characters. I'm sure I could make people look cool but to me, that's rarely the most interesting photo.

The band just trusted me to do the job as best I could, 'cos they knew me pretty well by then and felt really comfortable.

Ian pulled that monkey face. I thought 'that might look goofy but really good, do it again'

Q12) You were going to see (and photograph) the band even when you weren't commissioned by anyone (e.g. Blackpool, August 1989), which illustrates how big a fan you were. Photographers always state how important it is that they have respect for the people they are shooting. No problem for you on that front as you were one of their biggest fans !

I remember a gig at the International, Gareth's club (Ian wore a Pollock painted shirt that looked really stiff !). I went for a meal with them at a pizza place round the corner. Gareth said to me "We want you to be our photographer, do all our photos and travel round the world with us." It never worked out though !

I went to so many of their gigs and didn't take a camera. It doesn't help your dancing ! I knew at the time of those '89 gigs that they were really special.

Q13) One thing that strikes me about the '89 photo sessions is how unemotional Mani looks in some of the photos ! For example, this one from July 1989.

Funny you should say that. Yeah, there'd be photo-shoots I'd be doing with the band, where Mani would be goofily smiling like a kid, while the rest of the band would be looking cool. I had to tone him down. The Rolling Stones had a similar situation with Brian Jones in a lot of their photo shoots. Y'know the smiling happy kid, looking completely out of place from the look of the other members.

That camera in the photo was given to me on my wedding day, by a friend of my wife. Her job was to make props for TV. John took a shine to that camera.

Q14) What are your memories of the Spike Island press conference and subsequent gig ?

I remember Caroline Ahern standing up in front of a room of journalists from all over the world, pretending to be a journalist, asking, "I'd really like to ask, what's your favourite colour ?". And everyone just started laughing. She really loved the band. I took a photograph of her, Craig Cash (co-writer of The Royle Family) and Ian, and gave her the photo.

I remember seeing Pennie Smith and Philip Hall at the Conference. I took a few shots from behind the Roses of all the photographers.

As for the subsequent gig, I was commissioned by Select. I couldn't get close to the stage but I got some good backstage shots.

Everyone had to wait too long at Spike Island. You couldn't get beer. You had to cue for an hour in heat to get any. Catering organisation was crap ! There was a beer tent with five different taps for thousands of people - and they were slow pouring taps !


Craig Cash and Caroline Ahern (co-writers of The Royle Family) with Ian Brown. Spike Island press conference, Piccadilly Hotel, Manchester, May 1990. Click here to view a large photo of the press conference. If you look closely at the back of this photo, you can see someone filming the press conference.

Q15) The borders you incorporate into the photos add something special to them, and make them instantly recognizable as your own. What was the inspiration behind that addition ?

There were other photographers using borders. I quite liked Kevin Cummins' border but just thought it was too big and detracted away from the photos themselves. So I designed my own simpler one. I really thought it necessary to have a black edge and I designed my own broken black edge. Photographers have been using borders from the '70s. There was a Fairport Convention album with some simple squiggly mask that I thought looked really good.

Q16) What were your favourite photo session(s) with the band and why ?

Blackpool, because I was the only photographer to get such unique access. At this stage they were so comfortable with my company and they were on such a high, we all had such fun and a memorable day out. I did that shoot because I wanted to. Nobody commissioned me. I got some great images, like Ian with a whole orange in his mouth, the intimate shots of friendship between Ian and Cressa that I've never seen anyone else get. The band backstage after the gig, sweating and shattered. Reni with a white towel and a bottle of brandy.

Q17) Any particularly favourite gigs ? The shots you caught of Ian and John at Glasgow Green are fantastic.

I was E'd up when I took those Glasgow Green photos and while taking them I was thinking 'everything looks fantastic through the lens……wonder if they'll be shit when I develop them'. But they turned out to be one of the best colour live sessions I ever did of them.

Fans at Glasgow Green, 9th June 1990.

Q18) How was it decided which photos were chosen from your The Other Side Of Midnight session for use on the debut inner (and back) sleeve? Were the ones to be found on the album your first choices ?

After the Granada studio recording they asked me to print up a load of black and white shots really quickly and I gave them to John. They said they wanted to use them on the record sleeve. I didn't know that when I was on my way to Granada. A few days later I got a call from Gareth or John, asking could I reprint one of them (the one on the back cover of the whole band) as it was too dark. The printers were having trouble with the black ink scumming up.

The printers sent me a copy that I've still got. It has to be the only one in the world where the lemons are raised / embossed. So I just reprinted that picture double quick and sent it over to the printers.

It was totally John's choices what photos made it onto the debut album. He just cut out bits and bats, did it his way. I didn't have a choice.

On the subject of that photo session, there was a giant TV camera on wheels moving around the floor at high speed whilst filming, pretty dangerous. The band or myself could easily have been bashed but it never happened. Frighteningly large cameras !


The Stone Roses performing Waterfall on The Other Side Of Midnight. Granada Studios, Manchester, January 1989. Click here to view a large photo of John Squire during this performance.

Q19) The photos used on the inner sleeve of TSR work particularly well in black and white, don't they ? A successful attempt to capture a 60's-esque look of the band ?

Yeah. I thought they were very like The Who at that point in their image, y'know, that mod, scooter-boy influence.

Q20) You weren't paid much for the TOSOM session, yet your photos grace a big selling album. Smart business by Gareth Evans eh ?

Yeah, I was never interested in being a bread-head at the time. I just went along with it, enjoyed it and was really chuffed the photos were used later on an album sleeve. Maybe he owes me something !!

Q21) Do you have any particularly funny stories or fond memories of your time with the band that you would like to share with us ?

I remember going to where Ian lived (Probably around 1988) on Chatham Grove, West Didsbury border. There were loads of rough looking guys in the house, real gangsters ! And Ian introduced me to them all quite casually. I'd never met gangsters in Manchester before. I soon came to realize that was just Ian's way. He makes friends very easily, takes people as he finds them.

They really pioneered making a name for themselves by being mysterious, getting a home based fan-base and then moving out from there. Many bands make it famous by becoming famous in another country / city, then they become famous at home. Because you're never really appreciated on your own doorstep. But the Roses did it the opposite way. And that way of making it famous was copied by the Charlatans. I did their first ever publicity session when they got on a major label. I took one shot of them where they were all silhouettes. They asked me, "do you think this is a good idea ?". They wanted to know whether it was a good move to get the press interest, yet keep that 'mystery'. I told them I thought it was a terrific idea.

Q22) If one shot illustrates how tension-free the band were before big gigs, it's this one, taken before Blackpool.

That's a favourite of mine also. Hilarious ! We walked into a giant hall and they started messing about on this dolly truck, on it for ages, just pushing each other around.

Q23) Have you generally used the same equipment in capturing the classic shots of the Roses over the years ? Can you give us a run-down on what you use ?

Nikon is all that I use now. For Medium format I use Mamiya. At the time I used Pentax for 35mm photography, which hardly any photographer used professionally, as it was very expensive, very high quality lenses.

Q24) What tips and advice would you give to up and coming photographers ?

I'm out of the music scene so that's difficult. The doors opened for me are behind me. You have to do it your own way. I did photos for the love of it at first, for no money. Take photos of a band and give them free prints. Bands liked shots I did and their friends liked shots, so they asked me to do theirs. That was one way in, of building up a folio without trying too hard.

I've been going to gigs since I was 14, before I even picked up a camera.

I worked for City Life (Manchester magazine), which paid nothing. But there were lots of spin-offs from that. I did it my way but that path's closed now. Do things out of love of it and keep doing it. Look for opportunities to get paid for doing it. If you're good, sooner or later it will happen for you. I was really patient with people. That's what was needed at the time - not to be an arsehole. A few photographers had really bad attitudes.

If any of the Stone Roses are reading this, "hi and thanks for everything".

I was looking in my diaries the other day of that period and all the commissions that I've had. In 1988, things started really hotting up, going out, loads of shoots to do. 1990 was very busy. And I lost the diary for 1989 ! Wish I hadn't as it would make very entertaining reading !

Great while it happened, that Manchester scene. Looking back, it's been and gone really fast, those 2 years, with the scene quickly petering out into dance music. Although at the time it didn't really feel like the centre of all that was going on (I was off around the world photographing Nirvana, Guns 'N' Roses…), looking back, you just realize how it was the centre of everything at that time.

To visit Ian Tilton's website, click here. All photos (c) Ian Tilton. Please contact Ian's agent, Damian Morgan, through the link available on the official site, if you wish to use these in any manner.

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