Photographs by Michael Spencer Jones are shots any nineties and early noughties music fan will know well and hold dearly.
His iconic images graced album covers such as Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, (What’s The Story) Morning Glory?, Be Here Now and A Northern Soul or Urban Hymns by The Verve, and conjure up memories of hearing those quintessential records for the first time.
Each band’s long lasting success is a credit to Michael’s photography, as much as their songs, in terms of iconicity. In turn, Michael is a photographer with a back catalogue of the best, envy-inducing stories of hanging out with bands, some of which he shares below, as well as chatting about his introduction to the medium and the career that followed.
What sparked your interest in photography in the beginning?
When I was about 12 I came across a special 30th anniversary copy of Life magazine on photography, which my dad had lying around the house. It had every aspect of photography in there, documentary reportage, still life, infra-red, fashion etc. There were images taken through the human eye and I was fascinated to learn we actually see upside down but our brain corrects it. There was a photograph taken through the eye of a fish, literally a fish eye lens, which was quite psychedelic. So I was fascinated by all of this. Academically, when I was at school I was very science orientated but when I was about 16 I suddenly became very interested in the arts. Photography was perfect for me because it was where art met science.
If you think back to wanting to be a photographer when you were younger, is the career you’ve had what you imagined?
That’s a great question. I never really envisaged a career as such, I just wanted to create powerful images and use photography as a medium much in the same way as a painter uses paint as a medium. Within the commercial field of photography there aren’t many platforms to do that other than fashion and album covers. I heard David Bailey once say that he got involved in fashion photography not because he was interested in fashion, but because it was one of the only photographic outlets where he could express himself creatively.
Can you talk us through the different cameras you’ve used during your career?
How long have you got? I won’t bore you with a long list but I’ve probably used every camera there is to use. When I was at college I bought a medium format film camera called a Lubitel – it was Russian made and it was very, very cheap. It was made entirely out of plastic and I had to modify it in order for it to work properly; for example I had to paint the camera’s interior with matt black paint otherwise you would get flare on the images. I threw it out in the end but I wish I had held onto it because I took some great photos with it. I still have my De Vere 5×4 plate camera which I used when I did the interior photos on (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
Is there a certain kind or model which you’re always drawn to for instance, and if so why?
By far my favourite film camera is the Olympus OM2. It was smaller than most other 35mm cameras but it was very simple to operate and was designed like no other camera. I also loved the Japanese Zuiko lenses that went with it, they were sharp but smooth.
You’re widely known for your photographs of Oasis and The Verve. Can you tell us about the best and worst bits of being a music photographer?
Well the best bits are hanging out with musicians who are fun people to be around, also if you’re ever doing live band shots you have the best view in the house.
There aren’t really any worst bits other than some of the pressures involved. For example, if someone has a bad day at the office, it’s all forgotten about within a couple of days but being a photographer you can’t really afford to have a bad day; if you take a bad set of pictures then they are there for all to see for weeks, months or years. I can remember some of the important shoots I did for Oasis when I’d been out with Liam the previous night on an all-nighter and then having to conjure up a great image for their next album or single cover, sporting the worst hangover imaginable. That was very tough but you get yourself in the zone and focus like it’s a Wimbledon singles final.
Your photographs of those bands have since been those that fans hold very dearly. Why do you think this is?
Well, it’s about communication and those covers are communicating ideas, they are speaking their own language and so that creates a connection. But if you take the cover to Definitely Maybe, you have a photograph with an abstract narrative that doesn’t glamorise the artist but elevates them in an abstract way. There is an equilibrium to the shot which makes it quite powerful. It’s difficult to quantify. We look at a rainbow and it looks beautiful but we don’t know why it looks beautiful. Understanding aesthetics is difficult, it’s ultimately about very complex algorithms. But one of my favourite quotes is from Damien Hirst “If it looks good it probably is good” and that has been one of my mantras.
What is your favourite photograph of a band you’ve taken?
Probably my favourite photograph is of The Verve with a burning car which I took for A Storm in Heaven. It’s the juxtaposition of a burning car set against a peaceful bucolic scene and the fact that the subjects are completely uninterested or unaware that there is a burning car in their garden. There is a global analogy to that photograph.
Finally, please can you tell us the story behind the fascinating and iconic Be Here Now shoot?
It was just a very crazy shoot on so many levels. Stocks House, or hotel as it was then, used to belong to Victor Lownes of the Playboy Empire who was essentially second in command to Hugh Hefner. They had a lot of outrageous parties and orgies there in the seventies so we all thought it would make for a good location. We were going to use Clivedon House, home to the Profumo affair in the sixties, but Stocks was better because you could get the pool and house together in one shot. It was Bonehead’s idea and was an homage to Keith Moon of The Who who had supposedly driven his Rolls Royce into his swimming pool one night.
The shoot was fraught with difficulties. We had to drain the pool, repaint it and then re-fill it. On the night before the shoot I had attached a hose into the swimming pool and had expected it to fill over night. When I woke up in the morning I freaked out to see that there was only a few centimetres of water in the pool. With the band arriving in a couple of hours I began to envisage their reaction to arriving at the shoot to find a Rolls Royce not submerged in water but fresh air! In the end the fire brigade had to be called and they attached the hose to a nearby fire hydrant. Unfortunately this had the effect of diverting the whole water supply away from the hotel and so none of the guests of the five star hotel could flush their toilets or even make a cup of tea and so there was a near riot within the hotel. It was originally going to be a night shot but by nightfall the band had got completely intoxicated on gin and tonics from the free bar and couldn’t stand, let alone take instructions and so we ended up using one of the shots I had done earlier in the day.
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