The Rhapsody meets Michael Joseph, the world-renowned photographer behind the Beggars Banquet images of The Rolling Stones’ infamous photoshoot of 1968.
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Beggars Banquet: An Interview with Michael Joseph

How do you get to be the photographer who’s shot some the most iconic album images in the history of rock ‘n’ roll? That’s exactly what I aimed to find out from Michael Joseph, the world-renowned photographer behind the Beggars Banquet images of The Rolling Stones’ infamous photoshoot of 1968.

Shot on location at the Gothic studio of Sarum Chase, Hampstead and the derelict ruins of Swarkestone in Derbyshire, Joseph’s photographs feature The Rolling Stones in an ethereal state. Elaborately staged portraits are contrasted with atmospheric shots of the band outside the barren manor house, surrounded by cattle and playing cricket in the overgrown grass. Joseph’s vibrant, eccentric style is clearly displayed in this renowned series with whimsical costumes and live animals used as props throughout the shoot.

Joseph was born in South Africa in 1941 and grew up amid anti-apartheid activity. After being gifted his first camera by his grandmother at the age of 6 he went on to shoot compelling scenes across the country before following a career in journalism and fashion. Proudly unconventional, Joseph remarked that he aimed to take photographs that were decisive and edgy, choosing the extraordinary over the ordinary.

At the heart of the exhibition is the medieval feast featured on the inside cover of The Stones’ 1968 album, ‘Beggars Banquet’. Characterised by its rich colours and beautiful lighting, this theatrical scene challenges traditional photography with a hazy, surreal style informed by Joseph’s admiration of Dutch renaissance artists Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel.

The photographs in this series take their place in the turbulent history of one of the most celebrated and influential albums of all time. The album signalled a return to The Stones’ roots in blues, country and rock ‘n’ roll and also marked the band’s last recording before Brian Jones’ untimely death. Despite a conflict between the band and producers whilst choosing the album’s cover, Joseph’s shot was ultimately selected to feature inside and remains one of the most admired photographs of The Stones.

Beggars Banquet: Photographs by Michael Joseph, an exhibition dedicated to The Rolling Stones’ infamous photoshoot of 1968 is currently on show at Proud Galleries in London, and we caught up with Michael Joseph via email to learn more about the show, as well as the weird and wonderful adventures that have coloured his life before and after the infamous shoot.

The Rhapsody meets Michael Joseph, the world-renowned photographer behind the Beggars Banquet images of The Rolling Stones’ infamous photoshoot of 1968.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?


Your title is rather appropriate, as my life has been one very long rhapsody in photographs!
It could have ended at 2 in an idyllic lagoon in Knysna, Cape Province, now the republic of South Africa, as I was allowed, by my 5-year-old sister Jessica, to float out to sea. My sunbathing mum became aware I was not splashing, so asked where I was! So by the time my mum ran around to the railway bridge, where the water narrowed, I floated by, and I was rescued and given a good inverted shaking. 

This was where we lived during the war, as my dad joined the South African air force and had a wonderful war up in Cairo, as he was able to play squash with the current world champs!
My life really kicked off at six, as my German granny came out to stay and her gift was a mini Zeiss-ikon (z-I) using mini rolls of 127 film. So I imagine I was attached to it and started taking memorable South African scenes.

So, at 14 I was allowed to buy a beauty, luckily using 35mm film, as rolls of 36 were heaven, as my z-I only had 8 on a roll! And as I got into an amazing school down in Natal, Michael House, as we had moved to Johannesburg  where my dad became a stockbroker. I became hooked on carpentry, as the tin shed was full of lathes and boys producing bowls and candlesticks. So after one of each decided to make a very modern coffee table I’d seen in a Norwegian magazine. So, I get the junior carpentry prize and then decided to get into printing, as I saw a few fab prints done by a housemate, who in a few minutes explained about shading and dodging, and, after winning 1st prizes at each competition, figured I was on the right track!

 

Let’s start from the beginning – how did you first encounter photography and music?

How did you first encounter photography, well would u believe, my mum met an elderly German, Leo Breitbarth also fleeing the tyranny of Nazi Germany on the boat to South Africa! She was already married to another German, who came out to find a farm. Leo started a record and camera shop, so as a kid I’d hear some jazz some classics, also realized I could afford a Nikon with the generous discount offered by Leo, who was keen on my mum! The shop, Recordia, apparently the best in the southern hemisphere also sold photo annuals. By browsing these I got an early idea on what made a good shot! Especially the arty nude prints, printed through frosty glass.

 

Who was most influential in shaping your musical tastes?

Aged 18 I was asked to photograph the musical King Kong, as my dad raised the finance, having the Oppenheimers and other very rich clients to sponsor it. The music was very powerful, and as I shot the show many times, got to like many songs. Then, the next night my dad took me to see Harry Belafonte in Carmen Jones, which had quite an effect on me as my dad used to play Carmen more frequently than others. The next day, after a leisurely lunch with friends, my dad comes back feeling unwell. It took our Dr an hour to cross Johannesburg, and I saw him injecting insulin into his heart. So at 49 he has his 3rd heart attack.

Now, what made me feel very strongly about shooting an image, so always try and keep a camera handy. At his funeral, there was a mountain of wreaths of anthuriums and nobody had a camera! I had a similar experience at my gran’s funeral, seeing her coffin wheeled on a chariot through a snow covered avenue of cimetiere pines. So once again saw this amazing scene and no way to capture it!

 

The Rhapsody meets Michael Joseph, the world-renowned photographer behind the Beggars Banquet images of The Rolling Stones’ infamous photoshoot of 1968.

Do you remember your first album?

King Kong was most relevant as I should have taken the cover shot! Decca used a boring pic of King Kong, obviously shot in their studio by a house photographer. It was dead boring!

The King Kong album in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1960 was given to me, so I got the cast to sign it, as the pic was dead boring.

 

Is there a way that growing up in South Africa shaped how you relate to music?

Seeing how the Zulus and other neighbours could walk all day playing their mini pianos – a 6-inch-square plank with a dozen or so flattened nails!

 

Has music and photography helped connect you (to others, to places) in a globalised world?

How? Well, what my dad achieved was by getting King Kong on stage and sent over to London lending Miriam Makeba 100 quid to see Harry Belafonte in New York and he got the average South African realising that Africans had other talents from working down mines or looking after their [white] kids! Subconsciously music must’ve helped me while away many nights developing and printing all the kids, weddings, and debutantes for the Tatler. I had reels of tapes, luckily an early girlfriend’s dad was in music Decca.

 

Do you play any instruments? Are there any instruments you wish you could play or want to learn to play?

No, photography has always consumed me. Even at 76, I still snap away daily!

 

How did your commission to shoot The Rolling Stones’ Beggars banquet album cover come about?

David Putnam was the new agent and he got me the White Horse poster campaign, with memorable images: a red-haired model Paulene Stone, and (Paulene’s husband) Laurence Harvey’s bird, in an all-white bathroom set, with a horse appearing through the steam.

Then, a boardroom scene  with a Mick Jagger lookalike from a model agency I formed, as we were needing various characters in ads. A cigar-smoking advisors ,a white horse at the head, and other scene. An experimental ads for Whitbread with 25 tiddlywink players.

These and a few others made Mick choose me!

The Rhapsody meets Michael Joseph, the world-renowned photographer behind the Beggars Banquet images of The Rolling Stones’ infamous photoshoot of 1968.

Did you have a sense that the shoot would be so significant in not only Rolling Stones history, but music history, at the time?

Using just one image made it more powerful and Mick was so bowled over by the richness of the kodalith paper. He rejected idea of using front and back pictures, and we were still in process of shooting. As I showed him my kodalith print during the tea break, he almost snatched it, and when I said, “Oh, I only printed this so you all The Stones could sign it!” So, with a charming Mick Jagger smirk, he grabbed my portrait of him and signed it ultra extravagantly “to Michael, x Mick Jagger. PS will send this image.”

 

Is there an image from the series that stands out for you personally?

The Stones in cows at Swarkestone is such a beautiful moment in time. After racing up the mountain, and waiting for the van and big camera, I shot it handheld using Kodachrome, which was the film to die for. When peeling open the cardboard mount so I could protect it between glass, I discovered it was number 1! The words Kodachrome were perfectly formed above and I hardly had to pose them. It was just like a dream how unbelievably smooth all the set- ups materialized.

 

Did the mood of the shoot and the symbolism in the images reflect the band’s behind-the-
scenes atmosphere, and the spirit of the era more broadly?

Due to day one’s amazing setup at Sarum Chase with a 10×8 Sinar camera on a 9-foot unipod, a giant light box, a 20,000 joules strobe, swimming pool, and crazy props all around this wacky room, The Stones came in and within minutes we had them changed into period rags. We only had 100 minutes to shoot 30 sheets of 10×8 £10 a pop, and I needed to get a roll on my Hasselblad, so I could print a kodalith so I could get their portraits.

 

Besides photography, are there other ways you express yourself creatively?

Luckily buying our wine farm with the 10 grand I inherited from my dad! I did manage to play the market and treble it in 3 years, then add another 20 in another 20 years to buy it.

It’s on the border where Bordeaux (France) becomes Entre-Deux-Mers, and it is where I would like to be scattered from a hot air balloon. It’s in a valley overlooking vines and surrounded by plums. We produce 100 tonnes of prunes per year, so I hope the world gets the digestive benefits!

We’ve had it 40 years. As Justine, our architect daughter lives nearby, and she’s able to keep it
looking good. But now we go four times a year driving with our 2 Siamese blue points, it give us absolute pleasure, as they love it so much always create beauty for me to shoot. In 10 years Joe and George have been 40 times never utter a murmur until we get there, then it’s all miaows and ‘hooray! we are here!’

Keeping the farm looking good requires my early carpentry skills, some Tarzan-like tree pruning, clearing areas with an old gator to gad about as an aide-memoire, which is quicker than making notes. I snap away to record all chores to be done!

 

Are there any images that you wish you’d taken yourself?

No, but I was inspired by many of Bill Brandt’s early black & white work, especially his nudes.
When I was 18 years old, my sister sent me Brandt’s book, and his nude on a beach amongst pebbles would be my favourite. Tony Armstrong Jones’ London, and if I had to choose, I feel my Swedish nude in 600 sheep is the ultimate great picture. I guess the odds for this to happen in a shoot where the sun shone on 2 out 260 images, could be a trillion to one shot. For me this is my chance to say thank you god!

Photography has been totally the best profession and I could not be any happier with the pictures that came my way. Like the ultimate shot on a cold Wiltshire hillside for the International Wool Secretariat. It was great, as there is only one black-faced sheep out of the 600, and  we penned two flocks together and shot it in November. I wore a fur hat and full length fur coat. Our 18 year-old Swedish ambassador’s daughter [who was on set] did not mutter a word. It was only by chance I spotted it, as the sun came out for those last two exposures. I was on a 1000mm lens and giving orders via the stylist on a walkie talkie. After two hours and 9 rolls, I felt our uncomplaining model deserved a break. Only when I decided to print an image for my folio, I discovered how beautiful the image was!

 

Can you share the most memorable experience you’ve had so far through photography?

David Bailey, Brian Duffy, Terence Donovan, and I were on a panel in the swinging
seventies at the Half Moon Gallery in Whitechapel. Question 1 to Mr Bailey: “Mr Bailey, do you take pictures for fun?” [David] Bailey’s reply was “only w***ers take pictures for fun!”

The Rhapsody meets Michael Joseph, the world-renowned photographer behind the Beggars Banquet images of The Rolling Stones’ infamous photoshoot of 1968.

With such a remarkable body of work to you name, do you still get excited about the next
shoot?

As I retired after 3500 assignments in 35 years and shot 100 television commercials (including one with Jerry Hall in our bath at our Clapham Common studio/home!) Yes, when I shoot a snap, it all comes together like a magician has said “abracadabra!” Many elements appear all to work together unexpectedly.

Like a recent experience, waiting for a bus on London Bridge. A beautiful girl with long wavy hair on a bike on her phone rode by, and I just had time to compose St Paul’s Cathedral on left. The girl gave me a Mona Lisa smile – what a memory! On instant replay, I cannot believe that two buses came in on the left, leaving just enough space for St Paul’s, but amazingly, a very tall black man wearing a stripey t-shirt was carrying two very large shopping bags and vertical stripes complementing the stripey bridge! Such magic!  Still amongst many other wonderful memories taken over 70 years.

I’ve been rewarded by the National Portrait Gallery choosing the image I first gave them for their Faces of the Century show in 2000, and it has just been included in their new publication showcasing all the best work in the gallery: A Portrait of Britain. This was thanks to Lord Asa Briggs choosing it from Brian Moynahan’s book, The British Century, which featured my Banquet image. The image introduced “The Swinging Sixties” two pages on my Macmillan making the wind of change speech in Johannesburg in1960! Hope that sums up some of my eventful career.

 

Beggars Banquet: Photographs by Michael Joseph is currently on show at Proud Chelsea, 161 King’s Road, London, SW3 5XP. Entry is free, and you can purchase prints at the gallery. To find out more information, click here: www.proudonline.co.uk

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