They are the men and women who captured the heroes of their generation, frozen in a split second of time forever.
And now a Bristol photographer who helped introduce Kurt Cobain to Courtney Love and took some of the most iconic images in rock music in the 1980s and 90s, is launching something of a retro revolution – from an industrial unit in Kingswood.
Before the internet and mobile phones with cameras, there were newspapers and magazines dedicated to the music scene, and photographers who specialised in taking photographs of bands and artists performing live or just relaxing.
That era has now largely gone – thanks to the ubiquity of the digital camera phone and the immediacy of social media.
Phil Nicholls, who was a photographer for Melody Maker between 1985 and 1997, has captured all the great artists on tour, playing live, for album covers and after gigs.
In a career of many highlights, he was part of the Melody Maker team who toured with Nirvana and introduced Kurt and Courtney, he photographed Amy Winehouse backstage at the Louisiana in Bristol, and was the only photographer on the first UK tour by a then-unknown American band called The Pixies.
Not only did the internet largely kill off this artform, but to add insult to injury, the internet is also enabling people to grab and save those those iconic images from the rock photographers of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, and use them – without consent, let alone payment – to illustrate websites, tea towels, posters and mugs.
It happened to Phil with an image he took of Icelandic singer Bjork – he came across a website set up by a woman in America selling Bjork merchandise using his portrait picture.
“You could get Bjork mugs, bags, everything – all with the picture I took,” he said.
“I asked her to stop selling it.”
That experience drove forward an idea he’d been working on with two Bristol men – event promoter Dave Trew, the man who ran Jesters comedy club and now runs a comedy club in Pryzm, and marketing guru Neil Clark.
They came together with a simple idea: the classic rock photographers from the 20th century will have an incredible archive of pictures of some of the most famous people in the world- so why not join together, create a collective to handle those photos, and market them again to a new generation.
The result is something rather unique. Anyone can browse the archive, which was launched with more than 200 photographs, pick a picture and have that turned into a high quality t-shirt.
So far four photographers have signed up at launch, with more joining or inquiring all the time.
“It has really caught the imagination,” said Phil.
“It’s about bringing the guys together and working together to make something bigger than if we were all lone wolves. There’s strength in numbers.
“We’ve already had a couple of exhibitions, the archive online is growing, and the t-shirt thing is really about creating walking art, a living gallery for getting our images out there.
“It’s also us protecting ourselves from the big wide world that takes our work from back in the day and uses it without asking.
“One of the things with the Collective is that it will work hard to protect images, too,” he said.
Dave Trew said he had worked with bands and artists before, but was bowled over when he saw the range of photos in the archives.
“We were chatting about the massive archive, and they really do operate as lone wolves – each one might have their own website, but I saw the business opportunity there in pulling them together and working as a collective.
“The power is in the fact that it is run by photographers for photographers. Everything we do is aimed at preserving the integrity of the art, and having such a renowned figure as Phil as the creative heart of the thing reassures other photographers that this is something they can be part of,” he added.
Phil got his break as a student at Bath Arts School in Corsham, when he got on tour with Echo and the Bunnymen in 1985.
His images won awards and he got himself in the door at the Melody Maker, becoming its leading rock photographer for a generation that included rave, Madchester, grunge and Britpop.
“It was a different world then. We’d go up to Manchester with a bag full of film processing chemicals, go to a gig, rush back to the hotel where the band was staying, get into the bathroom of the hotel room, develop the negatives, hang the pictures over the bath and then head down to the bar to join the party,” said Phil.
“These were the days where photographers had so much access. We would be travelling with the band, in the dressing room, then photographing the gig, then back to the hotel.
“Now there is pretty much total lockdown – the stars of today do not let photographers near them. Then they post their own images on their own social media,” he added.
“One of the photographers in the Collective already is Angela Williams, who shot the famous set of pictures of Pink Floyd in 1967. She literally just took them home after a gig, and took pictures of them,” he said.
“Another thing that has changed is that everyone takes a picture of the band now. Everyone has a camera phone. When I looked at one of the images of that first Echo and the Bunnymen tour I did, some of the most interesting images were where I was on stage looking out at the crowd from behind the band.
“Every face is looking up in awe at them, no one is looking at a phone or taking a picture themselves, I was probably the only person there with a camera – that’s such a change now,” he added.