Gered Mankowitz has an admission to make about the music of Jimi Hendrix, the man with whom his name will forever be linked. "I never liked it, I found it a little unmelodic and a bit loud, a bit noisy," whispers the renowned photographer, as if divulging a long-hidden secret. "Liking the music has never been an imperative factor in photographing the subject. Having said that, I would say that there are certain sorts of artists who aren't very good to photograph. Heavy metal artists tend to be extremely unrewarding to photograph. I did Saxon, for instance, Judas Priest, Uriah Heap, Iron Maiden. I've done them all, and hated every session."
Mankowitz can be frank about the swings and roundabouts of rock photography now, as he takes a conscious step away from that side of the business. After capturing the mightiest talents and mightiest egos for almost half a century, the 64-year-old is enjoying a quieter life in Cornwall, on England's south-west coast. His substantial archive does necessitate occasional excursions back to London, however, and today a notable new book and exhibition are on the agenda.
We meet at the new Snap Gallery, near the bustling Piccadilly Circus, where a varied array of Mankowitz's Jimi Hendrix pictures will be displayed from September 18, the 40th anniversary of the great guitarist's death. The exhibition has a particular significance for Gered as, in a curious coincidence, it takes place in a building once owned by his father, the celebrated writer Wolf Mankowitz. Wolf also ran a successful Wedgewood furniture business, and the precocious Gered soon opened his own, rather different business in the nearby Mason's Yard. He was still a teenager when the likes of Marianne Faithful and the Rolling Stones stopped by for landmark sessions.
Mankowitz had some high-profile assistance along the way. He was introduced to photography by a famous friend of his father's, the comic actor Peter Sellers, who spent an afternoon explaining the workings of an old Hasselblad camera "with a mad Swedish accent," Mankowitz laughs . "I was very enthusiastic and he was very encouraging." The young photographer's big break came when he befriended the similarly precocious singer Marianne Faithful, who then posed for him. Faithful's manager, the famously incorrigible Andrew Loog Oldham, was impressed by the results and asked him to shoot the Stones. A year later, at the age of 19, he was touring America with Jagger, Richards and co, which was exciting in some respects, unexpectedly dull in others.
"I was on stage with them and as long as I didn't get in the way, as long as I didn't get in front of Mick, nobody minded," he recalls. "I had to pack up all my cameras just before the last song, because they'd rush into the limo and I had to be in the limo waiting because otherwise they'd drive off without me. They'd go straight to the airport, jump on a plane and we'd fly through the night to the next gig."
There wasn't much post-gig partying? "No, there wasn't, and everybody is so disappointed at that," he smiles. "It had its moments. But the bulk of the tour, no, it was amazingly hard work and low-key. It was a fantastic experience but it put me off touring." Hanging out with Hendrix was also less intense than might have been expected. The now 21 year-old Mankowitz was a well-established rock photographer when the new sensation arrived at Mason's Yard in 1967, but the onstage wildman proved very different without the guitar.
"He was a lovely person. One of the things that struck me in hindsight is how lucky I was to work with him when he was still so happy. He was enjoying the attention so much, and it was fun. I think he was having a great time, he hadn't reached a point where he was exhausted or frustrated." Mankovitz remained on good terms with Hendrix, but it soon became apparent that all was not well. What went wrong? "He wanted to evolve as an artist, and I'm not sure whether the people who were running him wanted that. I think he was overworked and I think he was frustrated and I think that frustration resulted in him slowly losing it."
The man behind the lens was rather frustrated about those Hendrix shots in the weeks and months after their two sessions. As a working photographer he measured the success of his work by how other people appreciated it, and "felt that they were a bit of a failure. One of the big problems was that I'd hoped to get the first album cover, but the record company didn't want to do a black and white cover and I'd only shot black and white, so that was a bit of a blow."
Was it a silly mistake, not shooting in colour? "It was a terrible mistake, on one level. On the other hand it's inspired me to take the work, to do stuff with the work subsequently, that maybe I would never have done if I'd always had colour." It was some 25 years later that those pictures became suitably celebrated. An early adopter of digital technology, Mankovitz reworked his Hendrix images in the 1990s, "adding colour, adding texture," and shone new light on an often misunderstood rock legend. One rework became the cover of the hugely successful 1993 compilation album The Ultimate Experience, and Mankowitz now refers to the original shot, with Hendrix staring intently into the camera, hands on hips, as 'the classic'.
Mankowitz is happy to admit that his life has been blessed by good fortune, and that picture - now arguably his most famous - was actually something of an afterthought. The photographer was asked to do a second shoot in 1967 only because, since the first session, Hendrix's bandmates had permed their hair to match his. Mankovitz took just one shot of the great man alone, the last of the day, and it eventually became the definitive Hendrix image. Indeed, 'the classic' graces the cover of his new book, The Experience: Jimi Hendrix at Mason's Yard. "Either I was incredibly stupid or I was incredibly clever," he admits now. "Either I knew exactly what I got, or else I didn't and was very lucky."
Those rediscovered Hendrix pictures also gave a huge fillip to Mankowitz's career, which had begun to wane in the early 1990s. For such a renowned name in the photography business, he endured numerous fallow periods as music trends changed. Work dwindled when punk swept away the old rock regime in the late 1970s, but he was rediscovered by what he calls "poser punks", notably Billy Idol's band Generation X who "wanted to be the Rolling Stones of 1978." The image-conscious new romantic era then led to iconic work with the Eurythmics, Duran Duran and ABC, and his career reignited again in the mid-1990s with the retro-referencing Britpop scene, although that did include "a difficult couple of hours" with Oasis.
Another 15 years on, Mankowitz now insists that younger photographers are better suited to the modern music business, and that he has "probably, possibly made the break." But note the "probably, possibly". With that book and exhibition a fine reminder of his talents, don't be surprised if this veteran craftsman is re-embraced by the music world once again.