Itʼs a story that would give any photographer sleepless nights. A classic photo-session for one of the biggest bands on the planet, The Rolling Stones, for the cover of one of their most critically acclaimed albums, Sticky Fingers.
Disaster then strikes, as British photographer Peter Webbʼs negatives go missing soon after the 1971 shoot. Then, out of nowhere, they are discovered again after almost 40 years.
Detailed scanning of the negatives reveals a collection of previously unpublished photographs of The Rolling Stones, group shots and solo portraits, in black and white and colour. Many of these are now to be shown together in a gallery exhibition for the first time at Snap Galleries space in central London, some in sizes up to 6ft wide.
owner Guy White admits While lost negatives are every photographerʼs nightmare, this a story that any gallery owner dreams about, and I am delighted that we are to be the first gallery anywhere in the world to exhibit this comprehensive selection of work from Peterʼs incredible lost sessions.
The origins of the Sticky Fingers session
After graduating, Peter Webb took an extended trip to New York in the mid sixties. During his stay, Webbʼs brother-in-law, Bill Peirce, (himself a NYC based photographer) taught him enough of the rudiments of photography for Webb to blag his way into a job assisting the legendary photographer and director Howard Zieff. It was while he assisted Zieff, that he was entrusted with the construction of an extraordinary 20 foot walk-in strobe lighting bank, the concept of which Zieff had conveniently borrowed from his good friend Irving Penn. It was this enormous lighting bank that Peter would later employ himself in the intricate construction of his 1971 session with the Stones.
Webb returned from the USA, and subsequently was introduced to the Rolling Stones by David Puttnam, in his previous incarnation as a photographersʼ agent in the early 1970ʼs. Puttnam had seen Peterʼs plate camera portraits and had mistakenly thought they must be the work of Penn or Zieff, little realizing they were produced by a then unknown UK photographer who had assisted Zieff in New York some years before.
Puttnam said the band were looking to do some shots for a forthcoming album, and that Webb should set up a meeting at their office in town. He duly appeared at the Stones office and was ushered in to meet Jagger, a daunting milestone in itself.
Peter explains: I presented my concept for the session, based around the ʻsurrealistʼ type of advertising work I was in to at the time, heavily influenced by Magritte. I envisaged the band dressed in Victorian boating attire, posed with oars primed in a beautiful wooden rowing boat. However the boat would not be on any river, it would be in a Victorian Photography Studio, with an elegantly painted backdrop of a period Henley, their oars resting on a wooden studio floor. Alarmingly however, during the course of my presentation, Jagger produced a series of wide-mouthed yawns and seemingly by way of dismissal suggested I pitch my ideas to Charlie Watts in the next door office, and who was into Art. I was duly ushered in to meet Watts, whose monosyllabic responses made Jaggerʼs seem wholly enthusiastic in comparison.
Webb duly retired to lick his creative wounds, and to consider another option ASAP. He had been hugely impressed by Irving Pennʼs classic B/W studio portraits of Haight-Ashbury hippy families and Hell's Angels for Life Magazine some years earlier, and decided he would photograph the band as they were on a suitably neutral studio constructed backdrop.
Webb continues: I had also been advised by a photographer friend that the band were trouble to photograph and could end up throwing V signs etc. to the camera - an attitude I thought I would encourage with a moody distressed grey-toned backdrop, to capture the brooding streetwise image I presumed the band would like to project.
After many days of extensive testing of lighting and background tones, including the adaption of an extended ʻwalk inʼ lighting bank similar to the one that he had constructed for Zieff, coupled with the construction of a large hand-painted backdrop, the Band finally showed at Webbʼs studios, a converted Victorian Riding School and Stables in Park Village East, next to Regentʼs Park in central London.
They immediately registered disappointment that they were going to be photographed in their own clothes, and that there was no idea anywhere in sight. And far from being trouble, the band stood like lost schoolboys on the over-scaled backdrop, and were not only compliant to my instructions in arranging them, but even seemed somewhat camera shy which was totally unexpected.
Andy Warhol and his Factory designer Craig Braun came up with the Sticky Fingers Zipper concept, which relegated Webbʼs intended album cover image to a grainy dupe on an inside sleeve. Despite the shoddy reproduction on the sleeve, it is instantly recognisable as a classic Stones group portrait, showing Jagger standing to the left of the frame, yawning, while the other four Stones gather on the right, Bill Wyman scratching his nose. Webb christened the image The Big Yawn.
Lost and found
In early 1972 Peter entrusted his photographer brother-in-law with the safe keeping of an unmarked folder of negatives, which was, as Peter recalls now, ...an essential detail which I had conveniently forgotten, in the excitement of being hired by Ridley Scott to direct commercials, and the dark room became a cutting room overnight.
Webb continues Bill stored them in the attic along with his own negatives, and only revisited them recently while hunting for negatives of a portrait of Joan Didion he had shot in the early ʻ50ʼs. He called me to say he had found an unmarked bag of negatives amongst his own which ...could be the Rolling Stones ...
I made him lock the doors and not let anyone in the house, and then I asked him to look for someone who could be shouting or yawning, standing aside from a group of four, one of whom was scratching his nose. After an anxious half hour, an email popped up, I opened the attachment, and as if in slow motion the group of four were revealed, with Bill Wyman adjusting his nasal passages, and Jagger standing apart from the group with a wide mouthed yawn. Eureka!! The Prodigal Stones had returned to the fold after an absence of almost forty years
Contained in their pristine negative sleeves, were the strip containing the actual album sleeve image, all the best group shots from the session, and also an unexpected further delight: some individual plate camera portraits of Jagger and Richards which had never been seen before.
Falling Stones, a colour portrait shot by Peter on Kodak Ektachrome 120 transparency film, is one of the most famous photographs from the Sticky Fingers session - and this image, kept separately from the black and whites, has its own unique survival story.
At some point in the shoot, Webb asked the Stones to act a little more threateningly, and Mick, Keith and the band duly obliged. Finally things loosened up to a degree, and as a one-off idea he lined up the band shoulder-to-shoulder, like a younger Dadʼs Army, and encouraged them to lean sideways. Thankfully the 1,000th second exposure time-captured this one-off event, and the resulting image was Falling Stones.
Falling Stones survival is thanks to a completely random two frame laboratory exposure ʻclip testʼ. Peter explains: I forwarded the bulk of my (relatively few) colour shots from the shoot to the Stones office, and onwards to my good friend Braun at Andy Warholʼ s Factory. I never saw them again, and as far as I was concerned, these colour images were truly lost and gone forever. However the procedure of taking a random two frame clip test from an unprocessed roll (to adjust the processing of the remainder), meant some unnamed and forever heroic lab technician had sliced the obligatory two plus inches from the tail of the exposed roll, a mere half an inch clear of this shot. And so it was saved - but only just!
This clip test was discovered in a file of many such discarded tests from other sessions in sufficient time to be voted one of the Top 100 Rock and Roll Photographs of All Time, by Q Magazine. Developments in modern photographic printing technology mean that this image can be displayed in a staggering six foot wide version in the gallery exhibition.
After the group session was completed, Webb invited the band individually to an upstairs studio set up with a 5x4 Sinar plate camera, whose depth of field was so slight that a wooden rod had to be placed at the back of each band memberʼs head, so there would not be the slightest movement backwards.
After more searching enquiries from the various band members as to the purpose of the portraits Passports, is it now mate? - Webb photographed Jagger in a number of extreme close ups, with and without a stylish Irish cap and a longlapelled paisley shirt, fashionable at the time. In between another serial attack of yawns, Mick enquired politely, So
what happened to that great idea about the boat?
Now almost 40 years on, and with the Band still touring, Webb has been persuaded by a younger generation of photographers, musicians and Stones fans alike, that photographing the Stones "as they were" at that exact moment of time, free from any overriding concept, was the best idea he never had.