David Bowie and Mick Jagger in London

09 Mar 2023

Denis O’Regan: Lessons learned from photographing the biggest names in music

Music photographer Denis O’Regan has shot everyone from The Rolling Stones to the Bee Gees. In an exclusive Investec interview, he shared snippets from a life on tour with the greats.

 

Having famously smuggled a camera into the Hammersmith Odeon to photograph Paul McCartney and Queen in the 1970s, self-taught photographer Denis O’Regan became a regular contributor to NME. Throughout the decades that followed, he began touring the world with the likes of Thin Lizzy and David Bowie – and photographed both Bowie and Duran Duran more times than any other photographer.

Denis recently joined music journalist Robert Helms to share his unique stories and discuss his learnings from an illustrious career, in a Q&A for Investec.
 

1. Let your passions inspire your career

It’s no surprise that Denis has always been a huge music fan. His desire to take great on-stage moments home led him to a career as a photographer.

“I saw Led Zeppelin at Alexandra Palace and Jimmy Page played the violin bow on his guitar,” he recalls. “He’d tap the bow on the guitar and as it echoed he pointed at the audience. And then the chalk dust came up through the spotlight. And I always thought that it was such a shame that unlike today, these things weren’t documented. I wanted to capture that.”

2. Learn when to shoot your shot

Denis started his career using film that required a considerable investment. To shoot something and get it developed would cost a pound every time you clicked the shutter. Photographers would be conscious that they only had a certain amount of shots per roll, and only so many rolls of film to play with.

How do you pick your moment? Over time, Denis learnt to see the signs.

“Freddy Mercury was very difficult to photograph and moved very quickly onstage,” he says. “And Queen had lots of complicated light shows, so you really had to pick your moment. But you’d learn to anticipate when a musical crescendo was coming, or if there were fireworks you’d know someone was about to jump! Or quite often the right moment would be when people stood still. Sid Vicious never did much anyway, but often he’d just stand there and it was like taking a portrait live.”

3. Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself

Working with big names can be difficult in any industry. But what happens when a musical legend refuses to let you do your job? Denis recalls meeting Bob Marley before his long-awaited headline gig at Sunsplash Festival in Jamaica.

“I knock on the door and he asks me what I want. I ask for pictures. He says he’s not going to do any pictures! Well I let rip, I couldn’t help myself. I tell him I’ve travelled 5,000 miles to get there. And he’d kept me in the hotel lobby for two hours. And now he’s not going to do any pictures? His demeanour completely changed. He said he would do all the pictures I wanted, and invited me to a beach party. He was so sweet.”

4. Connections are vital

While technical experience was incredibly important to Denis (along with in-depth music knowledge), the backbone of his career was his relationships with musicians and their entourage, something he nurtured carefully over years in the industry. In time, these relationships allowed him unique access as a photographer.

“I wouldn’t have stayed on those tours if I wasn’t able to get along with everyone. I spoke to the PR person for David Bowie, and he said I was always invited back because Bowie actually liked me.

“I always thought that Bowie, this enigmatic person, would keep everyone at arm’s length. But he was famously charming, and as long as you were going to do it properly, would let you document anything. There should be no restrictions. He’d say: ‘I’m going out to dinner with some interesting people. Can you come and bring a camera?’”

 

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Images: Copyright Denis O’Regan

With thanks to event partners West Contemporary.