Chicago native Paul Natkin is a prolific concert and portrait photographer who’s shot more than 4,300 musicians and celebrities since he started his career in 1975. He’s also worked as road manager for the likes of Brian Wilson and Alice Peacock and tour photographer for the Rolling Stones. His images have appeared in so many publications (including the Reader) and on so many album covers that music fans have almost certainly seen his work, whether they know it or not. This summer, Natkin will publish his first book, The Moment of Truth (Trope), which collects some of his favorite photos and the stories behind them

As told to Jamie Ludwig

I used to work in a photo lab, a place called Gamma, which is a big photo lab in Chicago. My father, Robert Natkin, was a brilliant photographer back in the 40s and 50s after World War II. When I was born, he got out of the photography business, but he got into it again in the 70s. The first job that he got was from a friend of his who worked for this team of basketball players who were just starting out called the Chicago Bulls. You could walk up to the box office for any game all season long and get really good tickets for $2—nobody was going to the games because nobody cared about basketball. 

[My father’s friend] told him, “I’ll give you a pass. You can go in and shoot whatever you want. If we like your work, we’ll buy it from you.” I was 21 years old and still living with my parents. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I had dropped out of college, because I only went to college to stay out of the draft and not get sent to Vietnam. 

When my father told me about his new job, he included four really important points: One, free parking. Two, get into the game for free. Three, free hot meal in the press box. Four, best seats in the house. I looked at him and said, “I want to be a photographer.” So he got me a pass and took me to the next game. We got the free parking, we got in for free, we got the free hot meal. And then we went out on the court. 

I’m five foot two, standing with a bunch of guys that were like two feet taller than me, right on the court. It was like a dream come true, but not in my wildest dreams did I ever think that I could actually make money in photography. It was just a way to go and see basketball games for free. 

I did that for about four years. My father got tired of it, but I’d still go, and I met all these other photographers. They all kept on saying, “If you want to come and shoot some tennis matches or come to a Bears game or a Cubs game, we’ll get you in.” So all of a sudden, I’m standing on the sidelines with Walter Payton at Soldier Field. I’m in the dugout at Wrigley Field before a Cubs game. And I’m shooting tennis matches all over the city where I’m sitting right on the court next to the net. 

There’s a point to this story, by the way. I was shooting a tennis match up at Northwestern University. It was over around 6:30 in the evening. So I went back to my car, which I’d parked a couple of blocks away. I put my stuff in the trunk, started up the engine, and there was a commercial on the radio for a concert. And I couldn’t make this up if I tried—it’s too weird to make up—the concert was taking place in one hour, five feet away from where I was sitting in the lot, at the Cahn Auditorium on the Northwestern campus. The bumper of my car was touching the side of the building. The performer was a singer and guitarist that I had just barely heard of by the name of Bonnie Raitt.

A diptych of live rock photos: Ozzy Osbourne holds guitarist Randy Rhoads aloft as he plays, and Atlas Genius are frozen in an acrobatic moment, with the guitarist high in the air, the bassist apparently in the middle of a march step, and the drummer with his sticks crossed over his head
Left: Paul Natkin’s most famous concert photo, of Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhoads at the Rosemont Horizon on January 24, 1982. Rhoads died less than two months later in a plane crash. Right: Atlas Genius at House of Blues Chicago on March 5, 2013. “It’s the most perfect rock ’n’ roll picture that I ever took in my life,” Natkin says. Credit: Paul Natkin

I figured, I’d been able to BS my way into almost any sporting event in the city of Chicago; let’s see if I could BS my way into a concert. How hard could it be? I quickly made up a huge lie that I was working for this new magazine called Rolling Stone. I got all of my stuff out of the trunk and walked up to the backstage door ready to tell this big lie that I was supposed to have a pass waiting for me. Before I could say a word, the security guy looked at the camera equipment hanging around my neck and said, “Oh, you’re with the press. Just go in and do whatever you want—just don’t get onstage.” It was like, “Holy crap.”

These days you could go to Schubas and you’d still have to have a letter from the pope to get in with a camera. I walked in and I shot a bunch of pictures. They were terrible, I’ve gotta admit (though I still sell them fairly regularly). Bonnie was around 22 years old with bright red hair. It was tremendous fun, but I still had no idea how I could earn a living doing it. 

There was a venue near my house called the Ivanhoe Theater, that’s now a Binny’s. I didn’t know anything about who to contact to get into a venue to take pictures, so I just took my cameras and walked over there one day. I figured if it worked for Bonnie Raitt, maybe it would work here. I walked up to the back door and I met a security guy who was equally as short as I was. We kind of bonded over that, and we started talking, and he said, “Yeah, just go in and take some pictures.”

I started going there two or three times a week. It didn’t matter who was playing—I didn’t care. I would just go in, take pictures, and develop the film. I’d always make the security guy an eight-by-ten print and bring it the next time I went there. I shot people like Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Cheech and Chong. It didn’t matter who it was. Anybody who was onstage, I was there taking pictures. 

The security guy, Scott Gelman, worked for Jam Productions. I was talking to him one day when he called this guy over from the other side of the room. It was the manager of the Ivanhoe. Scotty said, “Hey, this guy’s really nice. We should just give him a pass and let him come in anytime he wants.” The guy went back to the office and came back with this button that you pinned to your shirt that said “Ivanhoe Staff.” So I had a free pass to every Ivanhoe show, and I didn’t even have to walk in the back door anymore. 

[Another] day Scotty calls this other guy over. The guy’s name was Jerry Mickelson, one of the owners of Jam Productions. Scotty turned to him and said, “You should let him into all of our shows all over the city of Chicago.” And Jerry said, “Sure. I’ll tell you what—if you give us free pictures, I’ll let you into all of our shows. No problem.”

That was better than winning the lottery. All of a sudden I was shooting at Park West, the Vic, the Riviera, the Aragon, the Uptown Theatre, the Chicago Stadium, the Rosemont Horizon (which is now the Allstate Arena). I was shooting on average—and this is no exaggeration—five nights a week. At about five o’clock in the afternoon, I’d pick up the Reader—I always had a copy at my house—I’d go to Section Three, and I’d look through the ads of who was playing that night. And I would just get in my car and go. 

The Beastie Boys horse around at a table covered with cans of beer, spraying and spitting it into the air
The Beastie Boys were photographed while on tour in Chicago to support their 1986 debut album, License to Ill. Their local date was at the Aragon Ballroom on March 13, 1987. Credit: Paul Natkin

I still had no idea how to earn a living, but I was acquiring this tremendous collection of pictures. One day I was at Park West, and I walked out in the lobby and saw a friend of mine, a lawyer from Detroit, standing there talking to this guy. He turned out to be the art director and photo editor for Creem magazine. He said, “Call me on the 15th and I’ll give you a list of everybody we’re doing articles on for the next issue. The deal is you submit pictures. There’s no guarantee, but if we like ’em, we’ll use ’em. And we’ll pay you.” At that point I had already shot maybe 100 different musicians.

He sent the list on the 15th and I’d shot one musician on it: Rick Derringer, who wrote the song “Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo.” I sent him a bunch of pictures, and he used one full-page color. I’m thinking, “I’m gonna be rich. This is the greatest thing in the world.” About a week later, I got the pictures back, and in the envelope there was a check for $35. 

So I came up with a new plan. I went to 7-Eleven and I bought a copy of every magazine on the newsstand that had to do with music and piled them up at my house. I took the top one, opened it up, found out who the photo editor was, and started calling until I got ahold of him. My goal was to sell three or four pictures a month to ten different magazines for $35 to $50 a picture. 

It worked. All of a sudden I was shooting heavy metal bands and getting them into Circus and Hit Parader. I was shooting teen idols like David Cassidy and Rick Springfield and getting them into 16 magazine and Teen Beat. And I was making $300 to $400 a month. I was still working at the photo lab, so I was getting all my film processed for nothing. It was starting to look promising.

The turning point was when publicists started calling me and saying, “Hey, I saw your pictures of so-and-so in Creem magazine. They’re one of our artists, and they’re coming back to town.” I came to the conclusion: I’m not just gonna ask for access to the shows. I want to do portraits backstage, either casual or set up with lights and backdrops and the whole deal. And [the bands] mostly said yes.

Mavis Staples rests her head, tilted to the side, atop the interlaced fingers of her hands
Mavis Staples at Paul Natkin’s home studio on May 11, 1989 Credit: Paul Natkin

All of a sudden, the quantity and quality of my work went up. I was taking the pictures that they really wanted. If you shoot a band like Van Halen, everybody wants pictures of Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth, but a portrait that had all four of the members was much more valuable because you’re not leaving out the other guys. So that was the basis of the beginning of my career. 

Every band comes through Chicago. When a band plays in New York or LA, there are 50 photographers in front of the stage. But when they played Chicago, at least back in the 70s and 80s, I was the only photographer there. I knew every security guy in front of the stage. I knew all the people at the back door. I’d bring a chair from backstage and put my camera bag on it, so I didn’t have to bend over to change lenses. I’d bring a sandwich and a drink from catering backstage, and I was at home. You couldn’t do that anywhere else in the world. 

The list of people that I’ve photographed in my life just passed 4,300 names. I’ll get calls from somebody in say, New York, at 4 PM asking, “Did you ever shoot a band called ‘blank’ in 1985?” If I shot them, I can find the pictures in under 30 seconds. Some of these bands, I don’t even remember having shot. But I’ll look and realize, not only did I shoot them, I did two different portrait sessions with them. And then I’ll end up with, like, a rerelease album cover and a check from a record company. 

Let’s back up for a second. In 1977, I went to the Auditorium Theatre to shoot Muddy Waters for Jam Productions. There was another photographer there who said, “I’m shooting for the Reader.” Then something happened right as the show started, and he got kicked out. I’m thinking, “Here’s my opportunity to get pictures in the Reader.” Obviously he was sent by the Reader, and they must need pictures. 

So I went home, developed the film, and stayed up all night making prints. I washed them, and I dried them by putting em on the dashboard of my car and driving. I walked into the Reader office and I said, “Hey, I was at a concert last night and saw your guy get kicked out. I have these pictures. Do you think you might want ’em?” They ran a couple of them, and they paid more than Creem magazine.

Muddy Waters smiles at the camera while playing his guitar onstage at the Auditorium Theatre
Paul Natkin’s first Reader photo was Muddy Waters at the Auditorium Theatre on March 17, 1977. Credit: Paul Natkin

So I became the Reader music photographer. I did it for many years, and it was a really lucrative way to earn a living. But eventually, all those budgets dried up and the clients disappeared. 

These days with the Web I get an email every two weeks. It’s almost like they just copy the same email, because the first paragraph starts with, “We really love the pictures you took of so-and-so. It would go perfectly in the project that we’re working on right now.” And the second paragraph starts out with, “Unfortunately, we don’t have a budget and we’d like your permission to use them for free.” The word they always use is gratis. “Please let us know what you think.” 

That’s the attitude now in today’s world—everything should be free. I always say the same thing to people: “You don’t have to pay me a thousand dollars, but you have to pay me something, because there has to be a certain level of respect for the work that I do that involves you writing a check. It could be $20. But if you write me a check for $20, that means that you respect my work enough to pay for it.” Most times they’ll write me a check, but if they don’t, they don’t get my work. 

There are plenty of people that take pictures of bands who are more than willing to give them away for free. I agree that you have to give away something to get started, but it’s a slippery slope—because once you do that, you’ve kind of established your value. And it’s really hard to go back after giving away your work for free for two years and say, “If you want my work, you gotta start paying for it now.” It’s kind of hard to rationalize that with the client.

I don’t go to a lot of concerts these days, but I photograph a lot of bands now that most people have never heard of. If a band catches my eye, I will request a photo shoot and access to shoot their whole show. I would rather do that than—to use a photographer friend as an example, he’ll go shoot someone like Billie Eilish, and they’ll treat him like total dog crap and make him shoot from the soundboard. After three songs, they kick the photographers out of the building, and everybody gets the same bad pictures. And nobody buys them, because there are some good pictures floating around of her by people that she lets shoot correctly. I always ask my friend, “Why are you bothering? Why are you wasting gas?” And he’s starting to agree. 

This whole “three songs and you have to leave” business is my big pet peeve. Every once in a while, I interact with a band on the subject. The first time it happened was with the Jesus Lizard, back when they were big the first time around. They had a fairly big record on Capitol, and a magazine sent ’em over to my house to do a photo shoot. 

Usually what happens is that somebody will wander into the kitchen and open up the refrigerator—there’s always beer in there—so everybody grabs a beer and we all sit around and talk. And David Yow, the singer, asks, “Why is it that as soon as our show starts getting really good, all the photographers leave?” I looked at him and said, “Because you’ve told them to leave.” He said, “No, we haven’t.” And I told him every band on the road in America tells photographers to leave after three songs. He said, “Well, how can we change that?” I told him to have the road manager go to the production manager of the venue and say, “When we’re onstage, we want everybody to shoot our whole show.”

About a month later, they left to tour with Lollapalooza. They were the first band on the bill every day. I went to the show out in Tinley Park, and at the box office there was a note with my pass that says, “You’re only allowed to shoot the first three songs of every show, every band, except for the Jesus Lizard, who has requested that everybody shoot their whole show.” 

I got great pictures. I called my friend Ebet [Roberts], who does what I do in New York, which is where Lollapalooza is heading. I told her to make sure to go to the show early because the first band on the bill is from Chicago, and they’re gonna let everybody shoot the whole show.

There’s a point to this story too. She was working for this little publication called the New York Times. During the last song of their set, David grabbed a microphone and dove off the stage right over her head. The audience caught him and held him over their heads as he was laying on his back singing. She took a picture of it, and it made the front page of the New York Times. Not the front page of the arts section. The front page of the freaking New York Times—all because he asked me that question after he grabbed a beer out of my refrigerator during our photo shoot. 

Joan Jett plays guitar onstage with a hard-rock band, her hair teased high and dressed in a torn black mesh shirt, shiny red pants, and plenty of spiked black leather accessories
Joan Jett played at the Thirsty Whale in River Grove while filming the movie Light of Day on April 7, 1986. Credit: Paul Natkin

My book’s coming out in July. It’s got 300 pages—almost all pictures, with a little bit of text. I got a couple of friends of mine to write little articles about me. One was written by Steve Gorman, who was the original drummer of the Black Crowes, which is the most eloquent article about me I’ve ever seen in my life. There are stories behind some of the pictures that are in the book, because certain pictures that I’ve taken need explanation. How do you explain Motörhead sitting in McDonald’s eating hamburgers? How do you explain Joan Jett in a heavy metal band in red spandex with spiked-out hair without knowing the story behind it?

The only advice I’d give people who are interested in doing this today is to sell all your equipment before it gets beat up. There’s absolutely no way that you could be successful shooting pictures of bands in 2022 and not have to have a day job because of two things: One, nobody will give you access. They’ll give you really bad access, if they give you any at all. Two, magazines don’t pay enough. 

There’s nothing like getting a sales report from Getty and finding pictures where I made 24 cents. I mean, there are some where I’ve made a thousand dollars, but there are a lot more where I made 24 cents. And the reason I’m successful with Getty is that I’ve got 40 years of work.

Miles Davis, holding his trumpet to his chest and wearing a brimmed hat and sunglasses, smiles and points out over the crowd in one of the few moments of his concert when he didn't have his back to the audience
To photograph Miles Davis at Park West on February 6, 1983 (also for the Reader), Natkin kneeled on the floor for a two-and-a-half-hour set—Davis kept his back to the audience for almost the entire night. Credit: Paul Natkin

But I would never tell anyone not to try, because I wouldn’t want to spoil somebody’s dreams. I’ll illustrate this with a story. There was once this new band called Fall Out Boy. They had their first album out, and they were on the Vans Warped Tour. I got a call from Chicago magazine. Somebody had written an article about them because they’re from the North Shore, and the magazine gave me the number of the publicist at the record company. 

I called her up to ask to be allowed to shoot the whole show. She asked me the one question that just makes me cringe. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me this question: “Have you ever worked in the music business before?” She’d never had anyone ask her to shoot the whole set before. So I went around and around with her, and I said, “Here’s my Web address. Have a look at my work, and I’ll call you a couple days before the show. Hopefully we can get something to work.” 

Two days before the show I called her up, and she said, “I can’t do anything for you, but I’ll give you the number of the road manager. Give him a call.” It was a 708 number. So I called and told the guy who I was, and all I hear is silence at the other end of the line. Then he says, “Oh my God, I’ve wanted to meet you for like ten years now.”

So I told him what I wanted and he said, “Of course you can shoot the whole show. Why don’t you come in the morning and hang out on our bus all day long? Anytime you want to do a photo shoot with the band, just gather them up, take them outside, and shoot whatever you want.” 

So I went there that day. I did four separate photo shoots with them during the course of the day, and I shot the whole show for Chicago magazine. It was gonna be a two-page article and they were gonna use two pictures—one in the table of contents, one in the article. It ended up being a four-page article with five pictures. And they paid me double what they were gonna pay me.

The following Monday, I got a call from the publicist, who said, “Hey, I heard you shot the whole show. Can we buy some pictures from you?”