108 Rock Star Guitars by author and photographer Lisa S. Johnson is the result of a photography project that lasted 17 years starting with the guitar of Les Paul, aka father of the electric guitar; Paul wrote the introduction to the book. A former employee of Eastman Kodak, Johnson tracked down and photographed guitars by Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, Chrissie Hynde, to name a few, and condensed it down to 300 images for this beautifully made book.
In the following interview with Guitarkadia, Johnson gives us a glimpse of her journey, process, and influences.
GUITARKADIA: Give me a little background about yourself. What did you read, watch, and listen to growing up? Do you play an instrument?
LISA S. JOHNSON: Ha! I used to read Tiger Beat Magazine while growing up in Northern Canada we didn’t have access to much more that I can recall. We had the music through radio though and the first record I ever bought was KISS Destroyer. Listened to a ton of Kiss, CCR, Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Fleetwood Mac, The Who, YES, Led Zeppelin, HEART, Peter Frampton, Moody Blues, Ted Nugent. We only had 2 channels on our B&W TV so watched whatever was on like National Geographic, Bewitched and of course we always loved to watch the Oscars and Grammy’s. I was born in California so when watching the Grammy’s I would always think to myself that one day I would move back to LA and I did 30 years later!! I’m learning how to play guitar now on my Gibson B-25 and it’s my mission to get proficient asap so I can play with my Dad.
G: You dedicate your book to your father, Gary Laverne Charles Joseph Johnson (what an awesome name), a multi-instrumentalist and musician, thanking him for teaching you how to hear music. How did he inspire and teach you? If you had to pick one important lesson he gave you over the years, what would it be?
LSJ: Yea my Dad is pretty amazing and while I’ve always been pissed at him for not teaching me to play guitar, he did in fact hone my skills in hearing music. He would always say that he could not even hear the lyrics. He’d filter them out and listen to the instruments and timing. Notice when another instrument comes in and what IS that instrument? Another guitar, a mandolin, violin, bass, keys, horns, percussion? I could always hear the voices too, the harmonies and how the voice was an equal instrument to me. Dad just didn’t want to get bogged down or distracted by words… the tune, the melodies were important to him and I’m so grateful I can appreciate music in such detail because of him.
G: How did you become interested/involved in photography? What subjects interested you in the early days? What was your first camera?
LSJ: Geez, my first camera was some cheap point and shoot when I was in Jr High School. My Dad was also a lover of photography so I eventually inherited his Canon A-1 and all his filters. I’ve since handed that one down to my niece. While attending photography school in Cocoa, Florida I noticed a close up style of photographing everything had developed. I would photograph any object including a camera, cactus, people, still life mainly and it was always up close.
G: How long did you work at Eastman Kodak and what did you do there?
LSJ: It was a real honor to work for Eastman Kodak for 10 years. The last golden years of the great yellow giant; us “Kodakers” still bleed yellow! I was a Technical Sales Rep which meant I called on Professional Photographers, and the Pro Lab’s that serviced them. I made sure that all the photographers knew about and were shooting Kodak films and that the labs were using Kodak papers and chemistry. Over the 10 years I worked in all the genres, Portrait/Wedding, Commercial, Still Life, Advertising, Nature, Fashion and later handled accounts in Las Vegas for companies that made all the slot machines with Kodak Duratrans and Duraflex paper products. Tons of fun and I learned a tremendous amount about the photographic process.
G: What events lead to your photographing guitars? I understand it sparked from meeting a vintage guitar shop owner in Memphis. Can you share that story?
LSJ: Yes, well my Father told me I was never allowed to date musicians, being one himself, so the day came when I started dating the guitar player at church! I called Dad up to confess and explained that while he was a guitar player he also owned a vintage guitar shop called Rod & Hanks Vintage guitars in Memphis. Well that changed things up for my Dad who said this was different because he was not a touring musician and hey by the way if he ever got in a Gibson Mandolin to let him know as he had always wanted one! Two weeks later Hank got in a mint condition 1917 Gibson Mandolin. I asked him how much as I wanted to get it for my Dad. Hank said I could not afford it and said if I photographed some guitars for him that he didn’t want to sell but had to, that he would trade me for the mandolin! The deal was cut and I photographed those guitars for him and fell in love with my imagery for the first time! Soon after, Kodak transferred me to New York City and I bee-lined it to the Iridium Room to see if I could meet Les Paul and photograph his guitar. I figured if I was going to live in NY I may as well photograph famous guitars. So Les’ guitar was the first famous one I photographed and 12 years later he wrote the foreword for the book.
G: What was the first guitar you photographed that planted the idea to do “108 Rock Star Guitars”? Why 108?
LSJ: Over the 15 years it took me to photograph enough guitars to create a book, I photographed all genres of music that I grew up on: Country, Blues, Jazz and Rock. Because I listened to more Rock I gravitated more toward requesting the rock guitars and in 2007 I sat with a vedic astrologer while traveling in India and he said to me that since I was a yogi and I had decided to make my first book about Rock guitars, I should name my book 108 Rock Star Guitars, because 108 is a cosmic number in yoga philosophy and since music is cosmic it lends a cosmic element to the book vs the 100 or 101 greatest that is used all the time. It lends the question “Why 108?” and that is explained in more detail on the first page of the book.
G: What was easy and what was hard about doing the project? How did you connect with and convince the guitar players to let you photograph their instruments. Would it be fair to assume that it was akin to asking them if you could photograph their children?
LSJ: The hard part has been grabbing my balls and picking up the phone to make the requests to the most famous players in the world! There is that underlying angst they will say NO!! However I’ve been compelled to keep going and persistence over the years has paid off and progressed the project over time. Once I’m in front of the guitar with my camera, the whole world slips away and I’m ‘one’ with these iconic instruments, its then so easy to photograph them with all my heart and soul to allow them to express themselves to my lens. That’s the easiest and most joyful part of my work.
Having photographed Les Paul’s guitar first was a great calling card when requesting other guitars and as the list of guitars photographed grew it got easier and easier to garner yes’s from other guitarists. I would send requests to their management companies or sometimes I had friends that knew the artists. I’ve networked around a lot. When I was photographing Mick Box’s guitars I didn’t realize that Trevor Bolder was touring with Uriah Heep and Mick said, “Hey you need to get Trevor’s bass while you’re here” so that’s how I got Trevor’s bass.
When I was shooting Ted Nugent and Ace Frehley’s guitars, Scotti Hill strolled up and offered his guitar up so that’s how that went down and it’s cool when that happens! I showed up to photograph Lita Ford’s guitars for my next book and John 5 was there so we chatted and I recently got his guitar for Vol 2 as well. Ton ‘O Fun!! Yea, often it is like I’m photographing their most prized possession. For John 5 I met him to check out a bunch he had stored in a huge warehouse and in the end, he said, let’s just go to my place and you can shoot my #1 at home… wait till you see that guitar portrait with his hairless cat that walked into the frame…Cool spontaneous moments!
G: Which guitar was the most challenging to track down and most challenging to photograph technically?
LSJ: Frig, well that would have to be Jeff Beck. I had requested a few times and even had a bit of an altercation with his tour manager years ago and eventually I got a yes!! I showed up and ended up having to wait 3 hours and then got a 3’x3’ space to shoot in so I laid down on the floor and shot up at it. Good thing I’m a yogi so I have serious breath control and flexibility to get what I need in any kind of space. I just love the shots I got of Jeff’s guitar. He is pretty easy on them yet you can see the discreet wear and tear on his white Fender Stratocaster with a 1993 Neck and a 1995 Body. After the shoot I had to race back to LA from the Fox Theatre in Pomona to photograph John Mellencamp’s guitar, arriving two hours late! They were super awesome about it and I got John’s guitar shot just in time for his 8PM show time they gave me tickets to. It was so sweet to sit back, relax and watch the show after the white knuckle drive back to LA!
G: As a photographer, I’m always curious what others use to tell stories. What cameras, lenses and lighting set up have you used throughout the project? I read that you’ve shot with digital cameras and am curious why you chose to do so. Especially since you have a long history with film.
LSJ: I am a film lover, especially having worked for Eastman Kodak. What’s cool about this book is that not only does it document the history of some of the most famous guitars in rock, it also documents all of the last films ever made for Kodak Professional. I eventually made the switch from my film camera, a Nikon 8008 to the digital Nikon N90, then to Canon 5D Mark II, and recently back to the new Nikon 810.
The digital workflow is so much more efficient. As a photographer that worked for Kodak we always had to understand and demonstrate film and digital so it was part of my job to use a digital camera, thus it was not so difficult for me to utilize both mediums. I wanted to learn the digital system. I do still have a freezer full of film and it will be used for my next book to keep it organic and the lushness of film alive in my work. My favorite lens has always been the Nikon 35-70 f2.8 macro. I have two as they don’t make them any more so I’ve got the second one as back up. I missed that lens so much when I was shooting the Canon and that is one of the main reasons why I went back to Nikon when they released the 810 model last year, so I now use that lens again.
G: Can you share one of your most memorable story from the book and one that didn’t make it in? What was the editing process like?
LSJ: Well after 15 years of shooting it took me a whole year just to edit and write the book. It was a long process that was so fulfilling as I got to spend intimate time with each guitar again in the selection process. During this time I would listen to the artists music while editing and writing for inspiration and it was so awesome to hear music I may not have listened to for a long while. I would be awestruck all over again that little ol’ me got access to these iconic guitars! Truly it would bring me back to those moments I got with those guitars. Two really memorable shoots was when I went to London to photograph Jimmy Page’s 1968 Gibson SG EDS 1275 double neck guitar, I mean the Holy Grail of double necks, at his design studio, and then getting a call that Roger Water’s agreed to have his bass photographed that same week in Athens. So I flew to Greece and headed to the Olympic stadium where I had worked a few years before staffing the Olympics for Eastman Kodak. On arrival Roger was in full command on stage sound checking with the Athens Children’s Choir. When they finished I was escorted back stage to photograph his 1970’s Fender Precision Bass Thoroughbred, still warm from sound check. Turned out my lights didn’t jive with their power source so I ended up photographing his bass on top of a road case with a bare light bulb that was positioned directly underneath The Wall. THAT was some cool mojo and a moment I will never forget. I was also honored to gain access to John Lee Hooker’s guitar’s. These images didn’t make the first book along with a lot of other greats as I figured I’d do a separate blues book so held it back for that.
G: What surprised you about the project – about the musicians you got to meet and about yourself?
LSJ: Well the whole project has just been the ride of my life! The most fun I could have ever imagined. The love, blessings and encouragement I’ve received from many of the artists has been heartwarming and humbling. So many of the artists have expressed how cool it is that I only want to photograph their guitars and not them and often they will be there to see their cherished axes get the photo treatment and they are so happy they don’t have to be in the photo! It was a true surprise that day I photographed Lita Ford’s guitars that her exceptional guitar tech Kevin “Dugie” Dugan surprised me by bringing Michael Anthony’s bass along for me to photograph too. You’re going to see both of those in my next volume. Uber cool he had asked Michael the night before, who he also tech’s for, and he did that for me!
G: What are you working on next?
LSJ: Volume 2 is underway and will likely reveal the guitars I’ve photographed of many great Blues, Country, Jazz and more Rock artists. The 108 Rock Star Guitars brand is also expanding and the market will see mini books and other cool limited edition merch items this fall and hopefully Volume 2 in fall of 2016. There is a lot more to come from 108 Rock Star Guitars down the line so stay tuned!
COMING NEXT TUESDAY, 17th: Video interview series with Jazz guitarist Gene Bertoncini. Sign up here for alert.