Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Legendary Rock Photographer Neal Preston Returns To Forest Hills After Releasing New Book

Neal Preston & Cameron Crowe at book launch at Rizzoli, Photo by Michael Perlman
Neal Preston poses outside Forest Hills High School, Photo by Michael Perlman

By Michael Perlman

 Led Zeppelin, Queen, Billy Joel, Michael Jackson, and The Who at Forest Hills Stadium… That is a minute fraction of subjects that Neal Preston, a Forest Hills native considered the “greatest rock photographer alive today,” has captured throughout his over four-decade career. Last week, he flew in from Los Angeles for his talk and signing of his new book, “Neal Preston: Exhilarated and Exhausted” at Manhattan’s Rizzoli Bookstore.  

During his 3 days in town, Preston also led this columnist on a tour of his old stomping grounds. In a spin, he became the subject of photos in front of sites that were close to his childhood and teen years, where some were steppingstones en route to his career. In his 1970 Forest Hills High School yearbook, “Forester,” he writes under his headshot “Professional Photography.” He moved out west the following year, and the rest was history. 

At Rizzoli was his best friend, Oscar winner Cameron Crowe, who he met long ago at a rock concert, and would later write his foreword. Crowe interviewed him about his memories, talents, and was an ideal fit for an up close and personal experience.   

“Flipping through the book last night was like listening to a lot of great music,” said Crowe. He then asked, “In a world where all of these bands are now splintering and some people say rock is the new jazz, I’d like to know while great music is still out there,  why is it that some of these photos have lasted longer than the actual bands?” While Preston said “there was no easy answer,” he responded, “If any photographer thinks that you shot a picture at 8:00 and at 8:02 you look at it and think that’s iconic, I guarantee that you’re wrong, since you need the benefit of hindsight to know that it’s iconic.” He also acknowledged “timing” and “all kinds of people who let me do what I do the way I do it.”

“I wanted the book to be about how it is when you have a job like I have,” Preston said. A few days earlier, someone asked him, “Is it as crazy on a Zeppelin tour as we all heard?” and he responded, “If you’re using ‘crazy’ as a metaphor for sex and drugs, I will tell you it’s crazier on a REO Speedwagon tour,” which generated a chuckle from attendees.

Writing a book can usher in surprises. He said, “I thought writing the book would be the hard part and the picture selection would be the easiest, but had a complete 100 percent turnaround.” Nevertheless, he ensured his readers that his book relates to his “snarky sense of humor, but it’s all honest.” “It’s a trip through my brain,” Preston said. He also revealed that he has enjoyed photographing some musicians more, such as Pete Townshend and John Lennon, his idols.

This 336-page hard cover book largely consists of personal stories and single and double page captioned photos from concerts and behind-the-scenes.  He writes, “Shooting live music is something few photographers do really well. I just discovered one day I was good at this because it felt natural to me. You can’t teach it, you can’t learn it, you just do it.” He explained his recipe as “One part photography, one part love of music, one part a love of theatre and theatrical lighting, one part hero worship, one part timing and 95 parts instinct.”

It also features stills relating to music videos such as Rod Stewart preparing for and filming “If We Fall In Love Tonight” and R.E.M. filming “E-Bow The Letter” in 1996. The Jackson Five in 1974 and Bruce Springsteen in 1994 are among the photos where Preston references recording studios as a “strange fascination” and musicians in that setting as “rare jewels.” Readers can even view his Kodak negatives of Bob Dylan with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ rehearsals in 1986.

As for his goals, he said, “At some point next year, we will be releasing a special edition of ‘Exhilarated and Exhausted’ that will be limited to - at most - 100 copies. No other photographer has ever released anything like what I’m planning to do. And no, it’s not going to contain a print in it. That’s been done too many times.” Beyond that, he envisions more shooting, exhibitions, and projects with Cameron. “I’d like to write a lot more,” he added.

Michael Perlman with a signed copy of Neal Preston's new book outside the Midway Theatre
In front of the Midway Theatre, he called his visit to his hometown “surreal.” He remembered a candy store (now CVS) adjacent to Sterling National Bank. “When I was a teen, I worked there putting the Sunday New York Times together. I would take all of the money that I made, go to the T-Bone, and get a cheeseburger.”

Forest Hills Photo Center was once located on the west side of Continental Avenue. “That was a real camera store. I used to stand in front of the window and stare at the cameras; none of which I could afford.” When he was 14, he recalled, “The German couple that owned it got so sick of me, they thought we might as well hire him.” Around age 12, his brother-in-law gave him his first camera, an Ansco Speedex 4.5, but later on, he was finally able to afford his first pro camera, a Leica M3.

Addie Vallins was a soda and burger shop on the opposite side. “They had the best milkshakes in the world,” he said. Pointing to the former Continental Theatre on Austin Street, he reminisced, “That was where ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ opened, and I must have seen it 17 times in the summer of 1964. I hid under the seats until the next showing.” At 71-20 Austin Street was Revelation, the first hip clothing store. “Me and my buddies would hang out and buy our bell bottom jeans.”

Where Neal Preston met Gary Kurfirst at 71-11 Austin Street
Among the most important spots was at 71-11 Austin Street. “We thought that it was the ticket office for the local concert series, the Singer Bowl, and we took prints up to try to get free tickets. “ He met Gary Kurfirst, a music promoter, sitting on the second story fire escape, and it proved to be a step forward for his career.  At 108-42 Queens Boulevard was Forest Hills Music Shop. “This is where I would look through every British Invasion record, which came out on Tuesdays.”

Neal Preston in front of his childhood home at The Fairfax, Photos by Michael Perlman

During the tour, he also posed in front of his second story window of The Fairfax at 110-15 71st Road. On the corner, a mailbox also made him reminisce. “I used to sit on this mailbox with my little Panasonic transistor radio and listen to ‘The Good Guys’ on WMCA. I remember hearing ‘We Could Work It Out’ by The Beatles.”

Last stop was Forest Hills High School, where he reminisced being a member of Play Pro, a theatrical club. “We had keys to every room backstage. It was great! By the time I was a junior and senior, I was already working in the business.”
He also recalled helping The Knickerbockers, a rock band carrying road cases into the school, prior to a concert that evening. “It could have been the first show I was ever at.”

“This is all my neighborhood. It is as Neal as you can get,” he emotionally concluded. 

A similar version of this feature was published in Michael Perlman's Forest Hills Times column:

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