Rock photographer Rob Shanahan is ready for his close-up

Rock photographer Rob Shanahan

Rock photographer Rob Shanahan

Thanks to photography apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram, anyone can pretend to be a rock photographer at a concert. But let's face it; an app won't make you into the next Rob Shanahan.

As one of the music industry's most sought-after photographers, Minnesota-native Shanahan knows a thing or two about how to shoot a concert, capture a performer's energy in a studio setting, and snap candid photos of musicians kicking back and relaxing. He's worked with the likes of Sheila E, Motley Crue, Dave Navarro, Paul McCartney, and Elton John among others. Oh yeah, and he is also Ringo Starr's personal photographer. Can't get that with an iPhone app, can you?

For his first book, Volume 1: Through the Lens of Music Photographer Rob Shanahan, the seasoned professional compiled some of his favorite snapshots from over the years. This Thursday, he will be signing his new release against a backdrop of his favorite photos on display.

City Pages spoke with Shanahan recently about photography and the secret drum technique he and Ringo share.

[jump] What drew you to music photography in particular?

My mom gave my dad a Pentax ME for Christmas one year, but he never figured out how to use it. When I was about 15, I took it upon myself to figure it out. I had already been playing drums for five years by then, so music was my heart and soul from the very beginning. I'd spend hours going through my parents' record collection, and would study the art and photography on the record covers while listening to the music. When the local drug store started selling records, I was in heaven. I remember buying KISS's Destroyer, the Rolling Stones' Love You Live, Doobie Brothers, Van Halen, and so many others. Somehow I knew I needed to be a part of making music and creating the art that goes with it.

Eddie Van Halen

Eddie Van Halen

Was Minnesota a good starting point for your career?

It's been a great starting point for me as a human being. We 'sotans are incredibly nice people, and I've never shied away from my roots. I love the fact that I can come home and run into people on the street I've known all my life and feel like I'm still connected.

After high school, I attended Mankato State and roomed with a high-school buddy who was a pilot. We were up in his small plane a few times a week, and I always had my camera with me for taking pictures. I found a local photo lab that rented out darkroom space, and I taught myself how to print black-and-white prints. The magic of seeing my photographs appear in a tray of chemicals was it for me; that photo lab in Mankato is where it all really started for me.

What's a day in the life of shooting a band like for you?

It starts by either driving in my 1956 Chevy loaded with photo gear, or jumping on a plane with whatever I can pack with me. I'll get to the studio or venue, scout for locations, set-up gear, and prepare. But sometimes it's all on the fly. The band will show up, and it's right to sound check and off we go. It all depends on who it is, and what's needed. But it always involves travel, mixed in with anxiety and excitement. Getting to meet and work with such great musicians is incredibly exciting and inspiring for me. I enjoy talking about music and asking questions.

It's a great way to try and connect as quickly as possible, because sometimes I just don't have a lot of time with them. My mantra on all photo shoots is 'No bullshit, no stress.' I want it to be an easy and pleasurable experience for all involved. The reward is getting home or back to my hotel room and uploading the photos and seeing the images full screen for the first time. It's like being in that darkroom in Mankato all over again.  

Who can we expect to see in this book?

It's a who's who. I've got Barry Manilow, Judas Priest, Christina Aguilera, Motley Crue, Lionel Richie, Van Halen, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Sheila E, Keith Richards, Elton John, Def Leppard, and so many more. It's a great collection I'm very proud of, and I am thrilled and honored to come home and share it with my home state.

How did you become acquainted with Ringo Starr, and how has it been being his personal photographer?

Sheila E introduced me to Ringo in 2005 while she was on tour with Ringo Starr and the All Starr Band. I had been photographing Sheila for a while at that point, including for a Paiste cymbal ad, DW drum ad, and her record cover for Heaven. I met Ringo backstage in Sheila's dressing room. He walked over and said, 'So your Sheila's photographer?' and shook my hand and walked away.

After the show, his publicist Elizabeth Freund asked if I'd be interested in shooting a few shows for Ringo starting the next night in San Diego. Of course I said yes without checking my schedule, and the next night in San Diego was the beginning of our working relationship. At sound check, while admiring his Ludwig drum kit, we started talking about drums. Turns out we are both left handed but play drums right handed. It was something we bonded over immediately. I've been shooting everything for him ever since.

What's the weirdest or most unique experience you've had shooting a musician or a band?

Photographing Ringo playing drums on the rooftop of St. George's Church in Liverpool, across the town's square from the Empire Theatre, with 30,000 Liverpudlians down below comes to mind. We also drove around Liverpool as he pointed out various points of interest, visited his old high school, and found the old flat he was born and raised in.

Do you prefer commercial and studio shoots over shooting live performances? Or do you prefer candid photographs?

I love it all, but if I had my choice, I'd like to have a big beautiful studio and have everybody come to me. My studio is in Venice, five minutes from my house, but I'm hardly there as I travel for most of my work. I love shooting there and being able to be home so quickly, but I also love traveling and getting to shoot in new places. And for sure candids. I'm the master of candids -- my shot of Paul kissing Ringo is a good example.

Sheila E

Sheila E

Are there any Minnesota bands that you'd like to consider shooting?

I'm up for shooting any artist while in town, and I like shooting all styles of music. I've often thought of coming back home more often to work in the Minnesota scene. I'd be up for that, and there's a lot of great talent here. I'm looking forward to hearing Sometimes Y at my gallery show and book signing this week.

You're often behind the lens, but how do you feel about being in front of it?

Love it. I used to model to pay the bills. At one time, I had a cologne campaign and beer campaign running simultaneously, as well as a few magazine covers.

All images © Rob Shanahan
Wes Borland
If you could shoot any musicians, past or present, who would you like to shoot?

The Rolling Stones, circa Exile on Main St., in 1970. I've worked with Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, but to tour with the Stones back then, in their heyday and creative peak would have been cool... but I was only four years old then.

Finally, what's your favorite song?

Tommy Lee

Tommy Lee

Whatever my daughter sings in the bathtub tonight!


Rob Shanahan book signing and gallery show

Aria at the Jeune Lune

105 N. First St., Minneapolis


6 p.m. Thursday, March 15

To RSVP visit