"I binned thousands of Bowie, Stones, and Queen photos", shares Denis O'Regan

Denis O'Regan hosts online exhibition titled the 69 Project
Freddie Mercury live at Wembley Stadium on Queen's 1986 'Magic Tour (Image credit: Denis O'Regan / courtesy of West Contemporary Editions)

Famous for his official work as the photographer for David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, Bob Marley, and Queen, Denis O'Regan is undoubtedly one of the world's best and most legendary music photographers.

Regan has had an unbelievable career, photographing not only rock legends but also world tours, Live Aid, the Concert For Diana, and was even appointed as the first-ever Artist In Residence at the Royal Albert Hall in 2021.

•  How to get started in live music photography (opens in new tab)

The Irish-born photographer will soon be turning 69 and, to celebrate, he has begun hosting an online exhibition that will last 69 days, live up until January 01 2023, and hopes to raise funds in the process for the Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), of which the late Queen Elizabeth II was the patron. 

The online exhibition and sales campaign (opens in new tab) showcases nine of Regan's classic and most exemplary works and six previously unreleased and never-before-seen shots, totaling fifteen images that can be purchased as fine art giclée limited edition prints through Regan's London-based veteran gallerist, West Contemporary Editions. 

The exhibition will donate 10% of the income and sale price of each of the Project 69 photographs to GOSH, and West Contemporary Editions has also agreed to match this percentage for O’Regan’s work sold during this campaign period.

Unseen image - Stones Ullevi Stadium (Image credit: Denis O'Regan / courtesy of West Contemporary Editions)
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Each of the images on the exhibition site is currently priced at £1,440 ($1,667 / AU$2,580 approximately) at a quoted paper size of 16x20 and printed on Photo Rag 308gsm Fine Art Paper, but the price can go up to a whopping £9,000 ($10,416 / AU$16,111) at a print size of 40x60. Each print will also feature a signature and numbering, and include a certificate of authenticity.

A celebration of Denis O'Regan's career as he reaches his 69th birthday, the exhibition and project also symbolizes a retrospective lifetime of culturally significant works – as well as being a personal nod to David Bowie, a long-term O’Regan collaborator, who was aged 69 upon his untimely passing.

The year 1969 itself is additionally a significant one for music culture, being the year of Woodstock, the release of the studio album Let It Bleed by The Rolling Stones, and when Abbey Road by The Beatles was released.

I had the chance to have a quick Q&A with Denis all about the 69 Days project, what it means to be turning 69, his earlier days of shooting for the NME, and his best advice for newcomers to music photography and the daunting process of securing your first photo pass...

David Bowie, Singapore Mall, 1983 (Image credit: Denis O'Regan / courtesy of West Contemporary Editions)
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Do you believe that music photography as a practice has changed or evolved over the last say 20/30 years, from your own experience?

"Photography for me changed in 1989 when Photoshop first came out. It’s unfortunate that I hadn’t seen it coming – I wouldn’t have binned so many images, including thousands from the Bowie / Stones / Queen tours that might have been badly exposed or slightly out of focus. I was already using Apple Macs, which Photoshop was written for.

I’d used a Minolta, the first professional autofocus camera, during 1987 / 1988 and my first digital mission with Nikon was Paul McCartney's 1999 show at The Cavern in Liverpool. I was commissioned by Paul and had exclusive access. I uploaded color images late at night after the show, which featured the next morning on every UK newspaper’s front page. I did this by creating a mini-site from which images could be downloaded with a code. This must have been a record on more than one level.

I’ve shot digitally for the last 20 years and love its flexibility – any image can be color or black and white. Low light sensitivity opens up a whole new world totally inaccessible with film, and of course, it’s inexpensive due to reusable cards. My film 40 years ago cost me £1 an image to buy and process, along with a contact sheet. That was expensive for someone in their early twenties, but now I sell prints and books of those images for thousands."

"Keith Richards backstage in the US on the 'Talk Is Cheap' tour with his band The X-Pensive Winos. Keith is rarely seen backstage without a guitar in hand. The Stones' previous tour had been the one that I'd covered in 1982, the last before an 8-year hiatus. It was very relaxed on this tour, with very few personnel and smaller venues." (Image credit: Denis O'Regan / courtesy of West Contemporary Editions)
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Throughout your career, what has been the most challenging aspect of being a music photographer, and what did you learn from it?

"Access to artists was a challenge from day one because I had no business contacts or friends in the music business. My only access would have to be live shows until I had enough byline credits to secure photo passes. Working with music paper NME, especially during 1978, gave me huge access, both onstage and off.

I didn’t go to college, instead working in the city of London for a couple of years before punk came along. The main lesson that I learned is to know your goal, your destination – then you can take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves, as long as you recognize them as such. I loved to travel and take photographs. I was a fan of rock music, so I wanted to tour with bands. My ultimate goals were David Bowie, Queen, The Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney. 

My first big tour was eight weeks in Europe with The Stones, then eight months with David Bowie the following year. The other thing to recognize if you’re interested in working with a band or anyone you’ll spend a lot of time with, is when "a chat" is in fact a job interview. Bands assume your photography is up to scratch, but will you get along for long periods of time?"

Bob Marley, Jamaica, 1980 (Image credit: Denis O'Regan / courtesy of West Contemporary Editions)
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What gear do you shoot with, and what is the one thing in your kit bag that you could not live without?

"I use a Nikon D5 (opens in new tab) / Nikon D6 (opens in new tab) and 'the zooms': 14-24mm f/2.8 fisheye, 24-70mm f/2.8, and 70-200mm f/2.8. I also have small specific lenses like the 50mm f/1.4. The 14-24mm is my most loved lens for close-action photography, often onstage with a stadium audience as the backdrop."

• You heard it here folks, the best lenses for music photography used by Denis O'Regan himself are the Nikon AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8 (opens in new tab), the Nikon AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR (opens in new tab), as well as the Nikon AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8E FL ED VR (opens in new tab) zoom lens, and a nifty Nikon AF-S 50mm f/1.4G ED (opens in new tab) prime lens.

David Bowie & Mick Jagger, London, 1987 (Image credit: Denis O'Regan / courtesy of West Contemporary Editions)
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How would you describe your experience and relationship when photographing David Bowie? 

"Wonderful. I was still in my twenties and expected "the enigma", someone who would keep me at arm’s length and let me know when I could take a picture. In fact, he was warm, engaging, and enthusiastic. Before the tour, I’d proposed to the producers that we publish a book, and David warmed to that idea, constantly suggesting moments that should be captured, and inviting me to outings and dinners so that I could vary the photographs from the usual backstage, stage, travel, hotel shots. 

Even so, it wasn’t until we traveled to Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong that we really spent time in interesting and inspirational places. It also ensured that I spent a lot of downtime with David."

Freddie Mercury, Maine Road, 1986 (Image credit: Denis O'Regan / courtesy of West Contemporary Editions)
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When shooting live music in venues, have you ever had to abide by the ‘first three songs' (opens in new tab) policy before being granted access to all areas?

"Yes! The first instance of ‘first three numbers’ for me was Abba at Wembley Arena in 1977. The pit there was huge and the stage low. All the band would see was an array of photographers, so they imposed the restriction. Other bands then thought that would be the cool thing to do, and off it went. It also restricted the number of images in circulation, most of which would show the artist at their best at the opening of a show, not sweat-soaked 90 minutes later at the end. 

Plus all photographers would end up with a similar selection of photographs. Bands became aware that photographers syndicated these images worldwide. Germany and Japan were big markets with color music magazines that didn’t exist in the UK, which was ruled by black-and-white music papers. A lot of younger photographers today imagine the 'three song rule' was introduced a lot later. In fact, in the late Seventies, it was this very restriction that to me opened up the idea of working with bands, guaranteeing total access, better angles, and exclusive images. 

It also gave them approval and control over a huge library of exclusive content for syndication throughout the tour. I of course secured a huge archive of exclusive content. Before that, I traveled abroad to shoot shows so that my pictures could be differentiated, possibly with more access to the show. That worked well and was a direct stepping stone to touring, mainly brought about by the rule introduced over 40 years ago."

Freddie Mercury, Slane Castle, Ireland, 1986. (Image credit: Denis O'Regan / courtesy of West Contemporary Editions)
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What was the process like in having to select only nine classic images that represent your extensive career as one of the world’s best music photographers? 

"Very difficult. It doesn’t even include punk, grunge or new romantics images, even though some of my favorites are Iggy Pop, Ramones, Billy Idol, The Clash and Blondie, and I toured the world with Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. I also shot numerous Coachella and Download festivals, Glastonbury, Live Aid and The Concert For Diana, all as an official photographer."

Do you have any advice for newcomers to the field of music and tour photography, or those working in the music industry in general?

"Get out there and shoot! When I began there was no internet, mobile phones, or low-cost airlines. One trip to Stockholm to shoot one show would cost over £1,000 in travel and film, and this was 40 years ago. Knowing who was playing where or who represented them was a Sherlock Holmes exercise.  

So catch a plane to Iceland and photograph its incredible scenery or travel through Japan – an incredibly diverse country of mountains, temples and hi-tech cities. There could be a band playing and you might meet a suitable model. Who knows? If you have a passion, photograph it. There’s always a way. You then need to apply the business side of making it pay."

Finally, what does the upcoming exhibition and the symbolism of turning 69 mean to you as a creative? And how does it feel to be able to raise funds for the Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity, through the medium of photography?

"69 means getting old! But I don’t feel it. My son is only 16, and I’ve still got my hair, so I’m still having a lot of fun, but now I look back and produce limited edition books and prints from my archive and help my son to become a racing driver. I’ve also given hundreds of talks about my life and career. 

I always think of David Bowie of course, because he was 69 when we lost him, and his first big hit was 1969. Whenever possible I’ve worked for children’s charities or occasionally cancer, which took both my parents. My mother was only 47. I’m delighted and honored to be working with GOSH, whose work with children is of course legendary."

Mick Jagger Live, 1982 (Image credit: Denis O'Regan / courtesy of West Contemporary Editions)
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A big thank you to Denis for taking the time to speak with us, and if you can afford to do so then please consider purchasing a limited edition print from the Project 69 online global exhibition (opens in new tab) via West Contemporary Editions, and support an excellent charity in the process. And make sure to visit Denis' website (opens in new tab) for more information on his life and career.

You may also want to take a look at the best camera settings for live music photography (opens in new tab), as well as 5 essential tips for editing live music photos, by expert Christie Goodwin (opens in new tab), Our Interview with Music photographer Jennifer McCord (opens in new tab), and be sure to get your live music images ready for the Abbey Road Studios Music Photography Awards (opens in new tab) in 2023.  

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