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The life and contributions of legendary rock photographer Tom Wright

Tom Wright: the legendary rock photographer and muse for the likes of The Who, Rolling Stones, and the Eagles (1944-2022)
(Image credit: Copyright Tom Wright, courtesy of the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Markey Producer Group)

A muse for several legendary rock bands and artists, photographer Tom Wright (born 1944) sadly passed away last month at the age of 78. He worked with the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Who, Rod Stewart, The Eagles and Elvis Costello among others during his early years as a road manager for The Who, where he was their official tour photographer.

Despite his extensive photography career, ammassing well beyond 250,000 images, Wright was unfortunately virtually unknown to the public and wider industry. Though Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones was known to have called Wright, "a f**king great photographer with a special touch."

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The Who published a touching statement (opens in new tab) on their website honoring Wright, and detailing his life and impressive career as their friend, photographer, and manager, as well as noting the many ways he influenced the band musically. 

Self-portrait of Tom Wright (Image credit: Copyright Tom Wright, courtesy of the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Markey Producer Group)
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"One thing is certain, had I not met Tom Wright, The Who would never have become successful," wrote The Who's Pete Townshend in the foreword to Wright's 2007 memoir, Roadwork: Rock and Roll Turned Inside Out.

"We would have remained The Detours, a solid little pop band doing what hundreds of others were doing around the same time.” The book features a wealth of black-and-white photographs of life on the road touring in the United States.

It all began in the early Sixties, as Wright befriended Townshend when studying photography at Ealing College of Art in the UK. Townshend and his flatmate Richard Barnes were graphic design students at the college, whom Wright introduced to the likes of American blues, jazz, folk and R&B music comprising artists like Ray Charles, Lightning Hopkins, Joan Baez, Bo Diddley and Julie London.

(Image credit: Copyright Tom Wright, courtesy of the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Markey Producer Group)
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Wright’s family moved to England when he was just 16 and, not long after meeting Townshend, Wright faced deportation from the UK having been busted for marijuana possession. 

Having to go back to America, he left his entire 350-piece "extraordinary and eclectic" (as The Who describe it) record collection in the hands of Townshend – who later credits Wright for helping him to develop his own individual and rhythmic style, which later defined The Who's unique sound and led them to become "the best live rock 'n' Roll band in the world" at one stage.

In 1967, Wright managed The Who's very first US tour. While working as an underwater photographer in Florida, he received a phone call from Townshend inviting him to the band's show. Wright was then asked by Townshend to be their road manager and touring photographer. His images from the early days in The Who’s career produced some of the most defining images of that time period.

(Image credit: Copyright Tom Wright, courtesy of the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Markey Producer Group)
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Wright travelled with The Who for another two US tours in 1968, photographing them constantly, until he took on the prestigious job of being the manager of Russ Gibb's historic Grande Ballroom – a live music venue situated in Detroit, Michigan, where he worked for several years. Known as Detroit's Rock 'n' Roll Palace, the venue hosted bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Cream and The Who.

Wright toured as a photographer over the next 35 years with the likes of Rod Stewart and The Faces, The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, The James Gang, Joe Walsh, Elvis Costello and many others, photographing not only the bands, but their crews and backstage antics documenting life on the road.

(Image credit: Copyright Tom Wright, courtesy of the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Markey Producer Group)
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"Tom Wright is the Jack Kerouac of rock and roll photography," said Joe Walsh, guitarist of the Eagles, comparing Wright to the iconic American novelist and poet. Having produced a prolific body of photographic work, Wright captured musicians at the most pivotal points in their careers, documenting the history of rock music in the process.

"Wright wasn’t just another groupie taking snapshots behind the scenes to tell a cool story," said Larry Lawrence, a longtime friend and collaborator of Wright. "He played the muse, inspiring the creative genius of many rock icons. 

"When people discover Tom Wright and his images, it’s like finding a Van Gogh in the attic. He, no doubt, has one of the most fascinating unsung stories written during the evolution of classic rock." 

(Image credit: Copyright Tom Wright, courtesy of the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Markey Producer Group)
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Wright developed deep and lifelong friendships with the musicians that he photographed and toured with, and in many ways his photography is unique in a hybrid perspective of being a photographer born in the United States but educated in England, witnessing the turmoil and musical conflicts from both countries during the eras of the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. 

"Amid the whirlwind of touring, shows, girls, drugs, and mischief, Tom used his camera to capture extraordinary and profound moments of intimacy that no one else could or did," wrote Dr Jordan Zignego, a historian who focussed his dissertation on Wright and his photography, titled The Structure of Cultural Memory: The Photography of Tom Wright

"Tom's collection displays extraordinary detail and emotion – what can be captured when a photographer is embraced as a family member rather than just someone hired to take pictures."

(Image credit: Copyright Tom Wright, courtesy of the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Markey Producer Group)
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After having made San Antonio, Texas, his home for many years, in 1993 Wright named the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History (opens in new tab) at the University of Austin Texas as the repository for his colossal archive of more than 250,000 photographic images, plus thousands of taped conversations and live recordings.

Patrick Markey, executive producer of Emmy Award-winning series Ozark, is said to be developing a documentary series about Tom Wright, having commented that Wright was a man who "lived deliberately and sometimes shaved recklessly close, but in the end, he had zero regrets – he lived life on his terms and would have had it no other way."

Wright is survived by three sisters and one grandchild, and mourned by many who knew him in the music industry. A big thank you to the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Markey Producer Group for supplying us with these images captured by Tom Wright. 

(Image credit: Copyright Tom Wright, courtesy of the Briscoe Center at the University of Texas at Austin and the Markey Producer Group)
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• You may also want to read our 5 essential tips for editing live music photos (opens in new tab), or check out the latest Guns N' Roses photo exhibition (opens in new tab) , or maybe you need some advice on How to photograph live music (opens in new tab) in preparation for entering the next Abbey Road Studios' Music Photography Awards  (opens in new tab).

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Beth Nicholls
Staff Writer

A staff writer for Digital Camera World, Beth has an extensive background in various elements of technology with five years of experience working as a tester and sales assistant for CeX. After completing a degree in Music Journalism, followed by obtaining a Master's degree in Photography awarded by the University of Brighton, she spends her time outside of DCW as a freelance photographer specialising in live music events and band press shots under the alias 'bethshootsbands'.