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Photographer Mark Allan on shooting stars

Mark Allan has rubbed shoulders with – and photographed – the great and the good... and not just rock idols, as his exhibition at the Barbican proves

11 April, 2019 — By Jane Clinton

David Bowie backstage in Denmark. Photos: Mark Allan

AS a child, Mark Allan struggled with reading and was told to look at the picture books by his teacher. Luckily for him the book he picked up was a collection of photographs by the celebrated Don McCullin.

“From that moment I knew I wanted to be a photographer,” says Mark.

First, though, he studied Politics and Modern History at Manchester University (and finally discovered he was dyslexic). While there he started to take photographs of The Smiths. He travelled down to Live Aid and photographed it. This was a pivotal moment and set him on his way as a photographer.

He then went to Goldsmiths College where he studied for a diploma in Communi­cations (which was essentially photography) during the same time Damien Hirst and Young British Artists were there.

He joined the London Student, the University of London newspaper, and soon became picture editor.

A 23-year-old Amy Winehouse backstage at Porchester Hall on March 8, 2007

“It was great as I was photographing all the concerts,” he says.

Today he is a highly successful photographer with an archive stuffed full of arresting images of among others the great pop and rock stars of recent times.

The Rolling Stones, Prince, George Michael, Johnny Cash, U2, Amy Winehouse and David Bowie are just some of his photographs on show at his new exhibition, It’s (not) Only Rock ’n’ Roll, at the Barbican.

Indeed, there are multiple shots of Bowie including a never-before-seen photograph of him with a bucket and spade.

According to Mark the image, taken at Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 1996, was impromptu.

“We were backstage and I saw a bucket and spade and asked him if he would pose with them and he did,” says Mark. “He was a really lovely man.”

Another time he recalls having lunch with Bowie in Primrose Hill (where Bowie was recording) to see if he could photograph his 1995 tour.

“Back then you had to carry your work around in a portfolio,” says Mark. “I remember Bowie sifting through it and then saying: ‘Yeah, we start in America so we’ll get you out there’.”

To this day, Mark, who has also included classical musicians, orchestras and conductors for the “not rock ’n’ roll” part of the exhibition (which is supported by the City of London Corporation) is excited by new music.

He is fresh from photographing the band Another Sky at Maida Vale Studios and admits he feels privileged to be so close to musicians as they perform.

He photographs Top of the Pops – and has done for the past 22 years – and takes photographs of contemporary and classical music for the Barbican.

George Michael performs the opening concert at the new Wembley Stadium on June 9, 2007

But music is only part of his archive: he has photographed comedians (comedy is another love); politicians (including Blair and Brown), sports stars and personalities.

Among the stars in the exhibition there is a striking image of Freddie Mercury and Queen performing that famous Live Aid set. Mark was not press accredited and had gone along with his camera hidden under his coat. “I was at the front so was able to get an image that also had the Live Aid logo in the shot,” he recalls.

The press photog­raphers were higher up so unable get such a frame.

Alongside images of the conductors Sir Mark Elder and Sir Simon Rattle are specially made display cases filled with Mark’s press passes and tickets, including ones from his time working for the Daily Mirror.

Did he collect them all for posterity knowing of their importance?

“It was more that I didn’t throw things away,” he says. “I just chucked them all in a box in the loft and forgot about them until the exhibition.

“I thought they might be worth including. It was a very nice surprise to find my original ticket for Live Aid after all these years.”

It’s (not) Only Rock ’n’ Roll: The Music Photography of Mark Allan is at the Barbican music library gallery until June 29. See www.barbican.org.uk

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