Photographer Michael Mendelson
Photographer for the people
Marin Independent Journal
Michael Mendelson likes to think of himself as the people's rock 'n' roll photographer.
"I'd love to be thought of that way, as the fans' photographer," Mendelson said. "I bought a ticket for many of the shows I shot, and I schlepped my big heavy equipment in. My photos were always from the audience perspective."
For most of the 35 years he's been shooting photographs at rock concerts, the 53-year-old San Rafael resident didn't have a backstage pass, or one of those coveted "all access" laminates that the crew and the press hot shots wear around their necks, or even a couple of minutes to shoot in the media pit in the front of the stage.
"I never had the carte blanche that a lot of famous photographers had," he said. "I wasn't well known like Jim Marshall or Annie Liebowitz. But my photos are just as important, and I think you can tell what the musicians are all about, what they were feeling at that moment, just by looking at my pictures. I'm proud of that."
Mendelson is a perfect example of the value of showing up. He understood that even in his unofficial capacity, he was documenting rock history.
"I'd like people to look at my work in the same way they look at photos from the Civil War by Matthew Brady," he says. "A hundred years from how, I want people to look at my pictures and say, 'Wow, that guy was lucky. He was alive during the Grateful Dead run.' And I do feel lucky that way."
Born in Michigan, Mendelson finished high school in Palo Alto and earned a bachelor's degree from the California Institute of the Arts in social documentary photography.
While living in Palo Alto, he took his first concert photos - of Marin's Sons of Champlin and the Grateful Dead at Frost Amphitheater on the Stanford campus.
Over the years, he's become an identifiable character on the local rock scene with his walrus mustache, his earrings, his denim jacket from the years he worked in the entertainment relations department for Gibson Guitars.
The first time he had any kind of photo access was in 1979, when a sound man for Journey let him take pictures from the side of the stage.
That resulted in one of his more electrifying photos, of an Afro-haired Neal Schon grimacing during a scorching guitar solo.
"I think that picture captures what rock 'n' roll is all about," he says.
In 1982, he was allowed into the photo pit at Moscone Center for a Vietnam Veterans benefit featuring the Grateful Dead and other Bay Area bands. At that show, he snapped off photos of the Dead's Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir and Mickey Hart.
"I was able to use my flash because there was nobody there to stop me," he says. "I have sort of a rare picture of Jerry Garcia in that respect. You can count that he only had nine fingers."
Through persistence and his patient personality, Mendelson got to know legends like John Lee Hooker, who invited him to his home to photograph him, and Ramblin' Jack Elliott.
"Ramblin' Jack and I drank some whiskey and he sat for me," he recalls.
One of his rarest photos, and one of his favorites, is a 1975 picture of the great guitarist Michael Bloomfield that was shot in a dark, smoky club.
"I don't always get the greatest of shots, but that doesn't mean that much to me," he says. "The one of Bloomfield may not be in the upper echelon technically, but it captured the magic moment."
Mendelson's photos have appeared in Rolling Stone, Playboy and in the September issue of Studio Photography magazine. He shot the first official portrait for Bob Weir's band RatDog. More than 50 of the musicians he's photographed have been inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
"My lifelong goal is to have 500 of my portraits in the Library of Congress," he says.
Many of his photos of Bay Area rock musicians are on exhibit at the Mark Reuben Gallery in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco through Dec. 26.
"They bring back a lot of good memories for people," gallery owner Mark Reuben says. "They're art treasures. They're beautiful images by a rock photographer of rock stars."
While he considers rock photography "my lifelong career," Mendelson has had to have day jobs to keep body and soul together, including a couple of years working in the fish and poultry department of the Good Earth in Fairfax.
"When I started bringing a camera to the concerts, I was pleased by my results," he recalls. "Looking back 35 years later, some of these shots are important to the history of rock."
These days, Mendelson still lugs his cameras to shows. When he does, he still tries to keep his original focus.
"At a certain point, my musician friends helped me out, getting me in position to get good shots," he says. "But I still photograph some concerts without asking favors of anybody."
IF YOU GO
What: Michael Mendelson/Solo Photography Exhibition/35 Year Retrospective
Where: Mark Reuben Gallery, Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco
When: Through Dec. 26
Information: 346-1120 or go to www.mendelsonarchives.com/index2.htm
Paul Liberatore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org