Manchester Maverick

Ian Tilton’s iconic images of The Stone Roses and other bands are now part of the fabric of pop culture. The Manchester-based photographer tells Richard Smirke why it’s all about capturing the emotion of the moment

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From his famous backstage photograph of an anguished Kurt Cobain, crying, head in hand, to the still menacing shot of Iggy Pop aiming his size nine boot directly down the camera, Ian Tilton has been responsible for some of the most iconic images in recent rock and roll history.

Along the way, he’s worked with everyone from The Smiths (his photos can be seen inside the inlay booklet of 1988’s Rank live album), Happy Mondays, Guns N’ Roses, Sonic Youth, The Cure, Oasis, James, The Pixies, Primal Scream, The Charlatans and hundreds of other bands and musicians.

It is, however, Tilton’s association with The Stone Roses that the Blackpool-raised photographer has become increasingly best known for. He first met the then unknown goth-styled band in 1985 and, not being particularly enamoured by their music, declined the chance to work with them. The release of their 1987 single Sally Cinnamon irrevocably changed his opinion of the seminal Manchester group, which he went on to photograph on 14 separate occasions (more times than any other person), culminating in the band’s legendary 1990 gigs at Spike Island and Glasgow Green.

Naturally, The Stone Roses’ triumphant reunion this summer has led to a resurgence of interest in Tilton’s archive, with Manchester Contact Theatre’s current mini-retrospective one of five national exhibitions that the photographer has staged this year.

“I’ve got this theory that it was a lot about the drug of the time that brought people together,” says Tilton, when asked why he thinks the band and accompanying Madchester music scene remains so popular today. “People took ecstasy and joined together and when they stopped taking it they were still connected.

“The love was still there and it was genuine. When the Roses got back together everyone is now feeling that connection again and they’ve absolutely stormed it. They’re still connecting in a deeper way with people because of the message that Ian Brown’s put out there. It’s more than just the songs. It connects with people’s spirituality.”

In spite of his existing love for the band, Tilton was the principal organiser of a well-publicised photographers’ boycott for the Roses’ recent Heaton Park summer shows. The dispute was caused by the band’s reported insistence that all photographers covering the three hometown gigs would be required to sign over almost all of their rights for any pictures taken – a situation that he derides as grossly unjust. “Surely they should have empathy because they were ripped off left, right and centre,” says Tilton of the famously poorly managed group.

Next for the photographer, who in addition to his continued work photographing musicians and theatre productions also volunteers his time as a trained counsellor, is the publication of Set In Stone, Tilton’s personal photographic account of The Stone Roses’ peak years, co-written with his partner Claire. An exhibition of the same name featuring images from the book was displayed earlier this year at Manchester Photographic Gallery, and as visitors to that show will attest, Tilton’s pictures retain a vibrancy and vigour that continues to distinguish him from his peers.

“I didn’t ever go out of my way to make people look handsome or beautiful,” he reflects. “In the mid-1980s photos of Anton Corbijn and Kevin Cummins – who I absolutely loved – I thought that they used people a little bit like props. They didn’t get to their humanity and for me humanity is about animation and humour.

“If I could put that in a picture I would work with a band in order to get that. The [Ian Brown] monkey face photo is a classic one where I think I really succeeded. I started the session photographing really straight and then Ian did the monkey face and I was the first one to capture it. He used it for years after that.”

Ian Tilton: Manchester Maverick, until 13 Sept, Contact Theatre, Manchester

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