Preview: Rock Legends In Yorkshire

Photographer Paul Berriff tells Steve Lee what it was like to be at the forefront of the 1960s music scene and how he shot the Beatles

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When Leeds born Paul Berriff talks of “deciding to practise some of my stills photography using the pop stars as a theme”, it sounds like the familiar tale of a young man taking pictures of upstart bands for little more than personal pleasure. However, the fact that this occurred back in the early 1960s and said pop stars included the Beatles, Roy Orbison, the Rolling Stones and Marianne Faithfull shines an entirely different light on proceedings.

“I’d left school at 16 and was working on the Yorkshire Evening Post as an editorial assistant,” recalls Berriff from his North Yorkshire home. “That was around 1963 when the pop scene had just burst upon us teenagers. My job gave me lots of contacts in Yorkshire’s theatres and cinemas so in the evenings I’d go backstage and take the pictures.”

Over the subsequent half century things have changed almost beyond recognition in the music industry, with myriad publicists and personal assistants now surrounding even the most minor pop stars. How different times were back then, as he explains. “It was very exciting and of course it was all new to everyone – the venues, the managers, the groups themselves – so access was no problem really. When I first met the Beatles they were playing Leeds Odeon, on the bottom of a bill headlined by Helen Shapiro.”

Naturally, considering the band’s subsequent beatification, it’s the Beatles photographs that continue to draw the most attention. Yet it’s not just the candid nature and superb quality of these images that is remarkable, but also the fact that until recently many of them lay forgotten in Berriff’s attic. “A couple of years ago I remembered that I’d taken many, many photographs as a teenager so I started to search for them,” he explains with a laugh. “I found a box containing about 800 negatives and in there were 40 of the Beatles. I printed some of them up and they’re just fantastic.”

Alongside images of The Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithfull, Jimi Hendrix and many others, it’s these Beatles shots that make up the bulk of the Rock Legends In Yorkshire exhibition currently on display in Saltaire. Housed in the majestic Salt’s Mill, the collection is evocative, atmospheric and truly remarkable.

Featured are Berriff’s favourite ever shots. “The one of Marianne Faithfull, where she’s sitting at a table in her dressing room just lit by two 40 watt bulbs is one. The other’s actually a set of three which I took of Paul McCartney in the Leeds Odeon. That was lit with just a bulb in the ceiling and I was really working on how to best use apertures and speeds and that type of thing. I like to use available light and these dressing rooms were very dingy affairs but it gave an amazing effect.”

Considering our current digital age, it’s not only the levels of access to pop music’s great and good that have undergone massive changes over the last 50 years. “Most of the images in Salt’s Mill are single exposures,” he remembers. “I’m still a person who, before I take a picture, knows exactly what I want to photograph. In those days we had a limited amount of film so, unlike in these days of digital photography where people take 40 images, I used to take one. That was it.”

He’s still a fan of film over digital – “it’s got a certain quality, film somehow looks at life like our eyes do”. However he acknowledges backstage access is a far cry from what it was and has a few words of advice for those wishing to follow in his footsteps. “Shoot in black and white, on film, and don’t do that auto-focus, point and shoot stuff. There’s more to photography than pressing a button. I’ve been taking photographs for 50 years and I’m still learning.”

Rock Legends In Yorkshire, until 12 Jan 2014, Salt’s Mill, Saltaire

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