Tucked away in a housing estate in south east London is a photography studio where luminaries were made. It belongs to Peter Anderson, a photographer who is responsible for images of musical visionaries, the stars who teenagers thumbing the pages of the NME during the 70s and 80s dreamt of being.
But Peter did so much more than just take photographs, he listened to the creative, he heard their thoughts on how they wanted to be represented, and often against the instructions of record labels. It’s a space where you can imagine any of these heroes knocking on the door – and they did.
Arriving at Peter’s studio everything is completely dark, but thankfully he operates like a bat in pitch black surroundings. When the light turns on, print after print appears: Iggy Pop, Mick Jagger, Joe Strummer, even a young Madonna each smile back at you. Each photographed in a manner that is of a time, but a stylistic result of Peter’s sociable and very Scottish approach. The building itself is all-encompassing, a studio to photograph, a dark room full of undeveloped prints from 30 years prior and a home. It’s cluttered in the best sense of the word, historic prints stacked up nonchalantly creating still lifes against books or pots of paint. The space represents Peter, a freewheeling attitude of wholehearted, affable talent.
Peter’s career began after he moved from Glasgow to London, leaving the Scottish city at a time when it was starved of musical entertainment. “In 1980 and at the end of the 70s there was a strange bylaw where a publican couldn’t charge money for anyone to go into a pub,” he explains. “Basically, they had a really good drinking clientele so why would they pay to put a band on?” London on the other hand was a different story entirely. “I was just so excited about all these little pubs everywhere. I started going just to take photographs of people who were at the indie clubs, well it wasn’t called indie then, new wave or post punk bands. I just started taking pictures of the people, as in the punters there, which hadn’t been done at the time."
A natural capability to photograph uncontrived individuals developed as Peter’s style. He visited boozers in the evening but during the day he attended the Royal College of Art, home to a wealth of visiting lecturers. In the 2015 documentary portrait on Peter, Available Light, he recalls a visit to photographer Bill Brandt’s house as particularly inspiring: “I was making some quite messy photographs at the time of people in clubs, drag artists, messy dirty photographs in a way, and he was really impressed by that.”
Bill wasn’t Peter’s only fan; slightly by accident he “ended up getting a few photographs of bands and took them to a newspaper,” the photographer tells It’s Nice That. “They said they were pretty good and offered me a job. I started working instantly in-house at the NME.” Peter’s introduction to photography and his subsequent career could be described as organic – these were bands he went to see out of his own enjoyment, and their success and Peter’s interest in them is contingent. “Elvis Costello, The Damned, all sorts. The Au Pairs, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, I just went to see anything and everything. A lot of the bands that are still household names were all on the pub circuit at that time.”
Looking back, a fascinating element of Peter’s career is how divergent it is compared with a photographer’s vocation today. “Everything had to be done in advance,” he says. “I would be sent wherever. Britain, America, Asia. Turn up and do the work.” Travelling, in terms of logistics, during the late 70s and 80s sound a tricky experience: no phones, no internet and no credit cards. “Working for a music paper meant that in theory I wasn’t being paid very much money but I was being booked into the most plush of places. But I’d get there and they’d say, ‘credit card sir?’ obviously I didn’t have a credit card,” he explains. “It’s pretty bizarre travelling without any money.”
Each of Peter’s trips would be booked and paid for by the record label, but the middle man, a travel agent, “would always sort out the ticket and it was absolutely non-negotiable,” he explains. “I remember times of being in America and missing a flight and not having a ticket for the next plane. What would you do? You couldn’t phone anyone to sort the problems out.”
The photographer recalls “a memorable incident of spending almost 24 hours in Chicago airport, drinking my way around the world on a roaring bar until the money ran out. Another time I was in Japan and it turned out I didn’t have the right ticket. Eventually, I got a plane to Moscow but arrived there with no indication of how to get out. I snuck onto a plane to Paris in the end. It’s strange, that thing when you think anyone can be anywhere and somehow communicate with the most basic phone. But no one had phones, and it wasn’t even that long ago!”
Yet, the difficulties of travelling never interrupted Peter’s work flow. “I don’t think there was ever a situation where there wasn’t a solution,” he elaborates. “Once I went to Columbia, New York, David Byrne of Talking Heads’ hometown. We didn’t end up meeting when we should have and when we did we couldn’t arrange to take photographs. I left and was then told I needed to travel 400-500 miles or whatever to Ohio where he would be playing a show. I remember his management were a pain in the arse.” Complications and awkward interactions didn’t stop a brilliant photograph though: “When I did eventually get to him I was given ten minutes, but that is more than enough to take a good photograph.”
These are incidents that seem strangely familiar to the photographer but contain the narrative of music legend. “One job I was sent on was to photograph Ozzy Osborne in Sacramento but the gig was postponed – he wasn’t well enough to do it,” Peter explains. “Eventually the interview by the journalist was done, but Ozzy’s manager said he wasn’t in a fit state to be photographed. Again, I was waiting around but I would sit in the hotel bar and have a drink with him, eat with him and he said ‘don’t worry about it just come down to my house next week and we’ll do some photographs on jet skis’”. However, the powers that be were not keen on the idea. “Within a few hours his management were organising him with a stylist out of nowhere. They propped him up, put a stupid suit on him, there was almost someone holding him for me to take the photographs so I could leave.”
An instance that describes Peter’s ability to envisage expressional portraiture is his work with Beth Gibbons of Portishead. The photographer would regularly create press photos for bands, a commission he was asked to create for the band’s first album that pioneered Bristolian trip-hop. “It was an assignment at a time when she was fighting against her record company because she didn’t want to be photographed. But, she agreed to do it as long as the photographs weren’t what the label were probably imagining. She came here and we worked out ideas, we experimented behind glass, using shadows, I did some photos of her pretending to be sick,” he says. “It was quite horrible actually but funny,” he laughs. “I mixed a lot of powder paint and yogurt, it must have tasted disgusting…”
Peter’s photographs are mostly black and white, a permeating monochrome that demonstrates an era of journalistic photography. “Black-and-white at that time was what music papers wanted at first,” he says of his portfolio’s aesthetic. But working in the medium also gave Peter completely control. “I was actually doing a lot of colour photographs, transparencies, but you hand them over to a client and they get lost. For me to be in control, to make the prints myself, it had to be black and white.” This approach also gave Peter an authority on which photographs the publication saw. “I could have rushed to a lab and then have them sent by courier but I would have never seen them again. To not even get to go through them and make a choice, I really didn’t like that.”
Peter left NME in the mid 1980s, and says even by then “it had gone wrong, I didn’t like it". With the renaissance of publications we are experiencing, as well as countless commissioned photographers working on film, it is privilege to look through the work of a photographer who sculpted his own path decades ago, and continues to do so.