Metallica out on the 'ego ramp': Ross Halfin's best photograph

‘Their drummer Lars Ulrich called me up and I kept avoiding him – I thought he looked like an idiot. But I shot them in 1984 and have worked with them ever since’

This was taken at the last show of Metallica’s Black Album tour, in Belgium on 1 July 1993. James Hetfield, the singer and guitarist, had walked to the very edge of what they called their “ego ramp” [the walkway into the audience]. Because they were touring The Black Album, I was shooting a lot in black and white. I noticed him, with the sunset behind him and the arms coming up, and it became one of my most famous Metallica pictures. It shows the connection between Metallica and their audience – it’s as if they are almost dragging him in. The time of day was important: most bands don’t like daylight, they want it dark. This was shot at twilight, which gives you the perfect balance and that sense of moment. Five minutes later, it would have been dark, and the shot would have looked nothing like that.

My aim when shooting a show is to give somebody something they would not normally have seen. And to create an image that is unusual or exciting, so when people who went to the show look at it, they see something that’s special. People who shoot shows tend to panic, but if you do that, you get nothing. Stand back and wait. Think about what you’re doing – I learned that from Fin Costello. I don’t find it hard to get original images from live shows, because I know what I’m doing – I’ve done it for so long. Nowadays, a lot of bands want to control everything and they ban photographers from shows. Yet they’re quite happy, having thrown out the people doing it properly, to let anybody take bad pictures or film it on an iPhone.

I first shot Metallica in 1984. Their drummer, Lars Ulrich, would call me me up, and I kept avoiding him. I’d seen pictures of him, and I thought he was just this Danish guy who looked like a complete idiot. But then Metallica’s manager, Peter Mensch, called me and said: “Listen, stop being such an asshole. Go to San Francisco and shoot my new band.” So I did, and that was the start of my relationship with them. In fact, the only reason I ended up shooting Metallica was because they wanted Iron Maiden’s photographer – I was working for them at the time. To Metallica, Led Zeppelin (who I also worked with) meant nothing. But Iron Maiden meant something and Metallica wanted their photographer. I’ve worked with them ever since. I’ll give the group their due: they are very conscious of who they are, what they do and how they want to be photographed. But they are also very open to doing different things.

I am a rock photographer, not just hard rock or metal. I am particularly known for metal because I worked for Kerrang! magazine in the 80s, but that was more because instead of going to Leeds to shoot the Pet Shop Boys, I could go to Hawaii to do Aerosmith. Where would you rather go? And at the time the National Union of Journalists made sure that if you shot colour you were paid twice as much as for black and white, and Kerrang! was full colour.

The worst photoshoot I ever did was the first time I worked with Led Zeppelin in 1979. I was young, and really impressed. Robert Plant walked up to me and said: “Do you know how to take a Robert Plant photo?” He poked me in the chest and said, quite nastily: “Quickly.” I was shooting a cover for Sounds magazine, and I did the shoot, but I was so nervous that I did Plant’s photoshoot, not mine. I did what he wanted, which resulted in a very boring picture. I came away and I thought: “I will never let anyone do that to me again,” and I never have. I was so naive that he completely threw me. Don’t let them do that to you, because if you do, you are just going to get a boring portrait.

Ross Halfin’s CV

Ross halfin

Born: London, 1957.

Training: A course in fine art at Wimbledon College of Art.

Influences: Fin Costello.

High point: My Jimmy Page picture getting displayed in the National Portrait Gallery.

Low point: Shooting the first Spice Girls US tour. The band were OK, it was everyone around them.

Top tip: Always take control. Never let the subject take control.

Ross Halfin was due to speak on the Super Stage at The Photography Show in Birmingham, which has been postponed until September.


Interview by Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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