Published on May 27th, 2010 | by Lisa McInerney4
Interview With Fin Costello
Robert Plant. Siouxsie Sioux. Pete Townsend. Steven Tyler. Freddie Mercury. Outside of their all being great big pop culture monsters and everything that goes with it, there is something else they have in common – they’ve all been snapped by our very own Fin Costello. As he prepares for his forthcoming Cork exhibition, Culch.ie wrangles the chat out of the legendary photographer.
Discovering a legend on your doorstep is an experience akin to putting on a new pair of sunglasses and being mistaken for Monica Bellucci – disorienting, then humbling, then rather bloody thrilling. When a mutual friend requested I check out Fin Costello’s work, I was immediately taken aback by how familiar his subjects were – isn’t that Peter Gabriel? Dear Jesus, that’s Rory Gallagher – which threw me into the proverbial state a’ chassis. How was I so unfamiliar with someone whose work was so recognisable? The more photographs I went through, the more awestruck I became. This guy lives in West Cork? I thought. How in God’s name has he passed me by? So I did what any self-respecting busybody would do. I phoned him up and asked him.
I’m not too sure what you expect from your rockstar photographers – snapping crazy wide shots whilst dangling precariously above the crowd from a helicopter? Shouting “Oh yeah, baby, WORK IT,” at simmering poutsters? Well, perhaps nothing that daft, but surely you’d imagine an impressively jaded air, a calculating glare under designer shades? Not so with Fin. Despite having spent an exhausting day preparing a segment for RTE’s Nationwide – an experience that came “somewhere between watching paint dry and sitting in a dentist’s chair” – he’s quietly spoken, calm, and possessed of an affable intelligence that shunts you into easy reverence; there will be no dissings or outings or groupie stories here. The spirit of rock and roll, I soon found out, has very little in common with bitchy hyperbole, whatever Liam Gallagher might tell you.
Fin’s early adult life wasn’t exactly indicative of greatness to come; following a stint with Norwich Union, he was told that he had “no prospects”, a lack of insight that, when viewed with our Hindsight Goggles, was surely an omen of the looming banking crisis. He started snapping as a hobby, but it soon became apparent that his photographs were something special. The speed at which his career took off can certainly be attributed to his being in the right place at the right time – he photographed the band Argent just before they had their breakthrough hit, Hold Your Head Up – but keeping the momentum going had a lot more to do with traditional hard graft and empathy with those Monsters Of Rock (in training). Fin remembers a real sense of community, where home life and work life were kept separate and treated with equal gravitas, where bands and crew bonded over dad-stories and shared excitement in the great Movement shaping itself around them. “It was only later on … the second wave,” he says, “when bands started believing the stories written about them – Motley Crue and so on. Televisions out of hotel windows, all that.” It all sounds really cosy, I say, almost like something a misty-eyed Cameron Crowe would have written about. “Well, funny you should say that,” says Fin. Turns out he’s photographed Cameron Crowe, too, when the great Rolling Stone writer was a gangly seventeen year old. Fin was that bit older, and looked after him on tour.
Christ. I scribble the clever “Almost Famous” references from my questions, and move on.
So, cosy cliques and brotherly support. Wasn’t there ever a sense of … I don’t know, withering in the presence of greatness? Wasn’t Fin ever slightly intimidated by the Jaggers and the Tylers and the Lynotts? Not at all; Fin’s career was unusual in that he was always more crew than press – almost a roadie, one of the gang. He was rarely hired by record companies, and tended to work for and with the bands instead. And in many cases both photographer and musician had moved in the same social circles – at the very least, they’d all grooved to the same songs and grown up to the same music scene – there was plenty of shared experiences to hold ’em all together, and of course, rock was about to take off in a very, very big way. Fin remembers when entry to a Led Zeppelin gig cost two n’ sixpence … “And two years later they’re selling out Madison Square Gardens,” he whistles. The scene exploded. Men became gods. And Fin documented it all.
Has he a favourite photo, or is it an overly simplistic question? Fin tells me that his photos tie in with specific memories, stages in his life — but he remembers photographing Aerosmith in 1976 particularly fondly. Photography was Fin’s passion, true, but it was also a job, and one he was always sure to take breaks from. Planning to get away with his young family on holiday, he was surprised by a call from Aerosmith’s people, looking to bring him to DC to shoot their stadium gig. Fin refused. Steven Tyler phoned him an hour later, pleading with him to come along. “I can’t” says Fin. “I’m off on holidays with the missus and the kids; we’re all set to go.” Aerosmith called back yet again with various proposals for getting the whole family to DC so he could work the gig.
“They wouldn’t take no for an answer,” Fin remembers. “They arranged for us to stay in a luxury hotel overlooking The White House! I asked them, ‘What about the dog?’ They said, ‘We’ll kennel the dog, don’t worry about the dog’. Sure I wasn’t serious at all; I didn’t even have a dog.”
So Fin bowed to the wheedling of the megastars, packed up the family and brought them to DC. It was here he captured one of his favourite shots; Steve Tyler collapsed on stage after a blinding set, one hundred thousand people in front of him. It was incredible, and well worth the postponement of the family trip. Besides, they managed to continue on to their holiday destination straight away afterwards, having taken in The Smithsonian and The White House as a guest of the hard rock icons.
I ask if there’s any artist Fin would have loved to have captured, but didn’t?
“You’ve probably been asked this so many times before, ” I say.
“I have,” he replies. “And I always used to answer ‘Jimi Hendrix’. Until one day I realised I had photographed Jimi Hendrix, and it was a really great photograph.”
He’d met Jimi, waiting to be interviewed, in a jazz bar one day, early on in both careers. Jimi agreed to be photographed, Fin’s camera went off before it was meant to, Jimi scrambled to get his cigarette out of the frame. Fin promptly forgot about the photograph until he came across it, years later. “He looked startled,” he says. “It was really great!” With Jimi Hendrix belatedly added to his CV, Fin now nominates Elvis Presley as the one that got away. Fin was unable to photograph the great man when invited, due to a prior appointment to snap band Bad Company at one of their live shows. On arrival, he told them that he’d given up the chance to work with Elvis for them. Bad Company, rueing the aptness of their own moniker, howled that he could have snapped them at another gig, if only he’d thought to check their tour schedule for other dates close to home. Elvis, at this stage playing quietly at sold-out gigs filled almost exclusively with fan-club members – “like a secret society“, Fin remembers – died not long afterwards, rather putting paid to Fin’s assumption that he’d get his chance again.
No point getting upset over what never was, though, especially when not all of Fin’s gigs were memorable for the right reasons. He photographed Neil Diamond performing on a revolving stage in a supper club once. The formality of the setting meant Fin had to crouch to get his shots, and with Neil only coming by every so often, as if on a merry-go-round, the set-up quickly became strained. Literally. “My legs were killing me for ages afterwards,” Fin says. And he’s full of these little asides, these epic stories masquerading as everyday occurrences; has he ever thought of writing a book?
He has, and had once started working on a collection with short anecdotes to go with each picture, but the interest of the would-be publisher – “one of those 80s guys” – petered out, and Fin’s not all that keen to document his own carry-on, either way. It strikes him as a bit self-indulgent, not to mention contrived. He’s not interested in trussing together a load of outrageous stories for the sake of it. It occurs to me that he’s probably got too much respect for himself, let alone for the musicians he’s worked with, to give much thought to a tell-all memoir.
Speaking of respect; of his stellar client list, who did Fin most admire for their musical ability? It really relates to the memories he has of the bands he’s worked with. He’s fond of Rush, early Stones, a lot of Pink Floyd’s output. “Led Zeppelin were remarkable,” he says. And whose output was he least enamoured with? “Queen,” he laughs. “They were awful, really. Great fun, but a bit contrived.” My horror doesn’t change his mind, which I suppose is testament to the fact that he’d know better than me on this one (you’ll not hear me say that again in a hurry). Who is he listening to now? “Puccini,” he says. “Maria Callas. It’s an antidote…“
Pictures in Rock runs in the Vision Centre, North Main Street in Cork from 2nd of June to the 28th of July. Catch it while you can, because Fin is moving on. “At this stage, it’s like looking into my past,” he says, and besides, he’s working on some other projects. He’s interested in documenting diminishing traditional cultures – the Pictures In Rock exhibition will also showcase some of his work on the West Cork fishermen, a project he intends to continue with as soon as he can.
Still, 500 album covers later, we can hardly deny that it’s been a good run. Besides, there are worse things in life than the end of a great personal era. “I drive past Norwich Union sometimes,” says Fin, “and think, There But For The Grace Of God…“