Kiwi photographers share epic stories behind iconic snaps of world's biggest rockstars

Kiwi photographers share epic stories behind iconic snaps of world's biggest rockstars
Photo credit: Maryanne Bilham, Robert Knight

New Zealand-born Maryanne Bilham and her American husband Robert Knight have dedicated their lives to photographing rockstar royalty.

They have been the first to capture emerging talent, witnessed the hype of anticipated music comebacks and in one case, took the last picture of a global superstar alive. 

Growing up in Honolulu, Knight, the son of missionaries, knew he wanted to get into the music industry from a young age.

"I wasn't allowed to listen to rock music or anything like that back in those days," he said.

"But I snuck out and saw a Rolling Stones concert when I was 15 years old and I saw all of these flash clothes and these girls screaming and all of this commotion going on. I just got really excited and thought 'whatever this is, I need to be a part of this'."

Maryanne Bilham and Robert Knight.
Maryanne Bilham and Robert Knight. Photo credit: Supplied

After stints working as a golf caddy and travelling to the UK, he convinced his parents to allow him to study photography in San Francisco and he started his career "right at the top of the food chain".

"You name it, I was probably shooting it in 1968."

In the early 80s, Bilham was working with leading Auckland photographer Phillip Peacocke as his personal photo assistant.

She then went on to apprentice with an Australian advertising photographer in Hong Kong, where she met Knight.

The couple moved back to the US where they specialised in entertainment photography and went on to work with some of the world's biggest rock stars including Carlos Santana, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Led Zeppelin, and Elton John.

Bilham and Knight talked to Newshub about the moments behind some of their iconic images ahead of Auckland's Phoenix Summit, where they are speaking.

Stevie Ray Vaughan (captured by Robert Knight)

Stevie Ray Vaughan.
Stevie Ray Vaughan. Photo credit: Robert Knight

"Luck is a big component [of photography], being at the right place in the right moment in time, particularly in live photography. And that's happened more than once where the pictures have become part of the historic sense of rock and roll."

Knight met guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan during a gig in Minneapolis, Minnesota and he bought Vaughan a bunch of pictures he had done of Jimi Hendrix and other blues artists.

"We hit it off immediately," Knight told Newshub.

"There was an immediate New Zealand connection because I was coming and going to New Zealand... and he had been down in New Zealand."

Some time after the gig, Vaughan called him, inviting Knight to photograph a special concert Vaughan was doing in Alpine Valley, Wisconsin with Eric Clapton.

"It was a two-day shoot but Eric forgot so he said 'Robert you just stay here with Stevie and hang out and tomorrow you can have the whole shoot to yourself, the press guys can go tonight and then the second night can be all yours'. 

"So the next night I came and I did this tremendous photoshoot with Stevie and the band and pictures with Eric and everybody in a tremendous show."

But the next morning, August 28, 1990, Knight awoke to learn Vaughan had been killed in a helicopter crash.

"I was very distraught. I was being hassled by media all over the world for those photos and I didn't give them up to anybody for two years. I just sat on them. Then eventually Stevie's manager said it was time, so we let them out. It was one of those things of being in the right place at the right time but not knowing it in the moment."

Elton John (captured by Robert Knight)

Elton John.
Elton John. Photo credit: Robert Knight

Knight was sent to a local mall in the early 1970s by a music promoter to photograph Elton John in the early days of his career.

"I went down and I was taking pictures of him standing on a little white platform in what was like J.C. Pennys or some sort of department store with shoppers walking by in amusement and wondering who this person was," Knight told Newshub.

The two struck up a friendship and whenever John travelled to Hawaii for gigs, Knight would entertain him.

When Knight attended his shows, he said John was really interested in him getting shots that nobody else was getting.

"He put a chair on the stage and he would play. Then he would turn, as you can see in the photo where he's looking at me, and he would pose. He would play a little bit and then stop and pose. It was that interaction with the artist that I enjoyed."

He said he then used the tactic throughout his career.

"When I worked with Aerosmith, Steven [Tyler] would incorporate me into the show as a gag and he'd chase me with a mic stand and I would jump on the stage and he'd try to hit me and he would pose for photos."

Led Zeppelin (captured by Robert Knight)

Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin. Photo credit: Robert Knight

Early in his professional career, Knight heard that musician Jimmy Page was putting together a band and he convinced the editor of Rolling Stone to let him go down to Los Angeles to photograph the band's debut.

But at the time, Knight was underage and he wasn't allowed into the venue.

"They called the band at the hotel and said there was a photographer from Rolling Stone and they said 'send him to the hotel'. Well this was Led Zeppelin and this was their debut and I was the first professional photographer in America to work with them."

Knight told Newshub he ended up befriending the band and from then on he was allowed to turn up to their concerts and photograph them whenever he wanted.

"Any time I could go and shoot them, and I did," he said.

"That [photo above] I think I took in Seattle and you can actually see Robert Plant looking at me because there was this sort of crazy thing going on down in the pit. The kids were coming over the top of the barrier, into where I was shooting and it was getting quite crazy and Robert was keeping an eye on me. 

"It got so bad he literally pulled me off the pit and pulled me onto the stage and told me to go and stand by the drummer. I ended up getting really cool pictures that night and to this day I don't think anybody's got those shots where I was literally on the stage in front of the drum kit."

Carlos Santana and Concha Buika (captured by Maryanne Bilham)

Carlos Santana and Concha Buika.
Carlos Santana and Concha Buika. Photo credit: Maryanne Bilham

In 2019 American-Mexican guitarist Carlos Santana collaborated with Spanish singer Concha Buika and produced an album inspired by Africa.

Bilham had worked with Santana previously, but not Buika when she was hired to do their photoshoot.

"It was a big thing when Carlos asked her to be on that album," Bilham told Newshub.

"He literally found her one night on Youtube when he was trying to find a new singer for this album and that became the inspiration for it."

Bilham said it was interesting working with Buika because "you could tell she was a little nervous".

"There was another level of comfort which had to be there to get her to relax and so I could create some magic with them," Bilham said.

"What I did was get her to dance on the set with him, and the moment she did that, then it just changed everything and her whole vibe and Carlos really liked the fact that I had done that. It changed the dynamics of it and I was able to get more relaxed shots with her."

The GoGos (captured by Maryanne Bilham)

The GoGos.
The GoGos. Photo credit: Maryanne Bilham

In 2001, Bilham was chosen to photograph the women for the cover for The GoGos "comeback" album, their first in 17 years.

She told Newshub the shoot was particularly challenging.

"They were difficult [to work with] because at that period of time they hadn't been getting on that well together. So it was a more challenging shoot for me because… they had to do a number of group shots together. 

"It was a little tricky because we were dealing with quite different personalities and they are all quite strong women. It was definitely an interesting day shoot."

When dealing with tough shoots she said: "You just have to go with the flow with things".

"With someone like Carlos [Santana] if he doesn't like the shoot, he could walk out in the first half an hour, and when you are being paid a lot of money, you've just got to keep it together somehow."

After The GoGo's album was released, there was backlash for the women looking like the Virgin Mary.

"It was controversial when it was released because the Catholic Church read something else into it," Bilham said. "But at the end of the day, it was just the women with the more traditional head wraps on and there was no religious [aspect] with it."

Alien Weaponry (captured by Maryanne Bilham)

Alien Weaponry.
Alien Weaponry. Photo credit: Maryanne Bilham

Bilham met Te Reo Maori heavy metal band Alien Weaponry at a music summit in New Zealand.

"That was just when they were starting to get airplay actually in New Zealand. It was before they had broken through," she said.

Bilham and Knight, who both have an interest in helping young and emerging talent, had talked to the band about doing a photoshoot.

"It was somewhat spontaneous in a way because I was in Ruakaka for the weekend and talked to them about doing a shoot on the beach the afternoon on the way back.

"I literally just turned up and we just created what you see in that image which just seems very powerful and's set in New Zealand and it seemed to present their whole vibe and who they were."

She told Newshub the shoot lasted two hours and they were very fortunate with the weather.

Afterwards, the band liked the shot seen above and Bilham gifted it to them.

"I never charged them for that shoot because at that period of time they were just breaking through and it was a gift to them really to help them on their way. But it got picked up by a lot of different New Zealand magazines as well, because for a while, that was the image everyone was using and identified them by."

Maryanne Bilham and Robert Knight are speaking about their work at the next Phoenix Summit in Auckland - date to be announced.