Rock photographer Rob Shanahan shoots for the stars in Marina del Rey
By Joe Piasecki
Rock ’n’ roll dreams can come true.
Just ask Rob Shanahan.
In 1988, Shanahan arrived in Venice with a camera and a drum kit.
“I grew up in a small town in Minnesota and had dreams of working in the music industry,” he says. “After college, I drove to L.A. in a van and decided I’d make it either drumming or shooting, and I’m still doing both.”
And doing better than he ever expected.
In 2001, Shanahan became former Beatle Ringo Starr’s personal photographer, allowing him to follow the rock icon on tour and into the studio. Shanahan also works as an in-house photographer for Yamaha Music and still wield his sticks as drummer for The Rolling Stones tribute band The Hollywood Stones.
How did he make it? Like Ringo sang as Billy Shears on “Sgt. Pepper’s,” he got by with a little help from his friends.
One of Shanahan’s first new friends in L.A. was fellow drummer Scott Crago. At the time, Crago was helping the Pine Mountain Logs, the classic-rock side project of the storied local band Venice, hold down a Sunday night residency at the Venice Bistro.
Crago needed a headshot for his cymbal company. The company liked the work and set Shanahan up on shoots with Stuart Copeland, McCartney drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., Alex Van Halen and eventually Sheila E. Shanahan’s work came to Ringo’s attention when Sheila E. went on tour with the All Starr Band. He got the call to work with Ringo about a week later.
Shanahan, 51, still lives in Venice and maintains a photo studio on Main Street. In 2012 he discovered a different kind of life on the road — the book tour — with his collection of rock photography titled “Volume 1.”
Last Thursday, Shanahan celebrated his first Westside art opening at the Q Art Gallery in Marina del Rey, where his photographs remain on display through the end of the month. The exhibit includes images of Katy Perry, Pharrell Williams, Mick Fleetwood, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Paul McCartney and, of course, Ringo Starr.
— Joe Piasecki
What’s it like to work with Ringo?
I think what happens with a lot of people is they’re just pretty blown away by meeting a Beatle, but when you get down to the fact that he’s a drummer just like me — and drummers have a unique bond —
I can consider him a friend. I’ve gotten past the whole Beatle thing, which is what he wants. His circle, we know him as Ringo the drummer, friend, husband, father.
What’s the story behind the shot of Paul leaning in to kiss Ringo?
That was back in 2009, when they released [the music video game] “The Beatles: Rock Band.” Apple called to have me shoot Paul and Ringo together for the promo.
But that shot wasn’t in the promo…
It was not. I shot the two of them together on a white background with studio lights. We set it up at the Galen Center at USC, and that was the first frame of the shoot. I loved it so much I kept it for myself.
How do you turn commercial photography into art?
Well, hopefully I get hired for that very reason. I try to feel how much the artist is going to give and put my little stamp on it. I have certain things that I’ll say to an artist, and if they get my sense of humor and I get a reaction, that’s usually my favorite from the shoot.
I’ve photographed Charlie Watts a handful of times through the years. The first time was in 2006 when the Rolling Stones were in town. I called up Ringo and said, “Man, the Stones are in town. Charlie is here. When’s the last time you guys saw each other?” … We spent a really awesome afternoon together at Ringo’s house, and Charlie loved the photos so much he called to thank me and said, “Rob, you made me look like a movie star.” On the next Stones tour, I did a photoshoot with Charlie and his old ’58 Gretsch drum kit. As I’m getting ready to shoot, I say, “Charlie, you look like a movie star!” He burst into this big smile and I knew I had it in the can with that one shot.
Is your photo of Ringo handing Watts the sticks from that first encounter?
Oh yeah, it’s one of my favorites. It looks like I had them stand there and pose, but really Ringo was sitting behind his electronic drum kit and said “Hey, Charlie check it out. You gotta play it.” Ringo got up, handed Charlie the sticks, and as Charlie grabbed the sticks I snapped the photo. I get asked a lot what my favorite photos are. They’re like your children, but if I had to pick that would be in my top five.
You play as Watts in The Hollywood Stones, right?
I do, which is kind of ironic. I ended up becoming Ringo’s photographer, but my role with the band is I’m Charlie Watts. … But let me tell you, meeting [Watts] has been a big thrill for me. To sit down at Charlie’s kit after that photoshoot and think, man, this is the magic spot right here. This is the Holy Grail. I didn’t play it out of respect, but I did sit behind it.
That’s the beauty of what I do — being able to experience all these iconic rock bands … to have a guy like Steven Tyler say “Do your thing, man. On stage, during the show, go wherever you want to go.”
What advice would you give to someone who’d like to do what you’ve done?
Once you’ve built up a portfolio, don’t do anything for free. Everyone’s used to paying nothing for Internet content. We’ve become free content providers.
If you get a reputation for doing stuff on the cheap or for nothing, that’s all you’re going to get. Some people are in the market for a Mercedes and others are going to go to the used car lot. I want
to be the Mercedes. I want to work with the greats.
Rob Shanahan’s work is on display through Aug. 31 at Q Art Gallery, 480 Washington Blvd., Marina del Rey. Call (310) 405-6183 or visit qart.com.