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Unpublished Rolling Stones photographs at Snap Galleries

Exhibition preview

AN EXHIBITION of photographs by Peter Webb, Sticky Fingers: The lost session, will be on display at Snap Galleries from July 16 to September 3, 2011.

Following the 1971 photo-session for the cover of one of The Rolling Stones most critically acclaimed albums, Sticky Fingers, British photographer Peter Webb’s negatives went missing. Then, out of nowhere and after almost 40 years, they were found.

Detailed scanning of the negatives reveals a collection of previously unpublished photographs of The Rolling Stones, group shots and solo portraits, in black and white and colour. Many of these will be shown together for the first, some in sizes up to 6ft wide.

Gallery owner Guy White admits: “While lost negatives are every photographer’s nightmare, this a story that any gallery owner dreams about, and I am delighted that we are to be the first gallery anywhere in the world to exhibit this comprehensive selection of work from Peter’s incredible lost sessions.”

The origins of the Sticky Fingers session makes fascinating reading:

After graduating, Peter Webb took an extended trip to New York in the mid sixties. During his stay, Webb’s brother-in-law, Bill Peirce, (himself a NYC based photographer) taught him enough of the rudiments of photography for Webb to blag his way into a job assisting the legendary photographer and director Howard Zieff.

It was while he assisted Zieff that he was entrusted with the construction of an extraordinary 20 foot “walk-in” strobe lighting bank, the concept of which Zieff had conveniently borrowed from his good friend Irving Penn. It was this enormous lighting bank that Peter would later employ himself in the intricate construction of his 1971 session with the Stones.

Peter Webb returned from the USA, and subsequently was introduced to the Rolling Stones by David Puttnam, in his previous incarnation as a photographers’ agent in the early 1970’s. Puttnam had seen Peter’s plate camera portraits and had mistakenly thought they must be the work of Penn or Zieff, little realizing they were produced by a then unknown UK photographer who had assisted Zieff in New York some years before.

Puttnam said the band were “looking to do some shots for a forthcoming album”, and that Webb should set up a meeting at their office in town. He duly appeared at the Stones office and was ushered in to meet Jagger, a daunting milestone in itself.

Webb explains: “I presented my concept for the session, based around the ‘surrealist’ type of advertising work I was in to at the time, heavily influenced by Magritte. I envisaged the band dressed in Victorian boating attire, posed with oars primed in a beautiful wooden rowing boat. However the boat would not be on any river, it would be in a Victorian Photography Studio, with an elegantly painted backdrop of a period Henley, their oars resting on a wooden studio floor.

“Alarmingly however, during the course of my presentation, Jagger produced a series of wide-mouthed yawns and seemingly by way of dismissal suggested I pitch my ideas to Charlie Watts in the next door office, and who was “into Art”. I was duly ushered in to meet Watts, whose monosyllabic responses made Jagger’s seem wholly enthusiastic in comparison.”

Webb duly retired to lick his creative wounds, and to consider another option ASAP. He had been hugely impressed by Irving Penn’s classic B/W studio portraits of Haight-Ashbury hippy families and Hell’s Angels for Life Magazine some years earlier, and decided he would photograph the band “as they were” on a suitably neutral studio constructed backdrop.

Webb continues: “I had also been advised by a photographer friend that the band “were trouble” to photograph and could end up throwing “V” signs etc. to the camera – an attitude I thought I would encourage with a moody distressed grey-toned backdrop, to capture the brooding streetwise image I presumed the band would like to project.”

After many days of extensive testing of lighting and background tones, including the adaption of an extended ‘walk in’ lighting bank similar to the one that he had constructed for Zieff, coupled with the construction of a large hand-painted backdrop, the Band finally showed at Webb’s studios, a converted Victorian Riding School and Stables in Park Village East, next to Regent’s Park in central London.

“They immediately registered disappointment that they were going to be photographed in their own clothes, and that there was no “idea” anywhere in sight. And far from being “trouble”, the band stood like lost schoolboys on the over-scaled backdrop, and were not only compliant to my instructions in arranging them, but even seemed somewhat camera shy – which was totally unexpected.”

Andy Warhol and his Factory designer Craig Braun came up with the Sticky Fingers “Zipper” concept, which relegated Webb’s intended album cover image to a grainy dupe on an inside sleeve. Despite the shoddy reproduction on the sleeve, it is instantly recognisable as a classic Stones group portrait, showing Jagger standing to the left of the frame, yawning, while the other four Stones gather on the right, Bill Wyman scratching his nose. Webb christened the image “ The Big Yawn”.

The rediscovery of the negatives is equally fascinating:

In early 1972, Webb entrusted his photographer brother-in-law with the safe keeping of an unmarked folder of negatives, which was, as Peter recalls now, “…an essential detail which I had conveniently forgotten, in the excitement of being hired by Ridley Scott to direct commercials, and the dark room became a cutting room overnight.”

Webb continues: “Bill stored them in the attic along with his own negatives, and only revisited them recently while hunting for negatives of a portrait of Joan Didion he had shot in the early ‘50’s. He called me to say he had found an unmarked bag of negatives amongst his own which “…could be the Rolling Stones” …

“I made him lock the doors and not let anyone in the house, and then I asked him to look for someone who could be shouting or yawning, standing aside from a group of four, one of whom was scratching his nose.

“After an anxious half hour, an email popped up, I opened the attachment, and as if in slow motion the group of four were revealed, with Bill Wyman adjusting his nasal passages, and Jagger standing apart from the group with a wide mouthed yawn. Eureka!! The Prodigal Stones had returned to the fold after an absence of almost forty years”

Contained in their pristine negative sleeves, were the strip containing the actual album sleeve image, all the best group shots from the session, and also some individual plate camera portraits of Jagger and Richards which had never been seen before.

Times: Monday to Saturday 11am to 6pm.

Snap Galleries, 8 Piccadilly Arcade, London, SW12Y 6NH

Tel: 0207 493 1152