If you have an ear for music or you're tuned into pop culture, you're likely aware that Kenny Rogers passed away last week. Did you know that he was also an avid photographer? Did you know that Rogers was inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum?
To be clear and upfront, I'm a big fan of Rogers' troubadour-like approach to performance. His music spins in our house at least once a week. Surprisingly, I wasn't aware of his passion for photography.
In an interview with Billboard Magazine, Rogers said:
I’ve never considered myself a great singer, but I am a great storyteller.
Rogers didn't just tell stories with his songs; he told them with his camera as well.
I don't want you to dismiss this as one more celebrity who picked up a camera without investing themselves. Don't ignore this as one more celebrity who used their fame and access to take snapshots of their equally famous friends. If you did that, you'd be wrong. Take a look.
Rogers was fond of saying that while he was on the road 24/7, week in and week out, he'd have hours to explore the highways and byways of America.
Eventually, he started to do his exploring with a camera — singing version of Robert Frank, if you will.
I found out that I only worked an hour a day. I’d go out at night, and I’d do my show, and I’d have 23 hours and nothing to do. So, we’d get up in the morning and get in the car, and Gene, my road manager, and I, we’d drive around...
Rogers studied photography with the likes of George Hurrell, Yousuf Karsh (one of the most highly regarded portrait photographers of all time, just in case you're looking for credentials), and John Sexton (a lauded landscape photographer who was once Ansel Adams' assistant, if you're still looking for credentials).
Through dozens of interviews, Rogers was happy to share the lessons he learned from these masters.
Karsh told me how to capture the personality of a celebrity. You talk to them, make them feel at ease. Keep your eye on their eyes, and keep your hand on the shutter release. When you see them totally relaxed, that’s when you shoot.
Rogers was a student of Adams' techniques and often spoke about using his Zone System. In particular, he often noted that this, one of his favorite images, was a product of the Zone System. Cove Butano Park:
[Sexton] taught me the importance of photographing what you love and loving what you photograph. I think that is good advice for all photographers.
[Hurrell] said to me, ‘I am gonna tell you a trick. I call it the stolen moment!’ He said to talk to your subject about the happiest day of their life and also the saddest day of their life. Just as they respond to the question, you take the picture. It means they are not posing, but rather being who they truly are. It’s honestly such a great trick.
I think that Rogers' story about how he managed to capture Ray Charles in such a unique and honest way is my favorite of all the stories being retold this past week. It reminds me of Karsh and Churchill or Avedon and Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson. Portrait photography at its peak.
Rogers also had several photography monographs published over his lifetime.
I told Ray that I wanted to shoot photos of him while he was in motion going back and forth to capture that famous sway, and Ray said he couldn’t do that on command, so I told him a dirty joke, and that’s what I got.
I think art, if you’re capable of one art, you understand — you know, the difference between a snapshot and a photograph is where you take it from. A snapshot of the Golden Gate Bridge is wonderful, but if you’re a photographer you get down on the side and you find a way to give it some lines, and some movement, and that’s the difference.
Thank you, SKH Music, Rogers' publicists.