From Abba to Zappa: Gijsbert Hanekroot's photographs of 1970s rock legends in their prime

All photography courtesy of the Blue Lotus Gallery. © Gijsbert Hanekroot

"The seventies: hectic, exciting, creative, constantly reinventing itself, full of self-confidence, sometimes tiresome, but never for long. What I’m saying is nothing new. Many have said it before me in different words, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I know, because I was there," are Gijsbert Hanekroot’s own words and his photographic rock-archive are a testament to his witnessing of this eventful period in music history.

Better known as ‘Gilbert’ amongst the rock stars he photographed, he'll have his debut exhibition in Hong Kong at Blue Lotus Gallery next month, showing his grainy black and white photographs of 1970s rock legends in their prime including David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Patti Smith, Neil Young, BB King and other A-list artists who changed music forever. Gilbert gained intimate access to the musical Gods we still worship today and amassed a visual rock-archive, From Abba to Zappa.

Born in 1945, Gilbert grew up in Amsterdam. At the age of thirteen, he was given his first camera by his mother. To hone his skills he read every book he could find on the subject of photography.

At sixteen he dropped out of school and soon after started an internship with Philip Mechanicus, a celebrated photographer principally known for his portraits of writers and stage photography. He learned how to shoot in imperfect light conditions and how to develop his prints in the darkroom within a grainy black and white style.

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

"What makes me deeply satisfied is catching that one fragile fleeting moment where the right light meets a striking composition and a certain beauty that derives from realness. I liked to stay during the whole interview and photograph until the subject was bored of me. That’s the moment that he or she would stop acting or posing, those often became the best pictures," says Gilbert.

In those days there was room for things to just ‘happen’ and experimentation was taking place across genres and industries, it was indeed encouraged to come up with new ways of doing things and Gilbert believed that the journalists and photographers who were most ahead were those working with “a lack of inhibition, an openness that wasn’t limited by marketing concepts and sales pitches."

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

Rock music was real, the performance itself was a tuning-in to a deeply primal human energumen. And you feel that when you look at his photographs. He had access to musicians under conditions that would be inconceivable today, being allowed to work for the entire duration of the concert, not only the first three songs, as is the case today.

Impressively, his first ever shot was taken in 1963 of the one and only John Coltrane in a tuxedo holding his tenor sax, waiting to play. By the seventies, Gilbert was the most wanted rock photographer in Holland, often commissioned by the Dutch leading music magazine Oor. Those were the days of music, soon after Woodstock, the rock and pop scene literally exploded.

"We were catapulted from one (music) world to another. You could say that it was Abba one day and Zappa the next. We saw The Eagles in London, Paul McCartney in the south of France, Bob Dylan in New York and the Stones in Hamburg. We visited London every two months. It was the most natural thing in the world back then, and looking back now, it was a fantastic time," Gilbert adds.

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

People would spend hours in record shops browsing vinyl to find their favourite records which in turn determined your lifestyle and fashion, even your politics and religion – music was everything.

Attending concerts was an act of spirituality and Gilbert documented well-known figures as they transitioned from mere musicians to a status of Gods, for example, he recalls, "one of the more important shots I did is in 1973 of Neil Young with his band The Crazy Horse at the venue The Rainbow Theatre in London. It became the cover of his Tonight is The Night, released in 1975 which according to some is his best record to date."

"My ultimate favourite artist of all time was David Bowie," said Gilbert. "In 1971 I was in Air Studio, London, to shoot Roxy Music. During a break, I went to the canteen where I bumped into David Bowie for the first time. He was by himself working on the lyrics of a song.

"He looked up and asked me my opinion about one particular line he was working on. I thought it was rather peculiar he asked a simple guy like me. I still regret not photographing him at that time but it was such a private moment and photographing him somehow seemed not appropriate. He was recording Ziggy Stardust, released a few months later. I did meet him five more times where I did get the chance to photograph him on and behind the stage. He was something special, a true artist."

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

Anton Corbijn, a well known fellow rock photographer started as an intern at Gilbert’s studio. "I passed him my knowledge on how to photograph and darkroom techniques. I’m happy to have somehow contributed to his career although it was obvious to me that he had the ambition and determination to succeed. After 15 years I decided to throw in the towel and concentrate on other adventures instead."

Corbijn continued, took over at Oor Magazine and soon after moved to London where he broke through in the ’80s and made it as an internationally-known photographer. Finally, Gilbert is receiving the recognition he deserves as the first Dutch rock photographer, his work speaking for itself as it so clearly tells the story of his achievement.

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

© Gijsbert Hanekroot

Ten years ago Gilbert began to digitise his archives, this led to the publication of ‘Abba..Zappa | Seventies Rock Photography’ (Veenman, 2008) and consequent exhibitions in Paris, London, Moscow, Tokyo and Amsterdam. Today, Gijsbert ‘Gilbert’ Hanekroot works mainly as a documentary and street photographer.

From Abba to Zappa at Hong Kong's Blue Lotus Gallery will feature a selection of vinyl for sale from Hong Kong self-proclaimed ‘Vinyl Hero’ – Paul Au’s collection normally found in his well known Sham Shui Po Shop ‘Vinyl Hero’.