For a little known photographer to have snapped the Rolling Stones at the height of their fame is quite something. But to have lost the negatives, the only record that the photos existed besides one grainy image published on the inside cover of the band’s Sticky Fingers record sleeve, must have been utterly gutting.
Peter Webb had resigned himself to the loss of the photographic plates which captured Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor larking about, standing shyly, wearing their own clothes and occasionally yawning, which he’d taken in London as a pitch for the cover artwork of their upcoming 1971 album.
But two years ago Webb answered his phone, perhaps unwisely, while standing on a ladder fixing the roof only to hear from his brother in law Bill Pierce, “I’ve found an unmarked box of negatives in the attic. I think they’re your Rolling Stones pictures”.
Having scrambled quickly onto more solid ground, Webb made Bill, who is also a photographer, lock the house up and go through what he could see from the tiny negatives. “Is there a shot of four guys in a row with another guy standing a little aside to opening his mouth in a huge yawn?” Yes. “Is one of the guys in the group scratching or tapping his nose?” Yes.
Webb sighed in relief. That image of the five musicians the snapper had named ‘The Big Yawn’ – in which Mick’s huge mouth is gaping open in an exaggerated expression of tiredness while Bill Wyman scratches his nose and the other three look amused – had been found.
“When something’s gone it’s just gone, you know. But we’re not talking missing for a year or two, we’re talking 38 years. After they’d been found I walked around with this huge smile on my face for days,” Webb said.
The images had been lost when Webb “in the excitement of being commissioned by Ridley
Scott” was transforming his dark room into a cutting room. He presented his brother in law with an unlabelled folder of negatives which were stored alongside Bill’s own, but in the course of time disappeared.
Their resurfacing after four decades is like the reopening of a time capsule. “And the astonishing thing is, who would have thought in 1971 that 40 years later the Rolling Stones would still be touring?” Webb said.
Webb had been “lowly third assistant” to Howard Zieff and learnt his trade in America. After his return to London David Puttnam, who at the time was a photographer’s agent, mistook some of Webb’s advertising shots for the work of Zieff or Irving Penn and invited the young snapper to shoot his “friends” the Rolling Stones for their upcoming album.
“In those days you turned up and pitched an idea directly to the artist,” Webb said. “So I was ushered into a room and introduced to Mick Jagger – which was daunting enough – and started telling him about my concept for the shoot which was to be a surrealist Magritte-inspired Victorian boat setting.”
The idea didn’t go down too well, leaving Webb feeling rather insecure when Jagger appeared totally nonplussed, repeatedly yawned and eventually suggested he pop into the other room and explain the idea to Charlie Watts who was “into art”. But having experienced Watts’ “one word” responses, Webb felt Jagger’s reaction had been positively emphatic by comparison.
Leaving to “lick [his] creative wounds” Webb went back to the drawing board for the impending photo shoot and planned a series of Penn-inspired portraits of the band at his converted Victorian Riding School and Stables in London’s Park Village East studios.
But Webb didn’t warn the Stones in advance about the change of plan, so when they turned up Jagger and co “immediately registered disappointment about being photographed in their own clothes” and seemed surprised by the lack of “idea”.
Webb had been warned that the musicians were notoriously difficult and would bring as much attitude to the shoot as might be expected from rock stars. So he was amazed that far from being “trouble” and “throwing ‘V’ signs at the camera” the band trooped in “like lost schoolboys” and proved compliant and camera shy.
“I had to ask them to act a little more threateningly, to which they duly obliged,” he said.
Webb took a series of group shots, both in black and white and colour, getting the band to “line up like Dad’s army” and tilt to one side for the famous ‘Falling Stones’ image. He later took precise portrait images of each man, something to which Jagger quipped: “Passports is it now mate?”
Webb admits to kicking himself when after the session was over Jagger asked, “What happened to that great idea about the boat?”
In the end Andy Warhol and his factory designer Craig Braun pipped Webb to produce the ‘zipper’ image which graced the Sticky Fingers cover, relegating his photograph to an inside sleeve.
But looking at the photographs 40 years after they were taken Webb says he’s been persuaded by a new generation of Rolling Stones fans that photographing them “as they were” at that precise moment in time, free from any overriding “concept” was the best idea he ever had.