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January 25, 2000

THE LAURANCE RATNER INTERVIEW

Led Zeppelin Photographer

by Gary James

Photographer and author Laurance Ratner has put together what may very well be the ultimate rock photography book. It’s titled “Live Dreams” and the focus is Led Zeppelin.

“Live Dreams” actually takes you inside the experience of being at one of the group’s legendary performances from 22 shows of their North America Tours of 1972, 1973, 1975, and 1977. “Live Dreams” is available from Margaux Publishing (1455 N. Sandburg Terrace, Suite 904, Chicago, IL 60610; tel: 312-664-6857).

We asked Laurance Ratner to take us back in time with one of the greatest -- Led Zeppelin.

Q: When did you begin your career as a photographer?
A: In 1971. I was 19 and began working for a company which did photos for most of the modeling schools in the U.S. I was trained by the veterans that had been with the firm. I subsequently attended Chicago’s finest photography school. I became partners in a commercial studio with one of the other photographers I had worked with.

Q: What was the first Zeppelin show you saw?
A: September 5, 1971, Chicago International Amphitheater. It was an amazing high energy show with a rather dark mood to it. They played “Stairway” for the first time in the States on that tour. I had no idea what to expect and was literally speechless at the end of the show. It was certainly one of those gigs that left everyone satisfied and exhausted.

Q: Did you know that one day you’d be photographing the group?
A: Yes. I knew that I simply had to capture this on film. It wasn’t until the next summer that I had the opportunity to shoot Zep.

Q: What kind of reaction has the book been getting?
A: It has been fantastic. The press worldwide has reacted positively with many articles and features. It has been a special feature in U.S.A. Today, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Playboy, Guitar World, Guitar Shop, Guitar and many others. MTV news ran two different features on it over a dozen times and VH-1 did a special mini-documentary on it. The members of Led Zeppelin and their management have responded overwhelmingly. The sponsor of the 1995 Page/Plant Tour spent over $1 million on a mobile museum which featured “Live Dreams” and its photography as one of the main exhibits. In 1996, I received a special award for Exceptional Creativity and Excellence in Design and Production at the annual Music Journalism Awards.

Q: How did you come up with the “Live Dreams” concept?
A: Though I had shot more than 25 bands in the 1970’s, it was Led Zeppelin that had the most profound effect on me. I had a feel for getting the essence of the band at its best in my photos. Like the Beatles were to many of my contemporaries, Led Zeppelin was the soundtrack of my youth. While working on some images in a commercial darkroom, the other photographers and staff were commenting on my work and suggested that I do an exhibition or some other kind of project. After careful consideration and market research, I decided on a book project. But, Led Zeppelin was no ordinary band. There must have been 30 or more books on the band already. If I was to do anything, it had to be special. As it is with anything, it is best to recognize your strengths and make the best use of them The photos that were the most dramatic and the stories which best told of the fortunate experiences I had fit together very well in a unique theme. The theme of “Live Dreams” is really to take the reader into my personal world, that is, to have the feeling of actually being there, in the first row or right on the stage next to them. It is to have the complete Led Zeppelin experience and to have it presented as a museum quality work of art. The extra large fold-outs, the hand made slipcase and the bonus book all demonstrated my desire to create something as a thank you to the band and as a treasure to the fans.

Q: Why didn’t you sell your photos to newspapers and magazines?
A: As you can see with “Live Dreams,” the real power in my Zep photos is a body of work. In other words, as a collection. Some of the photos are like paintings, while many of the others work together in a synergistic mode, that is, the product is greater than the sum of its parts. Individually, some of them would be unrecognizable, yet, in the book they become art. I felt that selling the individual photos for commercial purpose would be a way of diluting the collection. I would have felt like a corporate raider breaking up a company to sell off the pieces. It may have resulted in a few extra dollars, but it would not have been the right thing to do.

Q: Other books on Zeppelin have dealt with the backstage antics of the band members. You did not. Why not?
A: I guess it’s like comparing the tabloids to The New York Times. I certainly did not miss that part of the 70’s, and I guess I witnessed my share of the Led Zeppelin Circus. But my purpose with “Live Dreams” was to convey the experience of the music and the moment. All of those other things were distractions to the pure essence of it all. I’ll leave the dark side of the equation to Stephen Davis and Richard Cole.

Q: Do you ever regret that you didn’t get more shots of Bonzo?
A: Of course. In the old days, the lighting levels were such that Bonzo was rarely in the spotlight and therefore very difficult to get a good shot of him. My alternative was to use a flash unit which I almost never used, out of consideration for the band. I still managed to get a few great ones with a unique perspective. His brother and sister both were very moved at those special shots that I included in the book.

Q: What did the band think of the photos when they first saw them?
A: The first time was actually back in ‘73. Robert and Bonzo literally spent hours looking through hundreds of my shots which I had presented as gifts. Robert especially was very impressed. My favorite quote from him was “Your photos are the essence of my presence. You’re ruining my vanity.” Bonzo, on the other hand, felt that my work made Robert look so good that his ego would be even more difficult to be with.

Q: Is there a Zeppelin show that stands out above the others in your mind?
A: That probably would have to depend on my state of mind at the time. Seriously, I think that the L.A. Forum show on June 25, 1972 had the best vibe. The band was having such a good time that they were tempted to play all night. Robert’s voice was in unbelievable form that week, and they were very, very tight. It was one of the great nights.

Q: Why does the Led Zeppelin mystique endure?
A:Bill Curbishley, the band’s manager, once mentioned during dinner that Zeppelin and several other bands like The Who continue to have their appeal due to the fact that nobody seems to be making good music that is not derivative. I have to agree with that to a moderate degree. The late 60’s and 70’s were great times for change, both musically and socially. The music of the times connected with our lives and the significance of the day.


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