Interview: Ian Tilton On An Iconic Career Photographing The Stone Roses, Nirvana, Oasis

16081 back in the day the stone roses

During the early nineties, many teenagers across the UK were introduced to the look and image of the Stone Roses via photographer Ian Tilton‘s magical pictures which adorned their classic self-titled debut album. Armed with those images, the youth of the day set about re-creating that look themselves, something which continues to this day.

Ian Tilton is arguably responsible for the greatest shots ever taken of the Stone Roses, always capturing the band at their most visually striking, as he has done on numerous other occasions with the likes of Iggy Pop, The Cure and Guns n Roses, while his poignant picture of the distressed Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was voted the sixth most important rock n roll picture ever by Q magazine.

Truthful, funny and always interesting, Ian Tilton’s work is known around the world. Recently, he gave us the chance to inquire about the ten-plus photo sessions he had with the Stone Roses, the stories behind those classic pictures, what motivated them, and how he was able to make the band come alive in front of the lens.

TILTON PIC BWCovering the Stone Roses early on in their career – were you the first photographer that had shot the band?

No, they had been photographed before; the photo of the band near the lake with John wearing a bandana and Ian with his hair combed back with Pete Garner stood behind him was probably their first band photo, which was more like a holiday snap and not very good really.

I was the first to cover them for a major music magazine. In fact that was when their first bass player Pete Garner had left and before Mani joined. A guy named Rob was in the band then but only for a short time, it was for Sounds magazine When they got to the studio in Chorlton John said, “we don’t wanna just do a four-piece line up because everybody does that, can we do some thing else?” So I started thinking and they said, “can’t you do two and two?” you know, shoot them in pairs.

I knew the editor wouldn’t be very happy because he used to pay me per picture, so he wouldn’t want to pay me double (laughs), but I said ‘OK let’s do it, and if the magazine doesn’t like it they can pay me just for one.’

Well it worked out great, with Sounds being really pleased giving the band nearly a full page using both pictures – Ian and John, Reni and Rob. I think the Roses were happy, you know, because I stuck my neck out a bit for their idea of using two pictures, I’m the only one to shoot that line up as Rob was only in for a matter of weeks really.

The next photo session took place about a week after Mani came. From your point of view could you see the band more complete visually when he joined?

Yeah that’s right. Mani had joined a few days prior to a photo session but he wasn’t as picture savvy as the rest of them and the look on his face was like, ‘alright, I’m in the band then, bring it on’. It was more of a laugh as it was all new to him, but at the same time John and especially Ian were very comfortable in front of the lens and both photographed so well.

Again, they were asking for something different for the band shots, instead of the four of them looking into the lens, so I said to them ‘talk to each other, get something going between you all,’ and it was Reni who was great kicking it all off, like saying, “right lads, let’s talk about this, what are you saying about it Ian, John your so and so.” I can’t remember the exact stuff he came out with, but he was creating some interaction between them which all which resulted in some great shots.

They were always looking to try something different and so was I, and they appreciated I was always looking to get the absolute best as I do in all my work, as well as getting that something a bit different, something that will stand out on the page.

Who was the most enthusiastic and who was least into the photography side and what you did?

Well I remember Reni kinda of changed because at first he was really up for it, but then he just lost interest and he wasn’t bothered anymore. There was something that didn’t twig for him and he seemed to get bored of photography, but the other lads were fine. Ian was the one I communicated mostly with and the others just used to fit in, including John. Most of the time he was very laid back and there was always a shyness with him, you knew he didn’t go out much and would stay in playing his guitar. As for Ian, he was going out a lot more and very easy to hang about with.

Whenever I would go round to Ian’s place he would usually have a house full of people. I also remember seeing Cesc and Fonzo at Ian’s – the notorious Buller brothers who had this undercurrent of gangster-ism which they never dispelled, though they were good lads who Ian really liked having about. Alfonso was a DJ and would also organise nights and warehouse parties where he would go by the name MVITA – ‘Manchester Vibes in the Area’. Well Alfonzo was a little bit cheeky but cool with it – had ‘the walk and the talk` and all that, and was like the cocky one out of the whole gang. It was him who was the original one regarding that Oasis/Verve/Roses swagger, the first cool/cocky Northerner thing, a proper character and I suppose quite influential in that way.

You were the first to get Ian to do the trademark ‘Monkey Face’ weren’t you?

Ian BrowncopyrYeah, I got him to do it over and over again, but in black and white, and because the shoot was for a cover shot we needed a colour image as well so I was using two cameras. After the black and white pictures I asked him if we could do it again in colour, thinking he might be getting bored, but he said “fine, let’s do it” and we did loads of them. Since then he’s never stopped has he – even using it with his ‘Monkey Business’ album.

The more intimate pictures you took back stage at Blackpool and Spike island really stand out – like the picture of Ian with an orange in his mouth at Blackpool – it seems there was plenty of trust towards you within the band?

Yeah well I wasn’t commissioned to actually do the Blackpool shots, I just asked the band if I could come along and they said “yeah sure”, so I got on the tourbus at Manchester and we went over to Blackpool, which turned into probably my best experience of shooting the Stone Roses, a magic day.

Hanging out with the band backstage there was just this lovely loving confidence about, Ian and Cressa were just, like that (shows 2 fingers locked together). There’s a picture from that day with them both leaning on each other with their heads together fixing a Yo-Yo, and that’s how it was – great mates, there was a lot of love in the area and it was a beautiful thing to see.

As soon as we got the the Blackpool Empress Ballroom we saw the crew that were filming them, the people who filmed The Tube up in Newcastle. They had set up the filming track for the dolly I think it’s called; the camera goes on the dolly so it can smoothly pan across the floor, and Ian and John jump on it and start zooming around the Ballroom, with Ian pulling faces like he’s riding a motorbike and I got some great shots of that. It was a fun day as well and those pictures sort of summed that up, so yeah over the time I covered them trust was built up between us.

The Other Side of Midnight TV show pictures that were used for the album ‘The Stone Roses’ was for me and many other kids the first time the masses had actually laid eyes on the band.

It was all pretty casual really. The manager Gareth rang me up and said, “can you get to Granada Studios to shoot the band because they’re off on Tony Wilson’s TV show Other Side of Midnight,” but it wasn’t any more special than the other sessions I’d done with them, although when I got there the band were really excited that they were getting TV and I was chuffed for them.

I took the shots, then later on John would choose which shots to use. I would send him the roll of all the pictures, a contact sheet, and he would ring me with the order for which shots he wanted that I would print off and then get them round to his house where he would cut them up – literally cut and paste the album layout together. So it was totally John who designed the album cover and what shots they used for it.

Though John was inspired by the Jackson Pollock style didn’t that originally come from his love of The Clash and their use of Pollock’s work in Clash photos?

They were all majorly influenced by The Clash, as well as their use of the stenciling which also had an impact on them. What a great band to be influenced by, in every way; sound, politics, the whole ethics fitted in with what they were doing.

An early session with them, the second one with Mani, I actually said to them lets do a kind of copy of a Pennie Smith Clash picture, so I got a great shot of them all lined up together at my studio, all real tight-in with each other and they looked cool as fuck with like S-shaped bends to their collective image. Although it was influenced it wasn’t a copy and it’s a great picture in its own right because no two pictures look the same anyway due to light and settings.

But John had his own ideas with the Pollock stuff, like the sheet of glass that he covered in Pollock style, which they stood behind while I photographed them, which was done down on their manager’s farm. So yeah he was inspired but he had his own visions of how he wanted the band to look.

Didn’t the band once take your camera while you were busy doing something and alternatively take daft pictures of each other?

That was regarding the Sounds photo session, where on the cover the magazine used individual shots of each member. Reni’s picture was him in his hat with his chin slightly sticking out – when it was published he wasn’t happy with it, but he was the one who pulled the face and he was angry at me for sending it off. But saying that I thought it looked great and that’s what happens sometimes. I’ll always send the interesting shots off opposed to the boring ‘nice’ regular shots, but sometimes it doesn’t go down well, he didn’t like that and I think it hurt his ego a bit to be honest.

So they got back at me didn’t they and pinched my camera when I was at the front of the tourbus, took pictures of each other looking like this (sticks his big chin out comically), including Alan Smith as well. Reni put it back in my bag without telling me they’d done it, so only when I developed them I saw that the fuckers had took my camera and wasted half my film on it (laughs). I’m glad they did really and it’s included in the 20th anniversary of ‘The Stone Roses’ album which contains a 12″ by 12″ book of my photos, and that’s the only place where those four photographs appear.

london callingHave you ever seen your style ripped off, copying the look of those Roses sessions in the same way you were on about the Pennie Smith Clash photographs earlier?

Not sure, and I’ve never really thought about it to be honest. Can you copy my style? I don’t really have one, as I said I like to have a lot of humour and animation in my shots and sometimes it may not make people look particular pretty as it never really interested me to make people look good or dignified. Always look for something more interesting, and because I’ve never pandered down to anyone’s ego it’s hurt a few people and got me in a few scrapes down the years. But with me trying to keep it interesting and slightly random I wouldn’t say I have ever had a particular style to copy.

I do get a lot of people on Facebook and on the street telling me how much they loved those Stone Roses photos and how they have been influenced by them. I actually had a girl come up to me and tell me that she did her thesis on me at University and got a 1st for it. I was just buzzing at that, a great compliment as well.

You’ve just started to put out a range of t-shirts of your Stone Roses images and photos, tell me more?

Well there are some that I’m really proud of out in the shops now which Amplified T-shirts have done with a range of my pictures. Oasis, Stone Roses and I think some Guns & Roses. I’ve still got to approve some and they will be coming out in June. But there’s also another line of my t-shirts coming which are really class, ultimate photo-print quality that me and a friend Leo Stanley are releasing on his Identity label – based in Manchester of course. Leo Stanley created the famous ‘..And on the 6th day God created MANchester’ t-shirt.

The Identity clothing range is a nostalgia range called ‘Back in the Day’ made up of people like Ian Brown, Kurt Cobain and we’ve got Hacienda ones now – we’ve got the approval of Hooky to use the Hacienda name. One exclusive print I’m looking forward to getting out is of Mani and Reni called ‘Drum & Bass’ which will be sold online at first, on the Identity Clothing website. We are doing some tailored specially for the girls too and some are in beautiful, delicate light pink.

View more of Ian’s photography, as well as news and contact information, at

(Carl Stanley)

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One Response

  1. Martin 16 June, 2011

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