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When You Hear the Music, Trouble Disappear

Justin Thomas has spent the last 35 years working as a music photographer, documenting some of the industry's finest and most influential artists through his intimate behind the scenes portraits and captured moments of on-stage theatrics. This Friday sees the opening of When You Hear the Music, Trouble Disappear, an exclusive solo exhibition held at West London's Graffik Gallery that highlights some of the photographer's most iconic images. We caught up with Justin ahead of the show's opening to talk about his methods, most memorable images and the shots that got away...

What draws you to photographing musicians?

I’m drawn to bands who move. I’m looking for that moment when Bob Marley flicks his head back and all his locks flail out like tendrils, when the stooping KEEF brings down his arm or Wilko Johnson does the splits in mid-air with his Strat pointing straight out like a machine gun.

Bob Marley Justin Thomas

Bob Marley at the Crystal Palace Bowl, June 7th, 1980

It's a challenge, and when all the elements that make a good photo come together at the same time, composition, exposure and capturing THE moment, it’s extremely satisfying, especially if you have captured it exclusively - a unique image, yours. There's a lot of luck involved in 'live' photography, 9 times out of ten you'll misfire, but digital cameras give you the freedom to shoot at will, which was a luxury I never had when I was starting out - I didn't even have a motordrive. I think that enhanced my sense of anticipation. Photographing musicians, is, like most other forms of photography, about pushing your finger down a fraction of a second before you think 'it' is going to happen. It’s about anticipation...if you've seen the picture already, you've missed it.

Is there one shot that has particular meaning to you, or you would describe as your best work?

I particularly like the Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross frame. I had been very moved when Stevie came back for the 2nd part of his 3 hour Wembley show after the interval.

He was led to the lip of the stage, and then left on his own. He was using his feet to balance, half on, half off the stage, while he rocked his body to the sound of his harmonica. There were moments when he was so involved in his music that his upper body was almost parallel to the stage, so much so that I thought he might fall on my head. It was very endearing watching him, knowing that he might fall 12 feet down. He looked very vulnerable in his ecstasy.

Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye & Stevie Wonder at Wembley Stadium. By Justin Thomas.

Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye & Stevie Wonder at Wembley Stadium, 7th September 1980

On the final encore he brought on Marvin and Diana, and it brought tears of joy to my eyes. Motown, was, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest label of all time-joy unlimited, and here were the Kings and Queen. The only thing that might have topped it would’ve been if Aretha had popped up on harmonies. I love the composition and Marvin in the middle, pin sharp; smiling sweetly...can I get a witness?!

Has there ever been a moment where you’ve missed what could have been an iconic shot?

It was about 1978 and I’d been in North London to shoot George Thorogood and the Destroyers and they’d put on such a blinding show that I used up all my film.

It was a bad mistake.

Me and my mate decided to go down the Music Machine to catch the end of Link Wray and Robert Gordon's set - two fabulous gigs in one night! At the end, my mate went backstage to shake their hands, but took ages. I went to see what was keeping him and the first person I bumped into was Sid Vicious. I couldn’t believe I had no film left, at which point my mate elbows me in the ribs and goes, ‘It gets worse, look who’s just walked in behind you’ – and when I turned around there was Bob Dylan himself! The king of punk and America’s greatest singer-songwriter together in this tiny little room in Camden Town – can you imagine how many copies of that shot I could’ve sold? One good thing did come out of it though, and that was noticing just how small Dylan actually is. I mean, this bloke is a hero of mine, always has been, but he’s just a little fella. That moment really helped me with my approach to the job after that because I realised that no matter how big the stars look on screen or on stage, they’re just flesh and blood...'just like everybody else'

The Jam at Townhouse Studio, Shepherds Bush, 1979. By Justin Thomas.

The Jam at Towhouse Studio, Shepherds Bush, 1979

What’s the most difficult factor when photographing live music?

There are loads of difficult factors involved in shooting live photography - having flagons of piss thrown at you by bored audience members at heavy metal concerts like Castle Donnington spring to mind. I was the house photographer at Brixton Academy for 10 years, and it would not be uncommon to have a full pint of beer come flying over into the photo pit and exploding all over your camera; at other times it might be somebody's foot kicking into your head on the way back into the mosh pit.

When I started out doing punk bands, I’d run my hand through my hair on leaving the venue and it would be coated in spit.

The Specials at The Hope and Anchor, Islington, 1979

The Specials at The Hope & Anchor, Islington, 1979

Is there one musician you haven’t shot, who you’d like to?

There are many artists I wished I’d photographed, but THE one, was the greatest performer and guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix. I wanted to go to The Isle of Wight festival when I was 14, but my mum wouldn't let me. No-one has or ever will come near. I went to see Jeff Buckley as a punter once at The Astoria and was completely blown away by the way he turned the place into a church...a very spiritual occasion...but in a way I’m glad I didn't take pictures 'cos I appreciated his performance so much more. When you are taking photos you don't notice the performance so much 'cos you are concentrating on getting 'THE' shot.

'When You Hear the Music,Trouble Disappear' is open 20th July - 18th August 2012 at Graffik Gallery, 284 Portobello Road, London, W10 5TE

All images courtesy of Justin Thomas/Graffik Gallery.