Neal Preston is a name that is synonymous with some of music’s greatest moments. For over four decades, he has captured images of the most celebrated figures in rock and roll. He has toured with Led Zeppelin, The Who, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others. His work spans album covers, magazines, newspapers, books, television shows, feature films, Broadway show programs, and billboards. Seen in exhibits everywhere from the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., over the years, Preston’s photographs have become just as iconic as his subjects.
The first time Neal Preston was on stage shooting, was at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway, in New York. His dad was the original stage manager for musical theater masterpieces such as “The King and I,” “Camelot,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” and “My Fair Lady.” Preston used to join him for Saturday matinees, which were then followed by meals at the famed, Horn & Hardart Automat, in Times Square.
It was one performance, in particular, of “Fiddler on the Roof,” when the understudy stepped in for the lead, that would be the game-changer for the legendary photographer. “I knew when all the laughs were going to come,” Preston recalled during a recent interview with AXS. “So, when he told a joke and made the audience laugh, I snuck one picture. That picture is in my book.” The photo is of actor Harry Goz. Goz loved it, and subsequently gave Preston a set of photography books. That moment marked the beginning of a series of events, which would lead him to become one of the greatest rock photographers in existence.
While his first time on stage as a rock and roll photographer doesn’t come quickly to mind (it’s a toss-up between a Jeff Beck show and a Jimi Hendrix concert), Preston has had over 40 years of experiences that he can describe in vivid detail. “I never dreamt in a million years that anything like this would happen,” Preston said as he reflected on how he got to this point. “I never had any other job, other than when I was a kid; I had a paper route. The fact that I’m sitting here, and that people who come to me, they are not only sweet, kind and reverential, but they tell me that I inspire them to pick up photography; I never in a million years thought any of this would happen. It wasn’t even on my radar because I feel like I was always too busy working.”
Naturally, while the majority of people ask Preston to recall stories about what it was like to tour with Zeppelin in the ‘70s, or to conjure up some anecdote from “Live Aid,” the photographer says that most of the time, he was so wrapped up with thinking about getting the shot that he had blinders on. Preston’s tales are more likely to revolve around the time when shooting over a flash pot nearly cost him his life (had it not been for a roadie getting him out of there within five or six seconds of it going off) and how he owes most of his hearing loss to an afternoon with Dave Grohl – which is one of the stories he mentions in his book.
Recently, Preston’s books, Exhilarated and Exhausted and In the Eye of the Rock’n’Roll Hurricane, along with a selection of his work, was highlighted at The 2019 NAMM Show in the Lightpower Collection. The exhibit featured more than 50 of his iconic pictures, including legendary album covers, and incredible behind-the-scenes moments.
His art was dedicated to two areas: one was curated by Lightpower and NAMM's Museum of Making Music. The other booth displayed a remarkable collection which consisted of three never-before-seen images of Freddie Mercury, as well as exclusive shots of Led Zeppelin from Preston’s time as the band’s official tour photographer.
Proceeds from sales went to benefit Behind The Scenes, which is a charity that provides financial support to entertainment technology industry professionals if they, or their immediate dependent family, are seriously ill or injured. Funds also went to The NAMM Foundation, which works to advance active participation in music making across the lifespan by supporting scientific research, philanthropic giving, and public service programs. Both are causes close to Preston’s heart.
Preston was on hand during The NAMM Show to offer up some amusing stories for fans and pose for a few pictures of his own. A lot of what he expanded on was from Exhilarated and Exhausted. “It’s funny, it’s a little snarky, it’s very self-deprecating, and, it’s extremely honest,” Preston describes of his book, likening it to his personality. “I wanted it to be experiential and go down the rabbit hole. You want to know what it’s like being on the road with Led Zeppelin. How many people have done that? I wanted you to feel, at the end of the book, that you’ve just been on the road with Zeppelin for a month; like you spent a weekend with Guns N' Roses; and went around the world with Bruce. It came to me one night in my head. I feel exhilarated and exhausted every day. I said – that's my title. I sat on it for a day, and I called Cameron [Crowe] and said, ‘What do you think of this? Am I crazy, or is it great?’ He said, ‘It’s perfect.’”
Preston and Crowe’s longstanding friendship has spawned many great collaborative efforts. Preston was both the “unit” and “special” photographer for movies such as “Almost Famous.” Preston tells AXS it’s likely a role he’ll be reprising as Crowe develops the Broadway musical rendition of his Academy Award-winning film.
“I was a guy who was given my first camera, and it’s been by my side in some form ever since,” Preston said, looking back. “The analogy I always make is a kid going to Driver’s Ed, in high school. They get behind the wheel the first time, they don’t know how to drive, but they instinctively understand the relationship between the gas pedal, the brake, and the transmission. I instinctively understood the relationship between the lens, the aperture, and the shutter speeds. It was waiting to happen. If I’ve been fortunate, that’s probably the part of my life that I’ve been most fortunate to have found; because it found me.”