Master photographer William “Bill” Lulow characterizes light as the essential element that controls all of his photographs. Form, texture and composition come into play, but it is always light that steals the show. Lulow says, “I bring my lifelong love of photography and my studio lighting expertise to everything I shoot.” He describes his relationship with photography as a great passion, an ongoing love affair with the process of creating beautiful imagery.
His focus is on photographing people. Some famous, some not, some are just being who they are—rock stars, up-and-coming talent, businesspeople, and creatives. Lulow’s images of people exude spark, movement, and rhythm—all of the qualities that make great music. And it’s no wonder. Bill Lulow’s history as a photographer is steeped in the lore of the music world.
Lulow has always had two great loves—music has always been a love that coincided, and at times competed, with his love for photography. Loving music was unavoidable. As a kid growing up in New York City, he walked the streets where musical legends were made. He remembers walking around the corner from his school that was located in Greenwich Village. A bend on Minetta Lane led to a nightclub on Minetta Street called the Fat Black Pussycat, where Bob Dylan went to play music. It’s been said that Dylan wrote Blowin' In The Wind at the Fat Black Pussycat. Other stars played there too, including Richie Havens and Tiny Tim.
Then there was Gerdes Folk City in The Village that had begun as a restaurant before becoming a place to showcase music. Electric Ladyland Studios was on Eighth Street; it’s where Jimi Hendrix and others, including Walter Brown "Brownie" McGhee, Peter Seeger, and The Weavers recorded. Another music hotspot charting the landscape of Lulow’s formative years is the nightclub Max’s Kansas City. Just up from Union Square, Max's Kansas City was a watering hole for musicians, poets, and artists like Andy Warhol, his Velvet Underground crew, and David Bowie. Blondie came years later. So did Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, who used to hang out there. But by the time stars of the 1970s showed up, Bill Lulow had already moved on to Denver.
Before we get to Lulow’s life in Denver, it’s important to mention a few things about his school in Greenwich Village. No ordinary school, The Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, (LREI), is often considered to be New York City’s first progressive school. Founded in 1921 by reform educator Elisabeth Irwin, who was disenchanted with the NYC public school system, the school soon became a magnet for the city’s progressive-minded elite. During the McCarthy era, the school became a haven for sympathizers of the Communist Party. The school hired talented teachers who could not find work elsewhere because they had been blacklisted.
Earl Robinson, who wrote Ballad for Americans, was Lulow’s music teacher. Lulow had fallen in love with music and spent a lot of his time playing the guitar. His love for music didn’t dampen his early enthusiasm for photography. One of his earliest photography gigs was an assignment for his high school newspaper, taking photos of the ocean liner SS Île de France, while it was docked on Manhattan’s West Side.
Lulow remembers always looking for angles and images in the everyday world of The Village that was an extraordinary place to grow up. He had an eye for certain types of composition. One high school field trip took him to Pennsylvania Dutch country, which was far from the character, tone and temperament of New York City. The Amish people leading their simple lives in a stunning visual time warp was very different from his early recollection of running into rock stars like Bob Dylan. In those days Dylan was living on MacDougal Street, and regularly walked by the original site of Lulow’s school on Bleeker Street.
A continual feast of visual images was served up in Lulow’s own neighborhood, on the streets he walked every day. Aside from nightclubs, recording studios and musicians, the old tenements and brownstones were crammed full of an ethnic hodgepodge of people, who were among the second wave of immigrants who had come to America seeking a better way of life.
The Village also bordered Little Italy. Every September the festival of San Gennaro took over the neighborhood with its impassioned parade of gold, pomp, ornate vestments, and clouds of incense, coupled with loud music and the noisy street vendors hawking sausage and pepper wedges, cannoli and gelato. The texture, life and living color of going to school in The Village made his life an obstacle course as he navigated his way through the crush of the crowds on the narrow streets. He experienced being up close and personal with people from all walks of life. Even now, it’s an experience that stays with him and is at the root of what makes him capture the rhythm of light in photography.
Although Lulow went to school in The Village, he actually lived with his family in Stuyvesant Town on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. This community of red brick, high rise apartment buildings tended to be a protective enclave for families. Kids played in Stuyvesant Town’s playgrounds, which were a lot safer than playing on the street. Lulow’s father, William V. Lulow, was a highly respected child psychiatrist who mentored many young physicians and was especially known for his mentorship of the prominent American psychiatrist James F. Masterson, M.D. (Masterson was known as a groundbreaking expert on narcissistic and borderline personality disorders.)
The elder Lulow was careful not to put pressure on his sons to become doctors. Lulow’s younger brother David became a musician and his mother, Dove, studied interior design. Lulow’s father later followed his own creative passion. After reading Irving Stone’s great work (The Agony and the Ecstasy) about the life of Michelangelo, he felt called to become a sculptor and built his own retreat in Sherman, Connecticut, where he kept an art studio.
Always seeming to know he had a visual talent of some sort, Lulow was thirteen and on a family trip to Bermuda when he became fascinated with light and how the camera saw these images. He had two uncles who were in the pawn shop and jewelry business in Washington, DC. On visits there, he was always intrigued by the cameras they had in their shops. His father got him his very first camera—a Ricohflex (twin lens reflex). The second professional camera he bought on his own was a Pentax with two extra lenses.
Children growing up in New York City share their childhood experience with a great diversity of people. Far from being a sheltered childhood, kids learn life lessons—on the streets of New York City in a way that they could not have learned elsewhere. Growing up in New York City often makes young people adventurous and independent enough to check out the rest of the country. In the 1960s and 70s in particular, there was a popular trend for young New Yorkers to go west. Lulow was no exception.
Soon he was off to college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and that is when he decided to get serious about photography. He says, “I was a senior in college and was taking courses in television production.” Later he got a Master’s degree in Radio, TV Film at Wisconsin-Madison and began photographing girlfriends. “In 1962 I saw Antonioni’s film Blow Up, which had a profound influence on me,” he says. “I loved the whole ambiance of the film and what the photographer was doing. Blow Up was modeled on the career of English photographer David Bailey. Blow Up influenced me a lot because that’s how I thought I’d meet girls. (I had a really nice studio later, but not quite like that.) I thought I’d like to have a studio like that someday. That’s what sealed it for me.”
Before moving to Denver, he worked as a junior high school teacher, which allowed him to save a lot of money. He continued to play music and bought his first Martin guitar. Next came a reel-to-reel tape recorder so he could record his own music. Then the push was on to move farther west. He says, “I bought my toys and went to Denver without a job.”
In Denver, the photo imagery Lulow created was colored by his love for music. Then in 1970 Lulow took a trip from Denver to San Francisco, where he looked up the rock photographer Jim Marshall. By this time Lulow had started to photograph rock bands in Denver. James Joseph Marshall was already well known as a photographer of rock stars in the same way another rock photographer, Barron Wolman, was also known in the music world. Jim Marshall had easy backstage access to numerous musicians—that included being backstage for the Beatles’ final concert in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. More than anything, Marshall was known for being the chief photographer for the iconic 1969 rock music festival Woodstock. He had already published books of collections of his backstage photos of musicians.
Lulow’s visit with Marshall proved to be a turning point in his career. Marshall had just shot Janis Joplin for a magazine cover. When Lulow saw Jim Marshall’s studio, that’s when he got the idea to do studio pictures and more album covers.
Bill Lulow was becoming increasingly known in the music world, not only as a photographer but as a great resource for locating hard-to-get photos. At one point he got a call from a San Francisco photographer who had a shot of Jim Marshall. In exchange, Lulow sent him a rare photo he had of Mike Bloomfield from the Paul Butterfield blues band. Although Lulow had already started to photograph rock bands in Denver, he didn’t yet have a studio or a lot of lighting equipment. While he had photographed most people outdoors, he was becoming more interested in doing studio work.
Shooting concerts was difficult because it required access to the performers and using a long telephoto lens. Lulow wanted to get to know the musicians the same way Annie Leibovitz did later in her life by traveling backstage with the Rolling Stones. Typically, a photographer can’t get into any of these venues unless they are doing an assignment with a specific media outlet. With Lulow his lucky break came as a result of his close working relationship with a writer named Jackie Campbell.
Prolific writer Jackie Campbell began her career with the Providence Journal in Rhode Island. When she and her husband moved the family to Denver, she began looking to connect with photographers as collaborators for story assignments—that’s how she found Bill Lulow. She had heard that Lulow had just moved to Denver from New York City and was looking for a different sort of lifestyle. While Lulow had always been interested in photography, now it became an obsession. He began studying and doing everything he could to ramp up in this highly competitive business.
As a team, they initially connected with a Features Editor at the Denver Post, who was interested in Jackie Campbell’s writing and in Bill Lulow’s photographs. The Editor told them that Judy Collins, a former Denver resident, was going to be in town for a concert and asked them to interview her and do some photographs at her home. Lulow and Campbell jumped at the chance and soon were on their way to conducting many such interviews, mostly around the music scene in the Denver-Boulder area.
In his collaboration with Jackie, there was a torrent of new gigs. Mostly everything Lulow and Jackie worked on was bought by the Denver Post. It was a relationship that continued for nearly two years. Together they worked on projects with Linda Ronstadt, Taj Mahal, Muddy Waters, Tracy Nelson, Billy Preston, Rod Stewart, Chuck Berry, and many others. Another notable photojournalist story featured Chuck Morris, who owned a nightclub called Tulagi in Boulder. (Tulagi was named for a World War II battle site near Guadalcanal.) Chuck Morris gave Boulder its first concert hall experience, booking musicians like ZZ Top and Bonnie Raitt. Another project featured Paul Gongaware, who put on a concert with the Grateful Dead in Boulder’s Folsum Field.
One of his favorite assignments was photographing the Grateful Dead’s concert on September 3, 1972 in Boulder, where he had to photograph the roadies setting up the famous “wall of sound.” He photographed backstage and during the actual performance.
Bill Lulow moved back to New York City to concentrate on more studio work, including some fashion as well as portraits. Jackie Campbell stayed in Colorado and got a job as the theater critic for the now defunct Rocky Mountain News. Campbell developed a strong following and often traveled to New York to review shows there. Lulow says, “We often got together when she was in town.”
Jackie Campbell passed away in December 2017. Lulow says, “She was an overall great person and was also instrumental in solidifying my interest in photographing musicians. She gave me a better awareness of what was involved in the pursuit of journalism.” He fondly remembers how when Campbell was getting ready to interview people, she had little quirks or mannerisms to put her subjects at ease. She’d fumble, looking for a pen or something in her purse. It was her way of getting her interview subjects to relax for the photo shoot.
After Lulow moved back to New York City, he met his wife Judy, and they were married in 1983. In the beginning he worked as an assistant to Bert Rockfield, whose big account was J.C. Penney. Lulow developed the film, did the lighting and took the film to the lab.
In 1980 Lulow opened his studio in New York City’s Flatiron District, where his first official client was for WNBC-TV (NBC affiliate in NYC). In his studio days, he made a good living in photography and always had a pipeline of existing clients as well as new clients coming in the door. From 9am to 9pm, the studio buzzed with a staff of ten. In addition to WNBC-TV, anchor Roger Mudd was a client. Other big clients included Hanes Hosiery, Allied Fibers and Plastics, a division of Allied Chemical and American Express.
Throughout the 1990s, he taught photo classes on site at the studio, sometimes teaching two classes a night. He also taught photography at New School for Social Research. “My greatest talent as a photographer is the ability to bring my understanding of teaching, young people and how to translate ideas or concepts to the medium of photographs.”
For Bill Lulow, teaching photography is a confluence of his two great strengths: teaching and photography. He saw teaching as a way to come full circle. As a teacher, he loved to see that moment when a student realizes how to do something and make it work. Although technology has profoundly changed the field of photography, certain fundamentals about the process do not change. Today’s point and click pics brought about by iPhones seems to turn everyone into an instant photographer, to which Lulow is quick to point out, “I try to teach people to SLOW DOWN their picture taking. Even with iPhones, it’s necessary to understand the process and concentrate more on the results.”
Lulow closed his Flatiron studio in 1998, but continues to teach photography courses, and has a steady stream of assignments, shooting on location, mainly around the New York City-metro area. “If you are going to photograph people, you have to have an awareness of how they react to the photographic process in general and how to get them to be part of that process! My particular technique is revealed in the various blog articles I publish regularly.”
His focus on photographing people from all walks of life has also taken him full circle. Judy Collins now lives in New York City. Lulow recently photographed her again, over forty years after their first session in Denver, only this time the shoot took place in Beacon, New York. The gig came as a result of Lulow’s relationship with the Town Crier Café and the man who owns it—Phil Ciganer, who is an old-time music entrepreneur cut from the same cloth as the promoter Bill Graham.
Phil Ciganer runs the Towne Crier Cafe with his wife, Mary Ciganer, who is a pastry chef for the restaurant. Founded in 1972, initially in Beekmanville, NY (Pawling, NY), the Towne Crier Cafe has become a landmark venue for fans—and performers—of live music. The performance space is spacious but intimate—what the NY Times called “Down-home access to world-class performers.” The Town Crier has a photo squad that includes Bill Lulow, who was one of their first photographers.
Whether he’s photographing musicians, businesspeople, creatives or people leading ordinary lives, all of the subjects of Bill Lulow’s photos look as though they are on the verge of doing something big. He picks people who he thinks are interesting or up-and-coming. He might hear of their names locally and offers to do photographs for them. One is Scarsdale singer Kelly Flint, who connects film directors with advertising agencies for commercials through her company Strike Media. Another is Americana singer songwriter Susan Kane, who released her fourth CD in 2016.
Some of Bill Lulow’s favorite portraits do include the famous. Vogue’s former Fashion Editor, the iconic Diana Vreeland, didn’t like Irving Penn’s idea of photographing her with a bunch of dummies (mannequins), so she instead posed for Lulow. “I asked her how she was enjoying the Met Museum’s Costume Institute, she made a face and I snapped about 14 sheets of 4x5 film.”
In the famous shot he took of Jerry Garcia, Lulow had asked him how he had prepared for his performances. Garcia told him, “I’m preparing all the time and even during my performances.”
Even in the digital age, many people still get nervous sitting in front of the camera for a formal portrait sitting. Unless the subject is a model or actor or used to being scrutinized by the lens of camera, many people get uptight and stiffen up. According to Bill Lulow, photographing the rich and famous might be the same as photographing people who are not household names. All people can be rendered somewhat equal under the intense gaze of the camera lens. Lulow says he has never treated photographing well known people any differently in terms of his preparation. He does note, however, that with someone well known, he tends to do more homework on finding out who they really are behind their public image. “I want to get them talking about other things other than just the photo session.”
Asked to name three people who he would like to photograph, Lulow says “Hillary Clinton.” (She happens to be a neighbor in Chappaqua.) Lulow was impressed with the five-part interview she did with Howard Stern, where he saw her much more as a real person instead of a politician. He’d love to photograph Jane Mayer, The New Yorker writer and author of Dark Money, because she has put her finger on the pulse identifying why America has so many problems right now. And then there is the master blues man Ry Cooder, because Lulow loves his music and has followed him for decades.
If Bill Lulow’s imagery was illuminated by his love of music, what happened to his music? Like every other young man living in America in the 1960s and 70s, he fancied himself as rock star. He certainly played a mean guitar. He recalls a specific place and time when music receded in the background and photography ascended, becoming his most passionate pursuit. Back in Madison Wisconsin, when he was in college, he played with the musician Steve Miller, who had briefly gone to school there. After a few sessions, Bill Lulow couldn’t talk. He had lost his voice. “I knew then I didn’t have what it takes to sing.”
Recently when Bill Lulow was listening to an interview with Graham Nash, who is also a photographer, he was reminded of the “magical” experience of seeing a print emerge in a developing tray in the darkroom—that is the same way he felt about the experience of making photos when he was young—it was magical. Lulow says if you want to get good at something, you have to do it a lot. There are no shortcuts. He says he still plays the guitar. He also likes to play golf, but to improve his game, he has to hit fifty balls a day. Someone like Tiger Woods hits 1,000 balls a day. “I didn’t have the interest to play guitar that much,” he says. “But the first Hasselblad I had, I damn near took it to bed with me.”
William Lulow, specializes in portraits and commercial photography. He provides the greater New York City area with top quality photography for advertising, public relations, event and individual use. He also strives to educate photographers through his workshops and blog. For more information, please see his website.