There are few jobs out there that I would nearly kill for, but Mark Halpern's is one of them. As the CEO of Rock Paper Photo, Mark spends his days hunting for rare and unseen photos of all your favorite iconic rock stars, actors, and authors. Nowadays with the internet, you can see hundreds of photos of whoever you want, but Google isn't going to get inside that shoe box filled with negatives under a photographer's bed — Mark and his team will, and that's where it gets interesting.
Rock Paper Photo was born three years ago when Mark and Guy Oseary (you may know him as Madonna's manager) recognized a gaping hole in the world of photography. Not only were many photographers unrepresented, it was incredibly difficult for collectors to figure out who took what photo and even harder to get an official signed print. They took the idea of creating the ultimate online gallery to Live Nation CEO/President Michael Rapino, and in 2011 the venture was launched.
When RPP was just starting, the collection was built through networking. Mark and Guy knew of many talented photographers who were making a living licensing and doing assignment work, never really selling their work as artwork to be hung on a wall. "We knew there was this enormous supply of photography that were in shoeboxes under beds and in the top shelf of closets, unorganized, and just basically buried treasure that the world has never seen," says Mark. "We built and designed the site to be about discovery for photographers who have great work and haven't really had the opportunity or the ability, or they’ve been too busy to promote it. That’s where we come in."
While the Internet has succeeded to bring a wealth of new photography to the masses, most of the time you have no idea where the photo you're looking at actually came from. Mark considers Google Images to be a type of competition in a strange way, because while you can turn to the search engine for discovery, you can't really buy the images you find. Go ahead and search for Jimi Hendrix. You're going to be bombarded with pictures on various sites, from blogs to Facebook, but rarely do they ever lead to the source. "You don't know who took it, you don't know the story behind it and you certainly can't get a nice print of it because it's likely coming from some blog from someone who stole it and just stuck it online, some really low-res version," says Mark.
A mysterious image is more common than you might think. The very morning I spoke with Mark, RPP was approached by someone needing desperately to know the photographer of a specific photo. "There was a musician who was asked to sign a fine art print and then it was going to be auctioned off, with the proceeds going to charity," explains Mark. Apparently, the photo was so neat that the musician decided to keep it and asked for a second print to sign for the charity. The only problem was that no one actually knew who took it, or where it even came from, so they went to RPP and found their answer.
This is just one example of how the story behind a photo can make all the difference and is perhaps the neatest part of Rock Paper Photo — with each behind-the-scenes tale, you feel closer to the people in the image and the person behind the lens. "One of the things that I find most interesting about what we do — and we really try to convey it through our website, in our gallery in Las Vegas, and when we do events — are the stories behind the photos," Mark says with pride. "They're completely undocumented stories from the photographer's perspective and these guys actually have great perspective because they're not in one band (to compare them to the musicians, if you will) and many of them have spent time with the biggest acts of whatever decade they're shooting, so to hear their stories and their take on what was going on when they took that photo…not every photo has a great story, but a lot of them really do."
The majority of the collection shows a time when photographers were so highly regarded and respected that celebrities sought them out. Marilyn Monroe wanted to be photographed when going out on the town, but if she were alive and in her prime today, she definitely would have been one of the celebrities we've written laws to keep the paparazzi away from. Of course, there's a difference between a professional photographer and a member of the paparazzi, but Mark thinks that they are getting grouped closer and closer together.
"That’s sort of how photographers are thought of — as being intrusive and exploitive — and that’s not how it used to be," says Mark. "Photographers used to be the best friend of celebrities. There were a lot less media outlets and so these celebrities wanted their picture taken because they wanted to get into the newspapers and magazines and on TV and if you didn’t have a photographer there, then you had no shot of getting in."
So, how do you get on Rock Paper Photo as a featured photographer? Above all else, you have to be good. A photographer doesn't necessarily have to meet any set requirements, and in fact, that's a problem the team is trying to solve with their company. "In the art gallery world, it's very tricky for photographers to get their first show," says Mark. "It's that old catch 22 — you see it in employment too — sort of like, 'Oh, you don't have any experience? Well then we can't hire you.' And then, obviously, how is someone going to get experience? That exists in the art gallery world very much so; galleries say, 'Oh, well where else have you exhibited your work?'"
Many of the photographers on the site, especially in terms of music photography, were basically flies on the wall. They happened to be in the room for incredibly historic and significant moments — even though it may not have seemed so at the time — and have remained pretty anonymous. "When you think back, especially when you're working with photographers from the '60s, '70s, and the '80s — maybe even the '90s — obviously they have talent, but generally it wasn’t about formal training," explains Mark. "Most of them were people who hustled, who met the right people to gain access. It's being in the right place at the right time and it's about knowing the right people to get that access that other people don’t have. And then you have to have the talent to actually take a great photo."
There's so much media out there that everyone is a photographer and can snap a picture on their smartphone, making the classic Hollywood photographer a dying breed. The access these people had, the intimate moments they were privy to because they were friends with the star, doesn't quite exist anymore in the same way. More supply also means that the bar has been set incredibly high for photographs deemed interesting and unique.
Photos that stand out to Mark and RPP are due to various factors, including who took it (if the photographer has a great reputation, that will certainly help). The stage of the artist's career is also a big one: "We have photos of Lady Gaga from before she had released her first album. Those are really cool and they sell really well. It's in a little club and I've spoken to the photographer about it. He was literally friends with her; 'To me, she was Stefanie.' He met her because he was a lower east side guy and that's where she started performing when she was trying to make it."
"Very often it's a series that I love," explains Mark. "There's a David Bowie series from Andrew Kent who went on a European tour with Bowie and Iggy Pop in '76. He became friends with Bowie and Iggy, and they were taking side trips from the tour between performances and running off to Moscow and Helsinki and other places to just be tourists and see the world! The photos are literally like tourist photos, the way I look at them. Those are photos that had never been released until we sat down with Andrew and were going through his negatives."
Of course, the photo's quality and uniqueness play important factors as well. As much as Mark loves looking for new art, he gives much of the credit to RPP's Director of Photography and Key Curator, Jody Britt. It may be a group effort in many ways, but Britt is ultimately the go-to when it comes to new inclusions. The company also brings in guest curators (like Alec Baldwin, Santigold, Mayer Hawthorne, and David Blaine) as a way to shine a light on new sets of photos you may not notice while browsing the archives.
With so much on offer on RPP, it was hard to pick my favorites (Michael Tighe's shots of Gary Oldman in LA and Allen Ginsberg in NYC are definitely in the top), but I can't imagine how difficult it must be for someone who looks at these images on a daily basis. "One photo I have in my living room, and it's a Bob Dylan photo by Charles Gatewood and it was taken when he was on tour in Stolkholm. He's got this crazy hair and his cool sunglasses and a sort of scowling look on his face, and he looks tough, you know? I just love that shot," he says. He also loves a recently released photo of Jerry Garcia in Egypt, with a pyramid in the background and his hair blowing in the wind — which was only one of the photos taken by British photographer Adrian Boot during that trip.
In a day and age where society relates to one another through gadgetry first and foremost, we've lost a lot of the quirk and excitement our past seemed full of. Even something as seemingly average as the décor scheme of your home has changed drastically. Having shelves full of books, records, and movies is now seen as strange and wasteful. Why buy books when you can get them on a Kindle? Why buy records when you can hold thousands of albums on your iPhone?
Photography may be bigger than ever nowadays because everyone can essentially be a photographer with their phones, but no one prints anything anymore. Picking up a package of developed pictures is a novelty now, reserved for hipsters and the elderly. Mark can speak to this personally, in that he used to express himself by the CD cases and books lining his shelves: "People would walk into your home and when you're just socializing, people do look at what you read and they look at what you listen to and that’s all gone now. It's all literally in your laptop and people don’t just walk into your house and pop open your laptop, that would be intrusive."
Art prints have become the new way people can more literally express themselves in a very immediate and upfront way, and not just in terms of music and film stars. Book lovers will rejoice to discover that RPP is gearing up to release an author's set of photos in November, including the likes of Ray Bradbury, John Updike, and Tom Wolfe. "It's amazing people who I think are some of the biggest literary figures — some are living, some are deceased — and I'm really excited about it. It's something for a certain market, it's not the market who are buying the Lady Gaga photos," he jokes. "I look at it as an evergreen topic and I also love this stuff. Some of these people, frankly, I didn't know what they looked like! Then when the photographers are telling me, 'Oh yeah, well that's Tom Wolfe.' I was like, 'That's Tom Wolfe!? That's so cool; I've read all the man's books!' [laughs]."
Needless to say, Mark has the coolest job I can think of — aside from taking the photos myself. In wondering if it ever becomes just a job, if monotony ever begins creeping in, he was quick to assure that it just never happens. He still gets just as excited upon discovering new images as he ever did. "When photographers come in and they either bring negatives or prints, and they are things we haven't seen before, everyone gathers around and gets excited. I definitely do. It's really what we love," he says cheerfully. "Oh my god, it's my favorite thing."
Rock Paper Photo is having a Holiday Pop-Up Gallery in Chelsea in New York City from December 4-24, at 132 West 18th Street. The gallery will highlight some of the greatest rock photography ever shot, with a focus on their best sellers. They will also be releasing a brand new set of Beatles photos that have never been seen before (commemorating the 50 year anniversary of when they played on The Ed Sullivan Show). Miles Davis is getting the star treatment as well; they will be exclusively showing off his drawings and paintings, as well as the photos of him already in their collection.
Prices for the photos vary depending on the popularity of the subject and the rarity, but you can expect to pay anywhere from $300 for an unframed print to over $5K for framed limited edition print.