The life of a rock ‘n roll photographer means groupies, parties, and everything else too illicit to mention—Dean Karr has seen it all. An acclaimed music photographer, Karr has spent the past 35 years of his life photographing the greatest rock artists live on stage and directing music videos for everyone from Velvet Revolver to Stevie Nicks. But being in close proximity to his childhood heroes, like Ozzy Osbourne and Iron Maiden, Karr also got a peek into the private lives of these icons. That is to say, the photographer’s got stories about them that no one could possibly ever make up.
Taking a break from his busy shooting schedule—Karr, among other projects, has also been churning out commercials for today’s top brands—the living legend discusses his most memorable moments with Ozzy Osbourne, his surreal encounter with Jimmy Page, and how his work has changed with the music industry.
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What initially got you into shooting artists in the first place?
I started going out to rock concerts when I was 15. The first concert I ever shot was Judas Priest at the Seattle Center Arena in 1979. I’d tell my mom I was going to the neighbor’s house and I’d be gone ‘til 1 a.m.
I used to sneak my Canon AE-1 into the concerts. It was a two-man operation, my friend and I would take the lens off the camera and put the camera and lens in separate plastic sandwich bags and hide them down our pants. We’d then get into the venue and meet up in the bathroom stall to assemble the camera. We were so young and little but the bigger kids would let us go right in front of them on the security barricades every time. I just loved shooting these concerts.
You’ve worked with everyone in rock. But the most infamous has to be Ozzy Osbourne. Do you have any memorable stories from your time working with him?
I had just completed my first video for him called, “I Just Want You,” which was a big revival video for his solo career. I happen to be in London meeting with Duran Duran, and Sharon Osbourne invited me to visit their house in the countryside. I got to the house and I met all the kids, Jack and the two girls. Ozzy was doing some interviews so Jack offered to take me quad riding. They have the biggest plot of land; it’s like five football fields of endless manicured grass with Greek statues all over. So Jack and I were cutting across the grass on the quad and I stopped him because there were little three-inch plastic wrappers everywhere. I asked Jack what was up and he said, “Oh hey, British Airways pulls the bilge over dad’s house once a week, and it just rains down these peanut wrappers.” I couldn’t believe they could get away with that, but apparently it was a weekly thing. I don’t know if they set Ozzy up as an intended target, but it was nuts. Anyhow, we had a great time riding through the woods and meeting up with Ozzy later that day!
I just saw him recently when they were presenting the new Black Sabbath album 13 and Jack was there and he remembered how funny that story was.
Did they ever clear up why that was happening with the plane?
I have no idea. But here’s another great Ozzy one. For one shoot, we made eight plaster busts of Ozzy, all different expressions, and afterward, he signed two of them for me. Ozzy is not the best speller and meant to write “To a Great Bloke” but actually wrote “To a Grat Blok,” so the joke is I’m a Grat Blok. God bless him.
Also, I’m punching myself to this day because I had him sign my butt after we filmed that video, and I should’ve gone straight to the tattoo shop instead of washing it off. There’s pictures of him laughing so hard on set while he’s signing my butt.
Did you see the difference in Ozzy dad mode and Ozzy stage mode?
He’s in full-on Ozzy mode all the time! When the reality show came out on MTV, that’s exactly what you get, whether at work or family. It doesn’t stop. No question.
Besides Ozzy, you’ve done some work with Iron Maiden. What was it like collaborating with them?
Iron Maiden is my all-time hero band. I directed a movie in Rio called Rock in Rio in front of quarter of a million fans. It’s on like once a week on VH1 Classics. It was an 18-camera film shoot, we had to fly from the hotel to concert venue in two helicopters because of the small roads. I had just met these guys, and I was trying not to geek out, but once we were all seated, they said, “Is there room for one more?” Jimmy Page came and sat next to me, I was seriously geeking out at this point! Paul Rodgers of Bad Company was with us also. It couldn’t have been cooler. I got goosebumps.
What’s your relationship with Iron Maiden now?
Now we’re all friends and I try to go skiing every year with the lead guitarist Dave Murray, or visit him at his home in Maui. Great relationships are made from doing this kind of work.
Is it ever still surreal to you?
I’m very humble and grateful, I love it and appreciate it, but some of the magic sprinkle dust is gone. But when you’re walking down the street with them, it’s a thing of pride. It feels really nice.
Did strange occurrences happen often? Especially as someone who’s worked with Slayer and Slipknot.
The Slayer one brings a funny story to mind. I directed a movie called Still Reigning for the band and during the song “Reign in Blood” they wanted blood to rain down on the band. They’d been wanting to do this for 20 years, and what better time to have that dream come true than while filming this movie? So we hired the local Fire Department and filled two firetrucks full of stage blood and it went through an irrigation system above the band. It worked perfectly. Funny thing was the concert stage was built on top of an ice rink and the venue told us if one drop of blood hit the ice we’d have to pay to re-ice it. It’s a hockey rink! You have blood every night on that thing!
In terms of the newer generation of rock stars, what was it like shooting The Pretty Reckless?
That was at the Revolver Metal Awards. I was the house photographer for that show. [Taylor Momsen] is gorgeous! I wish I could have met her but I have not. She definitely has something special going on!
What was the most dangerous thing you experienced?
It wasn’t going up the Amazon River in bongo canoes. It wasn’t diving with giant white sharks. For that, I went with The Deftones for “My Own Summer.” We launched a six-man expedition out of Adelaide, Australia and went to this famous island where these famous sharks were supposed to be, but I came back with my tail between my legs because I didn’t even get to see one. Now I go once a year, every year, out of Ensenada, Mexico. I don’t even wait 15 minutes and I’ll be surrounded by sharks. This year will be my seventh year.
You also worked within hip-hop. Do any moments stand out to you?
I spent time in the recording studio with N.W.A. and will always remember their generosity towards charities and children. Eric [ Lynn Wright, a.k.a. Eazy-E] gave me the hat right off his head at the end of our album cover shoot for 5150: Home 4 tha Sick shoot.
What do you think about someone like Taylor Swift putting out something as epic as “Bad Blood”?
Well, she’s got the money for it, but I don’t know if Taylor Swift is going to call me to do her video. [Laughs.]
If she did, would you do it?
I would absolutely do it. I miss it. It was a fun art form. You could improvise and be spontaneous. It wasn’t as stuffy as doing advertising commercials where there’s so many people involved. You had a lot of freedom for true artistic expression. The last ones I did were maybe for Lisa Marie Presley and Evanescence.
Do you think the metal music genre has changed? From an outsider’s point of view, it seems like the most consistent and true to its roots.
Definitely. When bands get out and play live, the concerts are still going strong and the merchandise is selling like crazy. That’s pretty much the bread and butter for these bands today. I still go to a lot of metal festivals and camp with the civilians and meet fun people. First of all, I love going to the ones in Europe because nothing sizes up in attendance here in America, and they have a lot of them.
My favorite is probably Wacken in Germany, and Download is pretty good in England. I try to schedule it when there’s three in a week and I’ll take the train to hop from country to country.