David McGough

Image: Barbara Banks

Fame is today’s opiate of the masses, and few people have been closer to the source than David McGough. For more than 40 years, his camera lens was the prism through which images of the biggest stars flowed to newspapers and magazines around the world.

McGough, 60, has a new book, Fame, that features his photographs and stories of Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, Donald Trump, Michael Jackson and scores of other celebrities. He recently sat down in his waterfront home on Anna Maria Island to reflect on stardom, craft and getting attacked by Ryan O’Neal.

I grew up in New Jersey. My dad was a mathematician/engineer and my mother was a social worker. I was so upset about leaving my family the first day of kindergarten that my parents bought me a Brownie camera. I put it around my neck and went to school. I was fine after that.

Fame by David McGough

I wanted to be a painter, but rock and roll turned me into a photographer. The year I graduated high school I saw the Rolling Stones six times in six nights at Madison Square Garden. One night, I got backstage and saw fans with cameras who were meeting the band and taking pictures that were ending up in magazines. That planted the seed. I went to Pratt Institute in New York to study photography. My roommate worked at [the iconic music club] CBGB, so I went there all the time, seeing groups like Blondie and the Talking Heads. Then I started to branch out to movie and TV stars, politicians, anybody who was famous.

There are a billion photographers now, thanks to the iPhone. But to understand photography, you have to immerse yourself in exposing, developing and printing film. I lived in the darkroom. It was so competitive that I knew I had to set myself apart, and having dynamic prints was one way to do it. I’d be out late taking photographs, then come home and develop my film. While the film was drying, which took about two hours, I’d sleep. Then I’d wake up, make my prints and bring them to the offices of editors just as they were getting to work.

I clawed for everything. When I was just getting started, I read a story in the New York Post about John Lennon planning to record a comeback record at a studio in New York. I left a vacation with my parents and was waiting there the next day with my little black-and-white camera when a white limousine pulled up and John and Yoko Ono got out. I said, ‘Hi, John, can I take your picture?’ ‘You’ll have to ask mother,’ John replied, meaning Yoko. She gave the OK and I got my shot. The story about them being there had appeared in hundreds of thousands of issues of that newspaper. Any photographer could have shown up. But I was the only one who did. I sold the photo to the London Daily Mail for, I think, $100, the most I’d ever made from a photo. Then, two months later, John was killed, and Yoko refused to release any recent photos by John’s photographer to newspapers and magazines. Everyone wanted the latest images of John, and I was selling my photographs day and night.

I’m fascinated with fame. I have thousands of books on famous people. All the stories end the same way, terribly. People who strive for fame have no idea what they’re getting into. You think you are better than anyone else and are constantly being told that. Stars are famous for being beautiful, and seeing that beauty fade as they age is beyond cruel. I worked four years for Elizabeth Taylor late in her life. She was drunk most of the time. She was the queen of Hollywood, but she was a bitch. 

When I was getting started, I got attacked by Ryan O’Neal. I was taking a picture of him and Farrah Fawcett. Not long after, I picked up a newspaper and saw the headline, ‘O’Neal sues photographer for $750,000.’ I shit my pants. I was just a kid and didn’t know that was just a tactic they put out there for the press.  But I did not want to be a troublemaker, so I learned to get along with famous people, and that, I can tell you, is no easy thing.”   

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