ELMHURST – Rock 'n' roll photographer Paul Natkin claims he doesn't know what he's going to say when he speaks next week at the Elmhurst Historical Museum.
Work spanning Natkin's long career is currently on display at the museum, and whatever comes out of his mouth will undoubtedly be an incredible story.
"I never got into this business to be – I guess you call it famous," he said casually. "Now, I'm the guy with the really great stories."
From touring with the Rolling Stones to working as Brian Wilson's road manager, Natkin has seen more than most can imagine. Still, the "Shutter to Think: The Rock & Roll Lens of Paul Natkin" exhibit surprised its namesake.
"Usually when I do an exhibit someone says, 'Here's four walls put up your best pictures,'" Natkin said.
This time, Natkin was asked to pick out photos that span his entire career – a task that reminded him how he's refined his craft through the years and through different subjects. Before he shot rock legends, he photographed the Chicago Bulls, like his father.
"I don't think people are going to get any profound thoughts about it," said Natkin. "I just take pictures of rock and roll stars. It's not like I'm creating a cure for cancer."
Patrice Roche, marketing and communications specialist for the museum, gives Natkin and his work more credit. She believes music, and rock 'n' roll in particular, is a valuable part of modern history.
"You can almost hear the music," Roche said about Natkin's photos.
The museum's display differs from his usual exhibits in more than just size. The exhibit follows his life's work like a story, with interactive opportunities for visitors. Roche explained that live music demonstrations and performances by the Elmhurst School of Rock staff and students add an important level to how people experience the exhibit.
"It's been a real inter-generational experience," said Roche.
While some visitors may remember seeing Peter Townshend or Bruce Springsteen in concert, the School or Rock house band musicians, ages 11 through 18, were not even alive when Natkin shot many of his most iconic photos. The decades old music, however, continues to thrive. Jamiel Dado, School of Rock's general manager, said many of his students begin class already as rock 'n' roll fans.
"It was my whole childhood," said Dado about growing up with rock music.
He loves sharing his passion with students, and watching them enjoy that same music as he does today.
Natkin, who claims to wear ear plugs to many of the concerts he shoots today, is thankful that esteem for rock music continues to transcend generations. Although his own work proves exceptional, he doesn't say the same about his profession as a whole.
"I think the world today doesn't appreciate photography," said Natkin.
He believes that today, a good photo doesn't cost anything. With digital photography, people can snap thousands of photos at a single concert and pick out the best ones later.
When Natkin began taking photos in 1971, every shot literally cost him film and money. Without the luxury of endless opportunities, he learned to anticipate what he refers to as "decisive moments."
He studied his subjects and continues to do so today. He reads dozens of magazines every week learning about the musicians he is going to photograph so he doesn't miss the great shot, and if need be, he knows how to make it happen.
Natkin remembers approaching rapper Chuck D before a Public Enemy show. The two scheduled a song where Chuck and rapper Flavor Flav would stand near each other, because Natkin knew the clock-wearing hypeman would never do so otherwise.
One decisive moment Natkin never misses is the jump. No self-respecting rock musician climbs atop a speaker, riser or any other object solely for the glory of towering over his bandmates.
"The only way to look cool is to jump down," said Natkin.
One of his favorite photos, though, isn't an action shot. It's a portrait of Keith Richards holding a lit cigarette in one hand and flicking Natkin off with the other. The two used to talk blues music backstage before concerts while they shot pool.
Natkin describes the memories so casually, a listener can imagine he speaks the same way to the stars he photographs. While he's proud of his work and admires much of the music made by the rockers in his photos, his job is no career for a swooning fan.
"You can't get starstruck," he said very matter of fact.