By: Sienna Russell-Edwards
Dee Lippingwell is a Vancouver-based photographer known for her dynamic concert photography. Active as far back as the 1970s, Lippingwell has photographed some of the most legendary musicians of all time including Queen, David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and many more. She has received Canada’s Famous Woman award and has also been inducted into the BC Country Music Hall of Fame for her photographic contributions. Additionally, she has published two books, Best Seat In The House and First Three Songs No Flash filled with her concert photography and stories. Her work can be found at deelippingwell.com.
How did you start concert photography and make it into a career?
“Well, it started as a hobby. I took photos my whole life, and [that came together with] my love of music. I went to all the concerts, and every time I went to a concert, I would think: ‘gee, I should’ve brought my little camera and taken a picture just for my own memories.’ Of course, this is the time when you could go and see the Rolling Stones for $6.50, and the Who and Led Zeppelin played in town. It was the best time for music, it was 1972. We were just inundated with all this wonderful, wonderful music. I actually got a taste of show business when one of our concerts for Led Zeppelin was cancelled here in Vancouver because the Rolling Stones had played a couple of weeks before them. There had been a riot outside the Coliseum. The mayor cancelled the Led Zeppelin show, so their manager and their promoter here managed to secure an open date in Seattle. We found out about this and all had tickets to go but we had no form of transportation to get down there. So, I phoned up a radio station and said how do we get to the concert, and the disc jockey at the time said, “Well, you could hire a bus.” The concert was three or four days away, and in that time I rented 6 buses. They thanked me on stage, and I had a little camera but of course we were too far away to take pictures, but the seed was planted. My brother had won tickets to see Pink Floyd in concert, I went with him and I took pictures. That was the start of it, I was hooked. I taught myself through Time-Life books how to print my pictures and develop them. I experimented, I basically am self-taught, because, well, I taught myself from books. When I started doing [photography] everybody said, oh, you have an eye. My grandfather always said I had an eye in the middle of my forehead. Before I started shooting bands, my favorite subjects were trees, so I went from something that doesn’t move at all to something that moves across the stage at great speeds. You soon realize it’s a choreographed dance that all the bands do, but don’t get me talking. I get excited about my career. It wasn’t supposed to be a career, it was supposed to be a hobby.”
What is your preferred method of photography or process to capture movement or powerful performance? How do you know what precise moment to shoot or are there many unused shots?
“Well, there’s no unused shots. I’ve known photographers that have four or five cameras or more with motor drives attached and just “click-click-click-click-click” and there are also people that go through negatives or digital images and pick out the best one. But no, I am old school. I couldn’t afford a motor drive or to process a bunch of pictures. I had to learn how to be patient and learn to let the music enter me. You know, you only have the first three songs if you’re in the pit, and so that’s about ten minutes. I know photographers that take 10 rolls of film, but then they get to look at them and most of them are blurry. I wait for my shots and I try to capture the essence of how they’re making me feel. Precise moment to shoot, that’s a really interesting question because I have a somewhat famous picture of Roger Daltrey swinging his microphone in the air and Peter Townshend has got his knees tucked up under him and he’s three feet off the stage. To capture that is something, right? I saw him do it once, and I knew he would have to do it again because it was such an awesome move. So, I did this automatic rewind in my brain to figure out what I’d seen before he did the jump. Then I saw him do it again, I pictured it in my mind, and click, I got it. It’s one of those moments in life you never forget.
What were some times you felt the most starstruck in your career?
“When I met Mick Jagger I discovered that I had cotton balls in my mouth. I couldn’t speak and my brain froze, and he laughed at me and walked away. I was in green room down in Seattle working for the Rock Express magazine out of Toronto. I had the new issue, and Mick was on the cover of the paper that I worked for. So, I came down from Vancouver with a whole bunch of these newspapers in my car, and I handed them all out. Because I was out of the country, they gave me special access backstage—although I did have to put my camera under lock and key when I was backstage. So, I am in the green room and I have these magazines and spread them out everywhere and have some in my arm. I see this gigantic fellow standing there with his arms crossed in the middle of the room. So, I go over to him and say: “Are you interested in this? Can I give you one?” He sort of looked at me funny and stepped to one side, and behind him Mick Jagger was sitting on the couch with his legs crossed. He was actually reading the newspaper! If I had my camera and got a shot of him reading the magazine it would’ve been a bonus for me. I said: ‘The article is really good!’ he looks and me and winks and goes: ‘I think it’s a bit cheeky.’ Then he got up and walked out, I was like: ‘Oh my…’ There’s some artists that just have an aura. They have this electricity around them, you can’t help but be star-struck sometimes.”
What is your opinion on the evolution of music and live performances since the 70s until now, do you find it has become more formulaic or stale because of advances in tech?
“I’m not shooting at all right now because of COVID, and even if it wasn’t [for COVID], I’ve really curtailed my concert shooting. Because now the shows are so large, there’s so many off-stages that the performers go. There might be a stage all the way in the middle or at the other end like U2 or Madonna. Pink, she flew in on aerial trapezes. Because they utilize so much area in coliseums, there’s no real place for the photographers to stand unless you work for TIME or Newsweek. So most photographers have to shoot from the soundboard, which is totally ridiculous. I’m spoiled, maybe, but I’m used to shooting in the pit. I’m used to having my own little space and not being jostled by other patrons. From the back of the facility where the soundboard is with my 300-millimetre lens, Madonna is two inches tall. They have to give me a milk carton to stand on so I can see over the patrons in front of me. So I just said: ‘no, I’m not doing this.'”
From your time engaging with artists backstage or offstage, Is there a big difference between some artist’s onstage persona and their backstage persona? Has someone specifically been very different or very similar?
“Oh, totally Alice Cooper. Vincent Furnier, I call him Vince, is just this easy-going, friendly, pleasant guy. Just this tall skinny guy. Until he goes on stage and he becomes Alice, and the difference is like day and night. I was doing some photos for Much Music, and Vince was the nicest guy, not freaky at all. I’ve been pretty fortunate, most of the artists I’ve had to deal with have been pretty nice. I haven’t encountered many artists that were really sweet onstage and really wicked offstage. I find actually that most artists are quite shy. David Bowie was very shy. They just let everything go onstage.”
What is the most memorable moment you’ve ever had at a concert?
“Every concert has some sort of memorable moment. Whether they sing a song that you know and it brings back a good memory, I’d say every concert I walk away feeling good. I’ve even worked with a pulled tendon in my ankle, I got roadies to carry me around. I was doing an outdoor concert in Edmonton, and on the way to the airport my heel got stuck in the ramp and the straightaway. My shoe and my foot stayed, and the rest of my body went. I was on crutches for a long time, but I had to go to this concert, so I had roadies carry me everywhere I wanted to go and sit me where I would shoot.”
How do you think being a woman in the career of rock concert photography is different from being a man in the same career? Did you experience any difficulties or things that were made easier because of it?
“When I first started my career, the male photographers thought I was a groupie. They hadn’t been confronted with a female photographer in the pit before. The men photographers stood to one side and said: ‘she’s just a groupie, she’s with the band, she’s got a pass’ or ‘security let her in, she must work for a Weekly or something, you don’t have to worry about her.’ It only took a couple of years before all those photographers were doing something else because they couldn’t make it in the business. I had to teach myself other forms of photography so I could make a living this way. I had to learn how to do lighting, posing and working with models, children, and pets. I really just wanted to be my own boss. I guess I wanted to prove these guys wrong, and I did. I’ve heard from several other female photographers that I was the one that paved the way for them to get into the business, and it makes me feel really good inside. The first time I heard that I almost cried.”
Where has your career taken you these days? What have you been working on recently?
“I’m doing a new photo book, 220 pages and probably 1000 pictures. I was the main photographer for 17 years at the Merritt Mountain Music Festival, which is a country music festival held in Merritt, BC. I liked the music, but I didn’t know any of the artists so I didn’t stay and watch the show. But as the years progressed, I got more and more interested. The festival ended in 2009, but I have all these photos so I’m putting together a book with 17 years of the Merritt Mountain Music Festival. I have all the old country stars like George Jones, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard. I also have the new people like Keith Urban. I shot Keith Urban before anyone even knew who he was. I’ve seen a lot of stars come and go. I’ve been working very hard on that for the past year because of COVID. I also have a little line of totes and T-Shirts that I sell on my website. I go speak at photography clubs and libraries and I have a slideshow where I tell my stories, people laugh and we have a good time.”