In his Trinity Bellwoods studio Barrie Wentzell has reams and reams of negatives for photos stored away in a fire-safe box. Black and white images of rock and roll’s most legendary artists from 40 years ago, some of which even he hasn’t seen since the golden age in which they were taken.
As a photographer for the United Kingdom’s Melody Maker professional musician’s newspaper from 1965 to 1975 Wentzell photographed hundreds of musicians including Bob Dylan, Elton John, Jim Morrison, David Bowie and Johnny Cash.
Now, Wentzell has unearthed some rare and never before seen selections, which will be shown at Queen West’s Analogue Gallery in celebration of the space’s third anniversary.
In the 1960s, a young Wentzell was working for a photojournalist in England, printing his photos. On his downtime Wentzell would get passes to the BBC, concerts and shows, borrow his boss’s Leica camera and experiment with photography of his own.
“I just happened to be at Top of the Pops at the BBC and walked out into the bar and there was Diana Ross and the Supremes chatting to a reporter from the Melody Maker,” Wentzell recalled.
He sat down, asked if it would be okay to snap a few photos and Ross agreed. The interviewer suggested Wentzell drop a few of his shots into the Melody Maker, which he did. That photo ran on the front page of the paper with a credit, which was unusual in those days, Wentzell said. A week later he got a phone call from an editor at the paper asking if he wanted a gig shooting for the paper.
Wentzell loved the photojournalist style of photography like the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Eugene Smith and Dorothea Lange and he brought that perspective into his rock and roll photography.
“No one was really doing that,” Wentzell recalled while sitting in the Artscape studio he has lived in for the past 18 years.
Going on interviews and hanging out with the artists changed the experience of capturing images and made it more trusting, Wentzell explained. That, in turn, made his photographs more casual and captured the artists in their best light.
“We would stay for an hour or two sometimes,” he said. “When some of the artists like (Eric) Clapton and (Pete) Townshend started to get a bit richer, they would have little places in the country and we would go down to see them and spend all day listening to music, chatting and walking around.
“We were all a group of friends because everybody was starting out, everybody was helping everybody else,” Wentzell said. “It was more like a family affair really.”
While working at Melody Maker, Wentzell had to have his shots from the previous weekend in by Monday morning for his weekly deadline.
“I was quickly printing and didn’t even have time to really look through them so I just picked a few and then put the rest away,” he said.
“That was the thing about using real film – everything got captured. Maybe something got clipped out because it was out of focus but you would keep everything.”
Some of the contact sheets show shots he doesn’t even really remember doing after shooting five to ten people a week, plus concerts in the evenings.
“It was like a 10-year party, there was so much happening and you would get invited here and there,” Wentzell said. “At that time, everybody was just starting off, everybody was young and everybody hadn’t really made it yet apart from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and The Who.”
He shot for Melody Maker for 10 years then left the business and went off to do something completely different – working in his brother’s vegetable shop in the Isle of Wight.
“I wasn’t in it for the money, I was in it for the fun of it and when the fun seemed to be going in 1975, things were getting big and silly and outrageous... so I said screw this, I’m leaving,” he said. “No regrets.”
He moved to Toronto 30 years ago after falling in love with the city while here visiting an old girlfriend.
“I only saw the centre of the city, it was covered in snow and you would turn on the radio and all of this music was going on,” he said. “The thing that most impressed me was that (Pierre) Trudeau was in power and he was a friend of Lennon, and the people seemed really friendly.”
He likened Toronto in the 1980s to what he suspected London could have become had it carried on the same path it was on in the late 60s and early 70s.
“It is a country more run by the people, it’s people power, which was the dream of the 60s and Lennon’s vision of everybody working together,” he said. “That impressed me when I first came over.”
So he returned to England, pulled together the necessary papers and immigrated to Canada.
He said he appreciated the unity in diversity Ontario offered. He added he found Canada to be almost apolitical in nature, which he appreciates because it balances the public, corporate and political interests.
“It had a great vibe and it still is. It is the best place to live on the planet,” he said.
“I have never met so many creative people since I have been here; it is this amazing hive of creative energy with nowhere to go with it.”
It wasn’t until about 12 years ago he started to get requests from people for copies of his old photos.
He started to dig some of his pictures out and Wentzell said that was when he realized the pictures still worked.
“It didn’t really matter to me who I was photographing, I always tried to put people in their best light,” he said. “It is really cool to look back through stuff because it brings back memories,” he said.
Between books, compilations, albums and personal collections there is a large demand for Wentzell’s photos.
“Eventually I will get it together to do a book, which is in the works,” Wentzell said.
For its third anniversary, Analogue Gallery, which represents Wentzell in Toronto, is curating an exhibition of never-before-seen images from Wentzell’s archive.