Focus on Rock
New exhibit celebrates the work of rock-n-roll photographer Pat Johnson

By AaronTassano

In the 1966 film “Blow-Up” by Michelangelo Antonioni, a flamboyant photographer lures two models to his studio for a session. He photographs them so provocatively, so passionately, the three inevitably end up on the floor, entangled in a maze where naked bodies and studio equipment become.

In contrast, there’s San Mateo resident, Pat Johnson, a guy with a camera from that fashion capital known as Cleveland.

Johnson, 47, moved to the Bay Area because it was a cool scene. In 1974, he took his camera to a Santana concert at Winterland and snapped Neil Schon, guitarist from a then-unknown band that opened the show, playing its first concert ever.

Johnson liked the photo. The guitarist for Santana liked it. Journey’s Schon really liked it.

Twenty five years later, the same blue-collar photographer is showing his work in an exhibit that opened Friday at ArtRock Gallery n San Francisco. The show features nearly 100 portraits of subjects including David Bowie, James Brown, The rolling Stones, Tupac Shakur and Grace Slick.

I consider myself one of the luckiest guys on earth,î says Johnson. “Most photographers want to be fashion photographers or rock photographers ñ but you tend to fall into weddings or whatever’s available.”

The press notes refer to the show, and to Johnson himself as “San Francisco’s best kept secret.” That’s not because he thinks he should be more famous than he is, but because the public hasn’t seen many photos in the exhibit.

Johnson doesn’t sell photos to people unless he was contracted by them to take the pictures. “To try and hustle bucks off something I was doing for someone else just isn’t how I do it,î says Johnson.

He’s not one to kiss and tell, but he has many great stories about the acts he’s photographed. Thereís one where Dennis Wilson turns into Charles Manson after smoking a joint, and another where Bowie talked to him about music biz travails at an industry dinner.

While touring around with The Jacksons in 1975, Johnson calls Michael one of the nicest, most unpretentious guys I’ve ever metî ñ he found himself I a dilemma after taking a fantastic, but ethically questionable, shot.

We go to Haight Street and it just so happens there ís thousands of fans out there. There were so many people pushing, a bunch of kids fell through a plate glass window,î says Johnson.

The window just exploded and there ís blood everywhere, kids crying. I took 10 pictures and I could have turned around and sold them to People magazine or the Chronicle and made a lot of money. You know, Thë Jacksons cause a Riot sort of thing, he says, imitating a headline.

But I didnít. I just put them in my file and forgot about them.

Johnson describes his studio not so much as a workplace, but as its own entity with its own personality, which plays as much a role in his work as he does.

People visiting the studio often are surprised to find pinball machines, hand puppets and memorabilia rather than film equipment, carpeted risers and toxic smells.

It ís my version of Pee-Weeís Playhouse.í It ís a fun and relaxed sort of like a rec room. They relax and we have fun, says Johnson. They’re supposed to catch the love I have for what I’m doing and they usually do.

Johnson would like to do another exhibition someday. In addition to photos of musicians, he has some sports shots and comedian portraits. He is also writing a book about his experiences.

Meanwhile, he has a Web site : – that showcases some of his work.

I’m not a star hanger-arounder. I don’t go to groovy places and hand out business cards. I don’t try and hang out with these guys. I’d rather coach my daughter in the San Mateo girls fast-pitch league.