Every Friday night, Pat Johnson plays catcher on his neighborhood softball team, the Phantoms. Until the publication of his new book, “Blue Collar Photographer,” none of his teammates knew what he did for a living. They had no idea that he was one of the Bay Area’s most respected and accomplished rock photographers, the man behind iconic photos of many of the biggest stars in popular music, from Journey and Jerry Garcia to Bonnie Raitt and David Bowie.
And that’s the way the 71-year-old likes it. Longtime Bay Area music writer Joel Selvin, who wrote the book’s introduction, came up with the title, and it couldn’t be more on target for a modest journeyman who still thinks of himself as a working stiff from the wrong side of the tracks in Cleveland.
“I’m not a guy who blows his own horn,” he says. “I’m not the kind of guy who says, ‘Look at me. Look what I did.’ I don’t really do that.”
A retrospective of his 45-year career, “Blue Collar Photographer” features 208 pages of his best work in color and black and white. There’s a smoke-shrouded Grace Slick, Yoko Ono silhouetted by a full moon, a moody portrait of the late Mill Valley guitar slinger John Cipollina, the Doobie Brothers fronted by a leaping Sammy Hagar, who calls Johnson “a badass behind the lens.”
Johnson may not be as well known as, say, Rolling Stone’s Annie Leibovitz or San Francisco’s legendary Jim Marshall, but in the tight community of Bay Area rock everyone knows who Johnson is. He’s a popular figure recognizable by his soul patch and a newsboy hat worn backwards that is sometimes replaced by a Cleveland Indians baseball cap.
‘Like the wedding photographer’
As the official photographer for the gone-but-not-forgotten Bay Area Music Awards (Bammies) in the 1980s and early ’90s, when we were exporting some of the biggest bands in the business (Huey Lewis and the News, the Jefferson Starship and Metallica), Johnson worked in a studio he had built beside the stage, where he shot group photos of musicians and celebrities who likely would never be in the same place at the same time again. For example, Garcia and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead alongside Huey Lewis, Sheila E. and Joe Montana. Or the late Bill Graham at the center of a galaxy of stars that included John Fogerty, Chris Isaak, Neil Young and Todd Rundgren.
“On those evenings, Pat was at the center of the San Francisco rock scene,” Selvin writes, describing Johnson as being “like the wedding photographer” for what was then Bay Area rock’s biggest party.
At about the same time, he became the photographic ringmaster of B.R. Cohn Winery’s once annual charity concert and golf tournament in Sonoma County, capturing images of rock stars having fun on the stage and on the links. As Tower of Power’s Lenny Williams says in a blurb for the book, Johnson’s pictures turned “moments into memories.”
A college dropout who had fallen in love with photography in high school, Johnson left his native Cleveland in the winter of 1971-’72 to visit a friend in San Francisco. He never went back. It was around 5 degrees above zero in Cleveland and 72 in San Francisco, so it wasn’t a hard decision.
He was working in a custom photo lab when he met and became friends with Doug Rauch, then the bassist for Santana. Rauch invited him to be his guest at Santana’s 1973 New Year’s Eve show at Winterland. It would turn out to be a night that would change Johnson’s life and launch his career.
“I was a 22-year-old kid from Cleveland and Santana was like a god, especially then,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe my name would even be on the guest list, but it was.”
As fate would have it, the opening act that night was new band named Journey, which Johnson and hardly anyone else had heard of. He was there to shoot Santana, but during the evening he just happened to snap a few stage shots of this little-known group. His photos ended up being shown to Journey’s manager, the late Herbie Herbert, who raved about one of Johnson’s shots of Journey guitarist Neal Schon. One thing led to another, and Herbert hired Johnson to be the band’s personal photographer.
“That’s literally how it started,” Johnson remembers. “By accident.”
Four decades later, that fateful photo that Johnson snapped of Schon, his corona of hair backlit by orange stage lights, was flashed on a screen behind the band when Journey was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017.
Although he got his start shooting a rock concert, he’s built his reputation as a top studio photographer with a knack for putting his subjects at ease. His heroes are studio giants such as Richard Avedon and Francesco Scavullo.
“In the studio, you’re in control,” he says. “I have a style. It’s probably the edginess or something. I can’t describe it. But whatever style I have is my own.”
Over the decades, Johnson, who lives in San Mateo, has been a successful commercial photographer, shooting for record labels, radio stations and fashion companies. He’s done more than 300 album covers. In one decade, 1980 to 1990, he shot 1,300 bands, from famous groups to aspiring rockers. But he was never one to hang out in clubs or with rock stars and their entourages, preferring to do his work and go home to his wife of more than 40 years, Denise, who died a decade ago.
“I’m so glad I did that,” he says. “I don’t regret a minute of it. I believe this with all my heart: If you’re honest and you’re sincere, good things will happen.”
“Blue Collar Photographer” is available for $27.50 at patjohnson.com.
Contact Paul Liberatore at firstname.lastname@example.org