Cleveland Native Pat Johnson Talks About His New Book of Rock Photos
The photographer’s week-long book tour comes to Northeast Ohio later this month
By Jeff Niesel on Mon, Apr 3, 2023
Photographer Pat Johnson has fond memories of growing up in Cleveland. Johnson, who lived in Brookpark and went to Midpark High School, learned photography from his high school teacher before moving to San Francisco in 1971 and pursuing a career as a commercial photographer.
Johnson’s storied photography career includes an emphasis on rock ’n’ roll. He served as the official shooter for the Bay Area Music Awards (Bammies) and Sonoma’s B.R. Cohn Fall Music Festival. He’s also had a long professional and personal association with the rock band Journey. His photography has appeared in Rolling Stone, People, Time and Billboard as well as on many CD and album covers, including releases by Elvin Bishop, Journey, Ian Hunter and UFO.
“Growing up in Brookpark was really cool,” Johnson says via phone from his Bay Area home. Johnson comes to Cleveland later this month on a book tour to support Blue Collar Photographer, his new book of photos (the various dates of his appearances are listed at the end of this article). “I’ve lived here in San Francisco for over 50 years, but I still have dear friends there. Everyone here associates me with Cleveland. When I was a kid, I was a music nut. I still have [Cleveland] bands like the Tree Stumps and the Choir in my brain. I didn’t play music, but I went to all the bars because I had a fake ID when I was 16. I would watch the local bands.”
Johnson’s only rock photos from Cleveland include a shot he took of the Rolling Stones from “up in the balcony” and a photo of Sonny and Cher from a WIXY 1260 AM event that took place in 1966.
After dropping out of Ohio University, where he majored in photography, he decided to move to San Francisco. He wasn’t planning to become a photographer, but he got a job at a photo lab and that led to another job at a photo lab. He became friend with Doug Rauch, the bassist in the second iteration of Santana. He helped Rauch buy camera equipment, and Rauch invited him to see Santana play at Winterland on New Year’s Eve in 1973.
“I was a 22-year-old kid from Cleveland, and Santana was a god to me,” says Johnson. “I was flabbergasted. I got my Hasselblad and borrowed a lens from my boss. Me and my late wife went there. I didn’t even expect my name to be on the list. I went there just take pictures of Santana. The opening act was a band called Journey. No one had ever heard of them. I looked up and took four pictures of [guitarist] Neal Schon and then proceeded to shoot a million photos of Santana. Later, Doug comes into my lab, and I show him the pictures of Santana, and he sees the one shot of Neal Schon and goes, ‘Oh my God.’”
Rauch took the photo to Journey’s manager, who hired Johnson to be the band’s official photographer. Johnson did the group’s first band photos in his living room and opened his studio in San Francisco in 1978.
“Most photographers would give their right arm to shoot Journey, and my first studio shot was Journey,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was doing, but that was my first studio shot, and I got some good shots.”
In fact, when Journey was inducted into the Rock Hall, they came onto to the stage with a Johnson photo in the background.
Johnson says he chose to self-publish book of photos because he thought a commercial publisher would take too long to publish the book. Joel Selvin, the rock critic for the San Francisco Chronicle for many years, wrote the introduction.
“I hired an editor, and she worked indirectly with Joel, and they put it together,” says Johnson. “There were 17 photos that I had to have in it. One is Roy Rogers, who is a great friend and a legendary slide guitarist. He’s one of my best buddies and played at my book release party out here. I also wanted Bone Thugs N Harmony because they’re Cleveland. A lot of who I am as a person has to do with Cleveland. It’s that ‘fuck you’ mentality.”
He says he looks forward to coming home for his week-long book tour.
“My best friend from growing up, contacted some of the libraries, and they said, ‘Yes,’” he says. “For me, it’s just been a job. I usually don’t talk about myself like this. The guys on my softball team don’t know about all this. I’m not that guy who just likes to talk about himself. I’m still just a Clevelander at heart. I was the Golden State Warriors photographer, but I still rooted for the Cavs. You can’t shake the Cleveland out of me.”