You can always hear music in Steve Hiett’s photography. You can definitely hear the music on the cover of his solo debut, Down On The Road By The Beach. Heavily saturated with color, mesmerizingly flash-lit, and warmly off-center, this image was like an Edgar Degas painting come to life – albeit one fashioned with Miami’s South Beach in mind. That image, an Elle Française snapshot taken from his Japanese-released photo book also titled “Down On The Road By The Beach”, was intensely-colored Modernism as Pop Art. On Down On The Road By The Beach were those blues, heavily saturated (a trademark of Steve), within and outside the album. We may not know it, but modern, as in at this moment, fashion, and editorial photography owes a lot to the techniques Steve Hiett pioneered in the late 70s and 80s. Yet on this album cover, you’re getting just a peek at his talent.
One time, a long time ago, this Englishman, began his life enamored by painting, graphic design, and music. In the late ‘60s, a stint at the Royal College of Art led him to try his luck as a psych-rocker for the band Pyramid. When he was nearly electrocuted to death due to some equipment issue, nearly immobile, he stumbled his way into taking photos backstage at early Jimi Hendrix concerts to keep himself involved somehow in the music industry. One thing led to another, and his photographic style and images, which were excitingly different (due to his unique use of flash), caught the eye of glam magazines like Vogue Paris, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, and so many more. A rocker taking pictures, in the way only a musician could, rightfully found a new lease on creative life by taking images that foretold a future filled with overly-saturated colors of not-quite-so still life.
His music, that first love, though, you’ll be pleased to know, was equally as pioneering and deserved in discovering. In the early 80s, Steve, somehow found himself moored in Japan with the opportunity of a lifetime: make music again. Exposing his musical ideas to the members of pioneering Japanese band Moonriders and wayward, American, ex-Steely Dan guitarist Elliott Randall, together they’d fashion what I’ll dub “spiritual surf music” (with two tracks recorded in the US, 1 in Paris, and the rest in Tokyo). Together, on Down On The Road By The Beach, they’d stumble upon the zeitgeist of Japan’s peak musical days.
It was Chuck Berry, The Beach Boys, Booker T. and the MG’s, Steve’s favorite joyous, teen music of his past, put through a new filter of their own making. In the meditative moments, you can hear the ghosts of The Everly Brothers, The Ventures, and Roy Orbison conjuring a new spectral musical rumination. In the macro moments, it was Japanese-American-English mellow music meeting together through grafted on, experimental limbs be they City-Pop, AOR, jazz-fusion, or Durutti Column-esque minimalism. In spirit, it was Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk” reincarnated in, via abstraction.
Down On The Road By The Beach, would feature dueling bluesy, minimalist guitars drenched in reverb and tremolo, electronic synthesizers toying with environmental music, and Steve’s weightless, cirrus-like vocals floating above heavily meditative, wind-swept nostalgia. The album itself would feature gorgeous photos depicting the spectrum of summer living. Anticipation, jubilation, agitation, rumination, and liberation. We all want summer to go on forever but eventually even that idea becomes too much to bear. There’s only so much heat we can take, and the world is better off for that reason. It’s that gorgeous rumination clearly heard here. It’s no wonder that Sony’s AOR City 1000 imprint just saw fit to reissue this once, little known gem in late August 2017. This was made to be truly appreciated at the end of summer.
In the end, my favorite track “By The Pool” paints the picture better than anything anyone else can say. And today, I sure as hell won’t even try to compete with that. Though, I do hope with this reissue, finally Steve gets his wish to talk more about his music…
Before picking up the camera in the late ’60s, you studied graphic design at the Royal College of Art Graphic Design in London. What is the relationship for you between a photograph and other art mediums?
I don’t think of myself as “a photographer.” I think of myself as someone who uses the camera to create images that I see in my head. Clearly, since I’m using a camera and I’ve made my living out of it, I am technically a photographer, but photography for me is just another medium, and the camera is just another tool that I like to use to create things I see in my head, or things I hear. Sometimes I even feel that it’s a bit fraudulent to say I’m a photographer, a bit guilty, like I’m masquerading. I am one of course, but in a way it’s one of a few things I do. I have other tools I use, I have my music, and my graphics — so you see I’m really an image-maker more broadly, I like images in general.
Actually, a lot of great photographers were originally painters or graphic designers. I think to be a great photographer, you have to bring something else to the medium. Cartier-Bresson wanted to be a painter, Irving Penn wanted to be a painter. A lot of great photographers from the ’60s were actually art directors first, who suddenly saw that it wasn’t too difficult to become a photographer, like William Klein, he was a painter. These photographers brought something else to their work in photography, another understanding of the visual world, and they used the camera to extend ideas they had had as a painter.
- Steve Hiett, excerpt from interview with The Cut