To understand just how resourceful and adventurous Robert Knight is, you have to cast your mind back to a time before the web connected everyone and everything, a time when there was far more mystery in the world. Information was random and scarce, and one’s whole life direction could be determined by a chance finding.
Knight was 16 and exploring in Waikīkī one day in 1965 when he came across some music magazines left behind by British tourists. The son of a Baptist minister, he’d grown up in Honolulu’s Pālolo valley, forbidden to watch movies and listen to rock music—not that there was much rock music in Honolulu in those days, with the airwaves full of the Kingston Trio and Jan & Dean. Knight pored over the magazines and their pictures of strange-looking people with long hair and musical instruments, and then he sent away to an address in the back for some albums. When the discs arrived, he got permission to play them at lunchtime over the PA at his high school in Kaimukī: bands like the Pretty Things, very early Who, fledgling Rolling Stones. The Stones came out and played the Honolulu International Center, and when Knight snuck out and saw them, he knew he had to get to England. But how?
Less of a problem than you might think. The enterprising teenager was already a travel agent: He’d found some airline guides in an alley behind a Kāhala travel agency one day, studied them and come up with an itinerary that would fly him all over the United States first class for the price of coach. “Impossible,” said the agent when Knight went in. The teenager pulled out the guides, explained how it was done, and the agent offered him a job on the spot. Which is how, not long after the Stones headed home, Knight flew (first class) to London after telling his parents he was going to spend the summer in Portland with his grandmother.
The city was a dream of music and adventure. The director Michelangelo Antonioni was there making Blow-Up, a film that featured the Yardbirds, a band Knight worshipped for its guitar players, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Antonioni’s movie told the story of a photographer; watching it back in Honolulu, Knight thought, “I can do that.” He caddied for a year until he had enough money to buy a Nikon camera and three lenses—only then, he felt, could he call himself a photographer. He began shooting, fashion mostly, but his parents urged him to get into college if for no other reason than to avoid the draft. Inspired by Bill Graham’s 1968 summer concert lineup at the Fillmore West in San Francisco, Knight enrolled (alongside classmate Annie Leibovitz) at the San Francisco Art Institute. But he was rarely in school. His education came in the clubs and the halls, the ballrooms and the arenas. The first concert he shot at the Fillmore was Jeff Beck, followed by the Who, Jethro Tull, Santana. The first image for which he got paid was a shot used to advertise a Grateful Dead concert at the Avalon Ballroom; it paid $50, a month’s rent. He shot Led Zeppelin in Los Angeles and San Francisco, then met up with the band in Honolulu. Knight stayed in his home city all through the ’70s, and local promoters gave him carte blanche to shoot musicians who came through town. One month it was Ike and Tina Turner; the next, Cat Stevens; the next, Alice Cooper. It was the age before 24/7 celebrity, mega-security and cell phones, and all of the work took place in a fluid, easy haze of creation. “I had no restrictions on me when I shot,” Knight remembers. “I could shoot onstage, offstage, backstage.”
In the ’80s Knight headed out into the world to work as a travel and advertising photographer—that was where the money was, not in music, which had always been more of an avocation than a career (“a god-send in retrospect,” Knight says, “because now I own all my stuff”). But rock was hardly through with Knight. In 1985 a chance conversation led to an ongoing gig shooting hundreds of portraits of guitarists for Guitar Center. Knight has toured as a photographer with Aerosmith, Def Leppard and Journey. He founded Brotherhood of the Guitar to support young guitarists. He married a distinguished rock photographer in her own right, Maryanne Bilham; Bilham’s a Kiwi, and she and Knight now split their time between Auckland and Las Vegas. In Auckland the pair have just launched Anthology Lounge, a club that showcases their photography and features musicians from throughout New Zealand and beyond. Knight is delighted and excited that life has led him back to Polynesia. Says the man who has already watched so many unknowns transform into icons: “New Zealand is a hotbed for young artists.” HH