A brand new photographic gallery exhibition at the Steam Cafe Bar will be open until 31 March.

Legends of Rock is an exciting new exhibition of exclusive photography spanning over three decades of music history, including many unpublished and previously unseen images. The exhibition, which launched in the centre of Bristol on 14 February 2016, is curated by new, Bristol-based business, Paper Gods.

Phil Nicholls, originally from Cornwall, studied at Falmouth School of Art and Bath Academy of Art.  He joined Melody Maker music magazine in 1985 and soon secured a reputation as an iconic, gritty rock photographer with a focus on live rock music documentary.

Starting out as a somewhat naive, wide-eyed photography student, Phil grew up on a diet of John Peel records over the airwaves, reaching him in the darkest depths of Cornwall.  This would act as a catalyst to his own creativity and developed within him, an enduring dedication to the art of live music.  Through his adoration of music, he ultimately carved a highly successful career as a live photographer.

“Can you imagine? Growing up in Cornwall in a tiny fishing village where John Peel was my lifeline. During my art school days, the music scene in the 80s was just so optimistic. Looking back, I was so naïve to go and knock on a stage door and ask if I can take photos of Echo & The Bunnymen.”  Phil recalls.

Phil took a few risks and learned to forge his own path, based out of sheer perseverance.  Given a slight leg up by his college tutors, who wrote him a glowing recommendation, Phil jumped at the opportunity to photograph some of his personal idols, including the late Jake Drake-Brockman who studied at Bristol Old Vic and worked in band The Hook ‘Em Boys, alongside members of Massive Attack, Goldfrapp, Spiritualised and Portishead.

“My tutors wrote a note, saying that I was their best photography student.  I was a bit of a music fanatic, I was 20 years old.  I opened the letter they had written, on the train.  So I went to Liverpool and knocked on the stage door. I was introduced to a chap Jake Brockman who lived in Bristol, the fifth member of the band, and they said they would make an exception and let me on stage to shoot them.”  Phil says.

“I worked with the Pixies on and off, and I was lucky enough to be on their first UK tour. Bowie was a great fan.”

It all snowballed from here.  Phil would go on to accompany the Pixies on their first ever UK tour in support of Throwing Muses, with his portraits becoming legendary in their own right.

Pixies on their first UK tour © Phil Nicholls.

Pixies on their first UK tour © Phil Nicholls.

“I worked with the Pixies on and off, and I was lucky enough to be on their first UK tour.  Just being there was fabulous. Bowie was a great fan. I took some pictures of both bands (Pixies and Throwing Muses) all together, we mixed them up into one big super group.”  Phil says.

Phil has always maintained a rapport with the artists he photographs, and appreciates this time to get to know each person individually as opposed to treating them as ‘subjects’ for public voyeurism.

“If you’re with an artist and you’re travelling with them, you spend time with them, you start to get more intimate work, and you get to see something very different.  They’re just people but sometimes it feels like something that happened to someone else. I can look back on some fabulous moments.”  Phil adds.

This exhibition brings Phil’s seminal photographs out into the light from the archives, and will feature some of the most breath-taking and intimate images of music legends. The exhibition will include shots of: Joe Strummer, Björk, Leonard Cohen, Massive Attack, Marc Almond, RUN DMC, Amy Winehouse, The Prodigy, The Pixies, and the late great Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead.

Amy Winehouse at Louisiana, Bristol (2003).

Amy Winehouse at Louisiana, Bristol (2003) © Phil Nicholls.

The exhibition will also feature some remarkable early, never-before-seen images of Bobby Gillespie, lead singer of 6 Music Festival headliners, Primal Scream.

Phil got to know Amy Winehouse when she played in Bristol at the Louisiana in 2003.  The connection they made, though fleeting, proved that ultimately it is the genuine human condition that inextricably weaves us together, and comfort can be found in simply spending time with one another:

“When Amy Winehouse played in Bristol at the Louisiana, I was able to spend time with her, to get to know her backstage.  To really talk to her, spend a bit of time together – that really counts.”  Phil recalls.

“It’s almost like living with a pack of wolves – they get used to your scent.”

Although, in Phil’s experience of working as a photographer, particularly in the live music sphere, the ethos has changed and altered the relationship between both venues, promoters, the artists themselves and the photographers, Phil entered the industry at a time when it seemed that anything was possible, and his forthcoming gallery exhibition at Bristol’s Steam Cafe Bar will show the culmination of his efforts:

“In general, I’ve always been really lucky. I always get on well with people. You’ve got to make a connection immediately, and I’m an easy-going sort of person.  I’ve had artists that I’ve worked with and built up trust and continue to work with over a few years – Boy George was one – as his portrait photographer.”  Phil says.

Clearly, the dynamic existing between artist and audience is changing, with social media opening up the dialogue and breaking down those barriers which might have existed, serving to elevate an artist to iconic status, through the various music press.  Phil’s photographs, though available online, capture the essence of a moment that has long since passed.  A memory, a frozen point in time, and for that reason, they still retain a sense of mystique.  Yet, social media inevitably changes everything:

“I think the barriers are broken down nowadays. But there are people who keep their lives private – David Bowie is someone who still retained that God-like essence.  But social media does bring everyone to the fore – you can follow them and you know what they are doing day to day.  We used to wait every week to get a copy of Melody Maker, or go to a gig and wait a week to read about it. There are pro’s and con’s of the whole thing.”  Phil comments.

Phil is currently working with Gloucester band Erica, who headlined at the Paper Gods launch event on 14 February.

“To spend time is the best way to really get to know people. I’m spending time with Erica in the recording studio. It’s almost like living with a pack of wolves – they get used to your scent.”  Phil says.

Limited edition prints on display – marked as the first of the collection and signed by the individual photographer – will be available to order on the day and will be delivered complete with a certificate of authenticity. They will be strictly limited edition.

Paper Gods aim to extend the weekend’s celebration of music by honouring some of the biggest and best stars of music history. Live music will include headlining band, Erica, The Dead Astronaut and Stephanie Kirkham (artist and successful musician based in Cornwall).  Starting at 5pm, by invite only, guests to the launch party are encouraged to peruse the gallery, sample a specially made Paper Gods Vodka courtesy of Curio Spirits, indulge in one or two free canapés, then kick back to enjoy an evening of live music.

There are also future plans for a new art studio on the top floor of Steam Cafe Bar – ‘Hive’ is a works in progress and will fully utilise the in-house print works facilities within the building, meaning that artists can see their work through to the final stages including exhibiting their work.  Their exhibitions will be needs-based, and not necessarily involve a long waiting list.


For more information on Phil Nicholls:  www.philnicholls.co.uk