'I was so cocksure with Jimi': How rock photography pioneer Gered Mankowitz captured Hendrix and the cream of the 1960s

Gered Mankowitz wasn't yet 21 when his pictures captured London's groovers at their hippest. As the portraitist prepares to put his Hendrix archive on show, Nick Coleman meets the man who invented rock photography
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You will be familiar with Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs' 1960 pop-R&B hit "Stay". Of course you know it. It's one of the great teen-lust anthems. It judders a lot. It protests, not without vigour, that your mama won't mind and your daddy won't mind either. No, really. They won't. Not for the duration of one more dance. And a kiss. And, well...

"Oh won't you sta-a-ay," it pleads, "... just a little bit longer." There. Getting it now?

Perhaps you're thinking of the Jackson Browne version or the Four Seasons one or maybe the rip-snorting Lancastrian filibuster perpetrated by our own Hollies. Whichever you know best, try to hold that shuddering, plaintive, horny sound in your mind as you contemplate the following episode from the life of the photographer Gered Mankowitz.

"Stay" was the 14-year-old Mankowitz's favourite record and he just happened to be rocking along as it played on his parents' stereogram in the sitting-room of their home in Kent one Sunday morning in 1960. They were expecting important lunch guests: the great actor Charles Laughton and his wife, Elsa (Bride of Frankenstein) Lanchester. Gered's father, the author and screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz, was getting ready to mount a new London production of Ionesco's Rhinoceros and was attempting to cast the ailing but still imperious Laughton.

But still, it was Sunday morning. The front door had been left open to the sunshine and the house was billowing with the sound of Maurice Williams' unchained hormones. "Oh won't you STA-A-AY..." At which point Laughton rolled into the sitting-room like a Roman senator and bellowed "TURN THAT BLOODY NOISE OFF AND TELL YOUR FATHER THAT LAUGHTON IS HERE!"

This was not actually the moment in which Gered Mankowitz resolved to devote his life to the art of photographing famous musicians, but it was almost certainly the moment which decided that Mankowitz would never again be frightened of famous people.

Fast-forward seven years. Jimi Hendrix is catting around Mankowitz's photographic studio in Mason's Yard, Mayfair. The studio is sandwiched in a corner between the Scotch of St James club, which Hendrix has only recently reduced to a smoking rubble, metaphorically speaking, and Indica Gallery, which has just hosted the party at which Yoko Ono says she first met John Lennon. In 1967, Mason's Yard is what we'd now call a hub. It is the middle of the wheel where all the spokes of ultra-hip London meet, a place you go to hang out off-handedly while comparing credentials and clobber with everyone else. You cannot consider yourself to be happening unless you have Mason's Yard somewhere on your personal narrative. Gered is not yet 21.

In February 1967, Hendrix is absolutely the most happening thing in Mason's Yard – has been for all of the year so far and for the latter part of the previous one. He has freaked out every guitarist in London and outdressed everyone else. His part-African-American, part-Cherokee, part-Euro-American blood has made English blood cook with excitement at the mere thought of his proximity.

Hendrix stares blankly into the camera. He giggles at it. He puffs on a cigarette. Twists his mouth to exhale, narrowing his eyes against the cloud. He hunches. He slumps. The frogged English cavalryman's jacket that hangs from his shoulders describes a new geometry. He squares his feet, empties his eyes, puts his hands on his hips and gives the lens the opportunity to get its act together. Hendrix does everything but strike pop-star poses. But then he wouldn't. The last thing anyone wants to be taken for in early 1967 is a pop star, not if you're aspiring to true hipnitude.

"I didn't really think about this until recently, while I was preparing the exhibition and the book." Mankowitz is sitting perkily at a table in the back-room of a Piccadilly tearoom. It is now the long hot summer of 2010 and he is about to exhibit his Hendrix archive, some of it for the first time, in a gallery around the corner in Piccadilly Arcade. "But this was an absolutely fantastic time for Hendrix. He was enjoying all the attention. He seemed to be relishing that he was out in front. The Man. And he was really affected by the way London embraced him. Like all black American musicians at the time he'd been segregated at home on to the chitlin circuit or the back line [of the band], fined by Little Richard if he stole too much attention. And here he was in London, encouraged to express himself in whatever way he wanted, and everybody loved him. He was having a great time. It felt as if we were at the beginning of something..."

It was the beginning of several exciting things, including "rock" music and its artistic ancilliary, rock photography. Mankowitz had already been busy for a couple of years documenting the self-reinvention of the English pop star as a rock artist. Over that period, the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Who had discarded their showbiz-clone suits and haircuts and were now rock musicians, not pop stars, carefully dressing themselves to accentuate their individuality and to put as much distance between themselves and corporacy as possible. They did not differentiate between street clothes and stagewear; they had begun to be photographed less in studios and more on building sites and fire escapes, even hillsides. The casual, in-the-world "naturalistic" pose had displaced the organised studio group shot. Hair, fabric, splayed limbs, displaced attention, diffident eyes, all of it uncorralled, unkempt in spirit if not in detail – the syntax of the rock look.

All of that started quietly in 1964, perhaps most typically in Mankowitz's shoot with the thespy pop duo Chad & Jeremy, and reached an elegant apotheosis in early 1967 with the cover art of the Rolling Stones' Between the Buttons, shot on Primrose Hill one freezing morning through a filter of exhaustion and smeared Vaseline.

Mankowitz insists it was the Stones who crystallised his ideas. "I had always loved the Hollywood image – those great stills photographers of the 1930s and 1940s. And I loved the B-movie imagery of the 1950s. Pulp fiction. I used to do [covers for] Fontana paperback books in the later 1960s, the real pulp stuff – morbid corpses and glamorous girls with guns and Nazis... Like stills from really bad films. But I also loved the glossy stills of Elvis in the 1950s with the orange-peel complexion. Totally artificial. And I decided I wanted to be a bespoke image-maker for the music business in the style of the classic portraiture of before.

"Almost from the beginning of my music-photographic career I remember not liking the look of the Beatles. I'd heard them on the radio and was expecting to see something like Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs. But the Beatles turned out to look like Tommy Steele or Freddie and the Dreamers. The problem wasn't that they weren't black but they did look, well, rather showbiz. The shiny suits and ties. All that well-turned-out sharpness...

"But the Stones were different. There was a naughtiness to them. They wore suits very briefly, once, early on, but quickly reverted to their own clothes. They looked like individuals; like art students really, like real people – they had a sense of reality that spoke volumes in the context of their time.

"I don't remember ever getting a brief from [their manager] Andrew Loog Oldham, not until much later on. It was all instinct. I was full of bravado and thought I was the bee's knees, as did everyone else – we just had this shared feeling. There was nothing conceptual about it, just the coming together of a band that wanted to see themselves as individuals – and me, a very young photographer who wanted to be a serious portraitist by appointment to the music business. I simply wanted to express in photographs what the band were trying to express with their music.

"The same thing applied when I was put in touch with Hendrix by [his manager] Chas Chandler. Because I was so cocksure, I felt confident enough to say what I wanted to do. I wanted to present him as he was. He needed no enhancement. He was so overwhelmingly charismatic I didn't want him to do anything. I said I wanted to shoot in black-and-white, to present him with gravitas, because he seemed so serious about his music. I simply felt that black-and-white was more artistic, more atmospheric, more expressive. True." (Mankowitz pioneered "colourising" his old shots – "to create something new" – for a series of Hendrix CDs in Germany in the mid-1990s, and reworked the shot on page 29 specifically for the cover of his new book.)

Mason's Yard is still pretty much the same today as it was then, structurally speaking, except for the displacement of the public toilet by the new White Cube Gallery. High-summer morning rain is hanging in the air like fog, misting Mankowitz's glasses. He is pointing up at his old studio window, recalling his sessions with the quietly padding, whispering Hendrix. "You could hardly hear him," he says, not particularly wistfully.

It is not clear whether this reflection is in favourable contrast with his recollections of Charles Laughton, but it seems impolite to ask, somehow.

'Experience: Jimi Hendrix at Mason's Yard' (Insight Editions) is out on 18 September. The exhibition at Snap Gallery, 8 Piccadilly Arcade, London SW1, opens on the same day - visit www.snapgalleries.com.