James Fortune had lived up to his name by the time he was 20. He practically fell into a great photography career before he even got out of college.
Fortune started off by making a name for himself on the staff of his college newspaper in Los Angeles in 1967 and ended up establishing himself for close to a decade as a sought-after photographer in the recording industry. His reign ended in 1980 when he decided to move near his wife's family in Ashland, where they've lived for the past 21 years.
He took pictures of rock stars from Paul McCartney to Cher, and many of these photographs still grace posters around the world. Some of Fortune's work from the '70s is on view at the Visual Art Studio this month in a show called "Rock & Roll Icons." Most of the shots were taken when he worked for One Stop, a major poster company in Los Angeles, and from free-lance work he did for musicians and newspapers.
At first he just wanted free records. "We'd like to photograph one of your groups for our college newspaper," Fortune told representatives at Elektra Records his first year on the college paper. He and a reporter were looking to cash their meager journalistic credentials in on a record that was getting big play in Los Angeles by a little-known local group called The Doors. They had just released "Light My Fire" and evidently still thought that any press was good press. Fortune and his partner got the green light.
That was the first of three shoots of The Doors Fortune took that year. He remembers Jim Morrison as "a pretty calm and relaxed person," though he doesn't seem to remember how he got that way. Later in '67 Fortune shot them during the recording of "Strange Days." Even after the enormous success of their debut, Fortune recalls, Morrison was still so audience-shy that when he recorded his vocal tracks, they had to turn all the lights off in the studio except for one red light glowing in an outer room.
That year Fortune also lucked into shooting Dodger great Don Drysdale while the pitcher was practicing on campus, and he sold a couple of those shots to United Press International, a news wire service. He also shot a crowd of 5,000 hippie kids demolishing a city bus on Sunset Strip in the fall of '67. The next day, Fortune says, one of those photos ended up on the front page of newspapers all over the country even the Richmond Times-Dispatch, as he later discovered. UPI sold the pictures aggressively and pretty much set Fortune's credentials in stone.
By the late '60s, Fortune was looking at a successful career except for one little problem. "At that time you have the draft hanging over you," Fortune recalls. Thinking he might prefer a photo lab with camera equipment to the jungle and an M-16, he worked as a combat photographer on various ships for two years during the Vietnam War.
When he returned to the states he called his old contacts and got back into the business. His first shoot was a 1972 Rolling Stone benefit concert for Nicaragua. That was the first shot he leased to One Stop in L.A., the largest music-oriented poster company in the '70s. Fortune shot posters of Elton John, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and many others. He still has his Elton John poster.
Did he hang out and get crazy with them? "A few of them," Fortune says. "I wouldn't say how crazy I got." Fortune doesn't remember himself as a Dennis-Hopper-in-"Apocalypse Now"-type photographer. He says he "never pushed the envelope with my appearance," and says he never had to to fit in. "They figured if I was standing there with a camera, and their publicist or record company rep was standing there with me, it was cool."
Style Weekly's mission is to provide smart, witty and tenacious coverage of Richmond. Our editorial team strives to reveal Richmond's true identity through unflinching journalism, incisive writing, thoughtful criticism, arresting photography and sophisticated presentation.
We make sense of the news; pursue those in power; explore the city's arts and culture; open windows on provocative ideas; and help readers know Richmond through its people. We give readers the information to make intelligent decisions.