Legendary rock photographer Ed Caraeff talks about a lifetime of photos, cooking and travel
Some of the most iconic photos in popular music history were taken by a man, who began photographing rock bands when he was just 15 years old. That man was Ed Caraeff, whose career not only spans decades of photography and art design for artists like Dolly Parton, Steely Dan and Elton John, but also a long career in the New York restaurant world. York.
After a serious health crisis in 2015, Caraeff sold the rights to his photography and embarked on a “to-do list” trip across the country in his motorhome, which he has been doing for almost seven years now. During a stop in San Luis Obispo last month, Caraeff came to the KCBX studio with a book called “Burning Desire: The Jimi Hendrix Experience through the Lens of Ed Caraeff.”
Jimi Hendrix’s Iconic Photo of Caraeff and His Legacy
“It was twice on Rolling Stone. [Publisher] Jann Wenner called me and said he was doing a number on the greatest rock shows of all time, and he narrowed his decision down to two photos, and he decided to use my photo of Jimi at the Monterey Theater burning his guitar. And I remember, I was already in the restaurant business at that time, but the first words that came out of my mouth were, ‘What’s the other one?'”
“And he also asked permission to color it in, instead of just doing it. Most people would have done it without telling me, but he asked permission to color it in using someone’s photo. ‘other as a guide to that night. I agreed, and it was used for the first time in color on the cover of Rolling Stone.”
“He made sure to tell me that the cover wouldn’t have a lot of characters on it, like ‘Best College Fashion’. He said it would be really simple, and he was the one who made it famous, because that no one cared about this photo before that. Kodak gave me an award, saying it was the most famous rock photo ever taken – it was fun.
From photography to art direction to cooking
“It’s 1980, New York. I got my first suit other than a bar mitzvah suit, you know, I actually got a Ralph Lauren suit. I got a leather wallet, and my idea was to call the art directors of companies. If I admired their album covers, I would go to their art directors and show them my portfolio. And I called a record company, and when I had the phone call, they answered the phone and said, ‘Are you calling for the art director position??'”
“So I didn’t miss a beat, I said yes. Turns out they had an ad looking for an art director. So I just pulled some things out of my portfolio, put some d other things that were more art direction and I ended up spending five years as an art director and creative director in New York.”
“[After that] I answered an ad in the Sunday New York Times to be an executive chef near the United Nations, to open a Tex-Mex restaurant. I had a cooking audition, and I was offered the job and it was my first job. [as a chef].”
“I had no cooking skills. While in New York, I became a single mom with my two sons. And so we would go out to eat all the time. It’s easy to do if you’re in New York. , you know, they only ate a few dishes – pizzas, cheeseburgers, French toast. I realized after a week that I needed to do vegetables, maybe.”
“So I would go to a bookstore in New York and just stand in the back and look in the indexes to learn things. I wanted to learn how to bake a potato. So I was really curious as I was learning to cook. I just thought it was a form of expression. I think I’m an artist with pretty good business sense and I just followed my passion.”
“The thing with the kitchen is that I felt like with my photography, I had kind of been there, you know. I didn’t feel like going back to making music videos again , which you’d see was maybe a natural extension – but the opportunity to cook arose because I wanted to cook for my sons, and then I loved it and became passionate about it. “
“And I think of all the things I’ve learned in my life, being able to cook effortlessly and stress-free is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Health alerts and to-do lists
“[The health scares] started when I had a toothache and ended up being seen by a cardiologist, and a year and a half after MRIs and tests they found an aneurysm growing in my aorta.”
“And there in the doctor’s office, as he was talking to me, I thought about my mortality. And I thought I had worked long enough at an early age – it was well over 50 regular job – I thought, ‘bucket list.’ This all happened in a split second, I thought “to do list”, and one thing immediately popped up like nothing else ever has. And that’s what I do , which I’ve been doing for seven years: I got rid of all my belongings and moved into an RV.”
“I don’t know, that’s how it is. You know, I’m usually looking for the next thing instead of dwelling on the past. I’m talking about Orcas Island in the Florida Keys in Woodstock in New York, in California desert, which I love. What I don’t do is I’d rather not fly or drive in Canada or Mexico anymore.
Caraeff’s connection to San Luis Obispo
“This is the place to find any part, any screw, any fabric [for the VW camper van]“My engine, my engine was built here at Westy Werks. It’s the place to be, that’s why I found San Luis Obispo, because of my vintage Volkswagen motorhome. there may be no other place outside of Germany that has all the parts available and people who know how to maintain them, not just mechanically, but all parts of the motorhome – the tent, the sink , the stove, my weird little needs, and it’s all done here in San Luis Obispo.”
“You can go in any direction [here]. You can go south, you can go to Big Sur. You can go on the 101, you can go all kinds of different directions from here. Yeah, that’s nice.”
Start early, never sleep
“People were calling me for photography, and if I could do it, I would do it. Then I developed all this film and did all the prints myself, I didn’t send anything. I I was working all the time. When my family went to sleep, I’d make myself a cup of coffee and go down to the darkroom, where I had a great sound system and a good harmless light, you know, not just a red light bulb. Everything was comfortable for me, and I worked until four in the morning, all the time. I had a stable job for 14 years without a business card, without a wallet, without an agent, and my phone number. Wasn’t listed. But I got busy.
“I started this when I was in high school. I started this career, which I didn’t know was a work option and I was grateful for it, but it was a roller coaster. I had a very high standard I was very professional I was not a flake so I got the jobs I had to deliver the finished artwork ready to go for the printer I had to go to the printer to make sure what they were doing represented my art. I did all of that – I was a total control freak for 14 years.”
“I never went camping, I didn’t go to prom, I didn’t really date. I just worked – I was with artists, I was in the studio, I was I was in their private jets, I was in castles I mean, amazing things, but you know, I didn’t have that other experience, and I thought I’d miss it if I couldn’t not driving without a reservation and camping, which I had never done.”
“I once signed up to do a European tour with Three Dog Night and I had so many jobs to finish that I hadn’t slept in six nights. That’s probably why I have a brain aneurysm. the aorta – I was carrying the body down.”
Classical music, French radio and Bob Dylan
“If it wasn’t for the music, we wouldn’t be sitting here. I wouldn’t have been interested in photographing musicians and their weird looks. I’m a big fan of music and how it changes, and how art directs your life, from classical to Miles Davis.”
“I’m very influenced by a radio station in Paris, France called FIP – free public radio with no commercials, and they play the most eclectic selection of music. You never know what you’re going to hear next, they’ll from Van Morrison to a classic tune to something of a movie to an African beat. It’s really wild, and so I make a playlist of what I hear on French radio.
“I have all kinds of different playlists: early Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, etc. I’m a big Big Bob Dylan fan, who I got to work with, which was a great pleasure for me.”
On rewards, recognition and imitators
“It’s a huge honor for me. Even if people just want to post it on their social media and rip it up, it’s still an honor. I feel flattered. I once walked the boardwalk at Venice Beach, and everyone’s selling their wares, I walk up and someone painted a picture of mine where Jimi is about to burn the guitar, and they made a big painting out of it.”
“My friend said it was a scam, you know, so I said, ‘You know, that’s flattery.’ I think it’s flattery, really – it was a really good painting. Someone just tattooed it, and it’s amazing. A tattoo artist in Monterey did their version of my photo, and I love it. I reached out and said “Bravo” because he’s really really doing his own thing. It’s a beautiful tattoo, it’s awesome.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.