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How I got that: Adrian Cook

When Adrian Cook set out to shoot Rowland S. Howard for Rolling Stone he had no idea he’d become one of the last to enjoy the privilege before the musician’s death from liver cancer on December 30, 2009.

When was this image made?

Late 2009. He was doing an interview as part of publicity for his new album Pop Crimes. I’d never met him before that and I only had about ten minutes at his record label. I just shot one roll of film on my Rolleiflex and that was it.

What preparation did you do for the session?

Before I photograph someone I tend to research them so we have something to talk about. I’ll try to learn more about them and listen to some of their music so when you are there you’re not coming across as some idiot. You can talk about something that they’re aware of. It doesn’t have to be much but you have to keep them interested for five or ten minutes otherwise they’ll look bored or it will get awkward. I talk about my kids, my family. I ask them questions. It’s quite amazing what you get out of someone when you are with them for ten minutes. The Rolleiflex I shoot with makes it very personal. I’m only about a foot or two away so I’m sort of hovering over them as I work. It’s a nice way to work because you’re not covering your face like you are with a standard camera. After the portrait he asked me to come along and see him play at the Oxford Art Factory. It was the last time he played in Sydney and I was blown away.

How did he respond to the camera?

Rowland was fine. I always get a good response to the Rolleiflex because it’s not your typical “bang, bang, bang” camera that covers your face. It’s very slow. It’s on a tripod. They’re usually sitting quite low and I’m standing above them. So straight way it’s different. It’s also a point of conversation, people ask, “What’s that? How old is it?” Also the way you shoot – you’re taking pictures while you are talking. So quite often the best pictures are where they’re looking up at me, not at the camera at all. They’re looking up or sideways.

Was there a moment when you knew you had the frame?

I knew I had it but I wasn’t sure which frame. I tend to shoot one roll. I should have it in a roll. If I’m unsure I’ll shoot another but I had no doubts this time. I could’ve used half a dozen frames. I don’t know why I chose that one – it just jumped out as the best one of 12.

Did you have any idea he was sick at the time?

No. But looking at the picture now it seems clearer. I found out after the interview when I met with the writer. But I had no idea he’d die so soon. I don’t know if he even saw (the picture). I think the issue came out after he died. But when it ran his sister rang me soon after and thanked me for the portrait so I sent her a few really nice quality prints – one for her and one for her brother. To her it was quite an honest portrait and that’s what I like about the Rolleiflex – it’s a very honest camera. There’s no retouching. A lot of people don’t like it because it’s too true but I don’t retouch. I shoot as is.

Adrian Cook’s portrait was a finalist in the 2010 Head On Portrait Prize. See more of his work at

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Image detail: Gary Ramage