Frank Melfi has been taking pictures of musicians for over four decades, but it was his shots of Led Zeppelin that caught the attention of that immortal quartet’s singer, Robert Plant. Ever since the mid-1970s, Melfi and Plant have cultivated both a professional and personal relationship to great mutual admiration. Plant is but one of hundreds of rock stars Melfi has captured in photos, but the pics of the charismatic singer are certainly the most abundant in his collection, leading to a someday-to-be-published photo book spanning their time together- from the Zep zenith to the present. We spoke to Melfi from his home in Nashville about that relationship, the magic of Led Zeppelin, and the realities of a working rock photographer in the digital age.
Tell me about the relationship you have with Robert Plant.
I’ve been shooting him for 40 years. We’re friends. Back in the ‘90s he told me I was his official photographer. That and sixty cents will get you a cup of coffee, you know what I’m saying? We’re just buddies.
What do you think it is that he likes about your work?
I don’t know. I studied at the Memphis Academy of Arts. I work on my pictures. Anybody can take a snapshot. Some photographers get lucky on what they catch. I go the extra nine yards to make sure the photograph looks great. He just likes what I do. I know how to capture him. Of course, I know the music well. I know what he’s going to do next.
What’s important in getting the great shot? Angle? Light? Access? Knowing the music?
A little bit of all of that. As you noticed, I have full range. I can go onstage; in the pit. I don’t have to do the three-and-flee like most photographers do. Robert lets me shoot until the very end. It’s because I’ve been around so many years. Robert knows I’m not going to put anything out to make him look foolish. He trusts me and that trust has a lot to do with everything.
Do you get to enjoy the show or is it all work?
Yes, I do. (At Led Zeppelin’s 2007 reunion concert) at the 02 in London, Robert said, “Put your camera away and enjoy the moment.” I wish I’d shot (that show), but he was right. If they ever do it again, which I doubt, I’ll definitely shoot it.
Why do you say you doubt a reunion?
At this stage, Robert, I can tell you right now, he’s not really into it. He loves what he’s doing right now. Everybody can change their mind, but I don’t know about Robert. He likes to do something different. If everybody (in Led Zeppelin) had agreed to sit down and write new music along with it, instead of just being a nostalgia band…He doesn’t care about stadiums. He enjoys what he’s doing right now. People liked to see him in the ‘90s, and his younger heyday, of course. There was a lot of high energy. But, he’s comfortable. Why would he want to try and re-create himself in his 20s and blow his voice out? I’m all for him.
How long do you think he’ll keep doing this?
We were sitting on a street corner in Croatia and I said, “When are you going to give this up?” He said, “I’m not going to give it up, Frankie. Hell, what am I going to do? Sit and wait for the Grim Reaper to come through the window and get me? I want to die on the road.” Forever forward, ever onward, he says. I’m glad he’s doing it because he’s keeping me busy. (Laughs.)
You two are working on a book?
I’ve been working on a pictorial book. He’s agreed to write the Foreword. I’ve been at it for over 15 years. It hasn’t come to fruition yet because every time I think it’s time to wrap it up he decides to do another tour.
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