Work Of Art: 108 Rock Star Guitars

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Story by Shawn Perry
Photos by Lisa S. Johnson & Kimberly Annette

Lisa S. Johnson has a unique approach to photographing the instruments belonging to legendary guitar players such as Les Paul, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Jimmy Page, Carlos Santana, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Gibbons and many more. Employing a style described as “macrophotography” and utilizing the last film stock ever manufactured for Kodak Professional, Johnson’s photos capture the intimate details and essence of each guitar — the scratches, the dings, the personality and the character that comes with recording, traveling and playing stages all over the world.

Now, Johnson is sharing her work in 108 Rock Star Guitars, an elaborate 396-page book bound in embossed red leatherette filled with 300 images and personal anecdotes about the process of connecting with the musicians and their treasured axes. There’s a standard version for $108, and a signed deluxe edition, limited to 540 numbered copies, with a few extras for $540. Johnson is donating a portion of the proceeds from sales of the book to the Les Paul Foundation, which supports music education, engineering and even medical research.

Les Paul was a big inspiration behind 108 Rock Star Guitars after he championed Johnson’s photos. “I remember the first black-and-white pictures Lisa took of my guitars…they were wonderfully evocative,” Paul wrote in the book’s foreword before he passed away in 2009. Johnson, a former Kodak representative, developed a fascination with photographing guitars 17 years ago when she snapped some shots of Les Paul’s guitar during one of his regular Monday night gigs at the Iridium Club in New York City. From there, it grew into a journey from concert venues around the world to the private homes of some of the guitars’ owners.

Robby Krieger’s 1960 Les Paul

At a press event previewing the book this past summer, Johnson told a story of how she first began taking pictures of guitars: She photographed guitars in her boyfriend’s guitar store in exchange for a mandolin she wanted to give her father. “So I photographed the guitars and fell in love with photographing guitars,” she said. “I like the shape and they look sexy.”

The photographer told me the most bizarre guitar she shot for the book belongs to Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen, who is renowned for owning hundreds of customized, one-of-a-kind guitars. Johnson also took shots of Eric Clapton’s “Brownie,” a 1956 Fender Stratocaster with a sunburst finish that sold for $450,000 in 1999 at Christie’s Auction House to raise funds for the guitarist’s alcohol and drug treatment facility, Crossroads Centre at Antigua.

“I think there’s an art to it. When I shoot a guitar and get the lights set up and just hone in on it,” she said. “I look at it (the guitar) as a piece of artwork. I like to get in close (because) you can tell with the nicks and scratches there’s a story behind it. My pictures try to convey the soul of the guitar.”

Robby Krieger, the one and only guitarist for the Doors, and in attendance for the book launch party that also included guitarists Warren DeMartini of Ratt and MC5 legend Wayne Kramer, told me Johnson photographed two of his guitars: a 1967 Gibson SG (which he played in the 60s and now has a signature model through Gibson) and a 1960 Gibson Les Paul. Turns out Johnson and Krieger are neighbors in Malibu, so he had no problem dropping off his instruments at Johnson’s place on his way to the golf course one day.

That’s one of the easier ways in which Johnson had access to the subjects of 108 Rock Star Guitars. In most instances, it took numerous phone calls, traveling all over America, Europe and Asia, going to shows, knocking on doors, being persistent, getting endorsements from others, and sharing a mutual admiration and passion for one of the most iconic musical instruments ever created. Ultimately, this book is a quest that offers rock ‘n roll buffs and fine photography enthusiasts an incredible, artistic perspective of 108 very special guitars.

Wayne Kramer, Warren DeMartini, Robby Krieger & Lisa S. JohnsonBookmark and Share