When I was growing up photographically, which was a long time ago now, achieving the distinction of being a professional photographer was just that, a distinction. It had the aura, just a bit, of a degree, hard won after years of training and tribulations. It was attained by a relative few, and I have to imagine many folks, given the daunting aspects of forging a career and sustenance via the alchemy of acetate, wisely chose not to pursue it at all. I have always likened the career path of the photog of that era as a country road traveled by a hardy few, which the digital revolution has now replaced with a multi-lane superhighway, traveled by many, at a high frame rate. The dawn of shooting ones and zeros threw the door open, I believe in welcome fashion, to many, many folks, and image making now takes place at a feverish rate.
But, being of a certain age, I guess I remain somewhat rooted in tradition, and thus continue to celebrate the value and worth of the truly professional photographer. It’s a tough thing to do, and it tests the durability, patience, skills and fiber of those who choose to engage it in full blown fashion. When I was coming up, if someone was referred to in reverential tones, as a “pro’s pro,” it was high praise indeed. It meant the individual in question could do anything with a camera. Ken Regan was one of these.
Born in the Bronx, and determined at an early age to become a pro shooter, Ken ultimately became one of the truly big time image makers of our age. And, just like in pro sports, there are players, and then there are stars, the go to types. When the game is on the line, you want the ball in their hands. Ken was a pro who worked almost exclusively on the tightrope of high pressure jobs, covering big time Hollywood celebs, A-list music people, and major news and sports, such as Olympiads, conventions and heavyweight boxing matches. Assignment-wise, he breathed rarefied air indeed, and he handled the mantle of intense pressure that comes with these assignments in a matter of fact way.
He coached me through my first heavyweight bout, Holmes vs. Cooney, Las Vegas, 1982. I was terrified of shooting the whole damn thing out of focus. He told me to keep my head in the game and my eye in the lens, and I’d be alright. At the end of the fight, typical of those days at Camera 5, we had to boogie from the bout to the airport to catch the last flight back to NY. Went straight from the airport to the UN the next morning and covered a huge peace rally that swept through the streets of NY. The timing was so tight, I left a remote camera high on a ring support back in Vegas. Just didn’t have the time to retrieve it. It eventually made its way back to me via a bud at the UPI.
As a young pup photog, I bought a ticket to Northern Ireland, and went there without a clue, or an assignment. Bobby Sands soon died in the H-blocks, and Ken got word to me to stick with it, he had found me guarantees from Newsweek and Bunte. Later that month, I found myself in Rome, broke, trying to cover the aftermath of the papal assassination attempt. He wired me $500 and told me to hang in there, finding again, the twofer of Newsweek and Bunte to guarantee my film. I came home from that trip, for the first time, with money in my agency account. And I thought, wow, this is how it works.
Ken always had a handle on how it worked. He was durable, had a fierce work ethic, and an astonishing ability to truly, completely, cover an event. At the 1984 Olympics in LA, he and Heinz Klutmeier of SI shared a motorcycle with all their gear, just so they could make the transit from venue to venue faster than the rest of us car bound shooters. He also knew how to make connections and find work, which of course is the lifeblood of a freelancer. He was the right mix of tenacity, toughness, talent, shrewd business sense, diplomacy, charm and wit to get and keep the kind of high level job he thrived on.
I’m writing this like Ken was my friend, and he was, but I don’t really claim to have known him all that well. He was an intensely private person, and he extended that sense of closely guarded privacy to his celeb subjects, which in turn, made them trust him, and ask magazines for him to be assigned to photograph them. His portfolio included over 200 magazine covers, which was a true measure of his access. He remained close to Dylan, the Stones, the Kennedy’s, and Ali for many years.
He is being buried today, in NY. Given the vagaries of the business, I am in Mexico. Given the round the world whirlwind of his life, and his dedication to the assignment at hand, no matter where it led, I’m sure he’d understand. I feel bad. He worked so hard during his life, and had reached an age where he could have easily stopped to smell some of the roses, even given that stopping at any point in time was not his style. He just came out with a book called All Access, The Rock and Roll Photography of Ken Regan. I ordered it, and it’s sure to be just like Ken–on top of it, in the mix, filled with flesh and blood moments, and close to his subjects. I would have loved his signature on it.
Colleague, friend, and mentor….Godspeed….