Local rock photographer earns lifetime achievement award

by Laura Bednar

Her work hangs in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the National Gallery in London and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, but for photographer Janet Macoska, her nearly 50-year career began with a pure love of music.

Macoska, a Sagamore Hills resident, earned the Cleveland Arts Prize Lifetime Achievement Award this fall for photographing Rock’s greatest musicians since 1974. The award is given to individuals who have “demonstrated unwavering dedication, creative brilliance and a profound impact on the arts community and society as a whole.”

Macoska was 10 when the Beatles came to America, and music quickly became a presence in her life. She loved her mother’s “Life’’ magazine and said it was more than the photos that interested her; it was “seeing the background and real lives of musicians.”

At age 12, she was volunteering at Cleveland radio station WKYC, managing disc jockey fan mail and taking photos of musicians promoting their shows in studio. Her shot of Sonny and Cher at the station was the first photo she was paid for after it appeared in “Teen Screen” magazine.

She continued taking photos and writing music-related stories through high school and college, often having a music spread in the middle of the newspaper at Cuyahoga Community College. Her work also appeared in local publications similar to today’s “Cleveland Scene.” “I was covering music as much as I could,” she said.

Macoska took it upon herself to bolster her portfolio. She asked local promoter Belkin Productions and radio station WMMS if she could attend shows, to take photos and interview stars. “Everyone kind of adopted me,” she said.

She has photographed legends such as Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC, Hall and Oates, David Bowie and Sir Paul McCartney. Macoska called her coverage of him one of her proudest career moments.

While visiting friends in London, she left her portfolio for review, and McCartney and his late wife Linda liked her work. When McCartney announced an upcoming tour at a press conference in New York, he played a few songs as a mini-concert. In the room, Macoska was one of no more than 10 photographers from across the globe. Her photo of McCartney playing at the presser hangs in the National Gallery in London. She said it is the only shot of McCartney performing in the gallery’s collection.

When asked about her process for taking pictures of artists offstage, Macoska said those moments depend on collaboration and respect. “I feel it’s my job to protect them and make them look the best they can,” she said. “They’re rock stars and that’s how I see them.”

Her connections with promotions managers led to offstage opportunities, like following the band Blondie around for a day as they traveled to press events.

In some instances, she said, “You have to go with the flow. If an opportunity arose to take more photos, I took it.”

She recalled being in a hotel when Angus Young and Bon Scott of AC/DC were giving interviews to college reporters. Macoska said she would be shooting at the band’s concert and asked for a few candid photos. She said Young stood on a deli tray that was laid out for the writers, and Scott shoved a pickle up his nose for the photo.

Macoska said covering music then was easier than today. “[The musicians] were the same age as me, just trying to make it in the music business,” she said.

Sports stint

Macoska said she loved baseball as much as music and photographed the Cleveland Indians from 1974-1985. As the only woman photographer, she said the players didn’t take kindly to a female on their turf.

They spit tobacco juice at her and threw baseballs at her head, but she persisted. Her work in the music industry included record companies giving her promotional records. After she brought in a box of extra albums for the players, “they were my pals,” she said.

She captured an historic moment when Frank Robinson became the big leagues’ first African American manager on Opening Day 1975.

Still shooting

Macoska maintained a professional distance in her interactions with musicians, though she named Journey, Styx and Alice Cooper as artists with whom she is friends. “It turns out you do have friendships after all this time because they lasted as long as you did,” she said. “It’s nice to see people 30 to 40 years ago remembering your work.”

Her photos have been used in documentaries, as band album covers and hang in Hard Rock Cafés around the world. Her work has also been featured in several publications, including “Rolling Stone,” “People,” “Vogue,” “Sports Illustrated,” “The New York Times” and the “Plain Dealer.”

She has written two books with her friend Peter Chakerian, one titled “All Access Cleveland: The Rock and Roll Photography of Janet Macoska,” a retrospective of her music photography career. Her other book, “Bruce Springsteen: Live in the Heartland,” is about Springsteen’s time in Northeast Ohio and includes concert photos. Macoska and Chakerian are working on a book set for release next year to honor the late Michael Stanley, with whom Macoska was good friends. She photographed him throughout his career, beginning in 1975.

These days, Macoska shoots events for Cuyahoga County Community College and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, among other gigs. “If you can get up every day and know you’re doing something you love, that’s the best,” she said. ∞

Macoska poses with musician Alice Cooper, who pretends to strangle her. Photo submitted.

On our cover (photo): Photographer Janet Macoska captured legendary musicians both in concert and offstage. The rock trio pictured is (l-r) saxophonist Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen and Nils Lofgren. Other photographs Macoska took are of Dolly Parton and Paul McCartney – a photo that hangs in the National Gallery in London. Photos submitted.