He’s played Carnegie Hall and Bonnaroo, and his song “The Gambler” spawned a series of hit TV movies and launched his second career as an actor on TV and in motion pictures. Yet Kenny Rogers, owner of one of the most recognizable voices in country or pop music history, once told Billboard magazine, “I’ve never considered myself a great singer, but I am a great storyteller.”
Some years ago, Rogers became intrigued by a new way to tell stories. And then he became obsessed.
An amateur photographer for most of his adult life, Rogers began working seriously at it several years ago while living in California with his then-wife Marianne, a model. He began shooting portfolio shots for her and some of her model friends and developing them in a small darkroom in his home.
Wanting to expand and refine his photographic skills, Rogers began studying with photographer John Sexton, an American fine art photographer who specializes in black and white photographs and who worked as an assistant and technical consultant to the legendary fine-art photographer Ansel Adams in the early 1980s.
Sexton, who continues to teach some of photography’s most sought-after workshops, schooled Rogers in Adams’ Zone System, a photographic technique for determining optimal film exposure and development. (It also applies to modern digital photography.)
As a touring musical artist, Rogers found plenty of time to also do photography. “I found out that I only worked an hour a day,” Rogers says. “I’d go out at night and I’d do my show and I’d have 23 hours and nothing to do. So we’d get up in the morning and get in the car, and Gene, my road manager, and I, we’d drive around whatever city – I’m amazed how many people don’t know what’s in their city.
“We’d ask people ‘Is there anything to shoot here?’ and they’d say, ‘No, I’ve lived here 30 years, there’s nothing…,’ and you’d turn the corner and Niagara Falls is there. People don’t even know what’s in their city!”
Rogers also studied portrait photography with one of the greatest portrait photographers of all time – Yousuf Karsh, also known as Karsh of Ottawa.
In a 2002 article written for the Associated Press, well-known photographer Rick Sammon says, “The influence these pros had on Rogers is evident in his portraits.” Sammon, author of three dozen books on photography, quotes Rogers on what he learned from Karsh and Sexton:
“Karsh told me how to capture the personality of a celebrity. You talk to them, make them feel at ease. Keep your eye on their eyes, and keep your hand on the shutter release. When you see them totally relaxed, that’s when you shoot,” Rogers says.
“John taught me the importance of photographing what you love and loving what you photograph. I think that is good advice for all photographers.”
Rogers began his photography hobby with a basic 35mm Brownie Hawkeye, but eventually he moved up to bigger, better cameras, including large-format cameras such as a Hasselblad 2¼ x 2¼, a Linhof Master Technika 4×5 camera, and a large-format camera that produces 8×10 negatives.
“I am an impulsive obsessive. I impulsively get involved with something, and then I get obsessed with it. So that’s what happened with photography.”
Rogers’ photographs are primarily landscapes or portraits, and he has published three books, including two books of portraits. The first, Kenny Rogers’ America, was published in 1986. His second book, Your Friends and Mine, arrived in 1987 and featured 8×10 portraits of Hollywood celebrities such as Elizabeth Taylor, who graced the cover.
His third photo book, the oversized coffee-table book This Is My Country, published in 2005, featured black-and-white portraits of such country music stars as Faith Hill, Reba McEntire, Jo Dee Messina, Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw, Alan Jackson, Dolly Parton, Roy Acuff, Lee Ann Womack, Billy Dean, Tammy Wynette, Linda Davis and Brad Paisley.
Rogers made many portraits for that book while simultaneously hosting the Academy of Country Music Awards broadcast – he set up his camera and studio lights backstage, and he would shoot artists’ portraits between his on-stage/on-camera moments.
Rogers says his next book of photography will feature his landscapes. He’s been talking with a publisher that wants to produce a hand-stitched, super-expensive limited-edition book. “I’ve never done photography for the money. The prestige of doing that would be wonderful,” he says, adding that he also wants a version of the book to be available at a more accessible price.
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We asked Kenny to select five of his favorite photos to share with our readers – and to tell us something about each.
His photograph Cove Butano Park shows an empty road winding through towering redwoods. “It was one of my first chances to use Ansel Adams’ Zone System,” Rogers says. “It’s one of my favorite shots.”
Roger’s nighttime image Lincoln Memorial features tourists silhouetted against the iconic alabaster white statue, including a seated guitar player over on the left.
“When I got there, it was three in the morning and the whole area was loaded with college students,” Rogers says. “I waited until they left to take photos, but it didn’t feel right, so I found some students, asked them to be part of the shot and positioned them where I wanted them to be. I like it a lot better with people than without.”
The coastal landscape The Thumb was shot “somewhere on the west coast, near San Francisco,” Rogers says. “I’ve always loved this shot with the moon in the background.”
Though Rogers tends to work mostly in black-and-white, his image One Tree is in color, with a single red-tinged tree dominating a snow-covered farm scene.
“I think this was taken in Thunder Bay, Canada,” Rogers recalls. “When I saw it, it looked amazingly like a watercolor.”
Rogers’ four-panel portrait Ray Charles recalls the advice that Karsh gave him – to put the subject at ease. “I told Ray that I wanted to shoot photos of him while he was in motion going back and forth to capture that famous sway,” Rogers says, “and Ray said he couldn’t do that on command, so I told him a dirty joke, and that’s what I got.”
A picture is worth a thousand words, goes the cliché, while songs generally have far fewer words. Yet music and photography share some similarities, Rogers says.
“I think art, if you’re capable of one art, you understand – you know, the difference between a snapshot and a photograph is where you take it from. A snapshot of the Golden Gate Bridge is wonderful, but if you’re a photographer you get down on the side and you find a way to give it some lines, and some movement, and that’s the difference.
“You learn to learn. The way you develop a style in music is you sing something. If nobody likes it, you don’t sing it again, but if you do something and everybody says, ‘I like it when you do that,’ you put it in every song – and it’s the same with photography.”
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