Legendary rock photographer Ed Caraeff on a lifetime of photos, cooking and traveling
Some of the most iconic photos in the history of popular music were taken by one man, who started taking pictures of rock bands when he was only 15 years old. That man was Ed Caraeff, whose career spans decades of not only photography and art design for artists like Dolly Parton, Steely Dan and Elton John, but also a long career in the New York City restaurant world.
After a major health scare in 2015, Caraeff sold the rights to his photography and embarked on a “bucket list” trip across the country in his camper van, which he’s been doing for nearly seven years now. During a stop in San Luis Obispo last month, Caraeff came to the KCBX studio with a book called “Burning Desire: The Jimi Hendrix Experience through the Lens of Ed Caraeff.”
Caraeff's iconic Jimi Hendrix photo and its legacy
"It was on Rolling Stone twice. [Publisher] Jann Wenner called me and told me that he was doing an issue on the greatest rock shows of all time, and that he had got his decision down to two photos, and that he decided to use my photo of Jimi at the Monterey Theatre burning his guitar. And I remember, I was already in the restaurant business at that time, but the first words out of my mouth were, 'What's the other shot?'"
"And he also asked permission to color it, instead of just doing it. Most people would have just done that and not told me, but he asked permission to color it in using a someone else's photo as a guide from that night. I agreed, and it was used the first time in color on the cover of Rolling Stone."
"He made sure to tell me that the cover wouldn't have a lot of type on it, like 'Best college fashion.' He said it would be real simple, and he's the one who made it famous, because no one cared about that photo before that. Kodak gave me an award, saying it was the most famous rock photo ever taken — that was fun."
From photography to art directing to cooking
"This is 1980, in New York City. I got my first suit other than a bar mitzvah suit, you know, I actually got a Ralph Lauren suit. I got a leather portfolio, and my idea was to call art directors at companies. If I admired their album covers, I'd go see their art directors and show them my portfolio. And I called one record company, and when I got put through they answered the phone and said, 'Are you calling about the art director job?'"
"So I didn't miss a beat, I said yeah. Turns out they had an ad out looking for an art director. So I just took some things out of my portfolio, put other things that were more art direction and I ended up getting that job. I spent five years as an art director and creative director in New York City."
"[After that] I answered an ad in the Sunday New York Times to be an executive chef near the United Nations, to open a Tex-Mex Restaurant. I got a cooking audition, and I got offered the job and that was my first job [as a chef]."
"I had no cooking skills at all. During the time in New York, I became a single parent with my two sons. And so we just went out to eat all the time. It's easy to do if you're in New York City, you know, they would only eat a few items — pizza, cheeseburgers, French toast. I realized after a week I needed to do some vegetables, maybe."
"So I would go to a bookstore in New York and just stand in the back and look in the indexes to learn things. I wanted to learn how to bake a potato. So I was really curious the more I learned about how to cook. I just thought, it's a form of expression. I think I'm an artist with a pretty good business sense, and I just followed my passion."
"The thing about the cooking is, I felt with my photography I had kind of been there done that, you know. I didn't feel like going back to making music videos, which you would see was maybe a natural extension — but the cooking opportunity came along because I wanted to cook for my sons, and then I just loved that and became passionate about it."
"And I think of all the things in my life that I've learned, being able to effortlessly cook without any stress is the best thing I've ever done."
Health scares and bucket lists
"[The health scares] started when I got a toothache and I ended up under cardiologist care, and a year and a half into MRIs and testing, they discovered a an aneurysm that was growing in my aorta."
"And right there in the doctor's office, as he's talking to me, I thought about my mortality. And I thought that I'd worked long enough at an early age — it was well over 50 years of steady work — I thought, 'bucket list.' All of this happening in split seconds, I thought 'bucket list,' and one thing immediately popped up like nothing else ever has. And that's what I'm doing, what I've been doing for the last seven years: I got rid of all my possessions and moved into a camper van."
"I don't know, it's just the way it is. You know, I usually look for the next thing to do instead of dwell in the past. I'm talking Orcas Island to the Florida Keys to Woodstock New York, the California desert, which I love. What I don't do is, I prefer not to fly on an airplane anymore, and I don't drive into Canada or Mexico."
Caraeff's connection to San Luis Obispo
"This is the ultimate place to find any part any screw, any fabric [for the VW camper van]." My motor, my engine was built here at Westy Werks. This is the place to be, that's why I discovered San Luis Obispo, because of my Volkswagen vintage camper van. There's no other place maybe outside of Germany that has every part available and people who know how to maintain them, not just mechanically, but all the camper parts — the tent, the sink, the stove, my little quirky needs, and it's all done right here in San Luis Obispo."
"You can go any direction [here]. You can go south, you can go to Big Sur. You can go on the 101, you can go all kinds of different directions right from here. Yeah, it's nice."
Starting early, never sleeping
"People would call me for photography, and if I could do it, I did it. Then I developed all that film and I made all the prints myself, didn't send anything out. I worked all the time. When my family went to sleep, I'd make a cup of coffee and I'd go down in the darkroom, where I had a great sound system and a good safe light, you know, not just a red bulb. It was all comfortable for me, and I worked until four in the morning, all the time. I had steady work for 14 years without any business card, no portfolio, no agent, and my phone number was unlisted. But I kept busy."
"I started that while I was in high school. I started this career, which I didn't know was a job option and I was grateful, but it was a roller coaster. I had a very high standard, I was very professional. I wasn't a flake, so I got the jobs. I had to deliver the finished artwork ready to go for the printer. I had to go to the printer to make sure what they did represented my art. I did all that — I was a total control freak for 14 years."
"I never went camping, I didn't go to the prom, I didn't really date. I just worked — I was around artists, I was in the studio, I was in their homes, I was on their private jets, I was in castles. I mean, unbelievable things, but you know, I didn't have that other experience, and I thought I would miss that if I didn't get to just drive around without reservations and camp out, which I had never done."
"I once committed to go on a European tour with Three Dog Night and I had so many jobs to finish that I when I got on that, I hadn't slept in six nights. That's probably why I have an aortic aneurysm — I wore the body down."
Classical music, French radio and Bob Dylan
"If it wasn't for music, we wouldn't be sitting here. I wouldn't have been interested in photographing musicians and their strange look. I'm a big fan of music and the way it changes, and the way art directs your life, from classical to Miles Davis."
"I'm very influenced by a radio station out of Paris, France called FIP — commercial-free free public radio, and they play the most eclectic selection of music. You never know what you're going to hear next, they go from Van Morrison to a classical piece to something from a movie to an African beat. It's really wild, and so I make a playlist of what I hear on French radio."
"I have all kinds of different playlists: early Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, you name it. I'm a big Big Bob Dylan fan, who I got to work with, which was a big thrill for me."
On awards, recognition and copycats
"It's all a big honor to me. Even if people just want to post it on their social media thing and rip it off, that's still an honor. I feel flattered. I was walking down the boardwalk once at Venice Beach, and everyone's selling their wares, I walk over and someone's painted one of my photos where Jimi's getting ready to burn the guitar, and they had done a big painting of it."
"My friend said it was a rip-off, you know, so I said, 'You know, it's flattery.' I think it's flattery, really — it was pretty good painting. Someone just did a tattoo of it, and it's amazing. A tattoo artist in Monterey did his version of my photo, and I contacted him and said 'Well done,' because he really made it really his own thing. It's a beautiful tattoo, it's awesome."
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.