Jonathan Robert Willis Photographs Legendary Peter Frampton Guitar

By Jacqui Palumbo

This past April, Jonathan Robert Willis received an assignment to shoot a series of posters for the Cincinnati Ballet, one of them a collaboration with musician Peter Frampton. Willis, who’s specialty is typically portraiture, was excited to take on the project. “I really like it when an Art Director calls you to shoot something that is not in your book,” he explains. It speaks of a creative trust and respect for your vision and often yields great things.”

He set out to create a ballet poster with a Rock ‘N’ Roll edge, and he also hoped he’d be able to cross off “Meet Peter Frampton!” on his life checklist. What he didn’t expect was less than a month later, he would be standing in Peter Frampton’s private studio in front of the legend himself, handling his favorite guitar that had been presumed destroyed for nearly 31 years.

The project was to create posters and boards for six shows in the 2012 season of the ballet company, and from the beginning, Willis and Brian Nelson, Senior Art Director of Northlich, felt that the Frampton poster would be “the crown jewel” of the series. Nelson’s initial idea was the one that stuck: to overlay an image of a ballerina leg over a guitar, positioned as the strings and neck of the instrument.

When Willis began researching information on Frampton’s collection of guitars, he knew he needed to shoot one in particular, Frampton’s “favorite” from his 1976 live solo album “Frampton Comes Alive!” The guitar had been presumed destroyed after a cargo plane carrying it went down in flames in November of 1980. Missing for three decades, it resurfaced when a customs agent by day, guitar enthusiast by night recognized the distinct features of the guitar when it was brought to him for repairs. The guitar had been plucked from the wreckage in Panama and sold to a local guitarist living on the Dutch Caribbean Island of Curaçao. After two more years of negotiations, the local guitarist finally sold the guitar back to Frampton and it was returned to him in December of last year.

It was no surprise when Frampton’s team rejected the idea of photographing such a valuable possession, so Willis and Nelson decided to use the powers of image manipulation to reproduce the look of the guitar. A friend of Willis’ provided a black Les Paul for the body but it had the wrong kind of knobs. They sourced a second guitar that had the correct hardware, but even after their colleague Brian York composited Willis’ images of the guitars, something was still off. “We did learn that the shading looked too much like a cello body and the Les Paul has a very specific rise in the body that we also needed to correct,” Willis says. They spent more time perfecting the image and York overlaid the photograph of the ballerina’s leg that Willis had shot in-studio when he photographed the guitars. 

When Frampton saw the layout himself, he kindly rejected it, saying he liked the concept and design, but that it wasn’t his guitar. He suggested Willis come over and photograph the real thing. Only a two person-crew was allowed inside his house, so Nelson accompanied Willis on the shoot.

While carrying gear inside Frampton’s home, Willis found himself in a long hallway lined with pictures of him and other musical legends, as well as framed concert posters and assorted memorabilia, like a cell from The Simpson’s Homerpalooza episode where Frampton starred as himself. They entered his spacious home studio to shoot and Frampton was there in person to oversee it.

“It was clear that since the guitar is back in his possession, it doesn’t come out too often,” Willis recalls. “When he brought the guitar down I felt really honored to be there.” Not wanting to be “the guy who dropped his legendary guitar,” he took special care to set up a sturdy rig for suspending the instrument and Frampton approved it after a quick stress test. Willis lit it with two ProFoto Compact 600’s with strip boxes as edge lights and another ProFoto 600 with a diffused reflector on it, a set up which he says is actually similar to a lot of his studio work. He wanted the guitar to look “moody,” but “still retain the character and storytelling details of the guitar,” he explains.

For Willis, the entire experience was one-of-a-kind. He says Frampton was “very friendly and easy to work with,” and appreciated the opportunity to be one of the few photographers to have a shot of such an iconic piece of music history. He says, “My career has taken me on amazing journeys with such unique and rich experiences.” Plus, he can now reach for his pen and check off “Meet Peter Frampton!”

For more of Jonathan Robert Willis’ work, visit his Web site.


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