A couple of times this year, MY ROOTS will give you a glimpse of someone behind the scenes of the music we all love. We begin with a peek inside the life and career of music photographer Katarina Benzova. She is the official photographer for both Guns N Roses and the Dead Daisies, but did you know that she was once a supermodel walking the catwalks in designer clothes? Fate would eventually intervene after attending a GNR concert with a friend, taking some photos and having them seen by the band. Now she travels the world in a different realm and has captured breathtaking black & white images of Axl Rose, Billy Gibbons, Paul Stanley, Keith Richards, Courtney Love and Steven Tyler, among others. “Katarina captures life through her lens in a remarkable way which leaves one to wonder if there’s really glass between the subject and eye,” ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons shared with me recently. “Stark realism is at the forefront of her aim.” Music photographer Vera Harder considers her photos, “Very classy.”
So for this young woman, born and raised amongst the beauty of Slovakia, who never dreamed of being a photographer, she has become one of music’s up & coming legends in the making. After spending the holidays in her snowy homeland, Benzova gave us the scoop on her life, behind and in front of, the all-seeing lens.
Having no childhood dreams of becoming a photographer, you have nevertheless become one of music’s best photographers. What did you actually dream about becoming when you were a little girl?
Thank you. I think my dreams were pretty normal for a little girl: A princess, vet, ballerina or a professional figure skater as my mom.
You grew up in Slovakia, which is by Austria, Hungary & Poland. What area did you grow up in & what was it like growing up there?
I grew up in Liptov region in Slovakia. It’s in Low Tatras. Breathtaking moutains. I grew up in nature. I “hiked” all those mountains on my grandma’s back before I could even walk. Then when I grew a little we spent most of the time in forest picking herbs, mushrooms and berries. I had a beautiful childhood and by spending it in nature I learned to observe and to feel my surroundings. You learn to see details and see the beauty in the simplest things.
Was it an easy decision for you to leave your home & your family to enter the modeling world, being that you were so young?
I always loved challenges and this was one of them. The opportunity was there, I had nothing to lose and my mom supported me. It was an easy decision for me, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that easy for my mom. I will be thankful forever that she had let me go.
What was it like during those early years of modeling? What was your life like?
My life was super exciting and scary. EVERYTHING was new, as I grew up in a small mountain town and one of my first modeling trips was Tokyo. I had to learn fast and I grew up even faster. Had to take care of myself since I was fourteen. And of course, at that time I didn’t have a mobile phone or computer to make it easier.
You stayed in it for about 10 years & then you’d had enough. What disappointed or discouraged you about that career, enough so that you felt compelled to leave it behind?
Nothing. It was just a time to move on. My modeling years were important for me and played a big role in my photography career. It toughened me up, gave me access to entirely different world of people that I never would have been exposed to and it gave me a different view on life. When you are constantly surrounded by creative, crazy people you will most likely become one sooner or later. You are circled by outside beauty and that becomes boring after a while so you start to dig deeper and search for more. I found that in music photography and knew where I belong.
You went to see GNR with your friend, you snapped some photos & in the blink of an eye, you’re the official band photographer. Do you believe in fate or was this just good timing?
Isn’t it the same thing? (laughs) I believe everything happens for a reason. You get opportunities presented to you throughout your life and then it’s just up to you if you take it. And once you take it you have to work hard to keep it. I believe everyone is destined for certain path in life, but you always have the power to change your destiny if you are not happy.
You knew virtually nothing about professional cameras so you had to jump into the fire with both feet, so to speak. Were you nervous at first about taking on this big challenge with one of the biggest bands in the world? Or was the challenge itself more motivational & exciting?
It was exciting! I had nothing to lose. I had opportunity to hang out with amazing people and opportunity to learn something new. As I said earlier, I love challenges and this was one of the biggest ones in my life so far. And it worked out and it made me believe that anything is possible if you really want something, work hard and focus with your whole being on becoming what you want to become.
What makes shooting GNR every night a constant challenge? What are you looking for during a show that is basically the same every night?
Being on tour with GNR or The Dead Daisies and shooting every show during every tour makes it really challenging as we don’t want the photos to become boring and look the same for the audience that is following the bands on social media. So I’m always trying to come up with new ideas, new angles, new effects, etc. Every venue, lighting and conditions are different every night so that makes it little easier to get creative. And again, I love challenges.
Being a band’s photographer is not just taking their photos anymore – you contribute to their social media as well. What basically do you do on a regular basis? What have you had to learn how to do?
The Dead Daisies asked me if I can start doing videos as well and help with their social media while we are on the road so the posts are instant. Video making was a new thing for me, another challenge, and I wanted to learn it. So I did and now I’m making weekly short documentary style videos from the tour as well as running their Instagram and occasional Facebook posts when needed. On top of that there are plenty of other videos we are doing during the tour. Every tour is something new. We had few episodes of Tour Tips, Marco Mendoza TV, Life Of Brian, etc. It’s fun and exciting.
Your photo of Axl became a cover for Revolver magazine this year. How exciting was that for you?
It was really exciting. I already had couple of covers with Axl for Metal Hammer, Las Vegas Magazine and Hard Rock Hotel magazine, but this one was the one that made me the happiest.
What surprised you the most about GNR when you became part of their world?
The most surprising thing was that the environment wasn’t that unfamiliar to me and I felt really comfortable. It was similar to my previous lifestyle: shows, the preparation for it, stage, audience, traveling, staying at the same hotel, spending days or weeks with the same people, roommate situation/tourbus. Everything was the same but different. Even the amount of partying is probably the same (laughs)
You have also been able to shoot some other iconic bands – the Rolling Stones, KISS, ZZ Top. What do you hope to capture in your photographs of them that others may not have done in the past?
I’m not hoping to capture something different. I wasn’t there when they started or when they were peaking with their careers, but I’m capturing their last shows. And I want to capture it the same way they were captured forty years ago. The only difference between now and then is the years on the artists. The music, the energy, the epic life altering moments are still the same and it’s my honor to capture it.
When Hard Rock thought that my photos of KISS were different and put them next to legendary photographers like Bob Gruen, Lynn Goldsmith and Neal Preston, that was the biggest honor I could have received and made me jump to the ceiling (laughs); because to take a “different” photo of KISS in the same make-up and costumes they use for decades is not easy and I don’t know how I did it. I’m just trying to capture the inner beauty and energy.
What was it like shooting The Rolling Stones?
It was my dream come true. I shot them in Vienna, Austria. I only had a photo pass for first 2 songs but it was unbelievable. Of course I wish I could be there longer and shoot more but it wasn’t possible. I didn’t meet any of them but I know Darryl [Jones, Stones bass player] as he toured with me and The Dead Daisies in UK.
Since you had to learn the workings of a DSLR pretty much on your own, what part of the camera or the photography was the most difficult for you to master in the beginning?
Technical aspects of digital cameras are not that difficult once you understand how it all works. Post-processing, though, was the hardest to master and I’m still learning. When I look at first year of my photos I’m ashamed. But I was learning on the go and after a lot of practice I created my own style. But there’s always hundreds of new things to learn every day.
What is your camera of choice & why do you prefer that over the others?
I use Canon 5D Mark II and Mark III. I love those as they are not that huge and heavy, as for example Nikon D4, but have an amazing performance in low light. I’m super happy with them as in the environment I work in they give me the maximum I can ask for.
Which element is the one you hate to shoot in the most: heat, cold or rain?
I LOVE elements and I love shooting outdoor venues because of that. You know what to expect from indoor venue and you know what you going to get. Outdoors you can be surprised by the craziest weather changes and that creates amazing photo opportunities as the weather changes the whole vibe. You feel the breeze on your face and everything sounds and feels different.
What do you think is the hardest thing about being a professional music photographer today?
Being able to make living out of it
In your opinion, what makes a photograph iconic?
It perfectly captures some event or situation, it’s recognizable by masses and has an impact on public opinion. It’s a hard question (laughs)
Passion is an important part of your work. You can feel what your photographs are telling. What do you see when you look through the lens, whether it be in nature or people?
I’m capturing them just the way they truly are in their element. Musicians get into this trance where they are connecting to the higher energies. Music is flowing through them and connects with the audience in an incredibly transcendental way. I want to capture those spiritual high points, capture artists at the perfect moment when their souls are completely exposed.
Why does your passion lie in black & white photography? Why do you love it so much?
With black & white, there’s no distractions and you can concentrate on the energy and feelings that the musician is experiencing and delivering to the audience.
What do you think has been your greatest triumph so far in capturing something in a photograph?
Every good photograph I take is my personal triumph and celebration of the job I love.
Can you tell us your experience shooting such striking photos in India?
I went to Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India to shoot a documentary movie with a small crew. I was doing stills for the project and we were backpacking thoughout that area for 10 days. It was an amazing experience and I learned a lot about myself and the culture.
Let’s talk music: who were your favorite bands/musicians when you were growing up?
I grew up in post-communist Czechoslovakia and the music just started to come in from outside. I don’t remember anyone listening to anything else but the music that was made within our country. There was a lot of rock so I was listening to that as well as to a lot of classical music as my mom was a figure skater and I was dancing ballet for years.
Did you ever have any inklings of being an actress or musical performer?
I was thinking about becoming a dancer at some point for sure but never actress or musical performer. I always liked the beauty of the moment in dance and never believed in magic of recreating those moments in theatre. That’s why I found myself in my element doing the style of photography I do. I’m a documentarist.
Who was the first real rock star you ever met?
Mick Jagger. It was in a small club in New York when I came there for the first time. I was seventeen or eighteen at that time and I came to this bar with a friend of mine and it was really empty except a few people at the back. So we joined them. It was Mick Jagger with his daughter and some people at one table and Leonardo DiCaprio at the other table with some friends. It was a great night and I fell in love with New York City.
Being a photographer, what was the craziest thing you have seen happen onstage?
My ass (laughs) not joking. My ass on those huge screens when I was shooting Aerosmith and I jumped right in front of the camera guy to get a close-up from the stage of Joe and Steven and then when I saw the image with the corner of my eye I wanted to vanish from embarrassment (laughs). But seriously, there is crazy things happening on stage/backstage every show and it’s hard to pick one.
Do you find it easier to do a residency like GNR did in 2012 and 2014, or the constant traveling from town to town?
Residency was easier as we didn’t have to travel, but it was difficult to make it look different on the photos as the environment was the same. But both of the residencies were awesome as well as touring.
What band would you still love to photograph?
Led Zeppelin, if there ever be reunion, definitely more of The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, David Bowie if he will perform again, Iggy Pop. Too many to list all. And after all of those are done then I will start shooting younger bands. There is enough time for those (laughs)
How long before we get to see a book from you of your photographs? Is that a goal for you?
I definitely want to put one or more books out at some point. Hopefully sooner than later.
You have such a sweet nature but how tough do you really have to be to be in this business, to have an actual career in this business?
When I’m on tour, I’m a roadie. It took a while to build a respect and be accepted in a wolfpack. This business is not built for girly girls and you have to show your teeth and horns once in a while to gain respect in male dominated industry. Of course, sometimes people make you feel uncomfortable but I think that happens at any job and any industry, right? You just learn how to deal with it. Did you see the sharp spikes on my camera strap? (laughs)
You were the official photographer for the Nelson Mandela Legacy Of Hope Foundation Event last year. That must have been a great honor for you.
It was and still is an honor to be part of this amazing organization filled with influential and warm hearted people.
You still spend time in Slovakia. What do you love most about your homeland?
I love everything and I’m feeling super blessed that I was born there. We have amazing nature, mountains, lakes, thermal springs, caves, unbelievable food and welcoming people.
You have this wonderful poem as a tattoo. Why did that particular one speak to you so deeply?
It’s by Indian poet Kalidasa and its called Salutation to the Dawn. It’s about living for now. That nothing else exists.
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth;
The glory of action;
The splendor of achievement;
For yesterday is but a dream,
And tomorrow is only a vision;
But today, well lived, makes every yesterday
a dream of happiness,
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
What are your plans for 2015 & what goals do you still want to pursue in the coming years?
I have a lot of plans and hopefully a few will become reality soon. It will be surprise (laughs)
All photographs provided by Katarina Benzova