Jimi Hendrix: Re-emerged
An interview with Mike Berkofsky
This is the first of a series of interviews presenting a selection of artists who have submitted their works to LoVArts’ ‘Infinite London’. Hannah Prime talks to photographer Mike Berkofsky about his beginnings as an emerging artist in London, his 1967 magazine shoot with Jimi Hendrix, and the rediscovery of his picture forty years later.
It was hard to wrap up, with Mike Berkofsky. He is a story teller, and a charming one at that. We meet up in Greek Street, gently bustling on a cool summer evening. It is a shame Soho has changed, he says, become far more commercial. But it is still as vibrant as it was back in the sixties. And since his return to London in February of this year, he has enjoyed exploring and reconnecting with the city which has always been his home, always drawn him back in.
Of course, this is not just the story of photographer Mike Berkofsky. It is of the rediscovered and recreated, the lost and found. It is of an emerging artist trying to make his way in a rapidly changing vibrant city where “you didn’t have to be a gentleman to be a photographer anymore.” There was a burgeoning, exciting culture and Mike Berkofsky was very much a part of it.
The photo shoot took place just around the corner from the café we meet up in, Mike tells me. The editors at Rave had contacted the 22 year old after seeing his fashion photography of a Lucy Clayton model, endorsed by none other than photographer Terrence Donovan. It was here, in the Soho of 1967, that he took his iconic photo of Jimi Hendrix, who had recently released his debut single ‘Hey Joe’.
The 24 year old was shy and unassuming, a quiet yet striking young man dressed in a beautiful red velvet suit. “He was so sweet, hardly said a word really, but he liked London and liked the rain. He was impressive, already tall without those great heels. I got him in front of the camera, but his hair was blending in to the blue background I’d set up. Now the studio had so much equipment, more than I could have ever afforded at this stage of my career. I had made use of the lighting they’d provided, and found a red filter, which I placed on a strobe behind him to light up the back of his head and that amazing hair. This gave him his halo.”
Mike only had twenty minutes for the shoot, before Jimi had to leave for his interview. “I shot just three rolls of film, and it was only afterwards that I thought ‘What have I done?’ I’d never make it if I continued like this. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, you keep going, you keep taking photographs until someone pulls the plug.” It was only his second magazine shoot, and the young Mike Berkofsky was still learning, still exploring. But the results of the photographer’s twenty minutes with the soon-to-be icon remain an impressive display of talent.
Mike developed and delivered the rolls to Rave immediately, only retaining his clip test, which he used to check the exposure. “I look back now and see how naïve I was. I would never do such a thing now, allowing the exposures to slip away like that. But I was young, inexperienced. I took a clip text of course, to see how they had come out, and it’s lucky I did. This is the only one that remains.”
At the Rave offices, the exposures, of which there were only about 30, were checked and selected. The rolls of film were kept by the magazine, and promised to be delivered to him when they were finished with them. Despite Berkofsky’s persistent requests to have them back, they were never returned. “I asked for them, of course, but I didn’t want to be too much of a nuisance. They had promised me work and I had a good relationship with the editors. Off the back of this, I had been asked to shoot for 19 Magazine for the next two years. I was sure I would get them back at some point, but that optimism was something Terence Donovan reprimanded me for. You must keep a hold of your work.”
“I was bitterly disappointed. I thought I had lost the film forever. As well as that, the reproduction of the photographs in the magazine was horrendous. With their four colour set up, they couldn’t print it properly. The red came out pink, the contrast was off; it was so disappointing.”
“I thought I’d screwed up, I thought I’d never get work again with this shoot. I threw the magazine in the bin. It was awful. There was no way I could use it for my portfolio.” But it was this shoot which kick started Mike’s career. Building up his relationship with the editors of Rave was a crucial part of getting more work. While Mike’s career developed, the old clip test of Jimi lay forgotten amongst boxes of exposures.
There was a burgeoning blooming culture of music, art and fashion, it was new and exciting and Berkofsky rode on the waves of these emerging scenes. Later, he would go on to shoot photographs for Marie Claire, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and moved into advertising for clients including Levis, Miss Selfridge, and Bacardi. Berkofsky’s move to Los Angeles, where he lived until early this year, presented new opportunities. He established his own company, and went on to teach. Particularly striking at this time, he says, was the changing shift which brought celebrities to the forefront of advertising. “Celebrities could sell. They became the centrepiece of advertising campaigns.” Mike repeatedly looked for his Jimi Hendrix clip test, but lost hope that he would ever find it.
Mike’s former assistant Robbie Howard rang him up in 2010, to tell him about a pile of boxes that had been in storage. Unearthed, they had been damaged by time, and Robbie had intended to discard them. Damp, mouldy and bleached, these boxes contained some hidden gems. When Mike rummaged through years of long lost originals, he was delighted to find Jimi’s photograph staring back at him.
“I couldn’t believe it. I took it to the lab, and asked them to scan it and clean it. It was then a matter of cleaning it up digitally. The process was so much harder than I envisioned. There was fungus all over it, everywhere. Pixel by pixel, I cleaned up the scanned photograph. The hair has been the hardest, bringing each individual strand back to life.” Three years on and still in progress, the photograph is impressive. The colours are bright and bold. Jimi stares straight down the lens of the camera and into the eyes of the onlooker, his red halo like that of a religious icon. Berkofsky didn’t take a picture of a shy, quiet, acne-ridden 24 year old, just embarking on his career; he captured a rock god.
I tell Mike that I am 22 years old, the same age he was at the time of the Jimi Hendrix shoot. What advice would Mike have for someone of my age, just marking out the beginnings of a career; a time weaved with ambition but uncertainty? “If you find something you want to do, then you have to do it. Get yourself out there, make yourself known. Take opportunities, yes, but more importantly make opportunities. You have to have both ability and enthusiasm, and to hone your skills.”
At the beginning of his career, Mike himself made his own luck through hard work, gaining experience and meeting people. He jokes of his father in law at the time, who wanted him to be a taxi driver. Mike is glad of his decision to pursue his own goals, “but I was taught an important lesson! If you want to drive a cab you have to go on the knowledge.” It’s about sharpening your skills and building your portfolio up, demonstrating your talent. “My mum used to take me to the National Portrait Gallery when I was younger. I could spend hours there, marvelling at the Renaissance paintings.” There is a unique power to the collaboration of inspiration and aspiration.
Comparisons can easily be drawn between the London of Berkofsky’s youth to the London of today. There is an exciting atmosphere of possibility and availability brought about by the digital age. Mike grew up in East London and was shocked to see how different the city is now. But he has found a London with a similar atmosphere to the city of the 1960s. Now the photographer finds himself in a position similar to that of his twenty-two year old self. He is finding ways to promote himself and engage with the London arts scene. Submission into LoVArts’ ‘Infinite London’ exhibition is one channel he is pursuing. “Jimi Hendrix’s music was a soundtrack to the London I knew and loved. He was integral to the culture of the city at the time.”
This photograph of Jimi Hendrix was taken with an emerging musician in front of the camera and an emerging artist behind it. As he is in the final stages of restoring this early image of his, Mike finds himself in a new chapter of life, reconnecting with London and so many of the people that he once worked with. In many ways, the photographer is reliving his experience of finding his feet at the beginning of his career. “It has been amazing, really, rediscovering old connections and getting back into contact with all of these people. I’m excited about London and everything it has to offer. It’s good to be back.”