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Shooting for the stars
by Mollee Francisco
Mar 09, 2012 | 4963 views | 0 0 comments | 75 75 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Shanahan was on stage to capture this moment in Boise when Eddie Van Halen saluted his brother Alex’s drum solo. (Photo by Rob Shanahan/
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There is no such thing as a short story when Rob Shanahan’s telling it. But with a past as rich as his, who can blame him?

It may have taken a couple of decades, but the Norwood native (pre-Young America merger) has worked his way up in the ranks to become one of the preeminent music photographers of his generation. He’s a favorite among artists like Joe Walsh, Sheila E. and Ringo Starr. And he’s got a book full of photos (with forward written by Starr himself) to prove it.

Shanahan will sign copies of his first book — the aptly named “Volume 1: Through the Lens of Music Photographer Rob Shanahan” — at the Jeune Lune in Minneapolis on March 15. The event is also a gallery show where a limited number of prints from the book will be available for purchase.

“I’m so honored and excited to share the success of this book with my home state,” he said in a phone interview.


Shanahan, who bears a slight resemblance to actor Matthew McConaughey, fell in love with photography at a young age. As a teenager, he commandeered the Pentax camera his mother had bought his dad one Christmas. “He never figured out how to use it,” Shanahan explained.

And while his dad may not have mastered the camera, Shanahan quickly taught himself how to not only shoot photographs, but also how to develop his own film in the family bathroom. “I still remember unwinding that first roll of film and looking at the negatives,” he said. “I don’t know what made me think I could do it.”

Shanahan graduated high school in 1984 and began taking business classes in Mankato. He kept up with his photography along the way, taking aerial shots of farms in southern Minnesota and renting dark room space at a local photo lab.

Then in 1988, just a couple semesters shy of his degree, Shanahan decided to up and move to California with his 16-year-old brother T.J. where they hoped to get into the music scene.

Shanahan bought an old van from his high school computer teacher, packed it with his drums, his photography equipment and a box of 8-tracks. “I pointed the vehicle toward the West Coast and hit the gas pedal,” he said.

The brothers arrived in Los Angeles not long after, their excitement peaking as they spotted the famous rock clubs lining the Sunset Strip.

Shanahan said the two made their first stop at the Sunset Strip Tattoo where they walked in to find Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee getting a tattoo on his shoulder. It’s a memory that still amazes Shanahan, even after all these years and several photo shoots with Tommy Lee later.


Getting a start in L.A. was not easy for the Shanahan brothers.

“Thinking back, it was incredibly brave to do that, but on the other hand it was also incredibly naïve,” said Shanahan.

For a long time, the two lived in a van, eating “whatever we could get our hands on” and slowly chipping away at the $300 in savings they had brought with them. “We survived somehow,” said Shanahan.

Between hanging out with other musicians at the rock clubs and managing a photo lab/studio, Shanahan eventually caught a break. He befriended a sports photographer who helped him get a freelance job shooting NFL games.

“Shooting football is really fun,” he said. Shanahan would spend the next decade shooting NFL and later major league baseball games around the country.

“I wasn’t totally into it though,” he confessed. “The industry didn’t feel like home to me. Music was always my first love.”

Shanahan’s time in sports photography wasn’t wasted, however. In fact, it helped him build valuable photography skills shooting in low light and fast action settings which would prove incredibly useful when the music business finally opened its doors to him.

Shanahan capitalized on a long friendship with Eagles drummer Scott Crago to get his first music gig shooting an ad for Paiste — a cymbal company. “Great guy,” said Shanahan, of Crago. “He was instrumental in getting me started.”

From there, Shanahan’s music photography career began to take off. He aimed it in the direction of his photography idols Jim Marshall, Bob Gruen and Annie Leibovitz.

“An A&R (record company) guy called and he wanted me to shoot more,” recalled Shanahan. A youth spent playing drums was beginning to pay off for him as the gigs kept coming.

Shanahan shot photos of Police drummer Stewart Copeland, Tommy Lee and Alex Van Halen. But it was his shoot with former Prince drummer Sheila E. that would provide the biggest launch pad for his career.

Sheila E. contacted Shanahan after the shoot to ask him to come take some photos while she toured with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band in 2005. Shanahan didn’t hesitate to accept the job.

“Ringo walks in and says ‘I hear you’re Sheila’s photographer,’” a star-struck Shanahan recalled of his first meeting with the Beatle. “We immediately started talking drums.”

The two bonded over the fact that they were both lefties playing on right hand kits.

“Drummers have this unspoken bond,” he explained. “Drummers just love other drummers.”

Starr’s publicist later asked Shanahan to join them on the road. “I thought to myself, ‘Holy crap, I’m working with a frickin’ Beatle.’ It never stopped from there.

“I knew I was home.”


Seven years later, Shanahan is still taking photos for Starr. Several of them appear in his new book including a playful portrait of Paul McCartney kissing Starr’s cheek and another candid shot of Starr, McCartney, Walsh and Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards laughing together at Starr’s 70th birthday.

The latter is easily Shanahan’s favorite photo in the book. “The Stones and the Beatles together,” said Shanahan. “It was a really special night.”

And the photo exemplifies what Shanahan strived to give the reader — a behind-the-scenes, all-access pass to the world of music that he’s come to know over the years.

“Volume 1” is so jam packed with photos of famous musicians that it reads like a Who’s Who of music royalty. The 224 pages include shots of everyone from Sammy Hagar and Barry Manilow to Elton John and Christina Aguilera to Dave Koz and Coldplay’s Chris Martin to Dave Matthews and Josh Groban.

“We wanted to come out swinging,” said Shanahan, whose wife Hillary Weiss handled the graphic design of the book.

The photos in “Volume 1” represent only a fraction of what’s actually in Shanahan’s vast portfolio. He hopes there are more books where this came from. And he still has a wish list of musicians he has yet to work with including Mick Jagger, Tom Petty and Minnesota’s own Bob Dylan.

Until then, he’s counting his blessings. “I’m pretty lucky,” he said. “This has gone beyond my wildest dreams.”

Rob Shanahan book signing and gallery event

What: Shanahan will sign copies of his debut book "Volume 1." A limited number of prints from the book will also be available for purchase.

Where: The Jeune Lune, 105 N. First St., Minneapolis

When: 6 p.m., Thursday, March 15

Cost: Free. RSVP at Books cost $45.

More info:


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