Q&A / Karl Ferris - Hypergallery

Q&A / Karl Ferris

The cover of the 1967 Jimi Hendrix release Are You Experienced hit the racks in the USA with Karl Ferris' pioneering use of infrared film, psychedelic colours, a fish-eye lens. It also presented Jimi Hendrix, Noel Redding, and Mitch Mitchell in incredible style, thanks to Ferris' unique eye for fashion.

On the occasion of our October 2022 exhibition, The Karl Ferris Psychedelic Experience, Karl and I sat down to talk about this seminal album cover art.

Karl took us back to the beginning of his professional journey; to the years before his ship landed right in the epicentre of swinging London and he made his indelible mark on cultural history.

Karl Ferris in 1966

Karl Ferris. 1966.


KF: Well, it really started in Vancouver, in Canada. When I was in the military on conscription my parents emigrated to Vancouver. After my service ended, I went to visit and stayed there for a few years.

Because I'd been an aerial photographer in the RAF, I thought I'd like to become a professional photographer. So I went to the best studio in Vancouver and basically knocked on the door. I'd taken a few photographs of girlfriends and stuff like that, you know, sort of trying it out. So I went and saw the master photographer there, a guy called Harold Nygard. He was Scandinavian and I'm half Swedish, so we hit it off very well. And he said, “I need an assistant, come and be my assistant”. So, I did, and he taught me all about professional photography.

I worked with him for about three years. He was doing a lot of product photography, but he was also doing catalogue work for the department stores. Every year, they'd bring out a catalogue, with fashion pictures, and I was at the sessions being an assistant; loading up his cameras, adjusting lights and stuff like that, talking to the models, telling them where to get changed, giving out dresses and all that.

You’re getting tooled up with everything that you're going to use later on.

KF: Yeah. And I was about 19 at the time, basically the same age as all the models. I was chatting with them and getting on very well with them. He's an older guy, in his 50s, and he said, “We get on so much easier when you’re here, because now we've got communication with the girls and I'm actually getting better pictures. Then he said “it is really out of my depth - I just do this because I have this contract to do it every year. How would you like to take it over?” And I said, “yeah!” So, he gave me a few pointers and had me shoot some tests, and he said they were perfect, so they went into the catalogue. I shot the catalogues for him after that, and I ended up with a bunch of photographs of models.

He said, “you are really talented in fashion and portrait photography, but you're not in the best place to do that. You've come from the best place to do that, which is in London. You should go back.” This was all in 1965.

That's a great mentor. To lose you in order to help you.

KF: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And he really encouraged me to go back there. He said to build myself up a portfolio, that he would check the pictures and make sure they were the best ones.

At that time, I was in contact with an old friend of mine from the Royal Air Force, who told me the Beat music scene was really happening in England; the Beatles and their kind of music were a Hit. He said, “you should come back, I don't even know why you left.”

I was going out with one of the models then, and she came from a well-to-do family. Her father used to basically run the port of Vancouver, organizing all the comings and goings of the ships. I had a beatnik lifestyle, much disapproved of by the father, so when I told him one day that I was thinking of going back to London he said, “yeah, yeah, that's a good idea”. He just wanted to get rid of me. I wasn't right for his daughter.

So he sorted you out with a ship!

KF: Yeah! He got me a ship within a couple of weeks. He put me on a Norwegian freighter that sailed down from Vancouver through the Panama Canal and up to London’s East End docks a month later. I got paid for working as a steward, and I signed off with a thousand pounds…and I knew what I was gonna do with that.

As soon as I got off, I went up to the Triumph motor car factory, from which I purchased a Triumph Spitfire sports car, into which I threw my portfolio in the back and drove down to London…I wasn’t stupid enough to try and get into Vogue or Harpers Bazaar initially because I'd be up against the big professionals like David Bailey and all those people.

Somebody said I should try the teenage magazines to start, so I went to Petticoat Magazine, 19 Magazine, and started with them. I showed my portfolio and they said, “yeah, that's good, here’s a couple of models, take 'em down to the Thames embankment and see what you come back with, and let’s see if we could work with you”. So I went and had an incredible session with the two models. Upon seeing the results they were elated and they said, “yeah, you can work for us, You’re hired.” So that's how I started out doing the fashion photography, with these young models in London.

'Flower Girl', 19 Magazine Cover 1967
'Flower Girl', 19 Magazine Cover by Karl Ferris. 1967.

From Canada to London, working with models, and socializing.

KF: Yeah. Socializing. I went out with some of them, and they would invite me to go to parties; and who were models going out with, but rock musicians. So, I met the rock musicians through their girlfriends, the models.

Is that how you came into contact originally with Jimi?

KF: Kind of, yeah. Not directly from that, but it got me into the rock business. Initially it got started with Charlotte Martin. She was one of my models and she was also the girlfriend of Eric Clapton at the time. So, I met Eric and got on well with him and we used to go to Kurosawa’s Japanese Samurai movies together.

Oh, brilliant.

KF: Yeah, and he said, “you gotta take some promo shots of my Cream group”. So I took some promotional shots of the group and they turned out really great, and then I was contacted by Mayfair Publicity, which was the agency that was working for Cream, for Robert Stigwood, and then with Donovan and Jimi Hendrix even - as they were doing PR for those people also. So, once I got in with them, I got connected to all these other rock stars.

Then I met Graham Nash, of The Hollies, who was a very good influence on my career. He personally liked me. His father used to be a photographer and he was a frustrated photographer himself. He wanted me to take the pictures of the Hollies and he was interested in breaking from the typical Hollies music thing, which was kind of like a lesser version of the Beatles. When you couldn't afford the Beatles back in mid-sixties, you got the Hollies, basically. So, as he'd taken LSD, he’d had his mind expanded, and he wanted to go into a new, more psychedelic style of music, and he did that. But he needed an album cover to go with it. That is why he called it Evolution. He wanted some kind of psychedelic album cover. I wasn’t yet doing the infrared at that time in late 1966, but the whole way I designed it was sort of psychedelic. The infrared film came a few months later.

The Hollies 'Evolution' by Karl Ferris and The Fool. 1967.

The Hollies 'Evolution' by Karl Ferris and The Fool. 1967.


I could ask you loads about that Hollies cover. I’ll have to do that another time..and The Fool.

KF: That was done by multi-layering; sandwiching one photograph on top of another, on top of another. Three photographs. Then I became friends with Graham and he used to take me to his house, and invite me to meet famed rock stars. He would say, “Hey, you want to meet Mama Cass?” “Yeah!” So, we went to the Mama Cass party, and David Crosby was there and I met him. Then he'd take me to meet Paul Jones. Jones was a big solo singer at that time. Then the Walker Brothers. I hung out with them and took some promo shots of them.

Graham used to introduce me like, “This is my discovery Karl Ferris”, an ‘Icon with a Nikon’ he used to call me, when he introduced me to these people. And then one day he said, “you want to meet the Beatles?” We're going over there to a party at their house tonight, wanna come?” So I said, “yeah”. And I went along with him and met them there. First of all, at the party, then later on I saw them more often. I got closer to them, at the Yellow Submarine, Magical Mystery Tour and A Day In The Life wrap party. I filmed some bits of it, which later turned up on their Anthology DVD.

I was invited to Abbey Road Studios to hear some of their tracks for Sgt. Pepper. I was with Donovan who was recording A Gift From A Flower To A Garden, which I later shot the album cover picture for. I also shot Pattie Harrison modelling my medieval tunics designs.

Donovan 'A Gift From A Flower To A Garden'. Limited Edition album cover photograph print by Karl Ferris. 1967.


Mayfair Publicity needed a photographer to take pictures of Donovan, so I connected with Donovan through them, through his management. They wanted psychedelic photographs and portraits of him. Donovan was doing the Celtic medieval minstrel style of music at that time. They wanted something sort of psychedelic, Pre-Raphaelite looking. So I did The Gift album, and the promotional film in the same style.

Graham Nash was very tight with The Animals and knew Chas Chandler [Bassist in The Animals and manager of Jimi Hendrix]. He introduced me, and Chas said “I’ve got an artist that would be perfect for your style of photography.” He had seen the Hollies’ album and was very impressed by it. He showed it to Jimi, who said, “yeah, I need something like this for my debut American album”, Are You Experienced?. It had already been released in England a few months before, but now was going for the big international release in America.

So you met him, or you showed him, they sent in a portfolio or….?

KF: Chas took me over to his house with my portfolio and showed Jimi. As soon as I started talking with Jimi, we realized we had things in common. He said, “where are you from”? And I said, “Vancouver”. He said, “no!”. I said, “yes”. Then he said, “I used to go to school in Vancouver. I used to visit my grandmother, when my parents had fights. They used to send me to my grandmother across the border in Canada”. It was very close - Seattle and Vancouver are very close to each other.

He went to even school there, some of the times when he stayed for extended periods. So, we had this Vancouver thing to share, plus the military experience also. Not many people at that time had been in the military. We just bonded over that, plus the psychedelic thing. He was already into that, and he wanted to have something that represented his music, which was psychedelic, which wasn't just a portrait, the guy standing there with the cloak, up above the other guys, which was on his English album.

Well he found the right person in you. He said, “You are doing with photography what I'm doing with music”. Did that feel true to you at the time?

KF: Yeah, Knocking down the barriers and going out beyond...

How are you doing that, with that image then?

KF: Well, did we speak about the Kodak thing yet? Through my connection with Kodak London, and colour experimentation. Also, of course, the first thing I used to draw on was fashion photography. I did the fashion shots for 19 and Honey magazine, which were psychedelic – the first psychedelic fashion shots.

When you say that, you mean also that involves a bit of styling. We're not just talking about the camera work.

KF: No, I designed the image and did the styling too, you know, I did the whole thing. I had a lot of trouble with that, as I wouldn’t allow the fashion editors in the studio when they showed up. They wanted to put in their antiquated ideas, and I wanted to do new outside the box ideas, you know? I brought that to the rock scene also; I worked with hairdressers and the clothes used and stuff like that; basically I told them what I wanted.

With Jimi, for instance, when we chose to do this album cover in June ’67, I decided to go all out on this. I used my psychedelic infrared technique, picked out the outfits, and Jimi had this incredible wardrobe. He said, “well, I got a bunch of clothes here” and he opened up his cupboard. The first thing that jumped out at me was a jacket with psychedelic eyes on it. It had been painted by, incidentally, Mick Jagger's brother Chris Jagger, who was an artist, and painted it for Jimi. I said, “this is what we use.” Jimi said okay, and he pulled it out. He called it his ‘gypsy eyes jacket’.  I said “yes, that's it.”

On a subsequent visit, he was coming out of the shower, and his hair was all freaked out and napped out. And I said, “wow, man, that's incredible hair!. But maybe we could make it more even?”. He said, “how do you mean?” And I said “We'll just get these long bits here, trimmed off, and as his girlfriend was there, I said just trim a bit off here and there, to make it into more like a ball. And then the other members of the group loved it too, and they said “how can we get our hair like this?” The hairdresser said to just over-perm it. And that’s what they did. They over-permed it and got their hair all frizzed-out too. And so, the whole group had that style. And when people saw this, they said, hey, I want hair like that too, even Eric Clapton at that time, you know? People liked it and they wanted to emulate that look. So, yeah, the styling came into it that way. And then I took the other guys shopping down the King's Road and we bought a couple of jackets for them and they had the hair already.

Because of my previous experience I knew how the infrared colour film reacted to the foliage. So we went out in June, which is like maximum foliage development time, everything is very green and bursting with photosynthesis, which my special technique captures. It takes a photograph almost like aura photography; it gets a kind of glow to it too.

I said “if we wanna make this picture really freaky, I wanna make a intense psychedelic fish-eye three dimensional picture, and make it really freak out.

Then they're moving out at you. That's quite different to the Donovan picture.

KF: Yeah. Donovan was a more two dimensional, Mucha Art Nouveau poster style. There was only one fish-eye lense at the time. It was called the Nikkor 6mm lens. It was incredibly expensive. It was an experimental lens that they had made. And I was able to rent it - just paid a hundred pounds or something like that and rented it for two days.

Oh, you rented it?

KF: Yeah. It's a huge lens. You screwed the camera onto the back of the lens and made sure you didn't get your feet in it, because it photographs everything through 180 around you. So, I had the guys stand in front of this tree that was really green, and the leaves were all dripping down around them. And I had to bring the branches across them ‘cause I wanted them to back into it and merge with it. I’d got this idea that I wanted to emphasize Jimi's hands, because he has incredible hands, that could play anywhere on his guitar. So I got those very large in the picture and the rest of the guys round, and the whole image is circular, psychedelic photography.

Jimi Hendrix 'Are You Experienced'. Limited Edition album cover photograph print by Karl Ferris. 1967.


And that was at Kew Gardens.

KF: Yeah. Then we did some studio sessions after that. I had a studio in Hampstead at the time. I had him come and do a bunch of promo shots there too.

You did a lot of photographs in that year, couple of years?

KF: Yeah, The Hollies Evolution cover, three Donovan covers and the Hendrix Are You Experienced US cover and Ladyland US cover. That was shot at Brian Epstein’s Saville Theatre. He bought a theatre that he used on Sundays for special concerts. He used to have all the prime groups that were around, including Jimi Hendrix who played there twice. The Rolling Stones played there, Cream played there. Everybody of note played there except the Beatles who were not allowed to play there because they chose to be…

Set apart?

KF: Yeah, although they all had their boxes. There were old fashioned style theatre boxes all around. The Beatles had one box and The Stones had another box. We had to say, “stop throwing stuff across at each other all the time.”  I was the house photographer, and I did lots of poster shots for the Saville Theatre.

So again, it's all just putting the imagery and the scene together in this beautiful way.

KF: Exactly, plus, I had a name and reputation by then, and they used to say “just send for ‘The icon with the Nikon’”.

I'm just wondering - back to the cover shot - after you finished in the gardens, because there are a few outtakes that are just gorgeous also. Did you, and then did you just pack up and head back to the studio after that or was that the end of the day?

KF: No, that was the end of that day. We arrived late and ran outta light on the first day. And as it turned out, I got the whole thing set up with the giant fish-eye lens, found the perfect tree and I got everything perfect: the group and the light was perfect and I pushed the button on the camera and actually, as it turned out, the very first shot that I shot on the camera was the one that was used on the album cover. I took pictures after that, but that was the one. It was just meant to be. We ran outta light though, and we had some warden come out saying they were closing soon or something. We had no idea that they actually closed, you know? We were completely out there. So, he said, “okay, come back tomorrow”. We went back the next day, and I shot a whole bunch of shots, one of which was used on the Japanese cover, released at that time. Again, all using the infrared, but a different colour came up; different colour, different clothes.

The big fans were gonna want to collect them all.

KF: Yeah. And they had some flowers in the Japanese one. The other one was just a tree and the foliage, but this one had flowers in it, and that also changed the colour.

I love it though: first click, first shot.

KF: Yeah. It just turned out that great. It was meant to be!

Well, good point to end on. I think. Thank you so much Karl. It’s been a super-honour to talk with you.

KF: Thank you very much. Thanks for having me. It's nice to reminisce and recall all those great memories. Unfortunately, those days have past us now, but we should all try to get back there, to the Summer of Love.