Last week, the Forest Hills native flew in from Los Angeles to discuss his new book, “Neal Preston: Exhilarated and Exhausted,” at Rizzoli Bookstore in Manhattan.
Joining him was his good friend, Oscar-winner Cameron Crowe, who he met long ago at a rock concert. Crowe, who wrote the foreword for Preston's new book, interviewed him about his memories and talents.
“Flipping through the book last night was like listening to a lot of great music,” Crowe said. “In a world where all of these bands are now splintering and some people say rock is the new jazz, why is it that some of these photos have lasted longer than the actual bands?”
“There is no easy answer,” Preston responded. “If any photographer thinks that you shot a picture at 8:00 and at 8:02 you look at it and think that’s iconic, I guarantee that you’re wrong, since you need the benefit of hindsight to know that it’s iconic.”
He acknowledged the role that “timing” and “all kinds of people who let me do what I do the way I do it” play in making a photo great. The 336-page book includes personal stories and photos from concerts and behind-the-scenes.
“Shooting live music is something few photographers do really well,” Preston said. “I just discovered one day I was good at this because it felt natural to me. You can’t teach it, you can’t learn it, you just do it.
“It's one part photography, one part love of music, one part a love of theatre and theatrical lighting, one part hero worship, one part timing and 95 parts instinct,” he added.
Photos include Rod Stewart filming the video for “If We Fall In Love Tonight,” members of R.E.M. filming the video for “E-Bow The Letter” in 1996, The Jackson Five in 1974, Bruce Springsteen in 1994, and Kodak negatives of Bob Dylan with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at rehearsals in 1986.
“I wanted the book to be about how it is when you have a job like I have,” Preston said. “I thought writing the book would be the hard part and the picture selection would be the easiest, but had a complete 100-percent turnaround.”
At some point next year, Preston plans to release a special edition of “Exhilarated and Exhausted” that will be limited to 100 copies.
“No other photographer has ever released anything like what I’m planning to do,” he said.
During his three days in town, Preston also led this columnist on a tour of his old stomping grounds. In a twist, this time he was the subject in photos at sites that were important to his childhood and teen years.
In front of the Midway Theatre, he called the visit to his hometown “surreal.” He remembered a candy store (now CVS) adjacent to Sterling National Bank.
“When I was a teen, I worked there putting the Sunday New York Times together,” he said. “I would take all of the money that I made, go to the T-Bone, and get a cheeseburger.”
Around age 12, his brother-in-law gave him his first camera, an Ansco Speedex 4.5, but later he was able to afford his first pro camera, a Leica M3. Forest Hills Photo Center was once located on the west side of Continental Avenue.
“That was a real camera store,” Preston said. “I used to stand in front of the window and stare at the cameras, none of which I could afford.”
When he was 14, he said the German couple that owned the store “got so sick of me, they thought they might as well hire me.” Addie Vallins was a soda-and-burger shop on the opposite side of the street.
“They had the best milkshakes in the world,” he said.
Pointing to the former Continental Theatre on Austin Street, he said, “that was where ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ opened, and I must have seen it 17 times in the summer of 1964. I hid under the seats until the next showing.”
At 71-20 Austin Street was Revelation, the first hip clothing store, and at 108-42 Queens Boulevard stood Forest Hills Music Shop. One of the most important spots was 71-11 Austin Street, where he met music promoter Gary Kurfirst sitting on a second-story fire escape.
“We thought that it was the ticket office for the local concert series, the Singer Bowl, and we took prints up to try to get free tickets,” Peston said.
During the tour, he also posed in front of his second story window of The Fairfax at 110-15 71st Road and a corner mailbox.
“I used to sit on this mailbox with my little Panasonic transistor radio and listen to ‘The Good Guys’ on WMCA,” he said. “I remember hearing ‘We Could Work It Out’ by The Beatles.”
The last stop on the tour was Forest Hills High School, where he reminisced about being a member of Play Pro, a theatrical club.
“We had keys to every room backstage,” he said. “It was great! By the time I was a junior and senior, I was already working in the business.”
He recalled helping the rock band The Knickerbockers carry equipment into the school prior to a concert.
“It could have been the first show I was ever at,” Preston said. “This is all my neighborhood, it is as Neal as you can get.”