Every picture Eagle resident Howard Risk shot during his 35 years as a professional photographer has a story.
When he snapped photos of Sonny and Cher’s first concert at the Hollywood Bowl, the fans were out of control, trying to surge up onto the stage and grab the silver bangles off Cher’s bellbottom pants. Risk recalls the frightened singer stepped up to the microphone and begged the fans to stay back, openly admitting she was scared.
Then there was the time the members of the Beach Boys band took a liking to the photographer and attempted to take him to Paris on a moment’s notice.
Risk climbed a tower to shoot the 1975 Rose Bowl Parade, when baseball great Hank Aaron was the grand marshal.
Risk, 73, is retired now, and no longer brushes with famous people every day. But his work was recently on display at the Eagle library.
“Some bug name’
Risk’s interest in photography started when he was a kid in Chicago. He remembers learning to develop photos in a basement where he had to side-step rats and mice.
That interest carried over to his adult life. He moved to California and went to work for Capitol Records, where he labored in the darkroom for two years until a boss gave him an opportunity to work as a photographer. People who bought records by the top artists in the 1960s and 70s will recognize many of Risk’s photos.
Capitol Records was a major player in the music world in those days, and Risk was immediately thrust into the circles where celebrities moved.
He remembers snapping photos of poet Rod McKuen at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go club. McKuen had a noticeable scar on his face. The photographers were always instructed to use a camera that shot large negatives, because the larger format was easier to touch up.
Risk made career out of shooting record album covers, first for Capitol Records, then later as a free-lancer for RC Records, Liberty Records, and for whoever offered an assignment.
Among the entertainers Risk has seen through the viewfinder of his Nikon camera are Merle Haggard, Barry White, Little Richard, Ike and Tina Turner, and Nancy Wilson. Then there were the bands, who were varying degrees of famous. He photographed a cover for the band, Sugar Loaf, a Boulder-based group whose big hit was the rock-radio classic, “Green-Eyed Lady.”
He recalls with a laugh the time a boss asked him to do a photo shoot for an up-and-coming band out of London that “has some bug name.” It was the Beatles.
“They were just assignments. When I shot people, I didn’t pay attention to their names,” he recalls, ruefully. There was one, musician, however, who made him pay attention. A fan of jazz music since he was a teenager, Risk was thrilled to be assigned to photograph Count Basie.
“I was enthused about that,” he says.
His celebrity connections helped him find work, and friends. He recalls working a director’s dinner party at Gregory Peck’s home. He found Peck to be the most impeccable of gentlemen. One of the guests, Frank Sinatra, proved to be the opposite of Peck, and throughout the evening was rude and demanding of the help. At one point, he cursed at Risk, using crude language. The next day, it was Peck who telephoned to apologize.
He remembers shooting a musical group named “Earthquake.” One week after the initial shoot, they called him back to do it again, because one member had died of a drug overdose. Three weeks later, they summoned him again. Another drug overdose, and another member was dead.
Although he primarily shoots people, and there are many famous faces in his portfolio, Risk also has a photographer’s eye for the unusual. He snapped a photo of a peeling billboard that was, ironically, advertising the movie “The Last Picture Show.”
His lens also caught a hand-made bumper sticker reading “Just learning stick shift-don’t tailgate.” He has a series of photos of intriguing signs shot on Sunset Strip.
“Everywhere I went, I had my camera with me. It was an extension of my arm. My finger was ready to click,” he says.
His portfolio includes charming photos of a baby looking at a baby-sized statue; sweet portraits of brides, and artful use of light and shadows. When assigned to shoot a signing group called “Carnival,” he was put-off by the people, but fulfilled the job by shooting scenes at actual carnival.
“I have a good eye. When I see something, I shoot it,” he says.
Soap opera stint
After 35 years as a professional, he found the nature of the work was changing. Celebrities started brining their own favored photographers to shoots.
“Anybody with a camera would shoot a concert for free. The handwriting was on the wall,” he says, “That’s the nature of the beast.”
He stayed in Hollywood, did some acting, including a brief stint on “General Hospital” and a show called “New Marrieds.”
In 1997, he decided to drive from Los Angeles to Chicago. His car broke down on Vail Pass. He found himself stranded in Eagle County at the same time the County Fair was running. He went to the rodeo every day, where he befriended then County Clerk Sarah Fisher. He liked the country and returned the next summer. Fisher helped him get a job at the rodeo. Risk found he liked the slower pace of mountain living.
An Eagle family “took him in” for several years. Now he’s in an apartment of his own.
Local photographer Mike Crabtree urged Risk to display some of his photos at the library. Risk is now working on a deal to sell copies of those photos, which are collector’s items.
He’s also working on a couple of movie scripts, writing a bit of poetry and working on an autobiography.
“I’ll never retire,” he says.
This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.