Updated: Sep 2, 2022
By Elizabeth Gracen:
The photography of Esther Halio-Peyron immediately connects me to my heydays in the 1980s when a new way of experiencing music appeared right in our very own living rooms—the music video! Thanks to the launch of MTV in August 1981, we watched the birth of pop and rock 'n' roll artists from around the world. It was glorious! Remember all the great videos that we watched over and over, and how it changed our lives in such a positive way? Remember saying "I want my MTV!?"
The GRAMMY Museum in Cleveland, Mississippi, celebrated the anniversary of this television phenomena with the launch of a major exhibit that opened this summer and will continue until June 2022. MTV TURNS FORTY explores the history of the channel and its influence on the music industry and our lives.
Esther Halio-Peyron was selected as the sole photographer showcased at the exhibit. Her work as one of MTV's first staff photographers gave her access to iconic artists such as Lou Reed, B.B. King, Rod Stewart, the Eagles, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Eurythmics, and many more. With an eye to capture the spontaneous, natural side of the artists she photographed, her work reveals a fresh, intimate side to these superstars in the days right before they were propelled into stardom.
Halio-Peyron has traveled the world to take photos for major corporations and magazines and continues to take beautiful photographs of the world around her. I'm honored to call her a friend, and I am thrilled to feature her work here at Flapper Press.
Please meet Esther Halio-Peyron!
EG: Esther, I can’t tell you how much I love your photos from your MTV days. It brings back such great memories of a time gone by when music was making a magical resurgence for all of us. Dear god, the 80s seem like a dream now! Please tell our readers a little bit about yourself and how you began your work as a photographer.
EP: Thank you so much, Lizzie, I really appreciate that. It’s wonderful that we share the passion for music and photography. Yes, the 80s were a meteoric time in music history, and I was young and lucky enough to be a part of this culture-defining moment and capture the magic behind the scenes at MTV, grateful to be in the presence of the artists and rock and roll musicians I so admired.
Music has always been an integral part of my life. I remember as a child getting so excited to open the album sleeve of a new Beatles record, blasting rock and roll for hours on end with my older brother, memorizing the lyrics to songs, going to concerts nightly, being fascinated by the mystique of David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin. I was drawn to the art, but at the same time I was equally if not more so interested in the artist, in capturing both the art of artistry/performance and the humanity undergirding it.
In high school, my mom gave me her Nikon F camera with a 135mm lens. I snuck that camera into concerts and maneuvered my way to the front barricades, sometimes standing on chairs, oftentimes getting scolded by security guards as I tried to shoot images of the musicians and bands. Sandwiched in the crowd and jostling to get my camera up, I would look across the barriers at the press-credentialed photographers who had the best vantage points and their massive equipment slung around their necks. I aspired to be one of them.
During my junior year abroad in London, I took my first course in photography. I was inspired by the work of 20th century masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, and Robert Frank, finding a certain provocation, delicacy, and honesty in street photography, as well as by the power and performativity in the portraits by Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz.
In 1982, I graduated with a business degree from NYU and realized I wanted to wholeheartedly pursue the creative path as an artist instead. I worked as a photographer’s assistant in New York City, took classes at The School of Visual Arts, workshops at ICP, and shot concerts while honing my craft.
In parallel, when I wasn’t taking pictures, I’d spend downtime working at The Cake Masters, my family’s bakery business in New York City. Cake Masters made specialty cakes for TV, Broadway, and monumental events, including President Kennedy’s inauguration. One day an order came in from MTV. It was an outrageous cake design, depicting a baby with a Mohawk, playing guitar. I decided to deliver the cake in person, as Cake Masters’ “photographer.” When I returned to the MTV office a few days later to drop off the photos of the cake, Buzz Brindle, MTV’s director of music programming, asked to look at my portfolio, which mostly contained street photography, recognized me as a talented young artist, and handed me the business card of the press relations person to contact. Heart-pounding, I went home and dialed the number. Two days later, I got the call to come to the Univision studio on 57th Street and 11th Ave. My life changed with that phone call.
EG: Take us back to the days when you started working with MTV. What was that like to hang out with such fabulous musicians? What do you remember most about those days? Any juicy stories that you could share?
EP: I was just 23 years old when I first started working with MTV, assigned to photograph the Guest VJs on set in the television studio. That initial assignment, I remember feeling nervous and excited at the same time, wondering if I had the right film and equipment, the right look, not knowing at all what to expect. Martha Quinn, MTV’s original VJ, graciously welcomed me and assuaged any fears I had. Then in walked Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs—tousled hair, plaid pajamas, smoking a cigarette. Wang Chung was up next. I quickly learned the rapid rhythm of the taping sessions and how to be as inconspicuous as possible while getting the shots I needed.
Each artist brought his/her/their own energy, personality and hilarity, which made for exciting sessions behind the scenes. Interviews happened casually, in little segmented vignettes, and the set-space was designed with a variety of relaxed environments: a diner booth, a living room, a barbershop with leather chair, mirrors and all. Artists talked about the musicians who inspired them, played their favorite videos as well as promoted their own. Capturing the essence of these artists in my photographs, unguarded, was my purpose. It was amazing to have this raw, behind-the-scenes access to young musicians on the rise as well as established superstars who wanted to be part of this revolutionary music channel and connect with their audience more authentically.
In 1984, Anthony Kiedis and Flea came to MTV to be guest VJs, just as the Red Hot Chili Peppers were emerging on the scene. Laughing and joking around, the two close friends made the studio feel like their own living room. And then I asked Flea to show me his tattoo. With an air of pride and vulnerability, he let down his sleeve, revealing the face of his hero, Jimi Hendrix, forever imprinted on his upper arm. Two virtuosos, two histories, one shared body, an emblem of rock 'n roll respect and inheritance.
Annie Lennox exuded a quiet, otherworldly grace. With her softly spoken word, platinum shorn hair, and heavy shoulder-padded suit, she suffused the studio set with a monumental, feminine uniqueness. The clarity of purpose in her eyes, looking to a future of female activism, continues to inspire me.
I saw Lou Reed on 57th and 7th ducking into the backstage entrance of Carnegie Hall when I was twenty-one. Fast forward five years (1986), and now I am with him in a nondescript conference room at MTV. Lou Reed, the King of New York and flâneur of the Underground, dressed in his black leather jacket, lights up a Marlboro, surveys the scene, glaring at the few people in the room, waiting for the interview to start. As excited as I was, I also felt his deep disdain for these obligations and his palpable boredom at having to subject himself to the demands of this new medium.
EG: Your Instagram feed is chock full of images of you with so many artists, musicians, and performers. Why have you gravitated to the world of music?
EP: There’s a magic that transpires in photographs as well as in music. Music is the vital and intricate thread woven in my life, connecting past and present with experiences that have made indelible impressions on me. One of my most exalted and synchronistic encounters was meeting Yoko Ono in Reykjavik, Iceland, for the lighting of the Imagine Peace Tower, on what would have been John Lennon’s 75th birthday. It was poignant in that I spontaneously shared with her a personal memory that happened 35 years earlier to the day: The year was 1980. I was a 19-year-old college student, walking through Washington Square Park in NYC, contemplating whether I had made the right decision to transfer to NYU. At that moment, I looked up to see a boldly written message in the sky that read:
“HAPPY BIRTHDAY JOHN & SEAN LOVE, YOKO”
I could barely contain my excitement, bearing witness to this magnificent act of love, as well as recognizing a personal affirmation of being in the right place at the right time. I carried that magical feeling in my heart all these years. As I shared my story with Yoko, her eyes lit up at the remembrance: it was her gift for John’s last birthday before he was killed. We hugged in a warm embrace as she said to me, “That’s when you and I first met!”
This is why I gravitated to music my whole life: to be able to experience the wisdom, the genius, the transformative and elevated nature of the music itself and the uniqueness of artists creating from their highest consciousness.
EG: Your obvious love of music resonates in the photos that you’ve taken. In an ever-changing world where it sometimes feels like we hold a tenuous grip on the good things in life, why do you think music is so important?
EP: Music is a safe haven, an inspiration, and ultimately a form of empathy. Music “speaks to us,” the listener finds a salve to his or her solitude in an artist, who either enlivens one’s experience, puts words to the subconscious emotions operating on and within it, or opens the listener’s mind to a sonic plane that they didn’t know was possible. It is so important and so long-lasting because it is mind-altering, challenging, raw, beautiful, measured, unmeasured, calculated, irrational. Its magic lies in its multitude. From the folk and rock heroes of the 60s to the grunge-gods of the 90s, it’s all been about encapsulating and externalizing the gamut of existence (both personal and collective) and emotion in verse, in melody, in effects, in chords. And you can come back to it over and over and over again and re-experience and experience it in a new way. It’s like a river that constantly shifts even as you’re wading through it. Music changes, the way you interact with it changes, and ultimately you change.
I was exposed to many genres of music throughout my life. In my 20s, I was captivated by the raw energy of rock and roll, intrigued by the nuance of Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, and danced to disco at Studio 54. All these sounds resonated with and surrounded me and are attached to very vivid memories. Isn’t it fascinating that you can remember lyrics to a song you haven’t heard in years? Or you hear a song that brings you right back to a specific moment in time. Music can get us out of our thinking mind and into the feeling space of our heart. Or it can linger in our mind indefinitely. Music is a healing force unlike any other.
What is essential is to ensure that those memories don’t fade, and this is where turning them into photographs is important to me. Andy Warhol once said, “The best thing about a picture is that it never changes, even when the people in it do.”
EG: Tell our readers about the MTV TURNS FORTY: I STILL WANT MY MTV exhibit in Mississippi. How does it feel to be celebrating the birth of a music channel that changed the way we listen and process music? What does it feel like to be part of such a terrific celebration?
EP: I’m thrilled to be part of this exhibit at the GRAMMY Museum in Mississippi, in the heart of the Delta, the original birthplace of American music. MTV TURNS FORTY is a phenomenal, interactive, immersive time capsule of the watershed moment when MTV changed music history. The memorabilia on display is iconic; video monitors playing Dire Straits’ "Money for Nothing" and Robert Palmer’s "Addicted to Love" bring you right back to that time; there’s a replica of a neon dance floor for you to discover (or rediscover) the groove that MTV defined; and my portraits of many legendary 80s rockers come alive on a hot-pink wall. For me, it’s a dream realized then and now, coming full circle. It was truly an honor to be at the show’s opening in May and stand alongside MTV creator Bob Pittman, a Mississippian, and the original VJs Alan Hunter and Martha Quinn. We reminisced and shared stories; it was as if no time had passed. The exhibit is there through June 2022 and will travel first to the GRAMMY Museum in Los Angeles and then internationally.
EG: What’s next for you? Will you continue to photograph musicians, or are you focused on another subject? What can we look forward to seeing from your photographic eye?
EP: This summer I took a fabulous workshop, "The Poetry of Perception," with the fine art photographer Keith Carter in Santa Fe. It was an enchanting experience that inspired my nature, landscape, and portrait photography. Being and learning on Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved land in New Mexico, mesmerized by the biblical desert and the ever-shifting sky, was an adventure of my spirit. I plan on taking more workshops, shooting more concert footage (once touring starts again), and immersing myself in nature, camera in hand. I look at life as an ever-evolving, ever- expanding journey of self-discovery and becoming. The key is to stay open to the magic within and around you, and flow with whatever life brings. I am reminded of Georgia O’Keeffe’s quote: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”