For 38 years, Paul Natkin has been photographing rock stars. Metallica, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and that famous black-and-white photo of Ozzy Osbourne picking up Randy Rhoads over his shoulders are all part of his wide-eyed work. But the span of 1988 to 1997 may have been Natkin’s most defining — a time when the Chicago native traveled the world on private jets and stayed in nearly every Ritz-Carlton while working as The Rolling Stones official tour photographer.

‘ALL ACCESS WITH PAUL NATKIN’
When: April 15 to July 30
Where: Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand, Festival Hall A
Tickets: Free (there is a fee for tickets to “Exhibitionism”)
Info: stonesexhibitionism.com

“The whole reason I got into the music business in the first place was because one day I wanted to work for The Stones. They’ve always been my favorite band of all time,” Natkin says from his home office and studio on the North Side, where we have met many times over the course of our friendship. This time, the floors are littered with enlarged prints and portraits of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts that will be featured in a gallery exhibit adjacent to “Exhibitionism: The Rolling Stones” at Navy Pier beginning April 15.

In addition to several of his images in “Exhibitionism,” the “All Access with Paul Natkin” gallery will feature 30 of his best shots of the band. There’s the first picture he snuck of Jagger in the backstage catering area at Soldier Field in 1978 all the way to the most recent snaps of the band on stage at United Center with guest star Sheryl Crow in 2014.

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“All Access” was in part championed Jerry Mickelson, head of Jam Productions (a local sponsor of “Exhibitionism”), and one of the people Natkin says he still owes a debt of gratitude. “I started out by sneaking into concerts and making friends with the promoters and security guards. The first people I met were with Jam Productions. I made a deal with them that I could get into all the shows I wanted in return for giving them pictures,” Natkin says of the days before there were photo access restrictions.

Keith Richards and The Rolling Stones on their North American tour in 1981, photographed in Rockford, Ill. | Photo by Paul Natkin

Another key character was legendary Sun-Times music critic Don McLeese, who was Natkin’s neighbor at the time and helped him secure photo credentials for the Chicago stops on The Rolling Stones’ 1981 American Tour (which included a one-off radio concert at the Rockford MetroCentre). McLeese and Natkin teamed up again for a story around the time of Richards’ “Talk Is Cheap” solo album where Natkin was able to do a portrait shoot with the guitarist. “Keith’s the only idol I have in the world period,” says Natkin, “and after that, I figured I could die happy. I don’t have to do anything else.”

Instead, Natkin made extra prints from the shoot and dropped them off in the mail to Richards’ manager. “I left her a note that said, ‘I heard you guys might be going out on the road; if you need a tour photographer give me a call.’” Soon after, he got the call. “I had no idea what the job even was,” he says, “but I found out quickly.”

The “Talk Is Cheap” tour was the first time Natkin was officially on the road with a member of The Stones. That serendipitously led to gigs shooting The Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels Tour in ’89 (while also juggling his job as Oprah’s official show photographer), the Voodoo Lounge Tour in ’94 and the Bridges to Babylon Tour in ’97, which famously kicked off with a secret show at Double Door.

That was the last time Natkin would join The Stones on the road as most bands around that time stopped using payrolled tour photographers and instead hired trusted talent in each city. In Chicago, Natkin is still the Stone’s go-to when they come back on tour or to pay a visit to Buddy Guy and the local blues haunts that were a large part of their formative years.

Today, the scores of photos from the past three decades have become a living archive that are used for countless books, including Richards’ 2010 memoir “Life” and last year’s “A Life in Pictures.”

Behind the images are Natkin’s stories of life on the road that are just as entertaining. Like the time he sat between Richards and Hunter S. Thompson while they were filming an episode of ABC’s now-defunct series “In Concert,” or witnessing a ‘stalker’ by the name of Eric Clapton on the Steel Wheels Tour (“he kept showing up everywhere”), and the one concert when actor Jack Nicholson decided he was going to hang by Natkin’s side. “It was always really depressing having to go home and get back to real life,” Natkin jokes.

Even though the tours included long hours — Natkin used to shoot film in those days, which meant 20 rolls a night that had to be processed, edited and approved before the next show — the work was always worth it, he says. “They’ve always put on the greatest show in rock and roll.”

Selena Fragassi is a freelance music writer.

The Rolling Stones on the Bridges to Babylon Tour in 1997, U.S.A. | Photo by Paul Natkin