If U2 put you on the cover of one of their albums, wouldn't you be sure to own several copies? Perhaps a few in each format (vinyl, cassette, CD)? Believe it or not, the only non-band-member to ever appear on a U2 album cover, Peter Rowen, doesn't own either U2 album that bears his likeness.
I've always wondered what became of the boy who appeared on the Boy and War covers because his image has always captivated me.
Throughout the history of rock and roll, photos have played a crucial role in representing and even defining the work of its artists. From Jim Morrison's shirtless pose in the sign of a cross to the jeans-wearing Bruce Springsteen on his Born in the U.S.A. album, a well-crafted image can instantly transport us to the place where the music itself takes us.
U2 are no exception to this -- in fact, they've probably produced one of the most consistently impressive collections of images of any rock band in existence. The four young band members standing in front of the joshua tree, The Fly and MacPhisto wreaking havoc on the Zoo TV tour, Bono in a bubble bath -- the list goes on. But for me, the most prominent U2-related image has always been one that didn't feature any of the band members. It's the album cover for War and it still gets to me to this day. The stark contrast of the red lettering juxtaposed with the timeless black and white photo of an angry child says so much, by simply saying so little. It's haunting, yet innocent. And I hear "Sunday Bloody Sunday" in my head every time I glance at it.
I knew that Peter Rowen, the model for those covers, was the younger brother of Bono's friend Guggi. I also remembered that he did some acting in Ireland in the years following his work with U2. What I didn't know is that he grew up to be a successful photographer. And I found that to be especially interesting. Who would guess the subject of such a famous photo would grow up to be a photographer himself?
I recently caught up with Peter, who is based in Dublin, and he kindly agreed to a session of Q&A, via e-mail.
Q: Did being the subject of internationally famous album covers have anything to do with how you arrived at your present career?
A: No, I don't think me being on the albums had anything to do with me ending up in photography. I think it was more to do with my interest in drawing/painting as a kid. I used to spend a lot of my spare time growing up making images of one kind or another and then one day a friend introduced me to photography and I instantly fell in love with it.
Q: When you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A: A tractor.
Q: Did having an older brother who was an artist (with an eccentric group of friends) influence you creatively?
A: I wouldn't say that my brother and his friends have influenced me at all really...there is quite a big age gap, so by the time I was five my older brothers would have all left home.
Q: Do people still recognize you as the "U2 kid"? If so, is that a good thing or an annoyance?
A: No, I don't think anyone has ever recognized me as U2's kid! To be honest with you it's never really caused me any bother, I guess it's a bit of a laugh!
Q: The story of how you were paid in candy bars (Mars bars specifically, if I'm not mistaken) for the U2 photo shoots is legendary. Do you have any particularly fond or funny memories of working with the band?
A: My memories of working with the band are all but gone...the only things I actually remember are me not liking the soup we were served by the photographer's wife and Bono nearly crashing into a line of traffic on the way home from the shoot!
Q: During those Boy and War photo shoots, did you try to have any input into the poses or your wardrobe, or were you agreeable to whatever they instructed you to do?
A: There was a full box of Mars bars at stake! I was up for anything!
Q: Did your parents consent to you participating in the U2 photo shoots in advance, or were they so spur-of-the-moment that they were informed later?
A: I'm sure my parents must have consented to it.
Q: To me the War cover symbolizes how children become innocent victims in conflicts created by adults who should know better. What does it mean to you?
A: I never really thought about that one! I've always just seen it as a nice picture of me when I was eight years old!
Q: At the time, did you have any idea that U2 would become the superstars that they eventually became?
A: No -- I don't imagine anyone did!
Q: Did you get to keep any of the original prints from your U2 photo shoots?
A: Yea, I've got a couple of out takes from the War shoot...
[Ed. note: one outtake from Peter Rowen's collection is included below]
Q: Which U2 album cover is your personal favorite?
A: I think my favorite cover is probably Boy...
Q: Some of the covers you're featured on presently fetch considerable amounts of money on auction sites like eBay. Have you ever bid on an item that you appear on?
A: No, never!
Q: Your web site displays an excellent photo you took of Bono during one of the Slane Castle concerts in 2001. Do you photograph the band often? If not, would you like to?
A: Slane 2001 [August 25 show] was the only time I got to shoot the band. Yea, it'd be nice to get an opportunity to shoot them again sometime.
[Ed. note: you can view a selection of Peter Rowen's U2 concert photos here]
Q: What other (if any) musicians would you like to photograph?
A: Yea, there's a few I'd love to photograph...Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan....
Q: What (or who) would be your dream subject to photograph?
A: I'd love to photograph Valentino Rossi (seven-time World Champion GP racer) as I'm a huge bike-sport fan and Valentino is the man!
Q: Who inspires you?
A: I'm a big fan of Richard Avedon's work...I love the fact that most of it is so simple. Funnily enough I also really like Anton Corbjin's stuff, again he uses a lot of daylight and tends to keep it pretty simple...no gimmicks just great photographs.
Q: Is U2 on your iPod?
A: Yea, of course U2 are on my iPod! I've been listening to How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb a lot lately and I love it!
Q: Do you go to their shows? Buy their albums?
A: Yea, I've been to a good few of their shows...(went to see them play Barcelona last summer and had a great time!)...and yea I've got most of their albums. I think the only albums I don't have a copy of (strangely enough) are Boy and War!
Q: When you hear U2 songs on the radio, for instance "Two Hearts Beat As One," does it remind you of being in the video or is it just like hearing any other song?
A: When I hear that particular song yea, I do always think of the video.
Q: What types of music do you listen to? Who are your favorite bands?
A: I love all sorts of music from Chopin to White Stripes to Van Morrison to Kanye West. I'm listening to Magic Numbers lately...I really like their current album.
Q: As a fan of Roddy Doyle's stories, I remember your appearances in The Commitments and The Snapper. Do you have any other acting projects in the works?
A: No, the acting thing I sort of fell into by accident. Actually, a Swiss film producer spotted me in the U2 "Two Hearts Beat As One" video and came over to Ireland to meet me. He had me in mind for a pretty major role in a film he was working on at the time...as it happened, that film was never made, but as a result of me getting an agent and taking a few acting classes (a few too few I think!) I ended up getting some small parts in a couple of other movies.
Q: Were you ever contacted by U2 to appear on any recent album covers?
Q: The band has joked in the past that they should make an album called Man as a sort of bookend to Boy. If this ever comes to fruition, and they asked you to be on the cover, would you do it?
A: Only if they promised to pay me in Mars bars again!
Q: Are you still in touch with the band?
A: Not really, I'd know them all to say hello to but that's about it...
Q: You display an amazing portfolio of work on your web site. Have you ever considered publishing a book of your photography?
A: No, but I would love to someday!
Q: And hypothetically, if one were to realize their dream of someday getting married in Slane Castle, do you photograph weddings?
Visit www.peterrowen.com to learn more about Peter Rowen's photography and view samples of his work.
© @U2/Kokkoris, 2006.