Famous photographer and alum returns to MNSU

Thirty years ago, Ringo Starr’s personal photographer Rob Shanahan attended Minnesota State University, Mankato in pursuit of a music career. He shines as the perfect example of how you can score success in life by maintaining your passions and a humble spirit even if plans fall apart.

Shanahan grew up in a small farm town, Norwood, which is about an hour from Mankato, but he now lives in Los Angeles. He works closely with famous musicians like the Rolling Stones and Luke Bryan as well as Mick Fleetwood, Avril Lavigne and Joe Walsh. Shanahan also took shots during Lady Gaga’s performance in Spain where she was remembered for a tribute of Carole King’s song “You’ve Got a Friend.”

In his main message to MSU musician majors while visiting Thursday morning, he emphasized the importance of remembering where they came from.

“Wherever you go in life, don’t lose that small town Minnesota nice,” Shanahan said during a workshop held in Armstrong Hall, adding how reputation was as equally important. When his parents divorced and he was unable to finish his college education, he created his own opportunities.

“What I did was, I joined a band here in Minneapolis,” Shanahan said.

Together the band performed in a five-state area: Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa.

“Then I realized when I was home one weekend in Norwood at the local bar…where all my friends are hanging out,” he said, “and I’m looking around and I’m thinking, ‘Man, if I don’t get out of here, I am gonna be stuck in this bar.’” Then he quickly added, “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it just wasn’t for me.”

It was then he knew he must make a change before he became one of the forty to fifty-year-old guys; he emphasized how much he disliked having that thought in his head. While knowing he had little money or no connections in Los Angeles, he said, “I realized staying was equally, if not more frightening, than leaving.”

When he informed his computer teacher, Mr. Mason, of his plans to seek out a future in Los Angeles, he offered Shanahan his van for an affordable price so Shanahan would have something he could drive. He threw his farewell party and his classmates offered their eight track tapes since cassettes at that time were “the new thing” and the van had an eight-track player.

When Shanahan arrived in Los Angeles, he ensured his first stop was Sunset Boulevard, basically the musicians’ hangout places and the clubs they played at that he had read about. He concentrated on networking and meeting people, he said, and got a number from a guitar player whom he connected with. After Shanahan was living off his last few hundred dollars, he used the change to call the guitar player and stayed with him while they spent their time entertaining around the area.

And Shanahan also kept his eyes open for expanding his career as a music photographer. Two blocks from where a guitar player lived, Shanahan contacted an owner of a commercial photo lab that adjoined both a guitar studio and a photo lab and informed him of his passions and skills. The owner agreed. Shanahan called it starting a “home-base” since he eventually acquired an apartment nearby.

Shanahan’s first celebrity photoshoot was with a drummer in a band that he frequently visited every Sunday night. The drummer called Shanahan sometime later with the news that he had auditioned for Stevie Nicks and he “had got the gig.” So he asked Shanahan if he would take the head shot for him that was compiled in a tour book. The Simple Company called and said they planned to use a few of those photo copies for advertisements and then offered Shanahan a roster of drummers he could shoot and asked if he was available.

“So I started shooting Stewart Copeland from The Police, Alex Van Halen, Sheila – just a whole great roster of famous drummers,” Shanahan said. “You have to be fearless. Plus I have this internal drive to never come back to Minnesota with my tail between my legs.”

He also recalled that at his farewell party in 1988, he had a few people who wouldn’t believe he would make it more than a month.

“You have to filter out that noise,” is what Shanahan advised students. “You have to filter out that negativity and I try to stay positive and keep people around me that are positive.”

He also had one final piece of advice: “Follow your dreams, put your heart and soul into whatever you’re doing,” he said. “Be present and be in the moment.”

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