The band Metallica poses during a photo shoot in West Hollywood, California, in 1991. From left are guitarist Kirk Hammett, lead vocalist James Hetfield, bassist Jason Newsted and drummer Lars Ulrich.
It was 1988 when photographer Ross Halfin first got an inkling that there was something special, something different about Metallica.
“They were on this tour called Monsters of Rock with Van Halen, the Scorpions, Dokken, and Metallica was way down the bill,” he remembers. “And I started to notice — particularly at Giants Stadium in New York and the L.A. Coliseum — that after Metallica played, half the audience was starting to leave. And I was like, ‘Wow.’ Then you started to think they mean more than you realize.”
The heavy metal band had released three critically acclaimed albums by then and was just months away from releasing a fourth, “…And Justice For All.”
But it was their fifth album that changed everything.
“For all his on-stage persona, you know, the aggression and the power, (Hetfield) is actually quite a shy person,” photographer Ross Halfin said. “He’s also very nice once you know him.”
Hetfield performs in Melbourne in the early 1990s.
On August 12, 1991, the band released the self-titled “Metallica.” Fans today know it simply as the Black Album because of its cover.
It has become one of the best-selling albums of all time, selling more than 30 million copies over the last 30 years. It contains some of Metallica’s most iconic songs, including “Enter Sandman,” “The Unforgiven,” “Sad but True” and “Nothing Else Matters.”
The album also marked a shift in the band’s style, featuring slower tempos than the thrash metal it had mostly played until then.
“Their performance on the album is far more controlled, I think, and more polished and more radio-friendly,” Halfin said.
Halfin, who has photographed Metallica on and off for decades, was working closely with the band when the Black Album was recorded and released.
His new book, “Metallica: The Black Album in Black & White,” documents this historic time in the band’s evolution.
“By the time the Black Album was coming out, they were starting to explode into being a big band,” Halfin said. “And what the book sort of charts is how they went really from a regular band to a stadium act.”
The book features classic and previously unpublished photos of Metallica in the studio and on tour. The band performed close to 300 shows as they toured between August 1991 and July 1993.
Metallica all started with Ulrich, who in 1981 placed a classified ad in a Los Angeles newspaper that said, “Drummer looking for other metal musicians to jam with. Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head and Iron Maiden.”
“Occasionally Lars seems a bit aloof and detached,” Halfin said, “but he is the best person I’ve ever seen dealing with a fan. … Lars is always nice to the fan base, to anyone who comes up. And he interacts and makes an effort, and I’ve got to give him 10 out of 10 for that.”
Halfin has worked with many legendary musicians during his career, including Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Paul McCartney, Aerosmith, Van Halen and The Who, and he was already well-established in the industry when he first met Metallica in 1984.
Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich “wanted me to shoot them because his favorite group was Iron Maiden at the time and I was Iron Maiden’s photographer,” Halfin recalled. “I did all the Iron Maiden album covers. So I started to work with them. They didn’t really have any money.”
Halfin went to El Cerrito, California, just outside of San Francisco, and remembers the band being “really green.”
“When I first shot Metallica, they were really geeky and they would turn up wearing AC/DC shirts, all these different fan T-shirts,” he said. “I think I told them that you have to stand out individually.”
The touring took them all over the world, including Moscow.
Hetfield plays in front of a crowd in Turin, Italy.
Halfin said the band’s everyman persona was part of what made it so popular.
“Kids could very much identify with them in the sense of they looked like the kids in the street. They looked like the people that play in a garage,” he said. “They certainly don’t look like that now, but in that period, the Black Album, they just looked like long-haired kids that would be playing.
“That was the appeal of Metallica: You could do this. And kids identified with them in that sense.”
By the time the Black Album was finished, the band was much more assured, much more confident than they were in the early years. They were also much more recognizable, and any anonymity they still had was fading away.
Halfin’s new book includes introductory text from all four band members at the time of the Black Album: Ulrich, frontman James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted. It also has an introduction from Metallica’s current bassist, Robert Trujillo. All of the photos are in black and white.
“If you look at an old picture of Elvis or the Beatles or Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, it always looks better in black and white,” Halfin said. “I think that color is a great medium, but black and white as a medium stands the test of time more. When you look at something that old, it actually looks more classic. It looks more arty, I think. I think it stands out more.”
Looking back, Halfin recalls a simpler time of rock music. There were no entourages. No extra security. Nobody had to worry about managing social media. It was just him and Metallica, and he enjoyed the unfettered access.
“You see pictures in the book with only just Lars or James or the four of them walking to the stage. Or maybe the tour manager,” Halfin said. “Now when they walk to the stage? There’s 30 people around them in an area you’re not allowed in.”
“I’m trying to show the days when it really was about the access and what you can do,” Halfin said of his new book.
Hetfield goofs around during a photo shoot in West Hollywood.
The band is celebrating its 40th anniversary this month with two shows in San Francisco on December 17 and 19.
Halfin will be in town as well, taking photos of the band as well as hosting a gallery show December 18 that’s open to the public. He’ll also be signing books and attending a Q&A session to talk about his experience with Metallica over the years.
“They’re one of those bands that when you see them, whether you know them or not, you will be surprised at the power of them,” Halfin said. “There’s very few bands with that power they have. When they engage the audience, they engage the audience. When you go into their show, you become part of them.
“You can feel the electricity in the air with them. You really can. I started noticing it in the early ’90s, but it’s very much evident now. You can feel it.”