Devouring the photographs in Keith Richards’ recent autobiography, Life, I noticed something interesting: many of the pictures were credited to the Raj Prem Collection, a name I’d spotted in other rock’n’roll books. Who was Raj Prem, I wondered? A fan? A rock obsessive? Or a canny businessman who had cornered a niche market?

Well, walk through the door of Prem’s Regent’s Park flat-cum-studio and one thing is clear: this man loves the Rolling Stones, and photography. Exile on Main Street is rocking out of the speakers, and on a wall in front of me is a beautiful sepia-toned print by Michael Joseph of the debauched Beggars Banquet set-up, vestigially different from the one that appeared on the 1968 album’s inner sleeves. To the right is a clutch of black-and-white photographs of the Stones by Michael Cooper, including one of Cecil Beaton in teensy shorts snapping Keith Richards by a pool in Marrakesh in 1967, and another, by Dominique Tarlé, of Keith, Anita Pallenberg, Gram and Gretchen Parsons lolling in front of an ornate mirror at Nellcôte, the villa on the Côte d’Azur where the Stones recorded Exile on Main Street in 1972. At Richards’ feet is “the Telecaster Eric Clapton had sent Keith that morning”, Prem tells me in his public school accent; his thick black hair, skinny jeans and cool cardigan belying his mid-fiftyish years. Prem knows his guitars: in a corner of his cluttered room is an original Epiphone Casino, from 1962 – “it’s the same model played by Keith Richards and John Lennon. Exactly the same. I bought it for a song when I lived in Cirencester in the early 1980s. I think it used to belong to Steve Winwood – he lives near there.”

But it’s the photographs that are his business, laid out on light boxes, nestling under tissue, housed in cartons, turning the walls into a riot of 1960s and early 1970s iconography. Prem gestures at a huge colour print of Jimi Hendrix, by David Montgomery, and at a pile of black-and-white photos of a young Bob Dylan, by Jerry Schatzberg. “It’s basically the baby boomers that buy this work,” he says. “They respond to the photography. And they have the money. A print like that [the Beggars Banquet] would be £5,500, plus VAT. So they’re not cheap.”

It was Schatzberg who shot the Stones in drag for the sleeve of their 1966 song, “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby?” and remembers them “dressing to the hilt – wearing the women’s underwear and everything”. As for Dylan: “I knew his wife long before she married him, and she kept saying, ‘You’ve gotta see him.’ And when I did, I became obsessed. And one day I got a call from Sara [Dylan] and she said, ‘Bobby wants you to photograph him.’ They were recording Highway 61 Revisited and I went down to the studio, and [after that] I did sessions with him over the next two-and-a-half years.”

This is the sort of thing Prem adores: “It’s the back stories I find really interesting. At the time, of course, I was a fairly studious, short-haired boy living in Richmond: I had no idea what was going on around me.” Until, that is, some American exchange students at his school showed him a copy of Rolling Stone magazine: “I wasn’t as enamoured of the polemical text as I was by the images, which burnt themselves into my mind. I remember the names, Gered Mankowitz, Baron Wolman, both of whom I eventually worked with.”

Mankowitz was one of the first photographers Prem approached when, in the mid-1990s, he decided to try and make a career out of selling and exhibiting rock photography from his chosen period of 1963-72. Prem’s father, an accountant, thought his son’s business plan was risible; no one would want to buy any pictures. He was wrong. Since then, Prem has staged shows in London, the US, Dubai, Hong Kong and more. He’s badgered photographers into letting him represent them, or control their archives, or put them into shows, paying the production costs for the prints.

Another name he had culled from an issue of Rolling Stone, back in 1971, was that of Dominique Tarlé, the young French photographer who had been with the Stones at Nellcôte. “I remember thinking, ‘Who the hell is this woman, Dominique?’ So when I started [the business], I thought, I’ve got to track this woman down. Eventually, through a contact in the south of France, I arranged to meet this person in a Paris café. And this chap turns up. And I said, ‘My God, I always thought…’ He had his photos in two plastic bags and he got them out like Tarot cards and laid them down. After three years I persuaded him to let me exhibit them.”

Tarlé’s is an instructive story: when the Stones moved to France in the early 1970s, he was supposed to spend an afternoon with them, documenting their new life for the Stones’ organisation. “They gave me this address, Villa Nellcôte, and it was Keith’s house,” Tarlé explained. “So I took photographs all afternoon, and then, after dinner Keith said, ‘Your room is ready.’ And I stayed six months.” His friend, the journalist Robert Greenfield, was there, too. Later he wrote a book about that time called Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones. “But for me,” Tarlé says, “it wasn’t hell – it was paradise on earth. We should all live like the Rolling Stones [lived] that year. In a beautiful house, with friends and kids, playing music all day and night.” When Tarlé ran out of film, “I’d ask Keith for money to go to Nice to buy more. No one asked to see anything – it was just total freedom.”

After he’d processed the pictures, he began to show them to magazines and agencies. “I remember one guy saying, ‘Your pictures are not bad, but tomorrow the Stones will be somewhere else, and your pictures will lose interest.’ And when you hear that…” Tarlé put the pictures in a box in the cellar, where they stayed for 35 years. He’d just started putting a book of them together when Prem came calling; they’ve been working together for just over a decade now. “I enjoy it. He’s a Stones fan and a photography fan, so we speak the same language.”

It’s not just the aura of the Stones that Prem is in thrall to. He talks passionately about the Kodalith paper Joseph used to get the warmth of the original Beggars Banquet image at Sarum Chase in Hampstead; the home-made filter, black card and Vaselined lens Mankowitz used to get trippy shots of the Stones on Primrose Hill for the Beneath the Buttons album cover; the way Cooper always had a camera at hand, catching Keith on the beach on the day of the drug bust at Redlands, Richards’ house in Sussex, in 1967. And only the other day, he says, Mankowitz had shown him a set of “vintage prints. Images no one has ever seen!”

An exhibition of photographs, ‘The Rolling Stones Come to NW3’ is at the Zebra One Gallery, 1 Perrins Court, London NW3, May 1-14

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