Chuck. Mick & Keith. John & Paul. Jimi. Patti. Madonna. Bjork. These names we know.
Annie. Philip. Richard. Gered. Judy. Amy. Stephane. These, somewhat more vague.
As intrinsic to the pull of rock star allure as the music itself are photographic images, or so the recent exhibition, Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, would lead a visitor to believe. While the exhibition notes call photography, the profession, “rock & roll’s handmaiden,” let’s take the metaphor one step further and label the images themselves, those which immortalize these singing, swaying, sweating, smoking, screaming figures, dressed in majestic rags, as the rock star’s true spouse. Not such a stretch, after all. Paul and Linda only literalize it (“My Love”: Linda McCartney’s shot of Paul’s deep eyes in the rearview mirror, as, seen from the back, he directs their car down a quiet London street). Rock stars are people married to their own image. Like Pan and his shadow.
And, O, what hath they begot? After a generation or two: us. Social networking bunnies. No matter how jumbled our thoughts on love, we’ll never forget their names, those of our rock & roll icons. From the slowest creeping of the clock in our parents’ sinking homes, they drew us forth to what is bright and exciting and of NOW.
Yes, and the creators of these images, with their own names freshly etched on the walls of a fine art museum, at last receiving their due—some casual photographers, some committed, some company hands, some artists in their own right: Leibovitz, Townsend, Avedon, Mankowitz, Linn, Arbus, Sednaoui, to list a few.
Organized under six headings, the exhibition ranged from images tentative and unguarded to polished and knowing: Starting Out, Fans & Crowds, Performance, Behind the Scenes, Constructing an Image and Portraits.
Is that George Harrison of The Beatles, in shades, enjoying a smoke, back to a barred gate against which a crowd of admirers press themselves, the sign above his left shoulder reading ‘WAY OUT’? Yes, viewer, it is. (Bob Whitaker, photographer, from the Fans & Crowds section, circa 1965.)
Is that Paul Simonon of The Clash, bent almost to the floor, bass guitar brandished primordially overhead, two hands on the neck, the lights from behind him throwing his shadow forward? Viewer, it is. (Pennie Smith, from Performance, circa 1979.)
Is that Patti Smith touching her cheek, a gesture of refinement—is she really there at all?—outside CBGBs in the East Village night of 1976? (Bleeker St. sign just a little down the way.) Viewer, yes. (Godlis, from Behind the Scenes.)
How many ways can a band—three figures… four… five… more?—arrange themselves in front of a camera, as in a police line-up where “all the suspects have attitude” (the exhibition notes again); how many contexts; outfits; hair-fashions? Kiss. The Yardbirds. The Stones. Those Beatles again… with some guy named Pete and another named Stuart… and where’s Ringo? “They were just discovering who they were,” said the latter photographer, Astrid Kirchherr, “and I think that [my] photos helped them make that discovery.”
Singing on video is that a bleached out David Bowie in powder blue jacket and red mullet, wearing eye-shadow and rouge on his cheeks, telling a story with the most precise gestures of the hand, blinks of the eye? Oh man! Look at those cavemen go/ It’s the freakiest show. (Mick Rock, from Portraits.)
And how is it that we, once under the wings of parents, drawing an understanding that an image must be struck in the world to announce our presence, to make our desires felt—as different! so different! from those who came before us—found these ideas of ourselves running into those at which we stared, during the slowest creeping hours, our stored peace let loose like the yellow from within the yolk?
Lloyd Shearer’s image of Elvis in 1956, head reclined against a hotel bed, eyes gone dreamy with languor, looking almost girlish in his otherworldliness: They screamed for him. They all screamed for him.
Before a series of images showing Jimi Hendrix on his knees, pouring kerosene on his prone guitar, then lighting it aflame (Ed Caraeff, the Monterey Pop Festival of 1967), a father and son paused.
The son looked up to his father and said: “He’s crazy!”
Responded the father: “No. That was his style.”
Jeff Price is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. In 2009, he held the position of Associate Editor at Electric Literature (http://electricliterature.com/blog/). Contact him here: jt_price at hotmail dot com.