Who Shot Rock & Roll

Madonna, Danceteria, New York City 1983
Photograph by Maripol

I cut my photographic teeth in the late 90’s while living in London. A lot of my friends were heavily into their music (as was I) and I would spend night after night in a smoky room with a rotating cast of characters and very very loud music blaring from soundsystems that sometimes needed whole rooms dedicated to their setup. This was usually jungle. I couldn’t DJ or MC, but I took a lot of photographs. When not in some South London flat or a local boozer, weekends (and often weekdays) would be dedicated to going out to clubs, where my camera gave me something to do when I got tired of dancing, drinking or shouting to my mates over the music. It got me in free to many places or helped me skip the queues. A good friend of mine wrote reviews of club nights and chatted with promoters to often get us free or discounted entry. I published a few but that wasn’t really what I took pictures for at that time. I always thought that one day the photos would be an important document of the culture and the times – or at least my perspective and view of them – but didn’t really try and hustle to get them published or shown as much as perhaps I should have. For me, I was simply entranced with the vibes. A sampled vocal from a popular tune of the time went “Music is my life, and it helps me through the vibe.” And that is exactly how I felt. Photography was my way of recording the memories, the times and the atmosphere that the music was the touchstone for.

I am certainly not alone in this. Many photographers and visual artists are drawn to and inspired by music. Is it because music is the greatest art form possible; the purest expression of emotion? Some of the longest surviving (human) vocal communication in the world is more closely related to birdsong than any modern day language. We learn to understand and express ourselves in sound long before we learn any visual communication like writing or drawing. In fact, our very first expression in life is a cry or a scream. Music and sound drive primal instincts in a way that other art forms often fail to do and struggle to achieve.

It is really no wonder that music attracts such fascination, and therefore the people who perform music become a focus of our attention. I went to photograph a concert once for a band that was doing pretty well on the club circuit around the UK and were selling a decent amount of albums. I happened to have spent time at college with the drummer many years previous and this particular gig was a fan club only, no press ‘secret’ affair that he sneaked me into via the back door (very rock & roll right?). The atmosphere was absolutely electric. Maybe two or three songs into their set, one of my cameras had already stopped working from the humidity in the club and I was cleaning condensation from my lens constantly. I was pressed up against a monitor speaker, right at the front when the swarming fans exploded like a wave onto the stage, crashing through the singer and guitarist and into the drumkit, sending everyone and everything flying. I somehow managed to keep my feet and get a couple of shots off as this happened and after everyone had sorted themselves out the band carried on to play a blinder of a set. Raw, emotive, visceral and not just audibly stimulating but a visual treat.

So anyway, from this you can probably gather that I love photographs of musicians, and fans, and gigs and the whole culture. A music concert or a club night is a chance for people to perform, and for a visual artist, that is exciting.

This is the subject of a book and exhibition currently at the Brooklyn Museum entitled ‘Who Shot Rock & Roll’. No one can deny that rock stars are some of the most charismatic, magnetic performers of music. Rock & Roll (done well) has such vibrance and energy that it cannot help but possess those who take to the stage and channel it through to the audience. Think Mick Jagger strutting about, Jimi Hendrix burning his guitar, Kurt Cobain unleashing his demons, my mate’s band sparking an ecstatic explosion in a basement club in London.…you get the idea.

The book, compiled by Gail Buckland is presented as a photographic history of Rock & Roll from 1955-present and has many astounding photographs printed on its pages. The introduction is well written and engaging, and sets the tone nicely for the platform of the book and the role of photography in shaping the myth of the Rock & Roll star. A goal of the book seems to be to represent the photographs as works by the photographers, rather than photographs of the performers, but I’m afraid to say that ultimately it’s the performers who steal the show. Of course, there are music photographers whose work is famous and are more well known than some of the musicians depicted in this publication, but they are very few. However, it is great to see the authors of so many iconic images being given top billing as it were.

Unfortunately for the photographs, the design of this book lets it down. The layout of the text that accompanies the images seems often careless, and many of the accompanying anecdotes and captions are cut short, only to be continued in a 12 page section in the rear pages of the book. This is completely unnecessary and destroys the flow. Why if I am on page 161 should I have to turn to page 288 to finish reading the text? This is just terrible design plain and simple and as a result I ended up skipping over much of the writing and just focusing on the pictures. I wish the whole book would have been more like the introduction, where text and image were interwoven and complemented each other. As it stands, the book is presented as not quite a scholarly review, nor a coffee table ‘art’ book with plates, but an odd hybrid of the two. The section of album covers at the back seems random and tagged on (There are whole books out there dedicated to that subject alone) and even some of the picture selections seem to owe more to Buckland’s personal taste than to her academic rigour; 5 pages of Barry Feinstein’ s photos of Bob Dylan, and Glen E Friedman’s Public Enemy photography relegated to a thumbnail in the album covers section? A throwaway photo by Mark Seliger of Puff Daddy and Jay-Z playing on their cell phones and no photos - none whatsoever - of Ice-T , Snoop Dogg, Dr Dre, Ice Cube or N.W.A. If we’re going to include well know Hip Hop stars under the Rock & Roll banner, at least represent with some of its more interesting performers (we do get an excellent LaChapelle shot of Lil Kim to make up for it though). Oh, and plenty of photos of the Beatles but not one mention Michael Coopers shot for Peter Blake’s Sgt Pepper album cover, which was a historic Rock & Roll photoshoot in so many ways.

But regardless of some may I say glaring omissions, a general feeling of randomness and a design that baffled me many times over, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. There is the work of some amazing photographers here (Maripol, Jean-Paul Goude, Jill Furmanovsky, Glen E. Friedman, Jean-Marie Périer, Ian Dickson, Laura Levine are just a few that have stand out shots in here). There are also plenty of images of the musicians not performing, or at least not performing music anyway - and it's a joy to see work like Edmund Teske's contact sheet from a shoot with Jim Morrison and Pamela Courson and Stephanie Chernikowski's shot of Debby Harry at CBGB's in 1978, where the personality of the musician as a person comes through. (But do we really need two pictures of Amy Winehouse, especially when neither of them are that good?)

So not quite comprehensive or well put together enough to properly deserve being called A Photographic History, but as a collection of (mostly) great photographs (and some incredible ones) of people who help us connect to what I regard as a raw and pure emotive experience, it is a damn fine set of pictures. As any music photographer should tell you, photographing musicians is actually a lot harder than it might appear. A friend of mine said the other day that she hates photographing bands. Why, I asked. The reply came, ‘Because everybody photographs the band.’

Right, but not everyone does it as well as the people in this collection.


Sean said...

Excellent post here. Love the Polaroid that starts is all!

Best, Sean.

Tani Lezama said...

nice blog

Andres said...

rock and roll is the best genre there is, his best seasons were the 70s, 80s and 90s. Thank God for rock and roll yeahhh!