From Issue # 2 of Wanted Mag.
Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present
October 30, 2009 – January 31, 2010
For a generation reared by MTV (when there were actual music videos shown on television) and now for an even younger generation nurtured by the likes of YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, it is difficult for them to distinguish an artist from their trademark videos. If you listen to the grunge anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on your iPod, you cannot help but think of cheerleaders drudgingly waving their pom-poms as Cobain’s angst-ridden voice floods a school gymnasium. It is quite the sharp contrast when you hear a video-less song that conjures up memories of a specific taste, summer vacation or a particular ex-lover. In its relatively short life span, music video has grown into a respectable art form but unfortunately has stolen a large portion of the spontaneity and intimacy photos have given the viewer. It begs the question; did video kill the radio star or did it annihilate the photographer?
At the Brooklyn Museum, curator Gail Buckland turned the curatorial lens onto the world of music photography by assembling Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present, one of the first major museum exhibitions to delve into the imagery that paralleled the rock and roll revolution. While Buckland’s background is in photography, she is self-admittedly not a music expert. This lack of intimacy aided her in being impartial by judging the work not by the colorful characters being represented but on its own merit. Who Shot consequently examines both the iconic and seldom seen images as a legitimate art form.
Ironically, many of the photos shown, whether large-scale black and white prints or Polaroid self-portraits, were not initially taken with artistic or even photographic excellence in mind. For example, there is an Amy Arbus photograph in the show depicting Madonna standing on St. Mark’s Place in 1983. Clearly, this was long before the “Material Girl” would become the indomitable queen of re-invention. Rather, the shot was originally taken as part of the photographer’s “On The Street” photo column that ran in the Village Voice. However, to Arbus looking through the lens, she was just another flamboyant personality that roamed the Lower East Side.
And then you had the group of photographers who were attracted to the nascent punk and new wave milieu almost a decade earlier. One such photographer, Godlis, documented that time shooting future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. This included then recent art school grads Talking Heads awkwardly performing on stage at the now defunct CBGBs and an early incarnation of the more radio-friendly group Blondie practicing during soundcheck. At the time, his work was not highly regarded within the art world’s caste system. Nor could he have predicted that this band of misfits he was shooting would go on to change the way we hear music. Godlis hopes this current showing will do the same thing for this genre of still images. “There’s always a right time for reassessing things, and rock photography has never been really taken quite as seriously as other types of portrait photography even though there are some really serious people doing the work” he was quoted as saying. While critics and fans have accepted other genres such as fashion photography universally, many feel the time has come for these photos.
Along with the candid shots displayed in the museum, there is also a fair amount of commissioned studio work, which has indeed been recognized during its time as beautiful portraiture – Richard Avedon’s striking series of individual portraits of the Beatles comes to mind. However, what Godlis fails to mention is that along with seriousness, there is an honesty that all these images exude; a certain degree of intimacy between photographer and subject that accordingly translates into the relationship between photograph and viewer.
What is striking is that the viewer is not only struck by the larger than life personalities captured on film but the execution and various technical aspects used by the photographer. Andy Earl’s 1981 photograph for Bow Wow Wow’s album art served as both an example of beautiful composition and attention to detail as well as controversy. The latter was primarily due to the naked teenaged lead singer, Annabella Lwin, carefully positioned in the foreground of the shot. Malcolm McLaren, ex-manager of the Sex Pistols, and Earl art directed the cover taking inspiration from the nineteenth-century French painter Edouard Manet’s famous painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) of 1863. Stylistically, it did not hurt that Lwin’s male bandmates appeared in cutting-edge designs by avant-garde fashion designer (and McClaren cohort) Vivienne Westwood.
As I found my way though the corridors, I discovered that a great deal of these images are so ingrained into the public consciousness, most viewers are unaware of the interesting and often sordid back stories as these images are not standard fare for art history textbooks. Buckland stated “many of the images on album covers or posters were done by people whose names we don’t know, but they’ve had unbelievable impact on our lives.” I think that aspect makes the work and the show that much more powerful and in a way poignant as we each somehow have a personal connection to the photos.
Video may not have completely wiped out a half-century’s worth of images that preceded it, but who is to say if this particular art form can survive this century. Through this show, we are able, if only for a moment, to experience a more raw time in the history of music, art and photography. The sex and drugs may have faded along the way but luckily for us, these images continue to radiate.