Half a Century of Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll… And Photography


Published: December 10, 2009

Music and visual art are no strangers; nor are rock ’n’ roll and photography. When these mediums come together, the rock ’n’ roll image is valued as both an artistic expression of photographer and musician and a historical account of the performer’s life.

Currently on display at the Brooklyn Museum, “Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present” encapsulates the long-term relationship (although they still haven’t married after over 50 years) between rock ’n’ roll and photography.

The exhibition, running until Jan. 31, 2010, tells the story of a variety of musicians, some long dead, some still living, as they ascended to stardom, destroyed instruments on stage and interacted with fans, lovers and fellow artists. Some of the images reveal explicit truths while others depict a manufactured ideal.

The exhibition of 175 insightful, provocative works, including photographs, music videos and a slide show, by 105 photographers, consists of images from behind the scenes, of young musicians just starting out, live performances, crowds and fans, revealing portraits, conceptual images and album covers.

The sectioning of the exhibition, organized by the Brooklyn Museum with guest curator Gail Buckland, emphasizes the context, emotive ideas and creative values the grouped photographs share. The organizers smartly refused a boring chronological arrangement. However, despite the loose structure, the compelling images should not be observed solely in the context of their categories. Most of the individual photographs express themes that overlap, crossing from the context of straightforward portraiture into a candid shot, and moving from a glamorized stage show to an introspective backstage scene, all within the same image.

A series of photographs of a young Elvis Presley by German-born photographer Alfred Wertheimer truthfully depicts the 21-year-old musician at the start of his career. But the portraits also emphasize, even exaggerate, the rock idol’s sexuality, juxtaposed with his youthful innocence, through dramatic poses and playful scenes of love, such as in “The Kiss” in which Presley kisses a young woman, with tongue. The series shows how Presley’s image was eroticized in these photographs—more so, ironically, than in performance footage. While his pelvis gyrations were censored on television, the photographs allow for more overt intimacy. In the stills, Elvis actually has a woman in his arms.

The show offers other iconic rock ’n’ roll images as well as lesser-known portraits. Happily, The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album cover and a The Who poster featuring guitarist Pete Townshend mid-windmill are absent from the exhibition. In their place are rarer portraits, including one of the original lineup of The Beatles (minus Ringo Starr, plus Stu Sutcliffe and Pete Best) in Hamburg, Germany and an image of Townshend resting his lips on a beer bottle while at IBC Studios in London. These latter images, unlike the former, would rarely be found at the mall, or even your average New York record store.

Some of the landmark rock ’n’ roll photographs included in the exhibition (that you’ll definitely find at the mall) include Pennie Smith’s 1979 shot of Paul Simonon of The Clash about to smash his bass guitar at the Palladium in New York (forever immortalized on the album cover of The Clash’s “London Calling”), Jim Marshall’s shot of Johnny Cash flipping the bird at the camera while performing at San Quentin prison in 1969, and a contact sheet containing nine images of John Lennon in his New York City T-shirt circa 1974 by Bob Gruen. The last work stands out because it shows the alternate images never popularly released, such as one in which Lennon playfully cocks his fists for the camera, offering a rare look at the icon and his relationship with Gruen, the photographer.

Many of the lesser-known photographs displayed are categorized as “behind the scenes” photos, the most noteworthy aspect of the exhibition. The subjects fail to recognize the camera, peering in another direction, illustrating the musicians’ exhaustion, despair or sullen calm.

Photographer Diane Arbus’s image titled “James Brown at Home in Curlers, Queens, NY, 1966,” shows the Godfather of Soul looking up dazed, wearing a robe while someone fixes his hair. The image humanizes the renowned entertainer, demonstrating a more vulnerable side that fans would never see conveyed on stage. The genuinely tired expression on Brown’s face establishes the image’s artistic and historic value.

One highlight of the conceptual photography section of the exhibit is photographer Albert Watson’s large-scale composition of images gathered during a photo shoot for Michael Jackson’s 2001 album “Invincible.” Each overlapped image shows a varied facial expression, hand gesture, or limb in a different position expressing Jackson’s signature energy and movement. Watson’s use of mirrors during the photo shoot and the layering technique makes viewing the images like seeing individual still shots of one of Jackson’s music videos. Leaving behind the merchandising hysteria that followed the King of Pop’s death, Watson’s work creatively portrays Jackson’s passion for that which he was best known and loved.

Whether valued as art or rock ’n’ roll history, “Who Shot Rock & Roll” asks if truth can be captured by music photographers when professional entertainers know they are always being watched. Some of the content of the exhibit answers in the affirmative, while some does not.

While a few of the images exhibited have been reproduced on wall posters, T-shirts or within the pages of rock ’n’ roll anthologies, many of the photos on display are rare looks inside the lives of idolized musicians, celebrating their talent and the relationships they created with their audience and other artists. While companies may have capitalized on some of these images since they were first shot, arguably diminishing their value as art, the original intent of the photographer should not be ignored: to unify rock ’n’ roll music with art and capture the medium’s historic value for future generations.