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Who Shot Rock: The Impact of Photography on Music

By David Schonauer   Thursday June 21, 2012

When “Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present” opened at the Brooklyn Museum in October, 2009, the exhibition prompted a number of critics—both art and music varieties—to reassess what qualities were needed by those who would become rock stars. “Rock ’n’ roll and photography need each other—or, at least, rock musicians need photographers. You can’t be a star if you don’t have an image,” wrote Ken Johnson in the New York Times.

 The New Yorker called the “big, vivid survey” both entertaining and intelligent while acknowledging that the star power of performers like Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna and was essential to its success. But what made the exhibition intriguing and important, said the magazine, was the ability of curator Gail Buckland to select images that were both exciting and telling—and utterly unique from each other. Richard Avedon’s luminously cool black-and-white portrait of John, Paul, George, and Ringo had nothing to do with Henry’s Diltz’s close-up of a sweating Tina Turner performing onstage, which itself was absolutely unlike David LaChapelle’s candy-colored studio shot of Eminem holding a symbolic stick of dynamite.

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Elvis

                         Elvis Presley, age 21, Richmond, VA, 1956. Photo by Alfred Wertheimer

amy

                         Amy Winehouse, Miami, FL, 2007. Photo by Max Vadukal

dylan

                            "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan" (outtake), New York City, 1963

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What the various pictures in the show do have in common is a sense of narrative power. Rock and roll is a story with historic and cultural consequence, and the photographers who shot rock best realized that, even when the rest of the world did not.

“Rock & Roll was a revolution, and all revolutions must be documented,” Buckland said in a recent interview.

The exhibition has toured eight museums and set attendance records at most. When the show opened last February at the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley in Allentown, Pennsylvania, some 1,300 people crowded in for look at the work on opening night. “They thought that perhaps 300 would come, which was a big underestimation,” said Buckland. “The show attracts people who have never set foot in a museum, and of course that’s what we wanted.” Buckland has also taken the work beyond museum walls with an accompanying book tracing the history of rock photography.

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lennon

                                                      John Lennon, New York City, 1974. Photo by Bob Gruen

mccartney

                                         Paul McCartney, "My Love, London," 1985. Photo by Linda McCartney

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The Annenberg show (June 23 through October 7) features a little more than 100 pictures and adds to the spirit behind the photography with a number of new features, including an original film featuring new photographs and interviews with photographers Ed Colver, Henry Diltz, Jill Furmanovsky, Lynn Goldsmith, Bob Gruen, Norman Seeff, Mark Seliger and Guy Webster. There will also be a series of live-music concerts through July produced in conjunction with Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, as well as a series of Thursday-night lectures featuring photographers, musicians, and others.

Buckland says the idea for the show originated with her own curiosity about a music-industry artifact rarely seen in the modern digital age: the 12-inch by 12-inch LP album cover. “I wanted to know who shot those wonderful pictures I remembered on albums,” she said. And therein lies the reason she was able to choose the spectacular images for the show: Buckland came to the project not as a rock-music aficionado, but as a photo historian. “I didn’t get sidetracked by the musical artists in the pictures, because to a great degree I didn’t care about them,” she said. “What I cared about were the photographs, and I judged them solely on their qualities as photographs.”

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mosh

                        Mosh pit at Endfest, Kitsip County, Washington, 1991. Photo by Charles Peterson       

Pickett

                         Wilson Pickett and Jimi Hendrix, Harlem, New York City, 1966. Photo by William "Popsie" Randolph

mickshoes

                           Mick Jagger on stage with shoes, Anaheim, CA, 1978. Photo by Lynn Goldsmith

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Many of the photographers she contacted for pictures were astounded to hear that someone with Buckland’s credentials was interested in their work—they had grown used to being thought of as hacks who hung around concert stages. “I like to say that these photographers were as passionate about music and musicians as Ansel Adams was about Yosemite,” said Buckland.

It wasn’t all that long ago that fashion photography was also held in low esteem by the art establishment. That changed as a generation of curators and collectors began to look at the fashion work done by photographers like Avedon and Irving Penn with a new eye. Buckland says the same sort of change has begun to take place in the three years since “Who Shot Rock & Roll” opened in Brooklyn. “The Museum of Modern Art in New York had two shows last year about music photography,” she says. Thanks to Buckland, photographers like Don Hunstein, Herb Greene, William “Popsie” Randolph,  Barry Feinstein, Penny Smith, Roberta Bayley and Godlis, and Bob Gruen are assured of a lasting place in the history of photography.

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