Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Hail, Hail Rock and Rock Photography

Elvis by Alfred Wertheimer
 One of the unexpected benefits that came out of the opening of the Rock and Rolling Hall of Fame in 1995 was a flurry of research on--and growing appreciation of--rock-and-roll photographers. The new museum began creating a collection of images, many of which were featured in a special 1996 issue of the photo magazine I used to edit. Since then, galleries and museums have continued unearthing and celebrating the genre. The Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C. has been at the center of many rock-photo exhibitions, including a new show at the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. It's called "Elvis at 21," and it features 56 images of The King before he was the The King, all taken by Alfred Werthheimer, most of them now iconic. There is also a new book out from Steidl called A Star Is Born: Photography and Rock that is a fairly comprehensive survey of the photographers who documented the world of rock over the past half century or so. This all follows up on the 2009 exhibition called "Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955-Present" at the Brooklyn Museum, which curated by one of my favorite photo historians, Gail Buckland. (There was an accompanying book from Random House.)

Access in Everything: Elvis by Wertheimer
Not coincidentally, the Rock and Roll Museum came about just as baby boomers started to get old enough to get some perspective on their misspent youth and the music that provided its soundtrack. As for rock photography, it was only a matter of time before savvy curators and publishers focused on photographers like Annie Leibovitz, Mark Seliger, Jim Marshall, Daniel Kramer, and, of course, Wertheimer. Elvis remains the most compelling figure in rock, at least to me, and Wertheimer's images continuing to be endlessly intriguing. He was hired in 1956 by RCA Victor records to shoot promotional pictures of the up-and-coming performer and was smart enough to see that the kid was kind of magnetic and might have a future. So he tagged along with Elvis on tour and produced deeply intimate, introspective images.

 Amy Winehouse by Max Vadukul, 2007 from "Who Shot Rock"
The full access Wertheimer had with Elvis really set the stage for much of the great rock photography that would follow. In 1977, Leibovitz went on tour with the Rolling Stones and produced images every bit as intimate--some painfully so. But that was about when it all ended: By the 1980s, labels and performers stopped granting that kind of access, and the art of rock photography changed as photographers like Leibovitz, Seliger, and Albert Watson perfected a refined and high-concept style of rock portraiture that elevated turned performers into icons. 

LL Cool J by Albert Watson, 1992

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