Exhibition: Who shot Rock & Roll

By Graham Reid

A new show at Auckland Art Gallery salutes the photographers who captured the crazy heart and soul of rock'n'roll. Curator Gail Buckland talks to Graham Reid.

The Cramps shot by Ebet Roberts, at CBGBs, New York City, in 1933. Photo / Ebet Roberts
The Cramps shot by Ebet Roberts, at CBGBs, New York City, in 1933. Photo / Ebet Roberts

Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders - appropriately wiry and driven, often in black, her signature fringe below her eyebrows - once said, "presentation is half of it in rock'n'roll. It's not just the music - there's music and there's attitude and there's the image".

From the uninhibited Elvis Presley captured by the camera when lost in the moment on stage in 1956, and the moody Beatles in Hamburg before fame hit, through the sexual swagger of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, to cathartic grunge and the attention-grabbing bling of hip-hop, every new movement in popular music has come with its own catalogue of images.

Many photographs of rock'n'roll artists or their audience freeze more than just that moment. They are emblematic of an era or a transcendent moment which still speaks to us decades later.

So it is with Who Shot Rock & Roll, the exhibition of almost 200 photographs by more than 100 photographers - some classic images, many never previously seen - at Auckland Art Gallery.

Compiled over four years by New York author, curator and photography historian Gail Buckland, this collection of images across six decades charts seismic cultural shifts as much as pinpointing a moment.

"The guards at the Brooklyn Museum, where the exhibition opened, tell me they'd never seen people spend so much time reading captions or talking because they wanted to share their own experiences," says Buckland. "Many who know about music come to the exhibition to find so much they didn't know. It is exciting because grandparents bring their grandkids and everybody is talking.

"There is something very powerful about the still image. A good example is Jimi Hendrix who we remember for the music but also some of those images of him which really stay in our brain in a particular way."

Among the images collected are those of great artists, although Buckland is quick to note this is an exhibition of photographers and their work, not a rock roll-call. There are also images of audiences, which can be just as telling. In her handsome hardback book (signed copies are available at the gallery for $69) but not in the exhibition, are shots of fans at concerts by Marilyn Manson, P. Diddy and Rod Stewart, all looking like their hero or as if they have just come from the video shoot. Every rock'n'roll movement comes with its own set of clothes.

"And it's about how we combed our hair and the body language. We picked up cues from the still image and there was a time when there was a shared image that all people could hold in their hands and look at. It was 12 inches by 12 inches, a record cover. I'm also a cultural historian and every revolution needs to be documented to be believed and rock'n'roll is one of the most important social revolutions the world has ever known.

"These [photographers] describe themselves like being at the frontline and they weren't going to come back from the concert until they had the defining image."

For Buckland - now 64 and who saw Elvis Presley in '56 when she was a child in Florida - the exhibition is about giving the photographers their due, and for many it is the first time they have been identified for the often iconic images they created.

Buckland says the photograph on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album - Dylan and then girlfriend Suze Rotolo on a New York street, a record she loved as a teenager as much for the cover as the music it contained - is an example of how potent such images can be.

"I realised I didn't know who made that picture and it is absolutely iconic, to the point that when Obama was inaugurated and he held Michelle's arm as they walked up Pennsylvania Ave, all over the internet that image of them was juxtaposed with Bob Dylan's. I thought it was crazy that if I - a photography historian and someone who loved that photo - didn't know who took it, then who did? I discovered Don Hunstein who made that image lived near me and he did [Miles Davis'] Kind of Blue and a hundred other albums for Columbia.

"For the most part the photographers' contribution to rock'n'roll is enormous but, except for a few celebrities like Annie Leibovitz, they have not been celebrated as creative and important artists in their own right."

She tells of going to see Henry Diltz - who shot the image of a sweat-drenched Tina Turner, that is her book's cover, as well as many images of Joni Mitchell and the Los Angeles scene in early 70s - who found it hard to believe she wanted to speak to him about his work.

"He said in his whole life no one ever asked to see him, they always wanted to see the musicians. I said we were going to do this differently. The musicians have had plenty of accolades and recognition, let's turn the attention on to the photography.

"Jill Furmanovsky [who has images of Joy Division and Oasis in the exhibition] spent her whole life in this field and said this is the first time in 30 years she has got any recognition and been treated with real respect for her own work.

"I curated the show as I would curate any exhibition and I wrote about the pictures as I would write about any important works of art, to illuminate them and discuss them. Is Tina Turner on the stage any less lofty than an Ansel Adams mountaintop? In my field which is the history of photography there is this stupid hierarchy and rarely do music photos get into the histories. But it's all changing since my show, some of the artists have had their work in the Museum of Modern Art and galleries have picked them up. So I have to give myself a little pat on the back."

- NZ Herald

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