01 January 2013

Who Shot Rock & Roll?

Who Shot Rock & Roll?
Auckland Art Gallery
Until 3 March



During my traditional holiday visit to Auckland I spent an enjoyable hour exploring the rock photography exhibit Who Shot Rock & Roll at the Gallery. The collection was curated by the Brooklyn Museum, which I visited in 2010, and offers a rich sample of rock and pop photo portraiture across an impressive six rooms. The beauty of assembling a collection of this size is that it can attempt to cover a decent swathe of music history across the decades, including the '50s swagger of a very young Elvis Presley, the moody insolence of Astrid Kircherr's Hamburg Beatles portrait, David Bowie reaching out from the stage to an ecstatic Tokyo audience, U2 bunched up in the desert in Anton Corbijn's famous Joshua Tree cover shot, and on through 21st century artists like Eminem and Li'l Kim.

While the primary focus of the exhibition was photographic imagery, there was also a welcome slice of film and TV representations of rock stardom. The ancient film clip of Elvis essaying an early number set the scene perfectly, but must have driven the ticket girls mad because it was on a 160-second loop all day. And while it was a perfectly serviceable performance I'm not sure why a track by The Vines was chosen as a representative sample of rock videos.

Here's a few of my highlights from the collection, with photo links where the images are available online. It really was a case of finding the best rock photography all in one place. For only $15 entry it was a bargain.

- George du Bose, 'The B-52s', resplendent in beehive coiffures and a general air of youthful new wave chic in a shot that was coloured-up and deployed as their first album cover in 1979 - an album that contained the legendary 'Rock Lobster' single.

- Peter Vernon, 'The Sex Pistols', the famous celebratory shot as they emerged from EMI headquarters having been signed by the label, with John Lydon gleefully spraying beer over everyone. (The signing didn't last - they were dropped shortly after the famous Bill Grundy TV appearance).

- Jill Furmanovsky, 'Oasis', an impressive hand-compiled photo-collage of the band recording with Johnny Marr at Olympic Studios in London, 2001, which is a vivid representation of a busy recording session.

- William Randolph, 'Wilson Pickett & Jimi Hendrix', a splendid rare 1966 shot showing the young Hendrix resplendent in a natty tux and having a great time in Pickett's backing band, which is hugely incongruous with his later gypsy rock god image.

- Jean-Paul Goude, 'Island Life', three shots showing how the famous cover shot for Grace Jones' album was stitched together from a myriad of source images in order to create the arresting and somewhat alien statue portrait that she became famous for.

- David Gahr, 'Springsteen with fans', a charming 1973 shot from a New Jersey shopping street, in which a gang of teenage girls in their P.E. gear have coralled Bruce into a shop doorway and mob him for a photo. Everyone looks delighted, including Springsteen!

- Bob Whitaker, 'George Harrison - no way out?' from 1965, an archetypal representation of the perils of rock stardom, with the ever-inscrutable Harrison posing in front of a locked gate behind which hordes of desperate fans are thronging; above sits the ironic notice: 'way out' - certainly not for a Beatle.

- Laura Levine, 'Bjork as Venus', 1991 - this backyard portrait in Woodstock, New York, shows the Icelandic singer larking around with mates, wearing strategically-placed leaves and , in the final piece de resistance, extending her tongue to capture a falling raindrop. Reputation as the world's preeminent manic dream pixie girl secured.

- Gered Mankowitz, 'Marianne Faithfull', 1964, in which the 18-year-old Faithfull was photographed by the similarly 18-year-old Mankowitz, rocking the pert schoolgirl look in a London pub - a teenager flirting on the grown-ups' home territory. The record company was too nervous to use this shot as the cover for her first album, but it perfectly captures the youthful beauty and confidence that gained her entry into pop stardom.

- Bob Gruen, 'John Lennon, New York City', 1974 - these iconic building-top photos of Lennon in a cheap tourist vest have become amongst the most pirated rock photographs in history. Apparently Gruen doesn't care overly - he just makes his money from selling prints taken from the original negatives.

- Jerry Schatzberg, 'Frank Zappa, himself' - a droll 1967 portrait of a serious-looking Zappa rocking a pair of fetching pigtails, showing that he was never afraid of looking silly.

- Lastly, it's Bjork again - then boyfriend Stephane Sednaoui's video for her single 'Big Time Sensuality' from the album 'Debut' featured in two versions on matching screens - the released official version filmed on a flatbed truck in New York during the day, and an alternate rare edit filmed after dark. Such a performer!

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