By Claire O'Neill
Johnny Cash gives the camera "the bird." John Lennon sports a New York City tank top on a high-rise rooftop. Kurt Cobain clutches his hair and weeps backstage. On the album cover of London Calling, Paul Simonon of the Clash famously raises his guitar on stage to smash it. These are the iconic photographs that have created our vision of rock 'n' roll. We know the rockers, but who took the photos?
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Jim Marshall, Bob Gruen, Ian Tilton and Pennie Smith are their names, respectively. They are four of more than a hundred photographers featured in a new book: Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955-Present. From a gyrating Elvis in 1955 right up to the big-haired Amy Winehouse -- from early pop rock to the British Invasion, from punk to New Wave -- the book covers not only some of the most iconic rock moments, but also the stories behind them.
The musical genre has evolved dramatically since Elvis, and so has the photographic genre. In the beginning, there were very few "rock photographers." And the few that existed had no problem getting into shows and photographing throughout the entire performance. Nowadays, a photographer is lucky to get in, and even luckier to be able to shoot during more than one song. Tilton explained in an e-mail:
When I was taking live pictures at big gigs in the '80s and early '90s, we were able to photograph the whole set. Then in the mid-90s, someone said, "You can do the first 3 songs only." ... Now the first 3 songs are useless -- the band hasn't gotten into their stride; they aren't even sweating! And that's what great live rock 'n' roll photography is all about: atmosphere and sweat and the band getting "lost in music." That's never gonna be at the beginning of a set. It's always near the end! Do you think I would have gotten those classic photos of Kurt Cobain smashing his guitar in the first 3 numbers?
Written by photographic historian Gail Buckland, the book is one of the first to tell the story of rock 'n' roll with an emphasis on those who fashioned its image. What would rock be without that photo of the Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, or of Elton John doing a handstand on his piano? Photography didn't create rock, but it certainly helped create our vision of it.
The photos will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum in New York from Oct. 30 through Jan. 31.