by Hannah Sayle
Gail Buckland is both the author of the book and guest curator of the exhibit, Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955 to the Present, opening at the Brooks Museum tomorrow, Saturday, June 26th. Buckland is a veteran photographic historian, curator, author, and professor, and she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the upcoming exhibit. In addition to the exhibit opening party for members this evening, there will be a curator talk open to the public at 2 p.m. on Saturday followed by a book signing.
Why music photography in particular?
I’ve been around long enough to know that at different times, different genres are embraced into the larger history of photography. There was a time when fashion photography was not considered art, and museums would never show it. Then all of a sudden maybe 10 or 15 years ago you started seeing museums doing fashion exhibitions and having serious discussions about its importance. I go far enough back that I remember when Richard Avedon was not exhibiting in museums because he was considered a commercial photographer.
All of that is a preface to say that I recognized that there are brilliant, important photographs of musicians and of the entire musical revolution that we know of as rock and roll. Most of the attention has always been on the people who make the music. Not incorrectly— we should celebrate those people. But I felt the time had come that the people who gave rock its image also need to be acknowledged.
How do you define the relationship between rock and roll and photography?
The revolution that we know of as rock and roll was a bipartite revolution. It was sound and image. The music alone could not create the revolution. The kids were reacting to the clothes and the hairstyles and the body language. And the people who gave rock its image are very important because revolutions have to be documented to be believed. It’s the photographers who were bringing back the message that kids were going wild in mosh pits in Seattle. It was like photographing the front line and sometimes you came back with your battle scars. But especially for young people, it’s so important that there are people out there thinking like them and looking like them and loving the same music, so the image of rock is really important.
What was the relationship like between the musicians and photographers?
A lot of the photographers when they picked up their cameras they were every bit as passionate taking the photographs as any guitarist plucking his strings. This is a burning passion in them and they often felt that when they were shooting they were almost playing along with the music. This is the opposite of paparazzi. There are no stolen images in my shows. Most of these photographs were taken in collaboration and with mutual respect—no exploitation. A lot of the photographers stopped photographing when they started to be controlled by the labels — when the hair stylists and the people with clothes and the PR people became more important than just the musician and the photographer interacting and trying to do something together. It wasn’t fun anymore. What was fun was creative artists working together to come up with something.
Does any of this interest come from a personal experience with music photography when you were young?
I had Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in my teenage bedroom and I used to prop it up—it’s a real image on the LP, 12 inches, by 12 inches— and I loved that image of Bob Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo walking down a snowy Greenwich Village street. And I remember thinking “Wherever they’re going, I want to go. I need out of my teenage suburban bedroom!” And even though I’m a photographic historian, I didn’t have any idea who took the picture, and when I did some research I realized that he was my neighbor on the upper west side of New York and I could go over and just, you know, talk to him. Find out the whole story of how that picture was taken. So what I’m trying to do is give a name to the people who made the pictures. There are pictures, as my son says, “the Jimi Hendrix pictures that every kid had up in their dorm room,” but I’m telling the story of who took the picture, how it was taken, why it was taken.
How did you start culling all these photographs?
I do my homework and see what’s out there and then contact the actual photographers. There is no point in recycling photos that have been seen a million times. So I go directly to the photographers. I spent four and half years researching this. When I mention some of the names of the photographers to fellow curators, they haven’t heard of them— even some of the biggest names. I wanted this book and this subject to enlarge the world of photography. I looked through a lot of drawers and pulled out a lot of filing cabinets and looked at a lot of transparencies through loops. Because what you’ll see when you go to the exhibition, is that there are hundreds of important rock and roll musicians who aren’t in my show. This isn’t a history of rock and roll. This is a history of the men and women who photographed it with integrity and gave it its image. People are always saying, “Oh is there this person or this person in your show?” and I say “No. But there are a hundred and five photographers.” I think that this is the beginning of the dialogue. Let there be other exhibitions that explore this field.
As a female photographer yourself, were you concerned about having enough women photographers represented in your exhibit?
I think I have done a very good job [of that] in my exhibition and in my book, with Jill Furmanovsky, Lisa Law, Lynn Goldsmith. There just weren’t as many women music photographers. Jill wore big comfortable clothes because she didn’t want to be confused with a groupie and she had to elbow the guys in the pit because she said they would just push you right out of the way. She’s about 5’4 or 5’5’ and these guys were 6’ standing there in front of her while she’s trying to get a shot. But how she succeeded was through the quality of her work, through being who she is. And she ended up as the official or unofficial Oasis photographer. She had the best photographs of Oasis and when they wanted to do a huge show in London it was all her work. But it’s always an issue; it’s not a level playing field.
What about the representation of female musicians?
I have Chrissie Hynde, some quotes from her. She actually really thought about women’s image in the music industry, and realized the importance of the photographs in terms of image and how women are perceived in the industry. Now a lot of women musicians are just packaged as sex objects, but in the early days there was a lot of thought that went into the image. I mean, there’s a lot of thought now, but a lot of the wrong people are giving the thought.
What next for the exhibit?
Well, the show is touring. I think it’s being extended; a museum in Los Angeles wanted the show. Memphis wanted it early on and signed up right from the get-go and now museums from all over the country are trying to get it. It’s amazing how many places want it. I think we haven’t really thought about the image of rock that much.
Before the interview, you mentioned you were excited about bringing the show to Memphis. Why?
It’s Memphis! It’s music history. I’ll tell you, I’m nervous about Memphis. I never pretend to know what I don’t know, and I am sure that a man or woman on the street, or when I give the lecture at the museum, 95% of the people are going to know more about music history than I do. But I do know about photography and I do hopefully have a way of talking about the honesty and integrity of these pictures. I don’t pretend that I know Memphis’ music history, but what I know excites me to no end. At the Brooks I’m very pleased they’re going to include a section on Ernest Withers’ pictures. He photographed everyone on Beale Street and had a studio on Beale. Memphis has a wonderful long music tradition. It’s not just Elvis, obviously, so many people have played [in Memphis]. I have a great Tina Turner and Ike Turner photograph in the book taken on the Paradise Club in Memphis. I mean these are things that are precious. Memphis has a lot of things that are unique.
Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955 to the Present runs at the Brooks Museum of Art from June 26th to September 26th. For more information, call 544-6200.