Not being a musician or performer, I have no idea what it’s like to be in a life that lurches from on-the-road lulls between gigs to the raw, over-the-top energy of performance. Like most of us, all I see is the act, which can transport or craze or zonk us. The 100 rock-and-roll photographs selected by Graham Nash for the exhibition Taking Aim, currently at the Museum of Photographic Arts, documents the downtime interludes and manic moments — and the tonally varied zones in between — of many of the great rock, blues, and country performers of the past 60 years. Some of the pictures are straight-up posed portraits, and a few have the look of candids, but even the casually caught portraits were, I suspect, performances of a kind. Many of the images shoot rock’s different degrees of anarchy straight into our veins. They create a pictorial buzz and detonate so many blasts from the (near and distant) past that I started to wish for a soundtrack. I remembered the instructions that precede Scorsese’s documentary film of the Band’s final performance, The Last Waltz: “This film should be played loud!” This exhibition plays loud.
The loudest thing in it, though, isn’t what you might expect. It’s not Iggy Pop doing a gravity-defying back-bend or Jimi Hendrix blasting away in angry ecstasy during a sound check at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival or the Clash glaring infuriated at their own instruments. The loudest things are the pomegranate sport coats worn by Bill Haley and his Comets. Since its babyhood, rock has been full-body performance art. One of the Comets is climbing his bass, another crouches in a mild-mannered preview of the instrument bashing to come decades later, depicted in a roughhouse image of an oblivious Kurt Cobain, legs splayed, crashing down and scrambling the drum kit. That kind of lostness was a precept for a lot of ’60s and ’70s rock. Even the abandon looks loud. Janis Joplin, in Elliott Landy’s legendary picture of her performing at the Fillmore East in 1968, has a raspy look of damaged ecstasy. I’m no sentimentalist about these things, so sue me, but my heart does do its tuggy thing whenever I see a picture of Janis in performance. Some ways of looking out of control are handsomely crafted. If you want focus, see a very young dreamboat Elvis performing in a Tampa armory in 1955, sweating hard, dressed in grimy trousers like a farm kid at an audition, singing his heart out but singing it out to himself. He’s transported to, not by the music he’s making.
A photograph can be a small pocket of time’s cultural deposits, fashion-statement moments especially, such as the waist-down image showing only the Beatles’ impeccably dressed legs (straight-cut silk slacks and high-shine, narrow ankle boots) as they waited to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. The image opens a trap door and drops us into a cultural matrix that, considering our current cultural-political moment, might as well have existed a hundred years ago. That sort of applies to body types, too. Boomers who have filled out since the 1960s will have their carbo conscience tweaked by all the skinny, overstimulated bodies on view in this exhibition. And irrepressible retro air-guitarists will be struck by all the renderings of guitar worship. Elvis Costello lolls in a fugue state with his hand on the fretboard just in case a chord comes along; Dylan, in a Hong Kong airport, looks like a Talmudic scholar putting very serious questions to his instrument; and I’d never have thought Deborah Harry could look unsexy, ever, but a candid Annie Leibovitz snapshot catches her in an awkward, frumpy moment, wearing only blouse and panties, while she pours her sexual energy into checking some cosmetic flaw on her Goya electric.
Leibovitz’s Blondie picture works so well because it’s not a setup. Forty photographers are included in Taking Aim, but the images by celebrity photographers such as Leibovitz, Richard Avedon, Francesco Scavullo, and Dennis Hopper don’t have the zizzy heat of those by born-to-it rock photographers, Steven Nash among them. The high-profile photographers are self-conscious; they conceptualize their subjects as icons, as “meaningful” personages. Leibovitz’s portrait of Willie Nelson makes him look like one of Edward E. Curtis’s 19th-century Native Americans — ancient, wise, weather-worn. He’s already history. But this is the man who says the reason he can play and sing for many hours without stop is because there are always songs flying through the air, all he has to do is reach up and pluck one down. Art photographers bring too much intent and manipulation. I like to believe that if any of us had a decent camera and were plunked down front, we’d come away with quiveringly visceral pictures: all we’d have to do is bear witness to the onstage energy. The archest example of “creativity” is a Leibovitz shot of Brian Wilson in a pharmacy aisle, dressed in a candy-striped bathrobe and looking mighty sedated. His problems are common knowledge, but in an exhibition that’s so much about the line where daring and excess (rock’s milk and honey) turns perilous, the inclusion of this Wilson picture, instead of others showing him in terrific form, seems to me insulting and unseemly.
Pictures of jazz artists made by Lee Friedlander and others usually have a more contemplative, stretched duration bred into them. Rock performance pictures tend to anoint hierophantic moments. I’m not making claims for Rebbe Jerry Garcia, mind you (though Dylan has become some sort of ecclesiast of his own mystery religion), but the best of the pictures in Taking Aim remind us of the soul-shaking power of the music, which has held tens of millions of people in thrall. Some of the musicians even seem to fly, or at least levitate. Rod Stewart twists and floats in the air; Elton John does a semi-handstand on the piano board; Pete Townshend tucks up his knees midair. (Did he ever really come back down?) Sid Vicious, on the other hand, looks as if he never did or could catch flight. He’s a grievously damaged earthling, his well-tracked veins sloppily bandaged, his torso carved and scrawled over. It was his body, not punk, that was his nihilism’s real message-bearer.
Graham Nash says in his introduction, “You really have to make yourself a part of the music to take great music shots.” Feeling you’re a part of the music helps, sure, but I think you only really have to have a good eye or be present at auspicious moments. These are celebrities, after all, and they carry cultural auras, onstage anyway. A dressing-room shot of Alice Cooper besieged by makeup, costuming, and other illusion-crafting junk reminds us that while rock pushes feeling to an almost unbearable pitch, it’s still and always what was once called “the show business.” Some of the finest moments in Taking Aim are the quieter ones.
I once saw a National Enquirer headline: “Boy Sees with His Ears.” Some truth there, I thought, looking at a composed portrait of bat-eared Joe Cocker. Rock is so much a world of stress and wailing that the image of a happy, loose, grinning B.B. King really stands out. Other intimate moments tend toward those like Janis Joplin backstage, blotto, clutching a pint of Southern Comfort as if she’s trying to warm her heart with it. And the corny maxim about rock stars’ living fast and dying young is revivified by the lovely shot of a solitary Nick Cave, whose shadow on a wall is already running ahead of him.
Taking Aim: Unforgettable Rock ’n’ Roll Photographs Selected by Graham Nash
Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park
Through September 26. For additional information, call 619-238-7559.