Standing Ovation

An amazing exhibit of rock 'n' roll photography finally takes the stage at the Tucson Museum of Art

Back in the days when the Rolling Stones still ruled the airwaves—in 1974, to be precise—Mick Jagger sang a song about why he did what he did for a living.

With a single line, he pushed back hard against critics of popular music.

"I know, it's only rock 'n' roll" he sneered, "but I like it, like it, yes, I do."

Mick isn't the only one. Who Shot Rock 'n' Roll, a giant photography exhibition of rock 'n' roll greats (including Jagger as leopard by photog Albert Watson), is breaking attendance records at the Tucson Museum of Art.

"Everybody loves rock 'n' roll," says Julie Sasse, the TMA's chief curator. "We had 2,000 people at the opening."

Just like a rock band playing arenas, the monster 200-piece show has been making a blockbuster tour of the nation, Sasse says, starting at the Brooklyn Museum. And at every location, it's been bringing in the crowds.

No wonder. The show's a blast.

Who Shot Rock 'n' Roll travels down the music's long and winding road, picturing almost everybody who was or is anybody on the scene, from the heartbreakingly young Elvis of 1955, to the John Lennon of the New York period, to Amy Winehouse, who just months ago joined rock's infamous 27 Club of dead stars.

Sasse has noticed that museum visitors rush to see the rockers they relish the most. (I checked out the Ramones and Deborah Harry, favorites from my CBGB days, and Buddy Holly and the Beatles.) But the show is supposed to be about the photographers themselves, the sometimes-forgotten partners in the celebrity transaction.

"It's putting photographers in context, as bona fide artists," Sasse says.

Max Vadukal is the shutterbug who captured Winehouse in black and white. The young singer lies abed on her wedding day in 2007, legs splayed provocatively in between the sheets, one hand heading inside her skimpy shorts. Rolling Stone published the image across two pages, titling it "The Diva and Her Demons."

But should we take the rock 'n' roll bible's spin as the gospel truth? After all, as Rod Stewart (pictured glittery and wrinkled) has advised us in song, "Every picture tells a story." And it's not entirely possible to know which story is the real one.

Maybe Winehouse was an incorrigible exhibitionist who delighted in posing erotically in her nuptial bed, outrageously mixing her private life with her public. But who knows? Maybe, as Sasse suggests, she was taking care of business, deliberately conspiring with a photographer to create what her image demanded: a picture that would shock.

From the start, the new music was intertwined with photography, and even depended on it.

"Rock and roll (had) a handmaiden, and her name is photography," curator Gail Buckland writes. "The music alone cannot convey the rebellion, liberation, ecstasy and group dynamic that is rock. ... After the music stops, the still image remains."

The Beatles were bad boys (see Astrid Kirchherr's raw Hamburg pic from 1960) made to look good by early photographers, Buckland says. Conversely, the Rolling Stones were near-cherubs whose managers contrived through photography to make them the anti-Beatles, the bad boys of rock 'n' roll. Imagine.

Divided into six parts, the exhibition teases out the symbiotic relationship of rocker and photographer, from the seemingly innocent interactions of the early days, to the wild stadium frenzies and on to the later manipulations of video and Photoshop. (A half-dozen videos play in the galleries.)

The early pictures are the most charming. Elvis is already swiveling in 1955, photographed for his first album by William V. (Red) Robertson. In a 1965 shot from EMI Studio, The Supremes step out onto the airport tarmac in London, bouffanted and bowed, ready to win over Europe.

In 1972, a young Lynn Goldsmith shot a fresh-faced Bruce Springsteen in New York. The future Boss sits awkwardly at a table, saying cheese for Rolling Stone, which was about to declare him the Bob Dylan of the 1970s. (Goldsmith, a photog, director and musician herself, is also featured right now with Baron Wolman in Rockin' the Desert, a two-person photography show at Etherton Gallery. Like the TMA exhibition, it's part of the citywide Tucson Rocks! celebration.)

Equally sweet is a domesticated Keith Richards captured by Ken Regan in 1985. Posing with his wife at the crib of their baby girl, the baddest boy in all of rock is the very picture of bourgeois bliss.

Among the performance photos, Wolman has one of the best, a close-up of a sweating, radiant Little Richard, at the Fillmore West in 1969.

Album sleeves, of course, provided photogs with a foot-square blank canvas, and they duly filled it with memorable art. Superstar rock-photog Annie Leibovitz is represented by her jeans-butt pic of Springsteen on Born in the U.S.A. One of the "most iconic LP covers in rock-and-roll history," as Buckland has it, was The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. The original photo by Don Hunstein is lost, but a close outtake is here, picturing the star with his girlfriend strolling a Greenwich Village street in 1963.

Later will come the post-modern imagery. In 1987, Elaine Mayes made a whole series picturing stars performing on television. Her fuzzy photos of Cyndi Lauper and Michael Jackson are a pointed commentary on media. Jackson reappears in 1999, when Albert Watson captured his extraordinary dancing in literally hundreds of mirrored images collaged together.

Jackson died in 2009, and the show catalogues many of rock 'n' roll's other heartbreaks. There are way too many days the music died. Winehouse's predecessors in the 27 Club include The Doors' Jim Morrison, photographed by Jasper Daily as an innocent in 1966, ignored by a pack of girls. Janis Joplin wails away in a 1968 concert photo by David Gahr.

Brian Jones bites a photo of the Queen, in a staged 1966 image by Art Kane. Ed Caraeff caught Jimi Hendrix setting a fire onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. And a vulnerable Kurt Cobain sobs after a 1990 Seattle concert, in a black and white by Ian Tilton.

John Lennon lasted until 40, writing enduring music and urging everyone else to give peace a chance. Allan Tannenbaum of the Soho Weekly News photographed him lying in bed with Yoko, bathed in sunlight, their bodies entwined. Lennon was murdered two weeks later. Sasse considers it one of the most-beautiful pictures in the show.

Buckland gave the photographers a chance to speak, in the show's wall text and in the catalog, and Laura Levine ably sums up the joy of collaborating with musicians. She shot a naked Björk in 1991, in a forest glade at Woodstock. After Björk took off her clothes unprompted, the two of them picked out big leaves to cover the singer's breasts and genitals. Levin captured the singer as a nymph in a Garden of Eden.

"That is the best kind of photo shoot you can do," Levine writes, "when you are both excited about creating something and they're giving, you're giving ... ."

Together, photographers and musicians can do just about any old thing, as the Faces song has it, even dance and sing.

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