From Johnny Cash “flipping the bird” at Jim Marshall’s camera during a soundcheck in San Quentin prison to Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of an androgynous Patti Smith in white shirt and braces on the cover of Horses, and the late Amy Winehouse posing provocatively in bed on her wedding day, photography has often spoken louder than words when it comes to enshrining a performer in the public eye.
Over the past 15 years, Proud Galleries in London have carved out a niche as purveyors of classic music photography prints. To celebrate, Proud Chelsea is showing a greatest hits exhibition entitled 20th Century Icons. The show provides ample illustration of photography’s power to help construct, perpetuate – and occasionally puncture – the image of the rock star as demigod.
Three photographs stand out: Terry O’Neill’s arresting image of an imperious Frank Sinatra and his bodyguards strolling along a boardwalk in Miami in 1968; Elliott Landy’s portrait of a bucolic Bob Dylan at home in Woodstock in 1969; Ethan Russell’s picture of Keith Richards posing beside an airport customs sign proclaiming a drug-free America in 1972.
In their separate ways, each photo raises questions about fame: about the presence that certain performers have, even offstage, and their willingness to play up to, or subvert, their own status.
O’Neill’s fly-on-the-wall shot of Sinatra looks like a film still, an out-take from a gangster movie or an Oceans Eleven-style caper. In fact, it is a snapshot of Sinatra, his bodyguards and his body double (wearing an identical suit) arriving on the set of a crime film called Lady in Cement, in which Sinatra starred as private investigator Tony Rome.
The photograph’s power resides in its ability to capture Sinatra’s presence: the Sopranos-style minders, the look of admiration from the seated man on the left, the way the singer – and his double – both stare hard at the camera, neither offended nor surprised by it. (O’Neill had been introduced to Sinatra by Ava Gardner and was granted unprecedented access to the star.) It dramatises the darker side of Sinatra, a performer whose business interests were allegedly mixed up with the mafia for most of his career, and whose shadier connections were constantly monitored by the FBI.
While O’Neill’s snatched shot plays with the conflicting versions of Sinatra the star and Sinatra the gangster, Ethan Russell found Keith Richards a willing collaborator in his portrait of the artist as a rock’n'roll outlaw. The photographer travelled with the Rolling Stones for part of their infamously dissolute 1972 tour. Russell was, as he later put it, “watching from the sidelines when I noticed the sign. I called Keith over and took two quick snaps. The customs officer threatened to confiscate the film, so I retired quickly. I knew what I had got.”
What he got was one of the first of many shots that shored up Richards’s image as a self-styled rebel, a man who not only lived outside the law but flaunted it. Alongside Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of an elegantly wasted Richards unconscious in his dressing room, this image was key in the myth-making of Richards – a process the rock star was all too complicit in.
Consider, then, Elliott Landy’s downhome portrait of Bob Dylan, which was used for the back cover of Dylan’s 1969 Nashville Skyline album. It is the antithesis of the Sinatra and Richards photographs: it presents a grinning, bearded Dylan who has embraced a brief period of blissful domesticity, a man attempting to escape the weight of his own mythology.
Dylan had summoned the affable Landy to his house, the fabled Byrdcliffe residence in the woodlands of upstate New York. Though relatively relaxed, Dylan was uncomfortable being photographed, and Landy had to work hard over a few days to put him at ease. It was Dylan, Landy later wrote, who suggested the angle of the shot – “What about taking one from down there?” – and Dylan who produced the hat. “Do you think I should wear this?” he asked, smiling as he visualised himself in this silly-looking traditional hat.
The end result presented a man who was a world away from the strung-out singer on the cover of Blonde on Blonde (1966) and a more humble, upfront version of the mysterious Dylan on the cover of his previous album John Wesley Harding (1967).
The Nashville Skyline portrait cemented Dylan’s new image as a family man in retreat from fame and from his own legend. He looks relaxed and approachable, although the shot was as staged and self-serving in its way as Russell’s portrait of the “outlaw” Richards. In a year when America was in the grip of social turbulence and unrest, when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, and when Richard Nixon first came into office, Dylan repositioned himself as a seemingly unconcerned, low-key, country-style balladeer.
In exploding one myth, Dylan erected another. The Frank Sinatra and Keith Richards portraits may be more directly self-mythologising, but Landy’s portrait of Dylan speaks, in its deceptively quiet way, about the same process: the power of a single image to articulate – and condense – the mythology that great artists often construct around themselves in order to survive – or, in Dylan’s case, to hide behind for a while so that they can reinvent themselves once more.
Now see this
Signs of a Struggle: Photography in the Wake of Postmodernism at London’s V&A is a small retrospective group show that looks at the influence and impact of postmodernism on photography. It includes work by Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince and Jeff Wall, as well as more recent images by Clare Strand and Anne Hardy. A taster for the V&A’s imminent blockbuster, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion 1970 – 1990 which opens on 24 September.
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