Rock ‘n’ roll is the bastard child of the blues and country, a half-breed offspring that went on to produce a litter of progeny so wildly diverse and ethnically infused, it’s difficult to imagine a family reunion in which someone does not get caught sodomizing the cousins. Metaphorically speaking, that happened fairly frequently and with little regret. Rock ‘n’ roll is musical incest at its best. So to distill its history into a 40-image family album is to invite disagreement, fuel argument and find fault with any exhibit that attempts to chronicle the history of rock in that space.
Thankfully, the curators of the new exhibit, “Sound and Vision: Monumental Rock and Roll Photography” at the Hunter Museum, find it less necessary to define rock ‘n’ roll history than to highlight its storied past through the lenses of some great photographers. The arrangement is logical, but doesn’t claim to be exhaustive, and the exhibit underscores the dynamic connection between the power of music and photography. It’s like a trip to a Hard Rock Cafe, but artfully presented and sans the kitsch. From this perspective it’s less like flipping through a photo album than renting a rock ‘n’ roll rent-a-car.
Taken strictly as a photographic exhibit, this is a stunning collection of the familiar and not-so-familiar by some of rock’s star photographers—Harry Benson, Danny Clinch, Mark Seliger and Baron Wolman, among others. The exhibit, which debuted at the Columbus Museum in Georgia last year, is on its first tour stop at the Hunter and features large digital prints from the original negatives that burst with richness and detail.
Chronologically arranged while remaining historically and musically relevant, the exhibit begins, predictably, with the young Elvis, recently crowned, looking somewhat pensive while passing through Chattanooga on a train on his way back to Memphis in 1956. But just behind him lurks his alter ego in the flamboyant personage of Little Richard in the same era, whose face, (with more makeup and carefully styled hair) mirrors Presley’s pent-up anxieties. Brothers of different mothers, one will become The King, the other will remain a prince who gives rise another Prince.
Thus begins the ride in the long, black rental Cadillac named Rock ‘n’ Roll. The lanes switch as frequently as the drivers, each leaving telltale signs of their turns in the driver’s seat. The brief exhibit jolts boldly, necessarily, from the American South to England, as The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Who launch the British Invasion, then quickly back across the pond and west to California. All the boldface names of rock ‘n’ roll are here—Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Dylan—along with some surprises, such as Donovan, as if to mention that London still rocks as much as Los Angeles.
Just as quickly, the exhibit bridges the 1970s in all its eclecticism, from the Thin White Duke of David Bowie to the equally androgynous Freddie Mercury. Disco, mercifully, is excluded from the party. But so are many pioneers. There is little evidence of rock’s country cousins, such as Gram Parsons. Likewise, you will see Neil Young, but no Crosby, Stills or Nash; Mercury, but not Elton John.
Much of what is missing is explainable. Obtaining the rights and negatives of these images is as complicated as printing them here is as much fun (and cost-free). Or it may simply be a case of “curator’s choice.” But viewers may still wonder why there are three images of reggae’s most influential artists but few of rock’s raw past.
The Clash represents the latter in the photo used on the cover of its seminal “London Calling” album cover. A pre-”Born in the USA” Bruce Springsteen and portraits of Patti Smith, KISS and Lou Reed add to the ’70s coverage. The exhibit skips hurriedly through time, paying just as much attention the reggae of Bob Marley and Peter Tosh as the entire 1980s, which, considering much of the throwaway music of that decade, will be just fine for most. But here’s where some arguments may begin. There’s KISS, but no New York Dolls. The Clash, but no Ramones. Rap is represented by such figures as Tupac, pop by Madonna and Michael Jackson.