If the question is "Who Shot Rock and Roll," the answer according to the new show at the Annenberg Space for Photography would have to be everybody.
The show is a rambling exhibition of 166 images, some iconic and many obscure, documenting rock and roll and and along with it a slice of cultural history. Most photographers have only a single image displayed, including Annie Liebovitz — whose early unrehearsed black and white images for Rolling Stone are so different than the posed portraits she is more well-known for — and some such as LA's own Ann Summa, who documented the early punk rockers, are ignored. The show marks the first time that the Annenberg Space for Photography has collaborated with a museum, taking a show curated by Gail Buckland that began at the Brooklyn Museum and adapting its space to fit the show.
With so many photographs plastering the walls, the exhibit is as overstimulating as a concert whose speakers are turned up to 11. But a very fine film made to accompany the show features 8 photographers — Bob Gruen, Norman Seeff, Lynn Goldsmith, Henry Diltz, Guy Webster, Mark Seliger, Jill Furmanovsky and Edward Colver — and helps to distill the experience down to something manageable, enjoyable and educational.
I have found some of the shows at the Annenberg too overwhelming, with images hanging up and down the walls, impossible to physically see unless you are Kobe Bryant, and difficult to process because there are just too many images competing for your attention. But for me, the films always come to the rescue, allowing you to sit and take in the experience from a different perspective, then attack the images again.
In this exhibit's film, created by Arclight Productions, photographers whose iconic images are seared into our memories — Norman Seeff's vibrant and sexy Tina Turner, the innocence of Joni Mitchell captured by Henry Diltz, Bob Gruen's John Lennon touting New York City, Colver's raw punk energy — reminisce and tell stories out of school. I learned that Guy Webster's famous Mama's and Papa's album cover photograph of all four of the bandmembers in a bathtub happened because everyone, including the photographer, was too stoned to leave the house. Often the photographers developed friendships with their subjects first, and photography came afterwards. Some, like Diltz with the Lovin' Spoonful, were invited to hop on the bus and tour with the band as their first professional gig.
"So many people say, 'Oh, this was my life,'" Diltz said at the show's opening. As the only official photographer at Woodstock, Diltz's images provide a history of rock that marked milestones for a generation, most of whom remember not only the songs but where they were when they heard them, and what they went through to hear them live. Diltz lived in Laurel Canyon during that golden time when Joni Mitchell, Mama Cass and so many other folk icons hung out together in their backyards, making music and mayhem, and then rolled down the hill to play the Troubador or watch their friends perform on Sunset Strip.
Diltz had been a musician, singing harmonies in a folk group that toured the college circuit. He picked up an old camera on a whim at a flea market while on tour and was blown away when he did his first slideshow for his friends. Totally self-taught ("I learned by reading the directions on the yellow box of Kodak film") he got special access because he was a friend first, photographer second. "It was all by accident," he said.
Indeed, many of the photographers represented in the show started out by touring with a band, gaining the access that made those special and unique images possible simply by being there, camera in hand. It was a much more innocent time. The bands were new themselves, not worried about controlling their image like they are today. There were no restrictions or rules. No limits on what could and could not be shot. They were too involved with having a good time to worry about being in control.
Diltz said that many times he would sit for hours and not shoot a thing. "I learned an important skill as a musician on tour myself. The art of just hanging out."
As these photographs and stories have shown, it paid off.
The show has proven to be extremely popular, and the Annenberg has extended its hours to accommodate the crowds. Indeed, I stopped by on a Saturday night close to the 9 pm closing time and the place was packed. Besides those milling around looking at photos, about 50 people were seated in the area usually reserved for film watchers, totally mesmerized by slides of album covers flashing on huge screens because it was too late to begin a screening of the film.
People connect with these images not only because of what they are, but because of what they mean to them, what memories they trigger, what part they played in the history of their own lives. Music accompanied us along our path in life, whether it was the music we danced to in the 60's or rebelled with in the 80's. For whatever the show lacks in focus, it does provide an opportunity to appreciate some great photography on a communal head trip into our past.
The Annenberg always schedules a series of lectures during their exhibits which are usually sold out immediately and this time they have also added three live, free concerts hosted by KCRW. Despite my reservations about the overkill of imagery, I have to acknowledge the Annenberg Space for its efforts to make photography hip, and accessible to new audiences.
Who Shot Rock and Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present is at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City through Oct. 7. Info
Color photo by Iris Schneider