In this age of smartphones, or even dumbphones, when literally anyone anywhere can take anyone else’s picture at most any time, the action of photographing has obviously changed as much as the art of photography. What began as a science and a specialty has transformed—or, to some, degenerated—into a virtually mindless gesture, a heedless whim, a knee-jerk reaction to immediate events. That repetitious and redundant.
Of course, just the fact of pointing a camera, or camera phone, at someone or something doesn’t make the picture-taker a photographic artist. A decent photograph is sometimes simply a matter of luck, timing and vantage point: being at the right place at the right time and having the good sense or at least the impulse to click a button.
But art requires editorial choice. Having a good eye, a strong critical sense and a worldview is vastly different than having taken some or even tons of okay pictures. Yet today, specialism seems threatened by the onslaught of amateur and arms-length photographers. The odds, and the hordes, are just too overwhelming.
Rock-and-roll photography is one such specialty art on its way to possible extinction. Where we now have entire audiences potentially equipped with cameras of some sort, it used to be only a lucky few, usually requiring official permission, that were even allowed into music venues with cameras. Especially stage photographers: It takes a special breed and a precious all-access pass to stand up there with the band, and attempt to capture the performers at their most dynamic or revealing or kick-ass, while at the same time, and more importantly, staying the hell out of their way.
Forever Young: The Rock and Roll Photography of Chuck Boyd offers an object lesson in staying out of the way while in the thick of things. Edited by music historian Jeffrey Schwartz, the book compiles numerous photographs by one of the little-sung chroniclers of pop music.
In the book’s foreword Buck Munger, national promotion director for Sunn amplifiers, for whom Chuck Boyd worked, calls Boyd “the best available-light photographer in rock and roll.” Because he was there on official business, photographing equipment in use, “[Boyd] had stage access like no other shooter in the music business.” No doubt musicians were more inclined to welcome an equipment representative in the hopes of acquiring free gear.
Munger goes on to say that, when he was shooting, Boyd “was The Show. He was a wild man, outrageous…” He was also openly (for the time) gay, fairly rare in the essentially bourgeois boy’s club of Straight White Rock Guys. Though they all looked like girls, anyway.
Covering the years 1965 through 1978, if not quite rock-seminal (that would have to be pre-‘60s) than rock at its most robust, adventurous and relevant, the photographs aren’t limited strictly to rock ‘n’ rollers, but include artists from soul, psychedelia, folk, and so-called world music: a high-angle shot of James Brown in 1965, coiffing his pompadour; Joan Baez in the same year, surrounded by open-mouthed teens who seem stunned by the ungodly angelic voice issuing forth from that unassuming woman up there; or the recently deceased Ravi Shankar in iron concentration at Monterey Pop.
Schwartz says in his introduction how Boyd was present for the metamorphosis of popular music, and that’s no exaggeration. He photographed the Yardbirds with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, and the Stones’ evolution from shag-heads in sloppy suits—there is a great low-angle shot of a young marble-eyed Keith Richards, his guitar projecting nearly three-dimensionally forward—to flashy longhaired legends. And you can page through the book and see Eric Clapton age!
As Boyd worked mainly the West Coast, there’s plenty of Southern California rock royalty (David Crosby and Roger McGuinn with The Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, The Doors, Zappa) as well as those from further up the coast, such as Grace Slick as a sleek Pocahontas, or Jerry Garcia’s goofy grin.
He also photographed Easterners out West—striking shots of quintessential New Yorkers Simon and Garfunkel in 1966, their necks wrapped in their ubiquitous indoor scarves—and the British Invasion of California: The Who in frills at Monterey, and later in white jumpsuits; Cream soundchecking in 1968; and Led Zeppelin on stage and in the studio.
The book’s layout makes for some provocative visual comparisons, juxtapositions, or parallels. There are facing page photographs of the Beach Boys playing in 1965 and Brian Wilson offstage in the same year: on stage he appears shy and boyish, offstage he looks frighteningly intelligent, midway to a breakthrough, a breakdown, or both.
Some of the layouts also suggest intriguing geographical and musical combinations: Willie Nelson in California calling to Jimmy Buffet across the page in Washington; or Emmylou Harris barefoot in an apartment on acoustic guitar across from Peter Frampton live on stage with an electric. Imagine the music of these unlikely duos.
Boyd’s visual sense is painterly as well as photographic. He catches many of the figures in the dramatic X formations or diagonals of baroque and romantic painting, a compositional device for which the guitar neck is ideally suited. He often frames performers up-close at low-angles nearly full-frame, set against flat or deep black backgrounds or in raw chiaroscuro, at times recalling Spanish Romantic martyr portraits.
Yet many of the photographs feel more intensive than iconic, less peaks than peeks. Though there are plenty of power shots, such as Mick Jagger or Robert Plant wagging their frontman fingers skyward, or a series of Pete Townshend smashing his guitar in sweet succession, the overall effect is personal, even interpersonal, though impartially and professionally so. Though Boyd shot “onstage, backstage, in the studio and elsewhere” and was essentially “with the band”, he was also fundamentally apart, in a place more penumbral and isolated, like a hovering Eye on guard.
A good photographer knows when to shoot; a great photographer is always shooting, perpetually attuned to movement and moment. There’s a candid shot of Boyd disrupted in the process of photographing Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones in a hotel suite; while Jones looks bored, Boyd looks occupied, plugged in, maybe even infused with the Muse.
The book represents only a portion of the photographer’s output, and though I understand the compromise, the ghoul in me would love to see the “compromising” photographs of “certain rock legends with needles plunged in their arms.” The book could have used more, and edgier, photographs. Also, as the foreword and introduction provide only brief biographical and editorial information, some other critical commentary or history throughout might have bolstered or enlivened the strictly pictorial record.
But then, the photographs are the thing.
In his introduction, Schwartz speaks of practicing “rock and roll archeology” in researching Boyd’s photographic output. That sensual tactility, of foraging and sifting through a limited number of proof-sheets, touching actual photographic paper and chemicals, is more abstract, cerebral and dissipative within the deep, deep reach of Internet search and discovery, of photo and video taking, sharing and scrolling. Clearly, not only has the art and act of photography changed, but the nature of image archiving, consumption and delectation, too.
My hardcopy musical memories are limited to flyers from old punk rock shows and the few precious photograph collections of people who were there with me. Recently I was at a friend’s house looking through one such (small) collection, and was suddenly suffused with a Proustian rush, the novelist’s teacake replaced by a worn photograph from a particularly fun show.
I was catapulted back, time-traveling for all intents and purposes, reliving every sensation of that one moment captured by that one forlorn photograph. One photograph, not a phone-full.
reminds us to remember the luscious delight of limited pleasure and exclusive access.