The Visual Enchantment of Music Photography

Sometimes photographs tell stories that music cannot fully articulate, carrying in their grain long-gone atmospheres.

As a young child, photographs of musicians terrified me. The front cover of Peter Gabriel’s third album, Peter Gabriel (1980) with half of the artist’s face melting like wax, was so upsetting that, for years, my father dutifully kept his copy of the album hidden. The visages of Klaus Nomi and Nina Hagen were disquieting, too, and I once tore apart the sleeve of Lou Reed’sTransformer (1972), in a fit of terror. I first remembered musicians not by their names (which I could not decipher) or their music, but for the sheer enigma of their album cover images.

It’s only later that faces on album covers began to acquire the opposite (and more expected) effect of drawing me into musical worlds. I would stare at PJ Harvey’s disheveled head (Dry, 1992), revel in Lydon’s mocking grin (Public Image Ltd, First Issue, 1978) or stare at Dylan’s profile and cowboy hat (Desire, 1976). Images suddenly appeared enchanted, and as a teenager I would daydream about otherworldy faces while I listened to albums, and endlessly marvel at the perfect complementarity of sound and vision.

Music, as an eminently invisible form, often sought association with the visual world and the early music industry heavily relied on the promotion of music through images. The close association of the aural and the visual predates the birth of photography (in the first part of the 19th century). It even predates the age of sound recording. For example, Lester S. Levy’s book, Picture the Songs (1976), presents a detailed panorama of lithographs which accompanied American sheet music throughout the 19th century and helped promote it. At the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of photographs of Italian tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), the world’s first musical ‘star’, circulated around the world – some were posed, other candid portraits. Many were reproduced on postcards (the craze of the time) and in papers (but the record sleeve as we know it had not yet been invented); they permeated the public and the domestic spheres.

Such pictures resulted from the broad cultural trend of petrifying the features of famous men for posterity, and from the nascent music industry’s more immediate concern of making money, as photographs were instruments of memory as well as commercial gimmicks, serving memorial and promotional purposes simultaneously.

It seems little has changed, and I have long grown accustomed to the spectacular portraits of musicians (and of celebrities in general) which clutter the modern world. In the last few years, heavy photographic anthologies have begun piling up in bookshops, some of them compiled by established photographs, others by archivists and underground pop historians. Among them: Made in the UK: The Music of Attitude 1977-1983 (2008), Radio Silence: A Selected Visual History of American Hardcore Music (2008), No Wave: Post-Punk. Underground. New York 1976-1980 (2008), Sound Kapital: Beijing’s music underground (2009), Manchester: Looking for the Light through the Pouring Rain (2012), Bristol Boys Make More Noise: The Bristol Music Scene 1974-198 (2014).

Similarly, recent rock exhibits have focused on the photographic medium and printed memorabilia, including: the Haçienda exhibition at the Urbis in Manchester (2007); the Dylan and Europunk exhibition at the Cité de la Musique in Paris (held in 2012 and 2013)’ Catch the Beat: The Roots of Punk and Hip Hop (New York, 2011); Jazz Lives (Yale University Art Gallery, 2014). Sometimes it’s easier to convey music-related images this way, without (or outside) their music, for music, contrary to record sleeves, is not easily pinned on the wall of the gallery. Photographs of musicians tell stories that music cannot fully articulate: they speak about places and contexts more surely than words do, magically conjuring up a particular zeitgeist, carrying in their grain long-gone atmospheres.

There are several types of photographs, from the simple document to the carefully style portraits. Some images seem to function as authoritative and authenticating documents (or pieces of evidence, capturing what has been), whilst others are prompts for fiction, falsification and invention. After all, photography is also a means of creating a legend and many glam rock and punk artists – such as David Bowie or Siouxsie & The Banshees – have relied on the more creative aspects of the photographic medium (as in the montage on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, 1974).

From David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs (1974)

Music photography has acquired an autonomy it did not have in the early 20th century: it now exists without music, in its own right, as an independent art form. The works of jazz and rock photographs of Patrick Hinely, William Ellis, Jenny Lens, Claude Gassian, Herman Leonard, Mick Rock, Kevin Cummins and Anton Corbijn exceed their thematic (musical) contents: they exist as works of art.

Two Exemplary Books of Photographs

Book: American Jukebox: A Photographic Journey

Author: Christopher Felver

Publisher: Indiana University Press

Publication date: 2014-05

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/s/soundsoveiers-americanjukebox-cvr-200.jpgChristopher Felver is another of these cult photographers. American Jukebox, published last year by Indiana University Press, is a collection of portraits Felver made in the last 30 years. It’s a gallery of faces, most of them looking straight into the camera. Amidst the hundreds of portraits Felver made over the decades, one recognizes Philip Glass, Lee Ranaldo, and Gillian Welch, and there are many American country artists, many aging faces, wrinkled, knotted hands clutching at guitar necks.

Felver presents documentary portraits, uncluttered by effects or mise-en-scène. There is a certain detachment, a distance, almost a cool ennui slipping between Felver and the subjects he photographs. It seems to me that age and the imperturbable movement of time is the real topic of Felver’s pictures (some of the people he photographed have long since passed away). Felver seems more interested in the way time slowly and surely wears out faces. His black and white photographs are as devoid of glamour as they are of pathos. On the whole, though, the people he photographs do not seem to be truly natural, but the nervosity reveals something of themselves – shyness, self-consciousness, doubt. Used to the gaze of fans, they still are unable to face the cold singular eye of the camera.

Felver photographed musicians at home, by themselves, often without their instruments. He is less interested in the figure of the artist than in exposing the ‘ordinary’ human being beneath the visage: and it’s an especially moving experience to observe Kim Gordon’s strained and stern face (in a 2009 portrait), or Loudon Wainwright III’s feeble smile, folded arms and folded legs (a 1999 picture, one of the few full-length portraits in the book).

As William Klein (Life is Good & Good for You in New York, 1956) and even closer in terms of subject matter, Robert Frank (The Americans, 1958) did before him, Felver is fashioning American icons with his camera. And there are elements of these two photographers in Felver’s portraits. Cult accessories almost overshadow the subject: the book is filled with cowboy hats, thick glasses, and half-smoked cigarettes. Yet, in the end, the heavy hardback publication and its large photographs (all exactly the same size) mostly feels like a farewell to American countercultures, from the ‘60s to the ‘90s. Felver (born in 1946) seems little concerned with the present.

Book: A Scene In Between: Fashion and Independent Music in the UK 1983-89

Author: Sam Knee

Publisher: Cicada

Publication date: 2013-11

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/misc_art/s/soundsovenirs-sceneinbetween-cvr-200.jpgAnother book of photographs, another farewell: Sam Knee’s A Scene in Between (Cicada Books, 2013), a collection of photographs from the British independent music scene of the ’80s, feels like a nostalgic, emotional journey into a short-lived yet decisive period of British popular music. Knee gathered amateur photographs of The Pastels, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Talulah Gosh, The Sea Urchins, My Bloody Valentine – the names barely matter. After a few pages, all faces begin to look similar to one another.

This time, what strikes one looking at the photograph is youth. More exactly, youth appears as childishness, as the anorak kids duely dress in what Simon Reynolds once termed the ‘pre-permissive’ clothes (anorak, dufflecoats, floral dresses, and so on). Knee also produced a few interviews to accompany the photographs (with Amanda Fletcher, Stephen Pastel and David Conway), although they seem unnecessary, and barely repeat what the pictures say much more expressively.

The fact that these are amateur photographs makes them even more poignant. The photographers are invisible, yet eminently present: one can feel the sense of excitement, of impetuous joy and impatience in those bright, hazy and imperfectly framed images. But Knee also used the book for awkward self-promotion; a few photographs of himself as a young man appear here and there. It seems that he achieved through the book what he so wanted to be at the time: he retrospectively became a real, visible part of the independent scene.

Kodak Ghosts

When I see the ordinary, clumsy pictures of anorak kids, I understand how they can continue to inspire young people today. I understand the dangerous thrill of shaping one’s life after pictures, just as I understood Anny’s will (in Sartre’s Nausea) to create ‘perfect moments’, and live a life inspired by plays and novels. The ‘original’ anorak kids themselves took inspiration from ‘50s British films, and emulated other pictures of youth. They could have featured in Karel Reiz’s The Lambeth Boys (1958) and Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson’s Momma Don’t Allow (1956), respectively documenting the life of the youth club and the jazz club. Indeed, these clubs were subconscious models for Alan McGee’s London-based Living Room in the ‘80s. In borrowing, they also destroyed the static scenes of the past. They reverently shattered them and invented them anew. They infused black and white images with life again, and it slipped out of control.

Despite the hyper-availability of pictures online, the appeal of the photographic journey is not soon to wither. Indeed, it may be because there are so many photographs around us, so many traces of the past, that books such as A Scene in Between or Radio Silence are published. They function as curatorial spaces, for the abundance of (online) images need to be made sense of, rearranged, controlled and appropriated, either through printed publications or dedicated web repositories (e.g., Manchester’s District Music Archive or Bristol Archive Records).

Yet they are far less nostalgic ventures than one might believe. After all, they might be shelved and gently forgotten along family albums. But one knows they are there, safe, and preserved. Most of all they act as ways of stabilising time, and fill in a psychological need for keepsakes and souvenirs. As cultural artefacts, these photographic journeys also fulfil the more ambiguous role of establishing, or reinforcing, frontiers. Each of the books I have mentioned celebrates particular countries, idiosyncratic cities and communities, and presents musical scenes as neatly, complacently self-contained islands – as fierce and debatable bastions of resistance to ‘global culture’.

Splash image: That nightmare-inducing album cover of Peter Gabriel (1980)