Last night, at the gala opening of the Who Shot Rock & Roll exhibition at Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, the real rock stars in the room were veteran photographers.
"It's nice to be recognized," photographer Bob Gruen told Rolling Stone as he stood on the red carpet with his friend, comedian Richard Lewis. "This show is about photography. It's not a picture of Bruce Springsteen because he's so famous, everybody likes him. It's whether or not the photograph is good."
The show, which officially opens on June 23rd and continues through October 7th, gathers a half-century of pictures from the history of rock. It is curated by Gail Buckland, who also wrote the accompanying book, and originally opened in 2009 in a different form at the Brooklyn Museum, followed by a tour of other U.S. cities. Los Angeles is its final stop.
The exhaustive exhibit begins with Alfred Wertheimer's sublime black-and-white images of a young Elvis Presley at the very beginning of his career in 1956, before the entourage and fame closed in. There are Gruen's pictures from the birth of New York punk and Henry Diltz's portraits of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and others he met in the folk-rock scene of Laurel Canyon. They are among 116 prints along the gallery walls that also include Eminem, Radiohead, Elvis Costello, the Ramones, U2, mosh pits, riots and more.
"The images most meaningful for me were photographs that I made of people who I genuinely felt were my friends or I loved in some way," said Lynn Goldsmith, whose photographs in the show include Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones and crazed fans of New Kids on the Block.
At Annenberg Space, members of Heart, Blondie, the Sex Pistols and other frequently photographed subjects mingled with shooters and admirers, stopping in the space's theater to watch a new documentary about the photographers and their work. Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart performed a five-song acoustic set of their Seventies hits, including "Barracuda" and "Crazy on You," and recalled good and bad experiences in front of the camera.
Ann Wilson fondly remembered Annie Leibovitz getting her to remove her top during Heart's second Rolling Stone cover shoot. "I trusted her. That is a beautiful shot. We both look very vulnerable," she told Rolling Stone. Nancy added, "The ones that go, 'Work with me, baby! Suck in your cheeks! Lick your lips!' Those are the guys that are very forgettable."
Among those in the crowded gallery space were Dweezil and Moon Zappa, who viewed Jerry Schatzberg's 1967 portrait of their late father, rocker and avant gardist Frank Zappa. In the shot, Zappa wore a bright orange T-shirt against a yellow wall, his long hair in shaggy pigtails. "It's very emotional, for sure," said Moon with a smile.
"It's from the early days, at a time when it was considered completely audacious to have long hair," Dweezil said of the image, one of many striking photographs taken of their father over the years. "The most fascinating is when people are captured in the moment when they're playing music and spontaneously creating. That's what Frank enjoyed the most, being in that moment."
On the glass doors leading into the Annenberg was a huge blow-up shot of a skin-headed Henry Rollins smashing his fist into a mirror; it became the cover of Black Flag's classic 1981 hardcore album Damaged. Standing nearby was the photographer, Edward Colver, who never imagined his vintage L.A. punk rock pictures would end up on museum walls. "When I was shooting the punk scene from late-'78 until early 1984, I was out about five nights a week," recalled Colver, who also shot some of the earliest pictures of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Germs and Ice Cube. "It was vitally important to me, but I had no clue it would ever become such history. It's kind of shocking. There's punk academia now, which cracks me up. That's hilarious."
Later in the evening, Gruen, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and others gathered around the 1969 cover image from Blind Faith's self-titled album, which depicted a topless pubescent girl holding a phallic airplane model. "We were talking about how controversial this was," Burke said as its photographer, Bob Seidemann, walked up.
Standing tall in white hair and glasses, Seidemann said, "I always saw it as innocence. I took it to Eric Clapton; he said, 'That's the cover.' The record company went crazy and said, ‘That's not the cover.' A brawl ensued, and Clapton said, 'No picture, no cover. So long, guys.' That's how it happened."
One gallery wall was filled with LP covers from across the decades, and Seidemann looked back on an era he helped document. "The music business producing album covers in the late Sixties, early Seventies was the pinnacle of graphics and design," he said. "To get to the top of that mountain made you a somebody."
More info on Who Shot Rock and Roll can be found at the Annenberg Space for Photography.