When Jimi Hendrix set his guitar on fire at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival he created one of rock’s most perfect moments. Standing in the front row of that concert was a 17-year-old boy named Ed Caraeff. Caraeff had never seen Hendrix before nor heard his music, but he had a camera with him and there was one shot left in his roll of film. As Hendrix lit his guitar, Caraeff took a final photo. It would become one of the most famous images in rock & roll. But have you ever heard of Ed Caraeff?
Countless iconic rock & roll images were captured by hard working, passionate photographers who were as consumed by the music as the musicians themselves. Many of these photographers are unsung and the majesty of their images is often taken for granted. The Brooklyn Museum’s extensive new exhibit, “Who Shot Rock and Roll,” celebrates the photographers who created the visual identity of rock music.
Elvis Presley birthed the image of rock & roll, so fittingly the exhibit starts with the photos of Alfred Wertheimer, a photographer who enjoyed the rare privilege of spending time with Presley before he became the King. In the pictures, Presley flirts with an unidentified woman. “I’ll bet you can’t kiss me, Elvis,” Wertheimer recalls the lady saying. “I’ll bet ya I can,” Elvis responded. Wertheimer snapped photos of their embraces. Never would a photographer have such close access to Presley again.
Achieving a sense of intimacy seems to be a goal for all rock photographers. They try to separate the star from the stardom. A piercing photograph by Ian Tilton from 1990 shows Kurt Cobain crouched against a wall crying. He’d just walked off stage after smashing his guitar into an amplifier. In the same year Claude Gassain captured Keith Richards quietly smoking a cigarette in his dressing room. Visible several feet away is the protective barrier separating him from hundreds of thousands of fans. It is the first time the Rolling Stones played in Prague since the fall of the Berlin Wall. A 1975 shot of the Wailers by Ian Dickson shows the group walking with their instruments to a London gig in order to save money.
But many photos in the exhibit show artists before they knew what stardom was. Philip Townsend photographed the Rolling Stones for their first photo shoot in 1963. The band’s manager, Andrew Oldham, gave Townsend only one direction: make the band look “mean and nasty.” But it was no use. In the picture the band sits outside a London pub with drained pints, but Mick is wearing loafers and still has a pudding-bowl hair cut. Keith still has no facial hair. In 1983 Amy Arbus photographed Madonna as she was walking in the East Village. It was the same week her first single, “Everybody,” was released. Madonna looks calm but slightly impatient, as if she is only counting the days until her fame breaks.
Photos toward the end of the exhibit show the photographer’s hand more clearly. Albert Watson, experimenting with double exposure in 1992, unified Mick Jagger’s face with a leopard’s. The result is a fierce, full-lipped animal. In 1961 Richard Avedon captured the Everly Brothers against his signature white background. Phil looks worried. Don looks occupied and mischievous. Neither brother is looking into the lens but as they stand in front of bustling assistants, lights and a camera, Avedon is able to elicit what seems like a special and unique moment. But that’s what every great rock photo should do: Capture a unique moment and freeze the music’s spirit in time.