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The best of rock-photograph books

Elvis PresleyElvis Presley

American singer and musician Elvis Presley (1935 - 1977), guitar around his neck, looks over a cue card while on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' Los Angeles, California, September 9th, 1956.

CBS Photo Archive/Getty

There are Hundreds of rock & roll photography books, ranging in quality from glorified fanzines to collections of large-format gallery-quality reproductions on acid-free paper. The followers of music legends like Elvis, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, even the Doors, could stock a small library with volumes devoted to these artists’ careers. Sorting through this pop mess can be a little overwhelming, but the following selection of outstanding books may be enough to lure you away from MTV (at least until they stop showing Real World). Most of these books are widely available; some, however, may be out of print or hard to find.

Two book concentrate on the King circa 1956. Alfred Wertheimer writes in the foreword to his Elvis ’56: In the Beginning (Collier Books, 1979) about an “opaque curtain” lowered around Presley at the time of his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in September ’56, as Colonel Parker began to control photographers’ access to his star.

Both Elvis ’56 and Florida Close-up (Tutti Frutti Productions, 1987), with photographs by Jay B. Leviton, show a side of Presley that is rarely seen later on — Elvis at home in Memphis with his family; Elvis eating sandwiches with the winner of Hitparader magazine’s Win a Date With Elvis contest; Elvis trying to revive an overanxious fan who had fainted upon seeing him — in addition to photographs of an early recording session at RCA’s Studio One, in Manhattan, live performances, backstage warm-ups, hair combing and attempts to steal some rest between shows.

Of any photographer, Michael McCartney may have had the earliest, and most exclusive, access to the Beatles. After all, he was Paul’s little brother. Mike Mac’s White and Blacks (Aurum Press, 1986) is his book of self-consciously arty, experimental photographs from the early Sixties. His subjects include his brother’s band as well as other players on the Merseybeat scene. McCartney, an amateur who has long since given up serious photography, nonetheless captured some remarkable images of concerts, jam sessions and horsing around in and out of the Liverpool clubs.

With the Beatles: The Historic Photographs of Dezo Hoffmann (Omnibus Press/Putnam, 1982) serves up a more polished, if less intimate, image of the Beatles. Hoffmann, the first professional to photograph them, shows just how overwhelming the barrage of photo ops, staged spontaneity, television appearances and press conferences must have been. This book covers the Beatles from their first recording session, in 1962, through the recording and filming of A Hard Day’s Night and Help! in 1964 and 1965.

Beatles ’64: A Hard Day’s Night in America (Doubleday, 1989), photographed by Curt Gunther, covers more of the Beatles’ first tour through Canada and nearly every corner of United States. Fast-forward to 1966 and The Beatles’ Last Concert (Terra Firma, 1991), with photographs by Jim Marshall, a book that documents nearly every aspect of what can be called, with the help of hindsight, the last gasp of Beatlemania: the band’s final live appearance, at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29th, 1966.

Marshall was the concert’s “official photographer”; his other books include Monterey Pop (Chronicle, 1992), a day-by-night chronology of happenings at the 1967 festival, including a famous image of Hendrix serving Fender flambé (“Just have a lot of film ready,” Hendrix told Marshall before the show).

The true photographic chronicler of the San Francisco scene, however, was Herb Greene, who shot the cover of Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and functioned as house photographer to the Grateful Dead. His Book of the Dead (Delacorte Press, 1990) covers everything from the Dead’s first incarnation, in Haight-Ashbury as the Warlocks, to the 1987 sessions for In the Dark.

Dylan’s own long, strange trip is well documented in Dylan: A Man Called Alias (Henry Holt, 1992), the newest and one of the best collections of photographs to follow Dylan’s transition from endearing folkie to rock wraith. The book also includes an extensive index. And Citadel Underground has recently reprinted the seminal Bob Dylan: A Portrait of the Artist’s Early Years (1991), with photographs by Daniel Kramer. Kramer, who shot the album covers for Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, has collected his photographs of Dylan in private and in performance from 1964 and 1965.

The Doors’ strange days are recalled in the comprehensive collection The Doors: The Illustrated History, by Danny Sugerman (Quill/William Morrow, 1983), a book of photographs coupled with newspaper and magazine stories tracing the band’s evolution from mod to odd and then some. Included are Joel Brodsky’s legendary Jim Morrison portraits, Paul Ferrara’s recording-session documents and scary “Father . . . I want to kill you” stuff.

Michael Cooper’s photographs in The Early Stones (Hyperion, 1992) are his very personal record of the years 1963 to 1973: recording sessions, Redlands parties, Joshua Tree, Stonehenge, Morocco. And, of course, the drug busts. Novelist Terry Southern wrote the text. The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus (Chronicle Books, 1991), photographed by Mike Randolph, is the definitive look at the Circus, the Willie Wonkafied, Sgt. Pepperized spectacle filmed for BBC television in 1968 but never released. Included are great pics of the surreal, one-time-only supergroup of Lennon, Richards, Clapton and Mitch Mitchell, Hendrix’s drummer.

Led Zeppelin’s reign was chronicled almost exclusively by one court photographer with complete access: Neal Preston. His book Led Zeppelin Portraits (Perennial/Harper & Row, 1983) is the result, a stagy but intimate pictorial history. Led Zeppelin: Heaven and Hell (Harmony Books, 1991) contains more of Preston’s work.

Looking for something more all encompassing about the Sixties? Ethan A. Russell’s book of photographs and writings, Dear Mr. Fantasy: Diary of a Decade (Houghton Mifflin, 1985), is one of the best. Russell shot the Let It Be sessions and toured with the Stones in ’69 and ’72.

The Motown Album (St. Martin’s Press, 1990) is a long-overdue visual chronicle of the evolution of the Motown sound from the Miracles and the Supremes to “Super Freak” and Lionel Richie. Although a far cry from the Commodores, seminal Washington, D.C., hardcore bands such as Bad Brains, Government Issue and Minor Threat are documented in Banned in D.C.: Photos & Anecdotes From the Punk Underground (Sun Dog Propaganda, 1988). Unlike most other photography books on punk, Banned in D.C. is well produced (although this pictorial guide to late-Seventies and early Eighties hardcore is hard to find).

Michael Ochs’s Rock Archives (Dolphin/Doubleday, 1984) is without a doubt one of the best general rock-photography books. Be aware, however, that this book begins with late-Forties country and blues and ends just after the Summer of Love. Rock Stars, by Timothy White (Stewart, Tabori and Change, 1984), is far less comprehensive but spans a longer period of time (roughly, Chuck Berry and Ray Charles to Annie Lennox and Prince) and has better production values. Rolling Stone Press has also published a series of comprehensive illustrated books, each focusing on a single artist or band (The Beatles, Dylan, Elvis, The Rolling Stones and Springsteen).

Two of the best books were inspired by the look of jazz: The Eye of Jazz (Viking, 1989), photographed by Herman Leonard, and Jazz Giants (Billboard, 1988), a book of jazz photographs compiled by K. Abé. Leonard devotes about two pages of viscerally beautiful photographs to each of five dozen prominent jazz artists. Abé’s compilation lacks this sheer elegance and intimacy but is far more comprehensive. Both are worth tracking down, as is William P. Gottlieb’s Golden Age of Jazz (Da Capo, 1979).

Perhaps the most interesting books, and certainly the most beautifully produced, are those devoted to the output of a single photographer. No collection would be complete without the work of the premier celebrity photographer of the Seventies and Eighties, Annie Leibovitz. Annie Leibovitz: Photographs (Rolling Stone Press/Pantheon, 1983) and Photographs: Annie Leibovitz 1970-1990 (HarperCollins, 1991) are both exquisite volumes of her work, much of which appeared originally in Rolling Stone.

Leibovitz’s work is also well represented in Rolling Stone: The Photographs (Simon and Schuster, 1989), along with that of Richard Avedon, Matt Mahurin, Mary Ellen Mark, Steven Meisel, Herb Ritts, Matthew Rolstone and Bruce Weber. Baron Wolman, the first principal photographer for Rolling Stone, has his own book, Classic Rock & Other Rollers (Squarebooks, 1992), a collection of Wolman’s work from the Sixties and Seventies. The photograph of Miles Davis in Anton Corbijn’s Famouz: Photographs 1976-88 (Schirmer/Mosel, 1989) is alone worth the price of the book.

Linda McCartney’s Sixties: Portrait of an Era (Bulfinch, 1992) contains portraits and concert photos of almost every major band of the decade. She became the “house photographer” at the Fillmore East; her access was so extensive, she said, that she became “like a band member whose chosen instrument was the camera.” Her pictures reflect this intimacy.

Several other books by individual photographers, while not covering rock & roll exclusively, are of such quality that they deserve mention: David Bailey’s If We Shadows (Thames and Hudson, 1992) is a collection of sometimes violent, often disturbing photographs that strip celebrities of their plastic sheen. Big Pictures (Bulfinch, 1991) showcases photographer Matthew Rolston’s considerable gifts for managing composition and color. Herb Ritts’s forthcoming Notorious (Bulfinch, 1992) will present recent photographs by one of the foremost portraitists of the Eighties and Nineties (and the director of the videos for Madonna’s “Cherish” and Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game”).

In This Article: Coverwall, rock photos


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