Gerri Hirshey. Rolling Stone. Issue 643. November 12, 1992.
“Hello, Alfred. You gettin’ some good pictures?”
Photographer Alfred Wertheimer recognizes the voice of Colonel Tom Parker beside him on the Brooklyn dock. Amid the crush seeing the buzz-cut Elvis off to his military tour in Germany, the manager stands holding a large shoe box, which he hands off to his boy.
“What the hell is that old snake-oil salesman up to now?” Wertheimer wonders. “What’s in that box? A keepsake of El’s just-deceased mama, Gladys? Another gimmicky teddy bear?”
Elvis tucks the box under his arm, shoulders his duffel and heads for the gang-plank. Military tubas are farting out a staccato version of “Hound Dog.”
For Wertheimer it felt strange to be part of the pack. Two years earlier, in 1956, he was the only photographer Elvis Presley regularly allowed into his mama’s kitchen, his bedroom, on dates with breathless, bouffanted daughters of the South. He snapped El kissing Mama for fetching him a clean pair of underwear. Caught him splashing proudly in his half-filled swimming pool, which was so hastily constructed, so nouveau white trash, they had to fill it from a hose hooked up to Gladys’s kitchen sink.
These black-and-white photographs are the best record we have of one boy’s astounding journey into American myth. And some of them can break your poor heart. Wertheimer shot and shot—more than 3800 frames—until the Colonel choked off all access.
Now, from the dock, Parker is signaling his franchise. Once Elvis reaches the deck, he fumbles with the shoe-box lid, reaches inside and grabs a fistful of eight-by-ten glossies. The shot is a hokey publicity pose—not one of Wertheimer’s. Private Presley flings them over the rail toward the crowd. He grins as the stiff breeze deploys hundreds of smiling Elvises, dipping like errant gulls over the outstretched hands of teenage girls clamoring on the dock.
Wertheimer smiles. Score another for the Colonel. Under Parker’s tutelage, young Elvis has come to understand the tremendous power of his likeness—and the means to control it. There will be no more backseat smooching shots. No more dressing-room peeks at a preening boy with bee-stung lips. Wertheimer caps his Leica and watches the big ship pull out.
History and the plain lyricism of Wertheimer’s pictures have made that strange year’s work into prized American collectibles. Ralph Lauren bought a Wertheimer print of Elvis trying out his new Harley for the neighbors. Diane Keaton had to have the one of Elvis tongue-kissing a brunette—the same image Sam Shepard insisted on for the poster of his play Fool for Love.
It is a mythic shot. But back in August of ’56, the photos were most valuable as teen grist. Hoping to pull out of the financial hole that following Elvis had put him in, Wertheimer and a partner put together a fanzine using his photographs. On the newsstand The Amazing Elvis Presley sold for thirty-five cents. Well-thumbed copies fueled the giddy insomnia of countless slumber parties in frilly pink bedrooms. And even the Colonel’s posey publicity handouts of the King became blueprints of masculine cool for restless boys on both sides of the ocean.
“Ummm, there’s Elvis in that gold lame suit….”
Mick Jagger is in a recording studio in Los Angeles, finishing yet another solo album, thirty years into his chosen profession. And he is cataloging the images that first set him dreaming.
“There’s the pinup pictures with the primped Elvis,” Jagger says. “The classic first album cover of him with his legs all akimbo. And there’s Chuck Berry doing the duckwalk. Buddy Holly with the glasses. It’s all very airbrushy looking. Not real.”
Which was the point. By the time rock pulled itself out of R&B joints and redneck roadhouses, the retouchers were hard at work on rough country-boy edges and adolescent acne. If rock was escape, why look like what you’re running away from? Elvis may have copied his clothes from the easy Saturday-night slouch of black street dandies, but his cool was meticulous—a fact not lost on one skinny inmate of the London School of Economics.
“My point is that rock & roll is not only about music, it’s about style,” Jagger is saying. “It’s all about what clothes and hair you have and what makeup you have. When we were growing up, we perceived the Everly Brothers as a sound. And look at their hair! That was really important.
“Obviously, the music had to be great,” Jagger continues. “But if the look went with it, then it was a double whammy.”
Halfway across the world, from his aerie in Switzerland, David Bowie is singing harmony with his old mate: “The visualization of rock is, for me, just as important as the music itself.”
And when did he know this? Bowie laughs: “Oh, I knew at nine. Seeing pictures of Little Richard and early Presley and some of the early rhythm & blues artists, those black-and-white photographs. Very sharp, shadowed shots. They certainly dragged their environment and their atmosphere along with them.”
Bowie, a man who has taken the photo opportunity to another galaxy and back with personae like Ziggy Stardust and the Thin White Duke, has little patience for those who dismiss the impact of even the most laid-back ball cap and jeans. “However Plain Jane it’s supposed to be,” he says, “I think you’re tethered by the visual anchors, whatever you’re looking at. Whether it’s Bruce Springsteen as the faux homespun pioneer boy or someone as bizarrely outfitted as Prince—they’re both very strong visual statements.”
Presley, Jagger, Bowie. Three out of three legends would agree, then, that the lure of a look can be as compelling as the tug of a Phil Spector hook. And the artfully wielded Nikon came to be almost as indispensable as the shimmering blue Stratocaster. As these three subversive pinups spun out million sellers, they became among the most photographed men in history. It’s no accident that from the start they all had a meaningful relationship with the lens. And as more and more rock musicians came to understand the value of these visual clues, as they cozied up to the process, startling images materialized out of the darkroom brew.
The Forties and the Fifties
Two decades before Elvis belted out “Hound Dog,” a young white man with a Viennese accent was tapping on dressing-room doors at the Cotton Club, in New York City, calling the famous Chocolate Lovelies for their appointments with his boxy Dierdorf camera. Displayed under glass outside the club’s Forty-eighth Street incarnation, James Kriegsmann’s portraits of black showgirls had all the glamour of the best Hollywood studio work. He says he got the job by default. Nobody else would do it.
“Jimmy, don’t photograph niggers,” the other showbiz shooters told him. “It’ll ruin your reputation.”
Before he emigrated from Austria in 1929, Kriegsmann had seen only one black person—singer Josephine Baker. Once he reached America, he had wanted to make it to Hollywood, where photographers like George Hurrell were gilding tender screen lilies with lame, satin and soft, back-lit halos. But the stock market crashed before Kriegsmann could get there. Stranded in New York, he had been struggling as a fifteen-dollar-a-week retoucher. He was glad for the Cotton Club work and enthralled by the black musicians. Soon he found himself shooting the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong. People had told him blacks were a nightmare to photograph, and until then, most of the work looked like it—poorly lit, cheesy shots by fourth-rate shooters. They tried to lighten black skin with troweled-on pancake makeup. Kriegsmann just lit it beautifully.
“Such craziness,” says Kriegsmann. “Photographing black musicians didn’t ruin me—it made my reputation. They were a dream to shoot. Everything was feeling.” He is smiling, throwing wide his arms over the wheelchair that has been necessary since a stroke forced him to retire last year at eighty-two. Recalling his first session with a real star—Bill “Bojangles” Robinson—Kriegsmann says there was an excitement, an ease of movement: “He gets on the platform, every move he makes is a shot.”
Kriegsmann did everything himself—developing, retouching, printing. His style evolved, he says, from studying Hollywood techniques (“Oh, God, did they do beautiful lighting in those movies”). Look at the work and it’s clear that all his clients got equal-opportunity glamour—even exotic Broadway blossoms like strippers Gina Bon Bon, Gypsy Flame (Goddess of Fire) and Jamie “Queen of Muscle Control” West. Soon the young and hopeful of all colors were navigating the spiral staircase down to Kriegsmann’s Forty-sixth Street studio, a former Hungarian nightclub.
The kid shows up looking like hell. He’s got a bad tux, some kind of cockamamie shirtfront but no cuffs showing. Pockmarked skin, crummy teeth. Kriegsmann cuts up some white tissue paper and makes the kid a pair of cuffs; after the session he toils over the negatives and lays the retoucher’s sweet forgiveness over the ravages of adolescence. The kid keeps coming around to noodle at the piano Kriegsmann keeps as a prop. Then he shows up for another session. He’s got a date coming up at the Paramount Theater. Suddenly he needs more pictures. Lots of pictures. He’s got no money, just promises.
“Kid’s good,” says his agent. “But he needs a different look.” Kriegsmann considers the sorry tux, the clumsy, oil-slick pompadour. That elegant, tails-and-cravat, big-band look just isn’t working for this one. Kriegsmann thinks of the architect next door who always wears a big bow tie. Within hours, the kid is in front of his lens with the Look: loose combed hair, tweed sport coat, big bow tie over that knobby Adam’s apple.
Kriegsmann bills the agent thirty-five bucks and tells him, “As soon as he earns enough, get his teeth fixed.”
Call it the first teen-idol photo session. Within weeks—following that landmark Paramount date in 1942—Kriegsmann’s automatic printing machine was working day and night, spewing out nothing but pictures of Frank Sinatra. He begged Kodak for extra consignments of war-rationed film to fill huge orders from Hollywood studios. Bobby-soxers who wandered into the studio looking for an eight by ten were always sent home happy.
In Sinatra’s wake, the box-office heavies and the struggling kids with day jobs kept coming. Soon there was a saying in all those cigar-perfumed talent warrens above old Broadway: You need three things to make it—a good agent, a good manager and a Kriegsmann session.
Twenty years later it would still hold. When Motown singers passed through Berry Gordy’s fabled charm school, they were sent to Kriegsmann, who immortalized the results. But long before the Temptations and the Supremes blew in on a gale of sequins, Fifties doo-woppers sat their sharkskinned rumps on Kriegsmann’s delicate posing chairs. He photographed them all: the Five Royales, the Ravens, the Clovers. In ’55 the Platters came in after recording “Only You.” Bobby Darin got the treatment; so did Buddy Holly and Ray Charles. A pair of nervous kids from Queens calling themselves Tom and Jerry wandered in; years later Kriegsmann would find out he’d photographed the nascent Simon and Garfunkel. RCA sent its adult sensation Sam Cooke, “so handsome I didn’t have to do a thing,” Kriegsmann says.
All of them looked clean. “Rock & roll, in the beginning, was traditional,” Kriegsmann says of those early portraits. Meaning that idols in training wore immaculate suits and fussy cocktail dresses and bent an elbow for a pensive lean against a plaster Greek pillar. What nature didn’t bestow, Kriegsmann did with soft, indirect lighting and the retoucher’s magic wand. He says he even fixed “a botched nose job” for Connie Francis.
There were other photographers, of course. Maurice Seymour, who started in Chicago, moved to New York and opened a studio right in the Brill Building to catch the rising stars. Bruno of Hollywood had his studio in Carnegie Hall. And another hustling young shooter with a jones for music began to cover the waterfront like no one had.
William Sezenias started off as a band boy—the Forties equivalent of a roadie—for singer Ina Ray Hutton. He moved on to Woody Herman, then Benny Goodman, who bought Sezenias his first camera and became his first client. Sezenias changed his last name to Randolph—after a street in Chicago—but legend has it that Goodman gave him his professional name: Popsie.
Popsie worked fast, with minimal overhead and maximum output; when Brooklyn collector Frank Driggs bought more than half the Popsie work from his estate, he estimated there were some 40,000 negatives. Popsie was a big, stocky guy with curly hair who liked to tell managers, “You can’t afford me.” But somehow, he was always there. Unlike Kriegsmann, he often worked outside the studio.
Popsie was in Tampa, Florida, in July of 1955 when Elvis Presley appeared in one of Colonel Tom Parker’s country package tours. His shot of that young unknown became Elvis’s first album cover. Some of the earliest Bill Haley and Elvis shots—including that famous one of El singing to a hound dog—are Popsie’s. His range went from the sublime to the dutiful, from Charlie Parker portraits to ads for Selmer saxes to the bar mitzvahs of record executives’ sons. He shot a host of Hall of Famers: the Coasters, the Drifters, the Platters, Bo Diddley, Jackie Wilson, Clyde McPhatter. Popsie worked until illness forced him to move to Arizona, where he died in 1978.
Except for some coverage in clubs and at shows, there was little else being done outside the studio. Even Fifties wild men like James Brown and Jerry Lee Lewis shined their shoes and slicked back their hair, doused the hellfire for the umbrella lights of the studio. Part of their well-pressed confinement had to do with the press at the time.
“The problem limiting the use of candids was that most of your exposure was in the newspapers,” says photo archivist Michael Ochs. “The definition was poor, so they would take nothing artsy-fartsy—just a clear publicity shot on a clean white background.”
It was a publicity setup that first brought Alfred Wertheimer to the CBS TV studios in New York in March of 1956. Elvis Presley was appearing on Stage Show, a variety hour hosted by the Dorsey Brothers. RCA had just bought Presley’s contract from Sun Records for $40,000; they needed more pictures as their twenty-one-year-old acquisition began to break nationally. Wertheimer did the job at the CBS studios and soon found himself on the night train with Elvis, headed to Memphis.
It was the infancy of El’s entourage years: the talent, the Colonel, a few “boys,” a photographer of record. Wertheimer found himself hauling ass all over the South—without pay except for an occasional measly RCA check. Stuff happened around Elvis Presley. But why? Why this guy? It was the damnedest thing.
“I stayed with Elvis for a reason that was inexplicable to me at the time,” Wertheimer says. It had been a hot night in Richmond when he made the decision to stick with it, come hell or an eviction notice. He was shooting at a concert there and found himself at an emotional epicenter that made his legs shake.
“Elvis made the girls cry,” Wertheimer says. “That is the overwhelming observation I had in that darkened theater. This was an absolute phenomenon. Lots of people made young girls jump. But nobody made them cry. That fascinated me, and I told myself: ‘You better stick with him. Because there’s something you don’t understand. Let your camera observe it. And intellectualize it later.'”
The camera can see in a way the eye can’t, Wertheimer reasoned. And time would bring its own clarity. So he kept on, until all those ungovernable candids made the Colonel too dang jumpy.
What did young America want for its bedroom walls? As more and more allowance money went into idol worship, fanzine set-up shots got deliciously goony: Annette Funicello at her dressing table addressing a fan letter to Frankie Avalon. Bobby Rydell posing coyly in a record-your-own booth. Tough girls in pale lipstick winked “come hither” beneath dark hedges of ratted hair.
Posed pop shots would hold sway until the mid-Sixties. The only serious photography in situ, shot in smoky clubs and drafty auditoriums, was of jazz and folk musicians. These portraits were taken by men who loved the music, photographers like William Claxton and Herman Leonard, who caught a look, an indigo mood, with an insider’s anticipation.
On the West Coast, Jim Marshall, a feisty Chicago-to-San Francisco transplant, was haunting the clubs and cafes with a Leica bought on time. “Jim Marshall is to rock photography what Hunter Thompson is to journalism,” says a longtime compatriot. “You can be knocked out by the work—some of it’s brilliant. But you better frisk the guy before you let him in the door. And have a tranquilizer dart ready.”
“Okay, I’m an asshole sometimes,” Jim Marshall is saying. “But I’m a dedicated asshole.”
Long into one clear San Francisco night, we’ve unwittingly ducked into a fern bar after two other stops.
“Aw, what’s this bullshit affectation?” Marshall asks as the waitress sets down his drink. He shakes his graying head and politely but firmly has the offending la-di-da snifter replaced with a utility bar glass. Under duress, he’s talking about the last thirty-plus years behind the viewfinder.
“I’ve never looked at this as just a job or a way to make a living,” Marshall says. “It’s been a way of life for me. I started hanging out in North Beach, being a beatnik, with a copy of Camus’s Rebel in one pocket and Gibran’s Prophet in the other. And a Leica. I bought it in 1959.”
Marshall hung with writers, poets and musicians and played at being a photographer, he says, until 1960, when he was able to photograph John Coltrane.
“It wasn’t a job,” Marshall says. “He was a friend. To this day it’s one of the best shoots I ever did.”
Marshall’s jazz- and bluesmen are the work of a concerned environmentalist. They’re caught in their own hazy milieu—working, smoking, talking, drinking. Miles Davis deadeyes the lens like it was just some uppity mo’fo come to see if he and his horn could mount a serious challenge. Big Mama Thornton stands in a gritty stairwell, a glowering, bluejeaned colossus dwarfing her band and Muddy Waters. It’s a relaxed, documentarian style of photography that would be lost on a Fabian—the kind of portraiture that does no special favors but leaves no fingerprints. Marshall explains: “I want someone to look at my work and say, ‘Gee, that’s a great photograph of so-and-so.’ Not ‘That’s a Marshall.'”
Ask him how he got to his subjects and risk a mega-decibel, two-Scotch diatribe. Early on, “access” was never a question. Respect was the main currency.
“I’ve never been intimidated by a subject,” Marshall says. “I think what I do is as good as what they do. And yet I have been in awe. I have been with Duke Ellington, Ben Webster, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins. I’m talking about sitting in the presence of fucking gods.”
The strawberry-margarita crowd in this Powell Street boite is tossing anxious looks in Marshall’s direction as his voice and his color rise: “There was no agent! No PR people! There were no assholes around! These men—something in them knew that this fucking little crazy white boy wanted to make good pictures. And he did. And I’m proud of them.”
Later, as San Francisco found itself the epicenter of the Sixties youthquake, Marshall would photograph more legends-to-be at very close range: Hendrix, Joplin, Dylan. Sure, there were managers and agents around by then. The times, they were a-changin’, and so were A&R budgets. But you didn’t need six armbands and a laminated birth certificate to get backstage. Not yet. You just shot well and lived the life. Which was, uh … strenuous. You want to photograph the band? Keep up with them first. Marshall was known for kicking open backstage doors and charging in shooting.
“How’d I get to people?”
Marshall leans over the fussy cut-glass votive candle so that he’s lit from beneath like a flickering Lugosi outtake.
“They accepted me,” he roars, “because I was as fuckin’ nuts as they were!”
And rock & roll photography was on its way.
It’s hot here in Newport, Rhode Island, July of ’63. At the Hotel Viking, pale, straight-haired folkies and glacial jazzmen in shades are ranged round the back-yard pool. The fourth Newport Folk Festival is goosing this jodphur-and-trust-fund resort. Photographer David Gahr is standing outside the pool fence, watching twenty-two-year-old Bob Dylan through a 200-mm lens as he waits in line for the diving board.
The bony torso is pasty white; skinny legs dangle from baggy dark shorts. A childman, Gahr is thinking, as Dylan fidgets in line. It’s Dylan’s words that have kept Gahr on the singer’s trail for two years. How can he write the way he does—amphetamine poetry that calls to mind Gahr’s personal hero, Rimbaud? Dylan clambers to the end of the board and hurls himself off with a ten-year-old’s giddy free form.
Recently, a German publication paid a tidy sum for that rare shot of the truly freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. That festival was Dylan’s bright and shining moment, the luminous performance that would send Life magazine searching for Gahr on hearing he had been photographing this Bob Dylan since 1961. If Jim Marshall had an East Coast counterpart, it was Gahr, a sweet-natured, talkative Brooklyn father of two with a serious jones for good music. Gahr began photographing musicians when they came into Sam Goody’s record store on West Fiftieth Street in Manhattan, where he was working as a salesman.
“I always had a small Nikon,” Gahr says. “People came in—Benny Goodman, Marian Anderson.” Moses Asch, who ran Folkways Records, began having Gahr shoot covers for him. Gahr says he did more than a hundred, any bluesman or folkie you can name. Walk through the storage rooms in Gahr’s rambling brownstone and the stacked yellow Kodak boxes read like a definitive anthology of post-Fifties popular music, from John Lee Hooker to John Lennon, on up through Lyle Lovett and K.D. Lang. There are Clapton album covers, Springsteen tour posters, thirty years of rock and soul.
“I’m the oldest guy out there,” Gahr is saying over a nice piece of chocolate cake in his kitchen. He started as a documentary photographer, mounting shows on Gypsies and Hasidic Jews. But the music got him. Gahr’s photographs of early bluesmen and country pickers are unfussy portraits that telegraph the wisdom and weariness of centuries.
“Ah, but I always had a soft spot for the folkies,” Gahr says. He used to hang out in Greenwich Village, at Izzy Young’s Folklore Center. That’s where he met Dylan, who had just arrived from Minnesota in 1961. Like Marshall, Gahr was a scene photographer, preferring the road to the studio, the 35-mm camera to the stately but cumbersome eight by ten. And to hell with strobe lights. Gahr shot folk concerts lit by a candle on either side, photographed country bluesmen in the pearly natural light of a Mississippi morning. He caught the normally skittish Aretha Franklin relaxed, laughing and working in an Alabama recording studio.
“Marshall and I were practically alone out there,” Gahr says, “with the exception of a lot of amateurs who would take pictures at festivals and the like. It was the best time to work. Nobody bothered you. Ever.”
The showbiz photographers stuck with the pop stars; the documentarians with the folkies, jazz- and bluesmen. It was a division of labor that persisted until the mid-Sixties, when the pop universe was hit by a shower of supernovas—and nothing was ever the same.
A minivan carrying the Beatles bumps into the town of Weston-super-Mare, a stop on an English seaside tour with Gerry and the Pacemakers and Tommy Quickly in the summer of ’63. Photographer Dezo Hoffmann, along as usual, paces the Beatles through the requisite publicity shots. Balding and bespectacled, he scuttles along the shoreline, clicking away as the boys ride rental donkeys and chat up the mums on holiday tittering in rows of canvas chairs. But Hoffmann needs something special, a bit zany, to penetrate the American market, which has been resistant so far to their cuddly charms.
Bingo! He decides to hire old-fashioned bathing costumes. The boys love dressing up in silly outfits. They’re game lads, really, always asking him how the more established groups do things, since he’s photographed so many stars. He’s been a father confessor of sorts, and here on the beach, when he says, ‘Jump!’ they do. After the lunging and leapfrogging, Hoffmann has his pictures. All the boys return their suits except John. Long after the session is over, he’s still cavorting around the hotel in his striped long johns, twigging the mums.
We finally knew what they looked like. And the great, pink-lipsticked maw pleaded: “More, Oh, please, more!”
“The value of those pictures became huge overnight,” the late Hoffmann explained in his 1982 book With the Beatles. “The Daily Mirror used one as a centre spread and America went barmy. Everybody in America used those pictures, even though they had barely heard any Beatle records.”
Cute guys were always at a premium. And once they got here, it was a canny old pro like Hoffmann who helped fuel the frenzy with more pictures of his lads and the madness around them. He had a knack for it. Since immigrating to London from his native Czechoslovakia in 1940, Hoffmann had photographed celebrities like Sinatra and Marlene Dietrich; in 1955 he became a staff photographer for the weekly Record Mirror. An irate fan letter had sent Hoffmann out in search of this “fab” group from Liverpool that no one seemed to be covering. Like Wertheimer with Elvis, Hoffman got those boys-on-the-brink shots: George sporting a black eye from a brawl at the Cavern Club over Ringo’s replacing Pete Best; fresh-faced Paul ironing a shirt and standing in front of his first car (“Paul thought that he was the king of Siam in that Mark I Cortina”).
We couldn’t get enough pictures. And for the first time since Elvis in 1956, pop idols were on trading cards, just like Roger Maris. Five shots and a pale pink sheet of sugar-dusted bubble gum for five cents. Most of the photos on those cards were by Hoffman, who all but lived with the group from 1962 to 1967. He went with the band on the fabled American “invasion.” Describing the airport when the Fab Four landed, he boasted: “The girls were wearing T-shirts (bearing my design) supplied to them by Seltaeb, the merchandising company set up for the American tour. Each fan was given a free T-shirt, one dollar and a bus ride to the airport. And that’s really how Beatlemania started in America.”
Hoffman’s photographs of the siege outside the Plaza Hotel are an eloquent endorsement of the marketing strategy, with plenty of black-and-white Beatles faces stretched tight across heaving teen torsos. As a respected war photographer—he’d covered Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, gotten seriously wounded covering the Spanish civil war—Hoffmann was unfazed by the high-estrogen frenzy his images helped unleash.
Hoffman never did any album covers. As the Beatles’ organization wised up to the possibilities outside the teen market, manager Brian Epstein hired Robert Freeman, a London fashion photographer with a more contemporary eye. Hoffmann’s shots ended up in publicity packages, newsmagazines or tucked snugly into training bras—sugar-scented Paul cards riding a legion of fluttery hearts.
Grown women got the fever, too. The late Diana Vreeland, then editor of American Vogue, explained her early raptures in the mid-Seventies: “Photographs started coming in to me with the new English look. I loved it instantly. I published photographs of the Beatles in 1964 with their clean, sweet Eton-boy image. Then David Bailey sent me pictures of his new girl, Jean Shrimpton, who quickly became a top model here. Later that year he sent me the Rolling Stones. Mick was kind of stout, with a huge mouth and a much bigger face. Not the beauty that he is today.”
With the British Invasion, there formed a new and lasting union between rock stars and the fashion rags. For uptown girls like Vogue, rockers were a maaaahvelous new accessory, worn on a Chaneled arm—the Sixties equivalent of that naughty trip to Harlem in the Forties. And they were such lovely mannequins, too, adding that slummy piquancy to a couturier spread. Two decades before designer Karl Lagerfeld started making five-figure biker togs for Chanel, rock stars lent a much-needed edge to mainstream fashion, a symbiosis that persists. Sensing valuable exposure, the Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham made it his business to keep up with the best fashion shooters.
“When we started off,” says Mick Jagger, “we got involved with photographers very quickly. With David Bailey, with all the top English fashion photographers of the time.”
It was easy. They were all wild, wild young men, shaking a tail feather on the cusp of wealth and fame. They ran together, dogged porcelain-faced English “birds” through iffy Soho clubs and King’s Road cafes. Bailey, who is said to have been the model for the hard-living, babe-bedding photographer in Antonioni’s Blow-Up, was already thrumming a rock & roll beat in the photo studio. He traced it to the motorized Nikons that started appearing in the early Sixties. “It changed everything,” Bailey says. “It made girls move on the paper, you see. It was a bit like a drum. It was a sexual rhythm…. Bzzzt, bzzzt, bzzzt …”
The most established lensmen looked up from their Balenciagas and heeded the street buzz and society gossip about these new boys in town. When stately photographers like Norman Parkinson and Cecil Beaton saw fit to immortalize this scruffy bunch, Jagger says he was not surprised: “The Rolling Stones, the Beatles, all these people worked with good photographers from the beginning. Everyone wanted to photograph you. Because you were new and fashionable.”
American and British Vogues and Harpers and Queen loosed their four-color stays a bit as mod clothing sold through the roof. But it was David Bailey who captured the faces that Vreeland couldn’t live without.
“We were in the fashion magazines so quickly because of David,” Jagger says. “David produced good work, and Andrew, thinking of the selling angle, just very quickly hooked into that. And from then on you just carried on with it. You looked for who was coming up in photography and design.”
Suits by Tommy Nutter, glad rags from the stalls in Portobello Road and peerage lovelies from Knightsbridge holding the front door of Daddy’s manse open to flash lads from the West End: In class-conscious Britain, it was a youthquake, indeed. Bailey himself was a cockney upstart with an eye for the main chance and one booted foot already in the right wrong places. He was glad to play Professor Higgins to Jagger’s Eliza Doolittle.
“Mick and I became friends,” Bailey recalled some years later. “I think I was lacking in his eyes because I was not a musician, but I became his link to another world—and I knew that this rude, long-haired git was on his way. By this time I was a man of the world, so when Mick wanted to go to a proper restaurant, I took him to the Casserole, a little bistro on King’s Road. He slopped his food like a good lower-middle-class boy. I, being working class, noticed bad manners more than most. To Mick’s amazement I told him he had to leave a tip of fifteen percent. I think that was his first realization of things to come.”
You could dress a Stone up for the pages of British Vogue. But could you take him out? Bailey was fond of lolling on the saggy, overpopulated sofas at the Ad Lib, a Soho penthouse converted into a discotheque and packed rump to Mary Quanted rump with pop stars, actresses, artists and photographers.
“I took Mick,” Bailey recalled. “And soon, like a Fifties debutante, he came out, with a little help from his friends.”
Many of the Stones’ deb days and nights were documented by the late Michael Cooper, who had a studio just off King’s Road. The Early Stones, a new book of Cooper’s photographs, tells the story: Mick blissed out at Stonehenge; the boys in Tangier, Morocco, spending druggy, sun-shot days at a palace owned by a pair of hip Gettys; Keith holding up headlines (NUDE GIRL AT STONES PARTY). They’d giggle through formal dinners with a footman behind each chair and pass out in the tomato aspic. Cooper documented his friends’ bacchanals, their drug busts, their mad spins into Society.
It was Cooper behind the lens when the Beatles debuted as freaks. As seen on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the lads had gone from fab to funky, all droopy mustaches and granny glasses. Designer Peter Blake set Cooper’s photograph in a montage that wickedly mocked the whole notion of pop worship. The group stood beside their own was likenesses from Madame Tussaud’s. Behind Ringo’s head was Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. Dylan looked on, with Marilyn, Brando, Oscar Wilde and Oliver Hardy. The star photos were hand-tinted with campy Hollywood artifice. There is no better example of rock photography’s break with its clean-cut, airbrushed past.
If that wasn’t enough of a statement, the group posed for a Life magazine spread by photographer Henry Grossman that introduced these new, chemically improved Beatles to America on June 16th, 1967. Standing in Lennon’s garden, they wore military jackets, paisley ties and striped pants. “Sure we’re going to lose some fans,” said Paul, who also admitted to drug use in the Life article. “We lost them in Liverpool when we took off our leather jackets and put on suits.”
From Sgt. Pepper on, photography would help us chart the group’s final odyssey, from the druggy, draggy Magical Mystery Tour through the tuneful anomie of the White Album (and its pointed lack of image) to the last, single-file walk-off on Abbey Road. Wirephotos told the rest, shots of the beatific, robed Maharishi, of John and Yoko’s bed-ins. There was no better lyric to describe the days and images to come than the Beatles’ own: “I read the news today, oh boy.”
Sgt. Pepper was still getting heavy rotation when a new magazine began publication in San Francisco in October of 1967. Founder Jann Wenner asked Baron Wolman to be the staff photographer. No pay at first, just “future considerations”—if there was a future.
Wolman’s first assignment was a news story. Wenner sent him to cover the Grateful Dead’s press conference at the band’s house on Ashbury Street. Having just made bail on marijuana charges, the Dead were a tad feisty. Wolman got his shot as they flipped the bird and clowned with rifles.
Most of the time, the encounters were more mellow. Photography was at its least formal during those let-it-be days, all 35 mm on the fly. “We hung out with the bands; we were accepted as part of the entourage—not family, but kind of,” says Wolman, who often covered events with Jim Marshall. Though Bob Seidemann, another Bay Area shooter, took some of the lasting images of those days, he made it a point of pride never to be seen carrying a camera. “As soon as you picked it up, you were no longer a member of the scene,” he explains. At Monterey Pop, Seidemann the scene maker took two hits of the same gourmet acid that had Jimi Hendrix crumpled up in a whimpering ball backstage. “Jimi had taken six,” Seidemann says. They compared candy-colored notes until Mr. Manic Depression was carried onstage.
Herb Greene, who can well be considered the Dead’s official unofficial photographer over the years, was also a fervent participant observer. He never took concert shots, never felt comfortable when things went beyond a family affair.
“I was passionate about the music,” Greene says. “And really bent on covering it as part of the gang, as an insider.”
That wasn’t hard. Greene’s then wife was promoter Bill Graham’s secretary. It was a good way to keep up with the bands. Greene often held photo sessions in his apartment, where someone had graffitied hieroglyphics on the peeling wallpaper. “I photographed the Great Society, Grace Slick’s family band,” Greene recalls. “Then a week later, I photographed Jefferson Airplane—with Grace.” He did the cover of the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, also in his apartment, with the black-and-white, straight-on, hold-your-banjo-on-your-knee style he’d come to admire in old-timey photographs of musicians published in Sing Out! magazine.
Retooled American Gothic was in. Creative time warping was the order of the day, with young freaks in old clothes eating acid the way prairie folk popped huckleberries. Forgotten America seemed the only one worth living in. Rock photography caught that sentiment and let the disaffected play dress-up. It hardly seemed a stretch for bands like the Dead with folkie, banjo-picking roots. Mouse Studios’ cover for Workingman’s Dead combined lunch pails, coveralls and cowboy hats in a black-and-white street scene that looks very Old West. Greene’s shots of the boater-and-derbied Charlatans have a Hole in the Wall Gang quality.
The Band’s second album cover had that same daguerreotype look. Writing about one cut, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” rock journalist Ed Ward insisted that after listening to the lyrics and “after looking at the cover photos, you’d almost be willing to believe that this song dates from the last days of the Civil War.” And eighteen years before Springsteen posed his rebuilt rear chassis against a huge American flag, Greene stood an awkward Jerry Garcia before a floor-to-ceiling Old Glory, banjo in the corner, worn carpet under his boots. Somehow, it fit.
If there was a photographer’s muse during this time, it was Janis Joplin, who sang like a blues mama and dressed like a dance-hall tart. Bob Seidemann’s lovely seminude of Joplin became a famous poster. Made during the Summer of Love, it sold over 150,000 copies—unheard of at the time. Operating out of an eighty-dollar-a-week storefront, Seidemann and his partners, doing business as Berkeley Bonaparte, also sold a few other posters. Among them: Seidemann’s classic Grateful Dead shot in which the band is eerily photographed with mirrored light, and his portrait of Pigpen, the Dead’s lovable psychopath. That one amazing summer they made $250,000. “Those posters were a way to convey the scene,” Seidemann says. “Rock music was the scene, and all over the country, people were clamoring for some part of it.”
The Joplin poster was the bestseller by far. It made her a psychedelic pinup overnight in nothing but a fringed cape and love beads, coyly arranged. Midsession, Joplin yelled, “Hey, Seidemann, I wanna take it all off!” He shrugged, she did. “It was so on the fly,” he says, “that you can still see the elastic mark from her underwear.” The completely nude shot was published only after Joplin’s death, in Rolling Stone.
Seidemann says that Joplin had been surprised when she saw the contact sheets. “Do I look that good?” she wanted to know.
“She felt she was ugly,” Seidemann says. “She wasn’t pretty; she was a fucking mess. And the lighting doesn’t make the pockmarks look as bad as they usually did. She had terrible skin and a kind of big flat nose, fucked-up hair. The inside was fantastically far-out, but in terms of what she looked like—ask a hunchback why he’s insecure.”
It is the pitiful Pearl shot—Jim Marshall’s photograph of a sad-eyed Joplin clutching a Southern Comfort bottle backstage—that is often cited as a postcard from the times: too much, too fast, in a too-screwed-up world. Marshall says he has shots of a sunny Janis grinning just fifteen minutes after it was taken. But when he handed her a print of the sad one, she told him: “A lot of people won’t understand this, but I do. That’s how it is sometimes. Thanks, man. ‘Cause that’s how it is.”
The instructions from Phil Spector had been eerily precise. He’d do the Rolling Stone interview with a few minor conditions: “I want you to get a rental car. Park in front of my offices late on a Sunday night. Just wait in your car.”
That’s where Jann Wenner and Baron Wolman are sitting, in a rented Mustang, when a black limo circles the block, then pulls up behind them. A large driver approaches: “You here for Mr. Spector?”
They climb in the back and are driven to Spector’s house, which is ringed with an electric fence and enough surveillance equipment to defend a Colombian drug lord. They are seated, waiting for the man Tom Wolfe called the Tycoon of Teen, when the driver returns. He has taken off his jacket to reveal a shoulder-holstered gun.
“Now about the cover for Mr. Spector …”
“Well, I guess Rolling Stone had arrived,” Wolman says. “They started really wanting that cover.” More and more artists whom Wolman photographed were hoping for that increasingly visible showcase. More were willing to pose, to spend hours if need be to get the right shot. Top shooters like Marshall, Wolman, Seidemann, Henry Diltz, Michael Cooper, Elliott Landy, David Gahr, Guy Webster, Ethan Russell and Ed Caraeff brought their talents to the magazine.
Often they were assigned to concert coverage. Never—before or since—had live performance been so important. We were far past the lip-synced American Bandstand days but years from the shrink-wrapped performances of music video. Stadiums had not yet become the yawning venues of choice, and Being There was the optimum state of grace. In those years of concert as sacrament, photographers got close enough to get Otis Redding’s sweat on their shoes. Henry Diltz stepped behind Jim Morrison as the Lizard King flicked a gaze backward, stage lights polishing his precious leathered butt. At the Monterey Pop Festival, in June of 1967, a teenage Ed Caraeff slid across the stage to nail that signature shot of Jimi Hendrix kneeling, conjuring, as he flambeed his hoodoo guitar.
Concert coverage was arduous. One had to tussle with festival crowds, poor lighting and frantic moving targets. But the highs were there, too, especially when photographer and musician heard the same song. Baron Wolman remembers being onstage at the Fillmore for a Jimi Hendrix concert, so close to the amps he could feel the physical vibrations of the music. “I started playing the camera,” he says. “I could almost anticipate the licks. It sounds really hokey, but I got fabulous photos, one after another, because I was really in tune with what he was doing.”
Working styles were as idiosyncratic as the fretwork. Herb Greene describes how three of the era’s main shooters would cover a Hendrix set: “Marshall is out there with a motorized something or other running off 600 images. Seidemann is behind an amp freaking out on acid. And I’m at home watching a football game.”
Being There was swell, but being “with the band” was nirvana. A ticket backstage was often nothing more than a camera around one’s neck. “Suddenly, everyone was a rock & roll photographer,” grumps David Gahr. “Two things were at work here. There was the romance of it that made any schmuck who loved the music pick up a camera—so he could live that rock & roll life. And there was the widespread use of strobe lights. Anyone could do it. Lighting with the strobe made it simple—but bland, to my mind.”
The swelling numbers made the stage perimeter blinding and noisy. And almost overnight, access shrank. Some venues started “penning” photographers in a roped-off area. Gahr remembers that it was Bob Dylan who first imposed the three-song limit on photographers during a concert. Joan Baez, who did acoustic sets, had to limit it more, once the shutter sounds became a clamor. Some, like Seidemann and Wolman, walked away.
“As the music got bigger and the business got bigger, we began to be ostracized,” Wolman says. “We were significant in that we did the pictures, but we were annoyances because there were so many of us.” Wolman would arrive at backstage checkpoints to find his name had already been ticked off the list. “Oh, you’re already here,” the guards would tell him.
Shifting his bags, looking down at the scruffy jeans he wore to do all that belly crawling, he had to wonder, Where have we gotten to, when people are impersonating the rock photographer?
By 1967 rock had wised up, almost world-weary enough to catch up with its blues heritage. Photographically, it had arrived as well. Even the teen magazines were more savvy with their visuals, and more than a few classic images from those hazy days were actually generated by savvy fanzine editors. Teen Set assigned Jim Marshall to take the only existing group portrait of what the editor called “the queen bees” of San Francisco rock—Grace Slick and Janis Joplin. Another fanzine savant, the late Gloria Stavers, was possessed of equal parts genius and chutzpah when it came to posing pop stars. Her magazine, 16, had long taken cartoony liberties, lopping off idols’ heads and setting them atop cavorting stick figures. But it was Stavers who first insisted on posing the brooding, Medusa-haired Jim Morrison shirtless—a delicious fright for those mojo-almost-rising readers who were finding the Beach Boys too tame. They were Old Spice to Morrison’s feral musk.
It was another shot of Morrison’s still-taut torso that became a Dionysus-in-leather rock classic, the pose Oliver Stone mimicked perfectly twenty-three years later to sell his film The Doors. Photographer Joel Brodsky took it for the inner sleeve of the Doors’ album Strange Days. The night of the shot in Brodsky’s Manhattan studio, Morrison was broody and uncommunicative—business as usual—until the lights were turned on him. Drunk as he was, the Prince of Pout performed like an ace. And as a finale, he fell down the stairs.
Those Sixties warm fuzzies had yelped and run for cover, sent scurrying by a wave of assassinations, riots, demonstrations and the counterculture’s ultimate bogyman, Richard Nixon. Tie-dye and denim were edged out by petroleum-based fashions like glitter, vinyl and the little poly disco dress. Pressed for one word to describe Seventies imagery, you’d have to go with extreme, from the regal, velvet-rope hauteur of Studio 54 divas to the grubby, up-yours aesthetic of punks. Never have there been such motley interpretations of beauty—male, female or in between.
For the music industry, these were banquet years, days of wine and blooming PR budgets, with plenty of cash for the right album shot, the lavish location session. And by then, subjects were ready, willing and able to grok the Billboard muscle of the well-posed haunch. Given the enthusiasm, the money and the exponential increase in its practitioners, rock photography came into its own. For album covers, photojournalism and the editorial or publicity portrait, it was also an era of extremes, from the most elaborate fantasy tableaux to the stark black and white of obituary photos.
Suddenly, there were too damned many funerals to cover, too many arraignment freeze frames of haggard, long-haired detainees. It was a grim, updated genre of rock realism. Artists flew to weightless places on the wings of music, pills, powders and the genial bonhomie of Mr. Jack Daniel’s. And their falls to earth were caught by the unforgiving contrasts of newsprint black and white. Rock photography had a new dimension far outside the gentle halo of James Kriegsmann’s soft lights—one that took in police tape and bloodstains.
The years 1967 through 1971 had seen the sea change and the advent of these downbeat rockumentary shots: Keith and Mick in the dock on drug charges, Jim Morrison arraigned in Miami for indecent exposure, the Sussex estate where Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool.
The sunny summer-festival panoramas dissolved into the unforgettably ugly crowd scenes of Altamont. At that concert, which snuffed Sixties goodwill in the final month of that decade, Beth Sunflower’s lens caught the caped Jagger watching a fight offstage as the Hell’s Angels plied their own brand of “security.” Her crowd photographs look like Hieronymus Bosch paintings: naked people, walleyed with delirium and chemicals; tough, intoxicated men with tiny, unseeing animal eyes. Ethan Russell, also shooting that day, managed to climb aboard a chartered helicopter to escape the killer karma. He took some ominous backstage shots of the Stones and their Mansonesque escorts. But he says he didn’t want to photograph those faces in the crowd.
“The vibe was horrible, violent, sick, druggy,” Russell recalls. “The true character of drugs as a destructive force—not an opening force—was set up there. Red wine and speed. I can get more psychotic than you, man. I crawled out under fences. The helicopters went out low, they were so loaded. It was like the fall of Saigon.”
The photographs continued to tell the story: grainy shots of the Landmark Hotel in Hollywood, where Janis Joplin was found dead on October 4th, 1970, just three days after Jimi Hendrix’s funeral. “Shit, the motherfucker beat me to it,” she’d told Bob Seidemann when she heard the news of Hendrix’s death. Eight months later, Jim Morrison died in Paris.
And so it went. By now we knew it wasn’t always pretty, a fact crystallized by Annie Leibovitz’s arresting still life: a close-up of the newly sutured wrist of Mick Jagger alongside a surgical instrument. Jagger had put his hand through a plate-glass window in Montauk, Long Island, where the band was rehearsing at director Paul Morrissey’s house for its ’75 tour. Leibovitz photographed the surgeon’s handiwork in black and white until the patient asked if she was using color. Too gross, she told him. But Jagger insisted. He made her run out for a roll of Kodachrome and shoot his wrist at corpuscle range. Leibovitz didn’t argue. By then she had had five marathon years to weather the whims of the rock & roll life.
Is Annie shooting? Get Annie.
Among cognoscenti, it became a rock & roll family name, like Mick or Keith. A few years into her thirteen-year tenure as staff photographer at Rolling Stone, Annie Leibovitz was the one whom all the bands wanted. Since that time, her celebrity portraits for Vanity Fair and American Express have earned her record-breaking one-woman shows and media sobriquets like Zeitgeist surfer and pop culture’s lens. She insists it all springs from being forced to tussle, week after week, with a problematic rectangular cover. It is reasonable to say that the Rolling Stone cover, under Leibovitz’s influence, changed the rules for celebrity photography.
In 1970, Leibovitz was a tall, gangling acolyte too insecure to drop her own prints into the group wash that churned in the lab tub at the San Francisco Art Institute. Her photographic “education” had been very rock & roll.
“It was in the middle of the Vietnam War,” Leibovitz says. “The teachers came to school drunk—no one really taught a class. You were given a darkroom, and you had a community of photographers to hang out with who were very inspirational as far as the pureness of the form went. You photographed when you felt moved to photograph.”
Purist street photography, she calls it. She started working for Rolling Stone when she was still a student, taking over for Baron Wolman, who had left to start an alternative fashion newspaper. Robert Kingsbury, the magazine’s first art director, says he chose her from a host of student applicants, “kids with their sandals and Pentel drawings,” because she seemed like a perfectionist. “I needed a photographer who was conscientious,” he says. “Her prints were exquisite. On top of that, she was a very pushy woman, and I thought it was a perfect solution for a male-dominated, egocentric industry like rock & roll.”
At the outset, Leibovitz says, she was torn between that art-school incorruptibility and the journalist’s messy imperatives. Real life won. “I became interested in journalism, in trying to tell a story,” Leibovitz says. “I became interested in Eugene Smith and Margaret Bourke-White, in Life magazine, in the idea of shooting on assignment. I definitely changed camps. It took me years to get over the idea that I was starting to make a living—that I was selling a photograph.”
But it didn’t take long for the work to consume her. “I was young, I had no real life for myself,” she says. “Everyone else’s life seemed much more interesting than mine. I basically never went home.”
Leibovitz is talking in an airy white studio overlooking the Hudson River and downtown Manhattan, an often frantic place where a half-dozen young men and women pack and unpack equipment, where even the ice coolers have airline baggage tags. Home is an airy penthouse in Chelsea, where a severe black fax machine does the lion’s share of socializing. She doesn’t know why; she just can’t stop working.
It’s a habit she acquired in those crazy Woodstock-to-Watergate days, when the music was the message and vice versa. A counterculture publication had its timely obligations—agendas that got ratcheted higher and tighter at every staff meeting.
“It was a group of young people, kids really,” Leibovitz says. “It was instilled very early that what we were doing was very important, it mattered. And so each time I went out, I was really on this mission to come back with the truth. And everyone just lived inside that life. That’s what we did. We basically lived inside the assignments.”
Many of them involved music, but none seemed inconsequential. “Shooting Daniel Ellsberg wasn’t that different from Mick Jagger or Muhammad Ali,” Leibovitz says. “And what Rolling Stone did that no other magazine did was to take musicians and what they said seriously. Treated them as if they were Muhammad Ali or Daniel Ellsberg.”
As Rolling Stone grew, musicians took it more seriously as well, enough for Dr. Hook to lampoon the fever in his single “The Cover of Rolling Stone” (“Gonna get my picture on the cover … gonna send five copies to my mother”). Acts whose management used to send in mass-produced pickup photos were now willing to pose. Leibovitz recalls frantically throwing up some no-seam backdrop to get a “studio” shot of Rod Stewart, who had a bit of free time—and the moment’s inclination. She says she began to get “seduced by the cover.” But faced with these opportunities, Leibovitz was tentative at first. Portraits were a mystery; her only referents were the family album: “I was expecting someone who was sort of like eating corn or something. I wanted the kind of response one would get from their brother and sister. I didn’t know any better.”
Happily, her subjects were still blessedly unschooled on the finer points of strobe technology. And they didn’t walk in demanding macrobiotic caterers and a platoon of stylists. “On the first assignments the people were loose,” she says. “It was a style of not getting ready for the photograph. Jerry Garcia would just come over, or he’d just be around. I didn’t know how to pose people. I just was watching them and composing within the viewfinder. Pretty much watching life in front of me.”
She was stunned when she arrived in Lakeland, Florida, to photograph Tammy Wynette in her home, and the country star swept down the stairs fully done. “I remember my jaw dropping,” Leibovitz says. “I felt like I was going on a date with Tammy Wynette. I just hadn’t photographed anyone who got gussied up for the shot.”
Ultimately, “doing the covers of Rolling Stone made my work,” Leibovitz says. “It created the style of my work.” Two cover photographs of John Lennon are apt bookends for Leibovitz’s progression at the magazine. One was taken in 1970, the other just hours before Lennon’s murder in 1980. The latter, a portrait of the nude Lennon entwined with a clothed Yoko Ono, is probably Leibovitz’s best-known photograph—and the one that launched not a few more conceptual shooters. Mark Seliger, who now photographs many Rolling Stone covers, recalls it as “one of those stop-you-in-your-tracks, infrared, burned-into-the-cortex images,” the kind that fired his own inclinations to give it a try. Says Seliger, “I just couldn’t comprehend how anyone could get that to happen.”
Well balanced, carefully posed, the Lennon portrait was a watermark of Leibovitz’s mature conceptual style, amplifying the couple’s strengths and vulnerabilities and Lennon’s naked devotion to his wife. The 1970 shot of Lennon—Leibovitz’s first celebrity cover—was quite literally an accident.
“I just pointed a camera at him to take a light-meter reading and snapped a couple frames at the same time,” Leibovitz says. She was appalled when editor Wenner insisted on using this throwaway shot for the cover. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s not a photograph, that’s just a head shot,'” she says. “I felt strongly that you needed to have the environment in a photograph to give you more story, to tell you something else. As I’ve gotten older, I can’t underestimate the power of the sitter. Twenty years later I look back, and it’s a very strong portrait. It’s interesting because it’s not posed—he just happened to look over.”
Leibovitz calls it the working-class-hero shot. Lennon is dressed in denim shirt and bib overalls, looking for all the world like a Yorkshire herdsman who reads Wordsworth at night.
Rock & roll stars may have achieved a certain royal status, but Leibovitz had long been impressed by the day-to-day rigors of their job. “When Mick asked me to do the ’75 tour, I went at it like a photographer going to war,” Leibovitz says. “When I asked Jann for a leave of absence, he said, ‘If you go, I can’t guarantee you’ll have a job when you come back.’ In retrospect, I think he was very scared for me. And he had every reason to be.”
Leibovitz thought she was ready for anything, including serious fun. She showed up at the first city with a tennis racket. She says she’s still amazed at her naivete then: “I had been working for Rolling Stone for five years and still didn’t know how music was made, had never traveled with a band.”
She had shot some of the Stones’ ’72 tour, but she had never been on the road for more than two weeks. This time she shipped out for months; her hours were worse than the band’s. Pressed to choose a representative photograph from that tour, she cites “the Jagger elevator shot.” It was taken in Buffalo in what she describes as one of those freight-battered “elevators from hell.” Jagger is wrapped and turbaned in terry after the performance. He is wringing wet. Ruined eye makeup accents the shadows beneath his eyes.
Leibovitz says she took the sexy performance shots “as a courtesy”—it was expected. But she loathed that aspect of the assignment. “I was running across these people at concerts who considered themselves rock photographers,” she says, “who stood in front of the stage, and that was their life. And I was not really interested in the concert. I was interested in life and what made the music.”
Shooting onstage seemed more of a technical exercise. And it wasn’t a perspective she could control.
“I decided to show rock & roll on the road as not very glamorous,” Leibovitz explains. “Not particularly attractive. I mean, it’s a hard life.”
Ask Jagger about these published intrusions, about the shots of Keith Richards leaning shirtless and insensible on a hotel door, of Ron Wood soaking his undies in the bathroom sink, and he says sure, that was what they hired her to do. It came down to one simple thing: trust.
“I thought Annie was the best rock photographer of that period,” Jagger says. “She always had a lot of exciting ideas. She was very keen. And she always got great shots of the band.” He laughs. “She was the best lady for the job.”
Sometimes, even Leibovitz was no match for the hard-core, road-toughened roue. She was covering a Who concert in Oakland in 1976 when she walked into a dressing room and found seven nearly naked women groping Keith Moon. Moon pawed back, a paunchy, giggling satyr in Jockeys and black socks. The candid groupie shot is a classic. But three years ago, when she was doing research for a book of her photographs, Leibovitz found that she had been had. “Keith Moon had hired all these women to hang around,” she says. The more she looked at the shot, she realized it had to be a setup. And she has to admit it was very Keith. “He was always a great theatrical man,” she says. “As soon as he saw a photographer, he was jumping on counters, wrapping himself in a flag. He was an outrageous man. But I love the story. Here I am—the person who sets everything up.”
Tour photography is one tough, time-consuming way of catching the essence of a band. But what about the conceptual and commercial rigors of fitting it all onto a twelve-by-twelve cardboard panel?
By the early Seventies album art was reaching its peak in terms of importance and artistry. Until then, the best work had been done for jazz albums, which could afford to be arty, art directors joked, since they didn’t sell anyhow. In fact, until the Seventies many of the midsize record companies didn’t even have art directors. Once the art form came into its own, the committed could spend months brainstorming a concept. But often, serendipity lent a hand.
A wild motorcade of Rolls-Royces and Jaguars is racing down the M1 back from a gig in the British Midlands. The convoy is led by Pete Townshend behind the wheel of a monster six-liter Mercedes. Photographer Ethan Russell is twitching in terror in the back seat. The speedometer needle is boogalooing around 130 mph.
Suddenly, out of the blur that is the scenery, Russell glimpses huge cement monoliths poking out of what looks like acres of black sludge. Tires scream as all those horses are pulled up short. In minutes, they’re all standing before the slab.
Russell is thinking of the monolith scene in Kubrick’s recent smash, ‘2001’; he suggests that the band approach the slab like those awe-struck apes and astronauts. Bah. Piss off, Ethan, me boy. In fact, one of the lads urinates on the slab. Another follows suit. Film cans of water mark the cement for those who can’t pee on command.
Later, Russell would learn that he photographed the band on a seething tract of industrial waste; the pillars were inserted to keep the ooze from shifting. The graphics folks stripped in a blue sky to cut the Midlands gloom. And there, witty and smartass, was the cover of Who’s Next.
A California expatriate, Russell was working chiefly in London when the album cover became, for him, “the summit of musical photography” circa 1970. Having begun his music photography there shooting for Rolling Stone, Russell stayed for the heady decade’s end, photographing events like the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus (a TV variety show featuring a supergroup of Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, John Lennon and Hendrix drummer Mitch Mitchell).
Russell was in the studio during the Beatles’ last sessions together. There his camera framed an elegiac still life: Lennon’s handwritten lyric sheets, a coffee cup, a box of Dunhills. His group portraits foreshadow the isolation and boredom that had made the band’s split a foregone conclusion. When the Beatles played their last public performance, on a rooftop overlooking Savile Row, Russell was there to finish the job.
Dear Mr. Fantasy, Russell’s photo-memoir of those years, is a wry, inside account of rock photography’s coming of age. Having shot covers like the Stones’ Through the Past, Darkly and the Beatles’ Let It Be, he devoted considerable thought to those foot-square icons and their place in rock mythology. The album cover, he felt, had become an interactive form of art. Given the heavy involvement of music in the momentous events of those times, the right picture was invested with far more than point-of-sale attraction. He explained: “An album cover not only showed a group in its latest incarnation (and that’s the word—they were changing so often), the covers also became an entertainment themselves, something to spend time with…. The same obsessive attention that music was receiving could be shared with a cover, for there were visual clues. And the same attention that would insist that the very last groove of a Beatle record, played backward, would reveal that ‘Paul is dead’ would find mysterious figures encrypted in the bark of a tree on the cover of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, significance where none was intended.”
Years later, dusting off a favorite jacket can have a Proustian effect. “These photographs [for fans] are symbols of their youth,” says David Bowie. “I think the Beatles’ Abbey Road was like something from Odilon Redon—no shoes and the white suit. However sort of homey it looked, it had implicit symbolism about it.”
Some photographers were particularly adept at getting the crystal-distillation shot—the one that said it all and sold. Bowie says that he relied on the conceptual vision of Brian Duffy to work out covers like Aladdin Sane and Lodger. Andy Warhol weighed in with the Stones’ famous fly front cover for Sticky Fingers as well as the Velvet Underground’s banana cover. Brain-tickling imagery was a specialty of Bob Seidemann, who photographed a young naked girl holding a silver airplane for that now-rare Blind Faith cover. Seidemann also shot the day-for-night, Magritte-like street scene on Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky. Londoner Gered Mankowitz shot Stones covers like Between the Buttons and December’s Children.
After the cannonball impact of Sgt. Pepper, Michael Cooper kept photographing for album covers, coming up with dark visions like the Stones’ phantasmagoric Their Satanic Majesties Request. To get a back-drop for that wild sorcerer-in-a-cabal shot, Cooper laid in a few cartons of arts and crafts supplies—sequins, beads, feathers—and sat the band down to cut and paste like a clutch of stoned kindergartners.
Cooper’s was an intense rock & roll life. He and his young son Adam lived with Keith Richards for a time, and Cooper was very close to avant-garde writers, particularly William Burroughs. In March of 1973, Cooper quit the edgy, perilous scene he captured so well. At twenty-nine, hopelessly addicted to heroin, he committed suicide. Even participant observers were not immune.
Cooper’s was a private, very personal despair. But others coped with Seventies disaffection on center stage. They learned to stylize their anomie, to burlesque pain and paranoia for the A&R scouts and the photo op. And for the first time, photographers had to cope with a decidedly antibeauty stance. Call them the Unretouchables. All-ugly bands leered, puked and spat for the lens. Jumpy fashion shooters faced down punks in reeking leather. Bob Gruen went to London and dived in amid the head-butting Oi boys to document the scene. In L.A., Moshe Brakha went underground to do the same. These kids had a physical ideal no less painstaking than Elvis’s well-trained do. The Malcolm McLaren-coached Sex Pistols could accessorize with syringe lapel pins—nasty talismans that looked best in grainy black and white. And who could ignore the noisy chain-saw chic of Wendy O. Williams and the Plasmatics? On the comic end, Meat Loaf was straight from the Fatty Arbuckle school of sex gods, the kind of heman ideal that cried out for the wide-angle lens.
Sunny California, where the Seventies bloom in relentless self-discovery.
“I’m so tired of being alone….”
Al Green is shaking his head as his own voice moans from the studio sound system. Last of the line of Sixties preach-and-plunder voices, soul man and a half when he prowls a stage looking so lean and so clean—that Al Green looks like he wants his mama now.
“I never know what I’m going to do,” Norman Seeff is telling him from behind the camera.
Seeff is trying to get him to relax, to sing along with his record; Green won’t. Can’t. What is this? Cat comes in and starts messing with your mind. Green is about as comfortable as a bantam in a kennel yard. The session plunges on.
Time lapse. Much later. Here is Green singing, face upturned, sweating a little, that praise-Jesus smile spread like sunrise against the no-seam. Strobes pop. Another smile.
The Reverend Al is laughing. “Nawwwwmin. I feel you’re takin’ advantage of me….”
Watch the moving film shot of this Al Green session and you expect to see crisis coach John Bradshaw come running in from off camera, arms outstretched. But there is only Norman Seeff, a slight, sandy-haired South African with a talented trigger finger and the intense but gentle manner of a Jungian grandmaster. Formerly a boho medical doctor working in Soweto clinics, Seeff arrived in New York in 1969 with a camera and about $600. He was sleeping in cars, photographing people in exchange for using their bathrooms to develop film, when art director Bob Cato discovered him and sent him off to photograph the Band.
Seeff has kept an astonishing record of his Seventies and early Eighties photo sessions. Film crews—generally students and assistants—shot hours of film showing the biggest rock names at their most playful, vulnerable, shy, exhibitionistic, sexy, demure, stoned and soulful. More than 100,000 feet are still undeveloped, Seeff says, untrammeled sessions with everyone from Van Halen to the pre-Thriller Michael Jackson. Seeff had had this off-the-wall notion to film short performances to release with albums. Nobody bit. In a conference room in the sprawling L.A. complex that houses his commercial-production company, Seeff slides a sample cassette into the VCR.
Here is Brother Ray Charles paying respect to his piano (“All instruments whip you! It just sits there and dares you to play it”); Johnny Mathis talking about his insecurities behind makeup (“I just paint and paint and paint …”); Joni Mitchell clowning in an Afro wig, face painted black, dressed like some Vegas parody of a soul man. Drawing pensively on a joint, Lily Tomlin says it for all of them: “I have this fantasy that you were gonna, like … penetrate to my core! … It’s a little bit like psychotherapy.”
The Seeff Sessions. They were the ultimate mind meld between photographer and subject, most fitting for the self-help surge of the times: And the shakedowns worked: During one heady spell, three of the coveted Sunset Strip billboards simultaneously displayed album art that came out of Seeff sessions. His evenings of controlled mayhem were the hippest parties in town. The curious and the hopeful haunted the doorway of his studio at 8165 Sunset Boulevard. He invited select “audiences”—close friends, other artists, photography students—to interact with the artists.
Photographer Matthew Rolston, who was still a student then, used to drive down from the Art Center in Pasadena just to hang out. “There were tons of people, a very electric atmosphere,” he remembers. “He was shooting a group one time I was there, and there wasn’t enough happening between them. So he whispered to his assistant, and next thing you know, two assistants came out with huge buckets of water and put them next to him.”
Instantly, the band torqued up the visuals. “The electricity was surging through them,” says Rolston. “They were so nervous at what might or might not happen with this water. It was the most subtle, indirect direction. Very smart. I learned a lot from watching him.”
For the Rolling Stones, Seeff provided a mise en scene with trunks of antique clothes, women, wine….
“Oh, we had a few drinks, I might have kissed a girl,” Jagger says grumpily. “Norman was all the go then.” The resulting sequence looks like a bawdyhouse brawl, all flying feathers and whiskey leers, Jagger tossed over the shoulder of a woman of substance. The photographs became a strip of postcards included in the album Exile on Main Street. They made it only into the first run, and the set is now a rare collector’s item. The outside photograph was a black-and-white shot taken by the legendary Robert Frank as he traveled Route 66 in 1950. What looks like a collage is actually a wall of photos, snapshots of circus freaks tacked up in a tattoo parlor. All in all, it’s a singular package, embracing a wry contrast in photographic styles—the stark documentary and the artful setup.
“I saw the photographic session as a multimedia event,” Seeff explains. “I would have an audience, I would have music, food. So it became ‘Let’s hang out together and shoot.’ And when I finally started, I was shooting like a shot every second, every second and a half. I wasn’t a photo-reportage photographer—where I’m an outside observer—looking for that one moment.”
He wanted it to be between friends. This is not unlike the entre nous San Francisco sessions of the Sixties except for one thing. Often, Seeff would never have met his subjects before; the relationship had to begin, escalate and coalesce in just a few hours.
“I work very cinematically,” Seeff says. “I shoot like this, and there’s an evolution to the person. The way they walk in is one place, and the way they walk out is another. The images represent some of the stages that people go through. And then peak moments, of course.”
He says it usually took him about an hour to “break through.” Sometimes he offered a little help—a drink, a joint. But mainly it was that voice, a hand on the shoulder, a well-placed silence.
Carly Simon had a couple of glasses of wine with Seeff before he talked her into the stunning, sexy shot that became the cover of Playing Possum. Wearing just a sheer black teddy and high boots, she is leaning back, fists and thigh muscles clenched with the kind of telegraphed tension that can set off the neighborhood dogs. There was no stylist to choose the lingerie; Simon just took her clothes off and posed in what was left. Shortly after the album came out, she was accosted in Bloomingdale’s by an outraged matron. How could she? A mother herself …
If there is any unifying theme to Seventies rock shots, it’s sex –conventional and otherwise. After the Pill and before the Plague years, T&A sold the goods, from album cover to magazine pictorial. This was the decade when the Rolling Stones adopted a giant lolling tongue as a logo, when Jagger rode a thirty-foot inflated latex penis onstage. Isaac Hayes charted a new erogenous zone with that shot of his big, bald, glistening dome on the cover of Hot Buttered Soul. The Ohio Players cut the front-cover foreplay and went straight for half-nekkid gatefold bondage; their covers were passed around college dorms like the latest issue of Hustler. Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust deported himself in nothing but a glittery jockstrap—or a ginchy frock. Bryan Ferry even sold his egghead art rock with well-sculpted ta-tas, posing a pair of near-naked female fans on the cover of Roxy Music’s Country Life. The Cars went retro and used a Vargas girl.
Women did not shrink from the challenge. Robert Mapplethorpe photographed Patti Smith in her Rimbaud manque mens-wear. Francesco Scavullo snapped Debbie Harry in crotch-high boots and a bun-hugging mini. LaBelle’s covers were all Star Trek sex, with nose-cone bras and beam-me-up boots. Tina Turner was in her Bob Mackie cave-girl mode, torn leather brushing tawny thighs. Cute Linda Ronstadt, late of the Stone Poneys, posed for Leibovitz in naughty red lingerie. Bette Midler stripped to her tiny skivvies and nestled in a bed of roses. And for a cover that amplified the sighs and whispers of a decade, Leibovitz placed the members of Fleetwood Mac head to toe in a rumpled bed.
“I remember that being around them was sort of like a soap opera,” Leibovitz says. “The lives intertwined—who was with whom, someone had just split up with another one. It was as if each one of them was sort of jumping from bed to bed. And the bed was a metaphor for their lives. It seems like they’d all passed through each other’s lives yet were still a band.”
Not all sexuality was so conventional. Though the Stones may have started the cross-dressing trend by dolling up as Wacs for the sleeve of their single “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” Francesco Scavullo insists that boys-in-blusher gambit started in his New York studio when Edgar Winter and his band came by in 1973 to shoot the cover of They Only Come Out at Night. “We had photographed them,” Scavullo recalls. “Then I decided I had to do them again, that they needed makeup. So I hired [makeup artist] Way Bandy. We painted big red lips on Edgar, with a diamond pasted on his chest. We had a hairdresser. He was fully made up, and they weren’t going to run it at Columbia.”
Winter insisted, and they ran that Texas-tart shot, and it sold. “After that,” says Scavullo, “people were coming in all the time wanting that same treatment.”
In a reverse twist, Scavullo told Diana Ross to go soak her head. He wanted her to get sexy by getting simple for her 1980 album Diana. Wash off some of the makeup. Strip off the extensions and go with her own hair. Ross was hesitant, so they compromised. Miss Ross got as funky as she dared with high-priced demolition experts: Way Bandy did the no-makeup makeup, hairstylist Suga hosed down her head. Ross has told Scavullo it’s still her favorite cover. “She always keeps saying, ‘Why can’t we come up with something like that again?'” Scavullo says, laughing. He says he had to tell her the truth: You can pile as much on as you want in as many different ways for the camera, but, honey, “taking off your hair and makeup is once in a lifetime.”
The idea of beauty, male and female, never got such a working over as in the mind and closet of David Bowie. Until Madonna’s Boy Toy emerged full blown from her downtown oyster shell, no one had compiled more startling, inventive, who-am-I-this-nanosecond photos than Bowie. To take in the cumulative effect, I dropped in at the Michael Ochs Archives, in Venice Beach, California, a cinder-block repository of eight-by-ten reinventions. I tugged open the heavy file drawer and sat on the carpet, dealing Bowies like one-eyed jacks and fanning them out by persona.
Here’s the mod Bowie, looking about nineteen, hunched over an acoustic guitar in white shirt and Italian trousers, waxing pensive on some ghastly Danish-modern chair. Omi-god, a permed Bowie in an undershirt—a sort of snaggletoothed Frampton. Next, a moony shot of some new RCA recording star in a shoulder-length pageboy and bells. Aha—something recognizable—the Ziggy Stardust Bowie, a squatting, snarling, half-naked hellcat, pancaked, with Suzie Wong eyeliner. This is followed by a seemingly entranced boyo with a bolt of lightning painted on his puss—Aladdin Sane. Who’s the lounge lizard in the brocade suit? The plastic soul smoothie of Young Americans. Finally, I turn up a Savile Row dandy affecting terminal ennui, the Thin White Duke of Station to Station days.
All of them look plenty cozy with the camera, so it’s a shock when I ring Bowie up and ask about the fun he’s had all these years.
“I loathe the process!” he roars through a transatlantic echo. “I think it’s … horrendous! My heart sinks whenever I’m told I’ve got to do stuff.”
David, David. This is like Gypsy Rose Lee saying she hates feathers. Bowie allows that he does like photographers—they’re nice people. And he’s a student of the art. Admires Victor Skrebneski. Imogen Cunningham. “And cliche as it is, I still have a hankering for Diane Arbus’s things,” Bowie says. He loves Polaroids. (“There’s an infamy about them.”) He even dragged Iggy Pop out into a Berlin snowstorm to shoot Polaroids based on a German expressionist painting. (It became the study for the cover of Pop’s album The Idiot.) All in all, Bowie prefers the idea of photography.
“Coming up with ideas and concepts is a lot different from having to stand there and go through that performance,” he says. “I’ve always much preferred the drawing board to actually participating in the thing.”
Bowie pauses for a second, then laughs.
“But there’s nobody else to do it, is there?”
Bowie will concede that it’s probably a good thing he posed so much. “‘Remembering the Seventies’ is sort of an oxymoron for me,” he says. “Any time I have a lapse to fill, at least there are the photographs.” Except for one period. He suggests I take a closer look at the 1976 to 1983 portion of my Bowie montage. “There are very, very few photographs of me in that period,” he says. “And I think it was because I didn’t have any more characters to play. The necessity for creating any images for characters was not there.”
It’s always been strictly business with this mutable mannequin. Tell him that photographers gush when discussing his very real kindness, his cooperation, his unfailing grace, and he laughs again. “I usually do what they ask because I’m so damned polite.” As a rule, he tries to stay away from known “rock photographers,” fearing the contagion of cliche.
“The best thing is to have absolutely no idea what you’re doing,” Bowie says. “I much prefer the planned accident to the ‘Well, if you turn your head this way, deah, your cheekbone stands out’ approach. I think that’s kind of crummy. It works—some artists survive on that. But for me, that doesn’t hold much interest.”
Bowie subscribes to the photographic work ethic that the legendary art director Alexey Brodovitch imposed on prodigies like Irving Penn and Richard Avedor: “Astonish me!”
“I’ve got to have a photograph that’s sort of extraordinary looking rather than beautiful,” Bowie says.
Damn the cheekbones. And turn up the Concept.
You have to know when to let it be—and when to pile it on. There was room for both approaches in the Excessively Entertaining Eighties, when Hollywood claimed the White House and MTV shot rock visuals into 2.5 million households. Videos upped the dress-for-excess ante, and bolder portraiture was most appropriate for the latest works in progress. Cyndi Lauper took the trash-and-vaudeville sensibility to its magenta-haired, accessorize-with-a-wrestler extreme. Prince freshened Hendrix’s purple haze with doilies and peep-holes. Tough little Annie Lennox cross-dressed with bulldog ferocity. Boy George reinvented himself every time he sashayed into his remarkable closet. Haircut bands like Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode and Duran Duran were a petulant scream for the glamour treatment. Their faithful, London’s Blitz Kids, used their photographs like shopping lists. By mid-decade, even heavy-metal bands were bawling for stylists to knot the grotty bandannas on their thighs.
Playing it straight with these types was tough, even for a master of the dead-on, minimalist portrait. Richard Avedon was in the midst of photographing his landmark black-and-white series on the American West when he agreed to shoot some of these flash up and comers for Rolling Stone. A Kabukied Boy George must have been comic relief after faces creased and weathered like so many dry arroyos. It’s certainly Avedon’s most puckish work. His Prince has lacy fingers making a delicate O over his fly; Eddie Murphy has a finger up his nose. Avedon got Cyndi Lauper to trot out her grade-A fancy clothespins. In the visual tug of war between the lifelong documentarian and these class clowns, cheerful buffoonery won out.
Fresh paint is seeping into trademark lips, and Mick Jagger is feeling the bloody great fool. He’s wearing a white linen suit that Annie Leibovitz has had made for him. An artist has painted it to look like a landscape by Turner. Now someone is painting him. Jagger is standing in front of a big Turneresque backdrop, earth and sky tones dripping from his face, trickling down his neck to puddle beneath the now-stiff linen. It’s been hours, six by his count.
“In’t it coming right, Annie? Annie? You getting your knickers in a twist?”
Neither of them was pleased when the prints came back, so the Jagger-as-British-landscape Concept was never published. Sometimes a great notion is best left in a glassine sleeve. Leibovitz recalls a second conceptual crash, the time she had a framed glass box built to look like the cover of Rolling Stone. Steve Martin was wild and crazy enough to strip to his underwear and squeeze into the box, caught like some entomologist’s wiggly trophy.
“I loved it,” Leibovitz says. “I definitely loved doing the cover.” She loved it so much, was so obsessed, she says, that she had an acetate mat made with the logo on it. She could place it in her camera and see the whole “cover” through the camera. She didn’t do that long; it got “intrusive.” But the task got more intriguing.
“In the late Seventies and early Eighties there was more conceptual cover work for Rolling Stone,” Leibovitz says. “It was when I really got into full swing and started to enjoy the tradition of the magazine cover. I started to have a blast with it. I just tried to top myself every time.”
Mike Salisbury was the art director who had to cope with Leibovitz’s new directions. “A lot of people have taken what they think are great high-concept photographs, but it’s a gimmick,” he says. “Annie’s pictures were so impressionist, had so much personality, that the gimmick was a piece of art.”
The stylized cover shot had dimension. Layers. Leibovitz says she loved doing things like tossing Bette Midler in that bed of roses. Everything was coming up roses for the Divine One at the time. And the image had that kitsch quality as well, the same stars-and-garters elan that had created such a splash in the gay baths. The photographer found it metaphoric, appropriate, just as it was when she shot excitable boy Warren Zevon spread-eagled, his limbs being pulled in different directions. At the time Zevon was battling alcoholism.
“It’s most interesting to me when you can read so many levels into something,” Leibovitz says. “If you can have a story or a fantasy or an idea about someone.”
As the action moved off the road and stage and into the studio, more than ever rock portraits were signed. They didn’t have the big-K logo that James Kriegsmann stamped on his prints, but the imprimaturs were clear. Even “straight” black-and-white portraits had a new flair with their signature lighting: Albert Watson’s deft chiaroscuro, Herb Ritts’s outdoor Malibu verite, Hiro’s time-honored mask of light washing across the cheekbones of Sean Penn and Bryan Adams. Darkness was also the stylist’s medium. Matt Mahurin misted features with a grainy, fleeting fog. Anton Corbijn used shadow and deep, inky contrast to convey the saloon gloom of Tom Waits, John Lydon’s spiky urban angst, Bono’s coal-burning intensity.
By this time, tour photography was pretty much confined to performance shots by road warriors Neal Preston, Joseph Sia and Lynn Goldsmith. Documentary portraits, those at work and on the road, had all but disappeared, a function of accelerated schedules and that modern scene spoiler Publicist Interruptus. Depending on the artist’s disposition and the budget, session personnel could swell to dozens: stylists, hair and makeup teams, publicists, personal assistants and their gofers. Light boxes became groaning boards, heaped with mango salsa and Terra chips, kiwi fruit and Evian. In explaining her own transit from photojournalist to portrait photographer, Leibovitz says that plenty of her artistic decisions were influenced by that growing bugaboo Access. Gone were the days of just hanging loose with the Dead. What to do?
“You have only a couple of hours,” Leibovitz says. “I could have set up photographs that looked real. But out of respect for the journalism and the reportage work, I felt I would rather do set-up photographs that looked set up. One of the things that I always wanted as a thread going through all the work is that there’s some form of truth in the picture, even if it’s set up.”
Truth in pictures can smart a bit. There is one set-up shot Leibovitz regrets. To even the vast height difference between Daryl Hall and John Oates, Leibovitz provided a box for Oates to stand on. He thought she was just shooting their upper regions. “I pulled back and shot the whole thing so you could see he was standing on the box,” Leibovitz says. “I went back to the magazine and said: ‘Look what I did. Let’s run the box.’ And it was very arrogant and very mean. I won’t do that again.”
Despite such rare bratty lapses, Leibovitz says that the very set-up shot can be “a form of truth telling.” She points to the ultraglam tableau she did of Liberace and his chauffeur-companion Scott Thorson, an outrageous study in rhinestone and fur. Some set-up work is pure camp, some thoughtful metaphor. But Leibovitz is quick to point out that she comes to all of it through reportage. Throughout her Rolling Stone tenure, she shot inside material as well as covers. Ultimately, something had to give.
“The pressure on the cover was higher than on the inside material,” Leibovitz says. “All the attention went to creating that photograph. And in a certain sense, the reportage material started to hurt.”
If those conceptual cover shoots got more rigorous for the talent, they also grew problematic for the shooter. Leibovitz says it almost required a separate persona. “When you’re doing the reportage work, you’re something of an animal,” she says. “You’re on all fours, and you’re hiding, crouching in corners. Then to turn around and ask something from someone the next day for a portrait—I remember that it was difficult.”
You have to get up and walk on your hind legs, command a different sort of respect. Direct things. As time and access shrank further, Leibovitz did less and less black-and-white reportage. What she did began to turn into research. “It was really like sketching for the formal portrait,” she says.
Leibovitz left Rolling Stone in 1983, partly, she says, to find a life outside that familiar rectangle with the logo on top. “It’s funny, I had to leave to be considered a photographer, not just a rock photographer,” she says. It rankled her because she had covered politics, film, sports, art. Like some tour-weary headbanger, she realized it was time to come in off the road.
“It probably wasn’t until I left that I eked out some sort of life,” Leibovitz says, smiling. “It was hard to leave. I didn’t really want to, but I had to find myself. I’d sort of been on assignment for thirteen years. I knew how to work. I didn’t know how to do anything else.”
Cockatiels are squawking as Michael Jackson leads photographer Bonnie Schiffman into the bedroom of his Encino, California, mansion. He is about to release ‘Thriller,’ and today he’s agreed, reluctantly, to sit for the Rolling Stone cover.
Schiffman peers into the green-carpeted bedroom. There is nothing, not a stick of furniture—just a sheet and a pillow in the middle of the floor, a large snake cage containing Jackson’s boa, Muscles, and on the wall, a pair of photographs: Ella Fitzgerald and Diana Ross. It’s shocking, this monkish cell of a superstar on the cusp, and perfect for the environmental portrait that Schiffman prefers.
“Can we do the pictures in here?”
“Fine,” Jackson says as he leads Schiffman through the rest of the house. Posing in the bedroom is fine. He’s fine. Yep. He goes off to dress. Nearly an hour passes, and the man that comes back is fairly trembling with anxiety, so sensitized he will not even allow the makeup artist to use her brushes. She gingerly daubs at him with her fingers. A manager whispers that the shoot is off. Mike’s not into it.
“With his birds?” Schiffman counters.
“With the birds, Mike?” The manager is into it now. “Okay, Bonnie, with the birds on his shoulder. One roll. Boom-boom?”
“The whole thing lasted about three minutes,” says Schiffman. The portrait that did get used is, she thinks, “probably one of the few that Jackson doesn’t own the rights to.” Mikey has wised up considerably since then, buying up old photos of himself, controlling all new ones. But back then, in 1982, he was almost as naive as the aspiring singer-dancer who was getting noticed by tucking crucifixes in her cleavage.
Madonna learned quickly that one hot picture is worth 1000 minutes of airplay. But she says she hadn’t a clue when she shipped out on her first PR tour to London. “They stuck me in a hotel room and made me do one interview after another,” she says. “And then the next day I’d go into a studio and just take thousands of pictures. I was sitting there going, ‘What does this have to do with what I’m doing?’ Then a couple of weeks went by, and my picture was in every magazine. Suddenly it was like ‘Oh, I get it. This is how you make people aware of you.’ I understood the value of it in terms of marketing.”
Soon Madonna had the newest and the best shooters in the East and West: Matthew Rolston and Herb Ritts in L.A.; Steven Meisel in New York. All three had made their marks with fashion work. And they all say they appreciated her unprecedented input. It didn’t take her long to shuck the torn leggings for silk stockings. Madonna’s visual transformation into the forty-carat Material Girl meshed well with a wave sweeping some photo ateliers, a return to glamour, a la Kriegsmann. And Hollywood’s legendary George Hurrell.
Matthew Rolston was born in L.A. to a woman who showed him French Vogue instead of Winnie-the-Pooh. He says he’s always had an appreciation for the old-style glamour. He collects and studies vintage Hollywood photos. And even now he talks dreamily of a trip to James Kriegsmann’s old studio: “French Regency touches and crystal chandeliers, a curving staircase … a lounge with a cocktail bar and wrought-iron gates … It must have been a pretty elegant experience.”
Rolston is sitting in his own studio, an unprepossessing room and a half behind an unmarked storefront on Melrose Avenue. He had it customized to act as a light box. Functional, monochromatic. Home to the stars. Ask him just when glamour came flooding back and he puts it square at the outset of Reagan’s second term.
“I’ll tell you exactly when it picked up,” Rolston says. “In ’84, the Olympics. That’s when the Eighties kicked in, in L.A., and glamour really came back. They got George Hurrell to come back and shoot again. And I came along, and Herb [Ritts]. It was the Me Generation and the old master coming back to glamour at the same time.”
It was Rolston who took the look to its limits, using what he calls Hurrellisms. He did a series for Interview magazine called the Bad and the Beautiful “I think it was the first time anybody my age had revived the Hollywood look,” Rolston says. “We built major sets, it was huge, like five hairdressers, five makeup artists, tons of wardrobe people. I shot everything eight by ten. It was really like being in the Forties or something.”
Some of Rolston’s Hurrell hommages are almost carbon copies: Madonna staring at her own reflection in a dressing-room mirror, holding a cigarette with all the icy attitude of Hurrell’s Thirties Dietrich. He rigged up a circus set for the Material Girl, posed her, head cocked, chin on hands like the young Judy Garland in an MGM publicity shot. He photographed Michael Jackson with a crown and throne—with Kriegsmannesque Greek columns. Cyndi Lauper posed naked, save for pearls and chains, with a silent-screen elegance more far-out than any Kool-Aid-colored hairdo she’d dreamed up in the past.
Herb Ritts, too, has used that kitsch with a twist on Madonna. He posed her in bed, the classic starlet-rumpled-sheet pose. The background is Tara in the morning, all padded headboard and watered-silk wallpaper. It’s lovely, except that her eyes are rolling up, and she’s wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
This retro glam was an Eighties equivalent of those American-buffalo hommages two decades earlier. Anchoring rock personae to American iconography—be it Annie Oakley or Jean Harlow—is one juicy juxtaposition. The old gets some glancing respect, and the new gets cultural context. It’s the same canny notion that has Paula Abdul dancing a deux with Gene Kelly in those diet Coke ads. Rolston says he used it again recently, directing En Vogue’s video for “My Lovin’ (You’re Never Gonna Get It).” He put them in the sequined confections of a Sixties girl group while they mouthed tough postfeminist sass. “People get it,” Rolston says. “They enjoy those visual layers. It really has some punch.”
Macho glamour was more subtle, but it, too, saw a revival in the Eighties. Bodies counted big. And the theme was Heroic. E.J. Camp’s rockers-at-play series for Rolling Stone was glistening with sweat and swagger: Sammy Hagar triple-timing a punching bag, Chris Isaak in a Rodin pose with his surfboard, Stewart Copeland on a fiery charger—his polo pony. At his instigation Annie Leibovitz photographed Sting naked and mud daubed, a living sculpture against a barren desert lake bed. Herb Ritts’s David Bowie is James Dean by way of Soho, leather jacket open over a bare chest, jeans tucked into cowboy boots, a dangling ciggie—and an ashtray. It’s wry accessorizing for the swami of suave.
Just how mythic the mood gets is a function of personality. Bowie you can stylize, says Herb Ritts. Not so the Boss. “Springsteen would rather just be recorded being what he is,” says Ritts. “It’s harder for me to get something, but it’s his style. Bowie knows the difference. He’s got an eye. When you’re with him, you know that he has a creative sense of what he’s doing. In some ways, he gives himself up to you.”
Certainly the foremost purveyor of masculine appeal in the Eighties was Bruce Weber. His work is inevitably described as “vaguely homoerotic” for its worshipful, my-essence-in-a-bead-of-sweat perspective on male beauty. Before he began making his mark in the late Seventies, editorial and commercial photographs glorified the female form but were not known for eroticizing the male image. That changed with Weber’s fashion ads for Calvin Klein, all to-die-for bodies bulging manfully from briefs and undershirts. Retailers and a legion of grateful women loved Weber; Moral Majority types damned him. Rockers sat still and let Weber’s lens get up close and real personal.
Weber shot Ziggy Marley, pearlized with water in a wet undershirt, came in tight on Springsteen’s neck, bare chest and that bitable lower lip. Weber’s black-and-white work telegraphs an idealized kind of sex compared with the crotch-grabbing Seventies brand. But Weber thinks that suggesting sexual fantasy is nothing less than a public service—one his commercial clients line up for, despite the $20,000 day rate.
“Right now is a difficult time,” Weber says. “Emotionally and sexually, there’s an enormous amount of repression and bigotry. We have got to have a little bit of a fantasy world in our photographs—sexuality or emotionalism—something that has an edge to it. We can’t have a lot in our daily life, because it’s life threatening now.”
Rockers get it. They’re predisposed toward fantasy. Photographing musicians is “like photographing a child,” says Weber. “Sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes it’s a breeze. When you are photographing an actor or actress, it’s difficult for them because they’re so used to being a character. Not themselves. Musicians love being themselves—and they love being other people.”
Pushing the limits, erotic or dramatic, goes with the strobe-lit turf. “I think it’s as necessary in photography as it is in music.” Weber says. “That sense of rebellion is in all of us. And I think for us to push it back is a denial of ourselves.”
Just as the Seventies saw acts unsuited to classic good treatment, the Eighties produced musicians who recoiled at the thought of glycerin spray.
“Current rock & rollers—not the vintage guys—have got a rebellious stance,” Rolston says. “So they are not buying into a sort of glamour. They are creating antiglamour glamour. Like Guns n’ Roses. Or the earlier stuff done by U2. That look is really simple, pared down. And I think it fits better with rock & roll.”
And rap. You don’t want to frou-frou a homeboy. The same holds for metal. You really don’t want to see Queensryche or Megadeth in Speedos and sweat.
Adds Rolston: “I mean, there are those guys with the hair and smoke, you know.” And guys with a message and no time to shop. Before Bono went Vegas, U2’s look was decidedly antiglamour in the traditional sense. Anton Corbijn’s stark, moody black-and-white work was the best foil for the lambent sounds of The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. With the notable exception of Hammer’s visual extravaganzas, rappers kept it simple as well. The clothes were off the rack, the poses straight on. In stills and in videos, the environmental portrait saw a resurgence as Public Enemy and Tone-Loc took it back to the streets.
As the music moved, so did the shooters. It wasn’t long before many still photographers began to experiment with live action. David Bailey and Norman Seeff turned to commercials; rock videos and films were made by Moshe Brakha, Anton Corbijn, Matt Mahurin, Herb Ritts, Matthew Rolston and Ethan Russell. Bruce Weber directed several short films, including one about Fifties jazz dreamboat Chet Baker. Rolston actually went back to school to learn his craft. And he says he also took an important lesson from one of his better-known subjects.
“Here’s what I learned from Michael Jackson,” Rolston says. “Michael will always ask everybody questions, questions that sound very naive. It was his form of research. And he was as curious about why this wardrobe person was using a certain kind of Scotch tape on the hem of the trouser to whatever light or lens or where I put the camera. It was like ‘Why does the snow fall, Daddy?’ And that was a very intelligent thing to do. I started doing it, too, on commercials.”
Herb Ritts says he had no idea what to do when Madonna talked him into directing a music video for her. To practice, he took a little Super 8 camera on a shoot in Hawaii. And then he went to work, clomping around in scuba gear to shoot those Catch-o’-the-Sea mermen in Madonna’s “Cherish” video. Ritts has gone on to direct both Janet Jackson and Michael Jackson in their videos. Madonna moved on to another photographer and the kind of tour documentary Mick Jagger and Keith Richards could only giggle about. In Truth or Dare, the beverage of choice is Evian, the sex autoerotic.
Cuckolded by the ever-present camera, Madonna’s then-beau Warren Beatty explodes onscreen at his petulant diva: “She doesn’t want to be seen off camera, much less talk. What would you say if it’s off camera? What point is there in existing?”
The Rolling Stone cover shoot, Melbourne, Australia, 1992. The hot band: Nirvana. The day before, photographer Mark Seliger pleaded with the boys: “Wear what you want, but please—it’s a cover with type on it. So try not to wear T-shirts with any writing on them.” The day of the session, singer Kurt Cobain shows up with a grin and a message custom screened on his T-shirt: Corporate Magazines Still Suck.
Seliger is furious; they’ll go nuts in New York. They’ll never run the shot. But Cobain won’t take off the shirt. Jeez what a pain in the butt …
The shot made the cover, the boys baleful beneath their Cousin Itt coifs, the T-shirt snarling below that now-venerable logo.
“Thank God I didn’t wrestle with him,” says Seliger. In hindsight, he was grateful to Cobain for his eat-my-shorts insouciance. After all, these boys specialize in tweaking the media bourgeoisie with their convenience-store je ne sais quoi. And usually, Seliger isn’t one to back off, either; he’s known for his antic conceptual shots: the B-52’s standing on the moon, Ice-T wearing a Los Angeles cop uniform and brandishing a nightstick.
“It was the best solution possible,” says Seliger of the Nirvana dust-up, “because that’s what they’re all about.”
It’s also the logical progression from Keith Moon’s groupie set-up shot of yore. Moon was a merry trickster, at play in the intoxicating fields of f-stop celebrity. These Nirvanettes are serious, sound-bite-savvy dudes of the times. The Nineties are all about control, thinking everything through. It’s a time when stars are demanding quote and photo approval and up and comers are learning the finer points of marketing and public relations along with their chops. Veteran photographers will tell you that it’s tough to click off a “natural” look when the framing begins at a conference table.
“You can’t do what Dennis Stock did years ago,” says Bruce Weber. “Like ‘I’m going to Indiana with James Dean’ and spend four days with him and his family at his big homecoming. Sitting out in the field with the pigs, playing bongos for them. I don’t think that happens anymore.”
These days, the family wants releases, and the pigs have reps, too. There might be a stylist rearranging the straw. This is not to say there’s no honest photography done today. It’s just that the opportunities are far fewer than when Elvis ruffled a date’s Final Net do for Wertheimer’s lens. Tour coverage? Axl Rose would hardly suffer a behind-the-scenes photographer when his tour hissy fits caused two riots worth a cool half-million in damages.
And while magazines and publicists duke it out, while record executives prune PR budgets, the beat goes on in the studio, on location. When it’s working, star and shooter are doing the ultimate tango.
For the last ten years nobody has done it better than Madonna. An informal poll of many of the photographers interviewed for this issue showed that she’s the one even grizzled vets want a go at. How does she choose from all these willing suitors? Much of it has to do with where she is in her life. “I went out West when I got married and got into the whole Herb Ritts thing,” she says. “I think of Herb as a very California photographer, very West Coast. Herb’s about natural light. He does so much stuff on the beach, he takes very gentle, sort of pretty pictures.”
It was a different, post-Penn, post-Beatty woman who returned to her Central Park West lair, to Truth or Dare, to her new photo book of erotica, Sex. Her landscape was boxed in, the edges keener. The light was courtesy of Consolidated Edison. The photographer of record, Steven Meisel.
“Steven is very East Coast, much more of a studio photographer,” Madonna says. “He creates the mood instead of going to a place and dealing with whatever we find.”
Control. It was mighty appealing. So was the man himself. Meisel looks much the stuff of his own work. A well-known Leibovitz portrait of the photographer shows him wearing a rabbit trapper’s hat over a handsome face, shoulder-length hair blown back into the dark fur. It looks like he just glided in from the steppes, via the Rue Cambon.
Madonna met up with him at—of all places—a Herb Ritts party in L.A. They had worked together years before, and Madonna says she “missed him as a person.” She says she knows she’s found a soul mate in this beautiful oddball: “I know that people look at me like I’m a freak a lot of times,” she says. “Some strange thing, and that I’m dehumanized in a certain way. I know Steven feels that way, too.”
The celeb and the star shooter can offer each other comfort on that klieg-lit perch. Lately, celebrity photographers are becoming as hunted as their subjects, photographed in their company, burbled about in the tabs. One TV ad even features a working photographer wearing a calico bandanna on his head, a longtime Bruce Weber trademark.
Sometimes, when Meisel’s name is in the paper too much, when he himself is blinded by the paparazzi heat lightning and his mother seems to know his every move just by reading the columns, Madonna has had to slap him around over the phone.
Hello, Steven, hello? Learn to live with it, babe. That’s what you.