Capturing IdolsWho Shot Rock & Roll explores the artists behind the photos

Here in the good old red-blooded U.S. of A, we love our pop gods, our rock and roll celebrities.  In fact, in recent days, we like to eat them alive in a steady diet of reality crap and paparazzi offal.  Most of modern celebrity culture is a poorly produced mess of cheap consumerism and will not withstand the erosion from decades of eventual indifference. However, people still have the need to turn musicians into idols, to connect themselves, however tenuously, to something greater and more vital than their own weary existences, to believe that the music with which they build the soundtracks of their lives is somehow personally connected to them. In the days before everyone had a digital camera and an interactive library in their pocket, establishing this connection was not as easy, but it was a purer form of idolatry. You had the albums, you had the posters and, on a rare, golden day, you could stand before your idols in a mass of bodies as they communed with you directly. Those poster images became the embodiment of all your own hopes and dreams, held in glossy repose and stapled above your headboard.

The problem is, photos don’t take themselves.  For each indelible image that made it to a teenager’s wall, there was a photographer who had to navigate his or her way into a position to capture that moment, and then have the wherewithal to click the shutter. Given how difficult it can be to get next to rock-stars, this can be no easy task, especially since many rock shows have very difficult lighting conditions. What’s sad is that you, dear reader, would probably be hard pressed to name even one of the photographers who took any of the iconic images you grew up with. I know it was hard for me, and if I’m wrong about you, then congratulations. For the rest of us, there is finally a solution.

Beginning June 24, the Birmingham Museum of Art, in cooperation with the Brooklyn Museum and exhibit curator Gail Buckland, is hosting Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955-Present, perhaps the first major museum exhibit to put rock photographers up front and explore their role in the evolution of rock and roll as a movement.

The exhibit is in six sections: rare and behind the scenes imagery; shots of young musicians before they became superstars; live performance imagery; crowd and fan photography; portraiture focusing on the inner creative life; and album art and concept imagery. The project began when curator Gail Buckland, who has written and collaborated on 11 books of photographic history, had the impulse to delve into the origins of her own rock and roll touchstones. To collect the images, Buckland searched through the archives of 100 rock photographers for images that were truly compelling, even if they had not been made famous previously. Then the Brooklyn Museum got involved, and the book became a travelling exhibit, bringing the gospel of excellent rock photography to the unwashed masses (by which I mean you and I, dear reader).

I recently had a chance to talk with the managing curator of BMA’s version of the exhibit, Ron Platt, and asked him if he thought people would come for the photographers or for the rock stars. “The reason there’s an exhibition at all is because it’s an exploration of the subjects of these photographs, [who are] for the most part, well known and celebrated,” Platt says. “The people that took the pictures, their story is left out. So this [exhibit] is sort of a remedy to that, if you will. And it also looks at the relationship between the music and the images. I think for a lot of us they kind of go hand-in-hand. I guess I hope people leave with appreciation and understanding of some of the photographers.”

Platt also speaks to the quality of the imagery and its value as true artistic imagery.  “There have been a number of exhibitions on this subject over the years, and this is the first one that came along that to me had the integrity and intensity of the music at heart and where the quality of the photography was across the board excellent,” he says. “I think the subject is more popular than what [the BMA] has done in the past, but in terms of media . . . we just had another photography exhibition that was focusing on South Africa over the span of apartheid and this is very different, obviously, in tone, but in terms of media and quality of art it’s on par.”

Who Shot Rock & Roll will run through September 18, and there are a number of related events to be hosted around Birmingham in the following months. If you’re really raring to go, you can attend the member preview party on June 23 (free for members, $20 for everyone else), where you can get a sneak peak of the exhibit before it opens to the general public, as well as hear from the Gail Buckland herself while you snack on various refreshments.

On June 28, July 12 and August 23, the Museum’s regularly scheduled Artbreak lunch event will feature lectures from Ron Platt and some exhibit photographers. This summer’s Art on the Rocks events, the first of which has already happened, will also be tied into the exhibit, and if you have an exhibition ticket, on July 28 there will be an encore performance of Respect: A Tribute to the Queen of Soul by Red Mountain Theatre Company that you can attend for free.

When the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival rolls around in August, they will be partnering with the museum to show a series of the best rock documentaries you won’t find easily elsewhere, and will serve as a venue for the similarly timed second annual BAAM fest.

And now, for your enjoyment and edification, here are some of our favorite images from the exhibit. Enjoy!

Sam George is managing editor of Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to

Orig­i­nally printed in Birm­ing­ham Weekly on June 23, 2011.

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