“Crowd with body surfers during Mudhoney’s set at the KNDD Endfest, Kitsap County, Washington, 1991″ ::: Photo by Charles Peterson, courtesy of EMP
Slowly moving from photo to photo in the Experience Music Project’s new Taking Aim photography exhibition curated by Graham Nash, I’m struck by the weight of achievement and history represented in the room. Musician and band names that I’ve known and loved for decades, and photographer names who I’ve come to idolize only recently as I myself have become an active live music photographer. For me the 98 photographs Nash has chosen aren’t simply great photographs, but famous photographs; photographs included in rock photography books I’ve been poring over for years now. Photo’s that capture revealing moments for artists like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Neil Young, musicians who are all well represented in this exhibition. Images that were defining for movements like Hip Hop, Grunge, and Punk. Images you’ve seen used in books, on album covers, on magazine Covers, on college posters, and t-shirts. Seeing them large and up close instead of on a tiny computer screen or magazine page, one can almost taste the air of the moment and feel the intensity of the interaction.
Above the door to Sound on the Sound HQ sits a poster of the famous psychedelic Beatles portraits by famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon, a set of four head shots, one of each of the Beatles, where each had been color modified to more closely match his aura. Seeing the individual portraits larger than life-size and with the color exactly as Avedon intended put’s the portraits in a whole new light. Each portrait is so large you can see the detail of the Beatles faces, and the colors pop. I can find no other word for the light blue of Paul McCartney’s portrait than ‘delicate.’ The red and yellow in John Lennon are far hotter than I remembered from any poster or print I’ve seen. Each of the Beatles pictures included in the exhibition have their own special energy, and Annie Liebovitz’ equally famous portrait of a naked Lennon and spooning Yoko Ono, taken just hours before Lennon was gunned down, stands with the Avedon portraits as two of the most notable and moving choices for the show.
Sub Pop photographer Charles Peterson was in many ways the house photographer for the Seattle-homed “grunge” movement, and is one of my inspirations. His photos were a large part of attracting me into the endeavor of waiting it out in the front row night after night and to always being ready for a crowd surfer or two (see one of his pictures above). He relayed a new spirit of rock n’ roll as it was being portrayed by a bunch of guys who were permanently displaying a middle finger to the world. Among the photo’s featured is one of the black and white frames from the set Peterson took of Nirvana destroying the stage at Raji’s in Hollywood. This photo and many of his others are the closest thing I have to a template. I’m looking to capture a moment and photo like this to define each band I love in the same manner. When the band’s we’re talking about look not just good but like compelling performers, the Seattle music scene as a whole looks good and as compelling as we know it to be.
Ironically the photo that stuck with me the most wasn’t a fiery and colorful live Lynn Goldsmith shot, or a classic Bob Dylan portrait via Jim Marshall. It was a black & white self-portrait taken by Graham Nash of himself in a mirror, or actually two mirrors. A shaving mirror is the focus, though Nash clearly hasn’t shaved or had a haircut for sometime. In the published book accompanying the exhibition, Nash admitted to leaving this photo one out of his original choices, and having to be convinced to include it. I’m glad he did include it, because for me, even in the context of all these other great photos, it’s the portrait choice in the show that feels like not simply a great rock photo, but feels like a significant American photo from the 20th Century. One could ponder for ages what’s behind those eyes…
For any lover of popular music, and particularly music from the last half of the 20th century, this exhibition offer’s the one degree of separation almost every fan is searching for. This is the opportunity to look into the sometimes larger than life eyes of many of rock n’ roll’s legends. It’s a chance to stand with the Beatles in center of Shea Stadium and see the excitement on their faces as they march to the stage. Most of all it offers an intimate look into the lives of artists like Neil Young, Johnny Cash, and Graham Nash himself, providing a window into their creativity and life that can’t be replicated otherwise.
Taking Aim is open now through May 23rd at the EMP|SFM at Seattle Center. “Admission to EMP|SFM is $15 for adults and $12 for seniors, youth and students and military personnel with ID. Children under 5 are free. EMP|SFM is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., seven days a week.”