Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart christen 'Who Shot Rock & Roll' opening
They stare out from the frames like the moment was still alive and breathing, the best images at the "Who Shot Rock & Roll" show, which celebrated its opening at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Century City on Thursday night.
David Bowie circa early 1970s, in glorious starman costume and shot by Gloria Stevens, standing in front of an orange curtain in a hotel room, young and alien. Henry Rollins, Greg Ginn and the rest of Black Flag, caught by L.A. punk chronicler Ed Culver in 1980 causing a slam-dance frenzy during an early show. There was Janis Joplin in the late 60s, caught beautifully by Los Angeles chronicler Henry Diltz; and the four Ramones leaning against a brick wall, shot by Roberta Bayley and one of the great portraits in rock.
But one series of images was real: Ann and Nancy Wilson, founders of Heart, stepping onto a stage to perform a short set of classics while surprised and giddy fans watched wide-eyed in the crowd. The pair did songs to sing along to, including "Barracuda," "Dog & Butterfly," "Crazy on You," and "Even It Up." Touring in support of their all-encompassing new four-CD box set, "Strange Euphoria," the sisters, both playing acoustic guitars with a third musician adding more strum, brought sound to a show whose impact lies in photographers' abilities to represent sonics via a single, striking, silent moment.
At the media preview on Wednesday afternoon, a woman gazing at some of the photos spotted a friend -- who was sucking on Sly Stone's tongue -- in one shot from 40 years ago. "I went to high school with her!" she exclaimed, looking at Norman Seeff's great photo of Stone and then-wife Kathy Silva engaged in a kiss. "I wonder what she's up to now?" These intimate moments stretch throughout "Who Shot Rock & Roll."
The show opens Saturday at the Century City photo space, its West Coast premiere. Curated by Gail Buckland, it originally opened in 2009 at the Brooklyn Museum to high acclaim, and for good reason. Before smartphone cameras, Instagram and digital one-shots reduced -- if not eliminated -- the need for an outside chronicler of the musician's life, photographers such as those featured in the show were the messengers of image. (Note: The irony is not lost on this writer that the shot of Heart that accompanies this photo is a mediocre iPhone image taken not by a professional but by an obviously rank amateur.)
Spread throughout "Who Shot Rock" are photos from a time before musicians were so image-protective as to require photographers to sign away their rights to control of their photos before being allowed in the photo pit -- I'm looking at you, Lady Gaga and Kanye West -- from when a lone guy or girl with a camera could befriend a band, tour with them and become the visual portal through which the group displayed their attitude.
The best of these chroniclers served a vital role in codifying an artist's look and style. Before many people ever heard the music of the Sex Pistols or the Clash, they saw them silently via the classic shots of Bob Gruen and Pennie Smith. The former was a key chronicler of New York in the '70s, and shot a now classic image of Sid Vicious sneering at the camera, hot dog stuffed into his mouth, mustard on his face, wearing a pin that says, "I'm a mess." His work is one of the many highlights.
Or, in another type of astounding photo, there is Andreas Gursky's massive monument to the crowd at a Madonna concert, which consumes a wall and swirls with activity. You can see individual faces of the thousands, and within many of them is the look of joy that arrives when sound transforms the emotions of a room. Thankfully, professionals have always been there to capture these moments.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Heart at the Annenberg Space for Photography on Thursday night. Photo: Randall Roberts / Los Angeles Times