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Greil Marcus on rock photography

February 15, 2009 | 11:38 am


Whether you consider Greil Marcus a rock critic who has a knack for cultural criticism or a cultural critic who thinks a lot about rock 'n' roll, it's hard to think of his books "Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century" (1989) and "Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock and Roll" (1975) as anything short of iconic. Which is probably why the Portland Museum of Art in Maine asked him to give a talk last month to celebrate the opening of its exhibit "Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography."

The Phoenix talked to Greil Marcus as he was still thinking about his speech. At first, he said, rock photography was about capturing a single powerful image.

When Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone's first chief photographer, had the chance to shoot Johnny Cash or B.B. King or Phil Spector, the point was to get the shot, the one picture that would capture both the essence of the person and also fix his or her place in the firmament, by picturing his or her aura or by creating it. The pictures that resulted were pictures of self-possession, of command, of thoughtfulness, of reserve — not abandon, excess, wildness. They were pictures of people who, the pictures said, already knew that they had historical roles to play.

While some critics consider punk as having an authenticity that the '60s had lost, Marcus sees what happened with the intersection of punk music and photography as a snowballing artifice.

Early punk performance in the U.K., L.A. and San Francisco especially was extreme, unpredictable and sometimes aggressively or accidentally violent. People tried to capture that on film or even provoke or demand extreme physical action to document it — and performers and especially audiences tried to live up to what photographers wanted and, more to the point, what they felt was expected or demanded of them. Finding real moments in such situations — and documenting them — was not easy.

Photography must be as subjective as any other documentary form, but Marcus notes an interesting tension between rock photography and its subject.

Ultimately, photographs, which are presumed to record reality, work through silence and mystery, and the silence is part of the mystery, and the mystery is part of the silence.

The "Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography" exhibit is in Portland until March 22. Greil Marcus' new writing can be found in his regular column "Real Life Top 10" in The Believer magazine.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo credits: Jim Morrison: Associated Press. Bob Dylan:  AP Photo/Sony BMG, William Claxton.