An Endless Fascination

January 12th, 2010 § 0 comments

madonnaWho Shot Rock & Roll, on display through the 31st at the Brooklyn Museum, was surprisingly one of the best shows I saw in 2009. It was oddly underwhelming at the same time that it was deeply satisfying, in the same way that a chocolate covered strawberry never tastes as good as imagined, but in itself remains difficult to dislike. On the surface—despite the multitude of reviewers forced to discuss the deeper connections between rock & roll, celebrity and their constructed image, and the roll photography plays in mediating between the two—this show could be summed up as a crowd pleaser. While it is easy to roll our eyes at yet another Van Gogh or Dali exhibition, shows that appeal to our cultural understanding of “good art,” it is harder to make an argument against the type of images we simply can’t resist. Who Shot Rock & Roll goes deeper than this, however, not necessarily because the exhibition really is deeper, but because whatever the photographs lack the viewers make up for through the interest they bring to them.

gurskyIn hindsight, this show reminds me of the National Gallery’s The Art of the American Snapshot 2007 exhibition. That was a sophisticated and visually wonderful dissection of decades of anonymous snapshots, curated to show how thoughtful the unintentional image can be. Its appeal, much like Who Shot Rock & Roll and unlike most contemporary art, was deeply rooted in its audiences experience, understanding, and love for candid picture taking. While we might bring apprehension, cynicism, or just plain boredom to most contemporary art, viewers seem to be wary of intended confusion, we bring very different emotions to images depicting of our rock & roll heroes. Who Shot Rock & Roll, with images taken from the 1950’s to the present, is made up of thought-provoking depictions of a profession, its lifestyle, and an accompanying industry of celebrity. Rock & roll’s social influence and public perception radiates from these images, and collides with our own feelings and opinions. A small, black and white photograph showing giggling girls hiding in a doorway while waiting for Elvis to emerge, uncomfortably sums up how much we as viewers are implicated and included in this show. The photographers shown evoke startling differences of feeling toward their subjects, expressed through varying photographic styles and with differing intent. Avedon’s beautiful, almost reverent, portrait of The Beatles contrasts starkly with Gursky’s impersonal aerial survey of a swarming crowd at a Madonna concert.

richard avedon

The success of Who Shot Rock & Roll rests in its ability to resist showing viewers what they have already seen. The images that do stand out as familiar icons, a young Elvis or a quirky Dylan, in this instance only serve to remind us of what we think we already knew. The show stretches our notions of the rock musician’s myth of grandeur (or calamity) toward having greater consequences, or implications, than might be expected. The show is, after all, a self-proclaimed “photographic history,” and it comes across as just that—a history of images shot over the past 50 years through the eyes of rock and roll. As we voyeuristically enjoy the lives of the performers who shaped the face of popular culture and distorted the surface of music, we are simultaneously questioning the consequences of our own enthusiasm or resistance. Watching an outlandish Bowie in Life on Mars? or Grace Jones in Roll Up To My Bumper Baby, both so amazingly androgynous, raises questions about a gender bending decade and the performers who exemplified it. The eras, songs, performers, and fans are all examined through this show, one that appears to be little more than an orderly analysis of photographic interest. Gail Buckland, a photographic historian, author, curator, and professor at Cooper Union, curated this show so carefully that she rescued it from being pabulum. She knowingly selected the pieces of photographic and music history that could question, entertain, and capture the melding of two different media. Together they tell a pretty revealing story.

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