Greil Marcus, one of the most influential living music and cultural critics, has written a multitude of books — notably 1975's Mystery Train and 2006's The Shape of Things to Come — examining everyone from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan to Bill Pullman through the concept of what it means to be quintessentially American. Reading his latest efforts, the monthly column "Real Life Rock Top Ten" in the literary magazine The Believer, feels like an exercise in voyeurism. This week he's giving a lecture to accompany the opening of "Backstage Pass," a survey of 50 years of rock and roll photography at the Portland Museum of Art. (The lecture will also be available as an mp3 download next week at thephoenix.com.) I invited Marcus to school me on the history of rock photography.
As a jumping-off point, I'm mainly curious about what you're planning to discuss at the upcoming museum lecture.
I'm not sure, as I haven't written my talk yet. I'll be going through all the work in the exhibition and taking about how artists (in this case pop musicians) work to fit into images, or roles defined visually, that are already there, and how they try to evade them. I'll be talking about different ways photographers attempt to capture their subjects — or define them — in terms of how Rolling Stone approached this in its first years, when it was the first publication, other than Life — and certainly the first music publication — to use photographs not merely as illustration but as art on its own terms, often using a single photograph, as often as not of someone not at all well-known, an obscure blues singer as well as Jim Morrison, to fill an entire page, and at that time Rolling Stone pages were very big. I'll also be talking about an aspect not much covered here (as per the title of the show, "Backstage Passes"): live performance, especially as documented in work done in the Mabuhay Gardens punk club in San Francisco in the late '70s by Bruce Conner. But of course a good part of my talk will be looking as hard as I can at pictures in the show. I mean, really, who is that person where the caption says it's Chuck Berry?
It's interesting, looking at these pictures now, how much information you can glean from most of them — when they were taken, at what stage these musicians were in their career — even for a young guy like me, whose classic pop/rock education is pretty weak. Was there a sense that these photos (this can even just mean rock photography in general, in the early Rolling Stone days) would have that kind of lasting time stamp when they were originally shot?
I think that for many photographers working from the mid-sixties on, there definitely was that sense of making a picture that would — or anyway should — last. At Rolling Stone in the late sixties, for example, the people there felt that what they were doing was important — that there was no story more important than the story of the music that was being made, that that story could not be separated by the story of resistance to or the fight against racism and war, and so it was vital to find the images that would do justice to the gravity of the subject matter. In other words, 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 the 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.
How that sense of gravity has continued, or disappeared, is another question. As early as 1975, in a vast photo-essay called "The End of Rock" — a series of pictures of stadiums where the Rolling Stones played on their US tour of that year — Annie Liebovitz said "this medium" — rock and roll — "is no longer the medium for our message." That sense of malaise was real — but within two years, with the Sex Pistols, there was another story to tell: that of people who insisted both on their own ephemerality and their historical role. And catching that with a camera was an altogether new challenge.