THE SHOW IS APPARENTLY full of work by well-known photographers
like Jim Marshall (he of the famous Jimi-Hendrix-setting-his-guitar-on-fire
at Monterey Pop photo, and more), and images of people like the Beatles,
Dylan, Stones, Elvis, KISS, the Who, as well as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard,
Lyle Lovett and Dolly Parton. (I did say the show was happening
in Texas, didn't I?) My two framed shots are in undeniably good company.
I have plenty of file photos of rock stars, including portraits of John
Cale, Tony Bennett, Jewel, Tori Amos, Alice Cooper, Metallica, Patti Smith,
Björk, etc. I could have sent any of those.
But I would have felt like a dork.
I'm not saying that the photographers who sent in shot
of big stars are dorks. Far from it -- most of the subjects are icons,
symbols of moments in a shared cultural history, and some of the images
are icons all by themselves. I haven't shot anything near that important
-- most of my music work was done for magazines, basically just illustrative
space-filler for middling profiles (sometimes written by me) -- little
more than a disposable marketing tool. I have more passion invested in
the last batch of chicken stock I made than in any of these photos.
Never mind that spending most of my twenties (and part
of my thirties) working as a rock (and jazz) critic, pretty much drained
my once red-hot enthusiasm for music. I won't go into the decade I spent
shooting live music on assignment -- that's pretty much covered in my online rant. And it's not that I don't value my work as a photographer -- I'm inordinately fond of a good chunk of my work. It's just that little of it involves portraits of famous people, or even involves any people at all.
I hate celebrity. I guess it just comes down to that.
Like anyone who grew up in a culture that worships celebrity -- the temporary,
secular deities that we adore and then abandon with little regret, then
rediscover and venerate with cultlike fervor -- I once defined myself in
relation to the famous, and described myself as a "celebrity
portraitist". It was what I did -- shooting the famous, nearly famous,
or almost famous for whomever paid me, or even on my own dollar, if I could
get "access" to one of my own deities. Tony Bennett was one of those, and
Cale. Frank Sinatra was always on my list, but the one time I tried to
shoot him, live, from the back of the Skydome, my rented camera malfunctioned.
I took it as a sign.
It didn't take long for the sense of awe to wear away.
One too many obstructive, starfucking publicists, perhaps, or the slow
realization that most of the people I was shooting were pretty ordinary,
some of them even quite repellent. But that isn't the whole story.
I was becoming more sure of myself, and my own talents.
I realized that I had as much to say as anyone I was shooting -- more,
in most cases -- and that my own vision of the world was unique and attractive,
without the enhancement of a famous subject. I started shooting still-lifes,
and landscapes, and realized that portraits I took of friends and strangers
could be as attractive as any celebrity work I did. I started to doubt
the relevance of celebrity, or its importance in my own life.
Most importantly, I stopped wanting to be a celebrity
So I started writing an online diary.
And yes, I know that sounds like a contradiction.
Basically, I think that either all of us are celebrities,
or none of us are. Take that to mean anything you want.
SO WHEN ALLISON asked me to send along a couple of photos
for the show, I thought about it for a minute and decided to pull out some
negatives I'd shot almost a decade ago, when I was getting sick of shooting
live rock, but still hanging out in "the scene".
I was friends with a local group who named themselves
after a Japanese kiddie-porn mag. They played a kind of industrial metal,
and had a great image, all leather and hair and tattoos. Onstage, they
weren't afraid of looking like gits, striking big, heroic rock god poses
and making each show a big production, complete with their own lighting
technician and smoke machines. In a city where the local scene could be
almost precious in their disdain of charisma or showmanship, they were
a breath of fresh air.
We made a deal: I would become their photographer, with
full access to their shows -- no great sacrifice for a band playing club
shows to a hundred people at most -- and they'd get use of what I shot.
No money changed hands, and the deal was that they couldn't tell me what
to do; I was free to do what I wanted. I would be in charge of their image.
All told, I think they got the better part of the deal.
I decided that the most creative thing I could do with
live music photography would be to go against the conventional wisdom.
Where it was considered necessary to use fast film and shutter speeds and
long lenses on 35mm cameras, I would use slow film and long shutter speeds
and portrait cameras like my Rolleiflex, with its fixed lens. I could never
have done this work in the pit at a big stadium show, yards away from the
subject, staring up their nostrils past looming stage monitors.
I loved the results. At the time, I was getting into the
painterly, soft-focus, turn-of-the-century "pictorialist" photography,
and the work of "photo-secessionists" like Alfred Stieglitz, early Edward
Steichen, and their more obscure contemporaries, like Alvin Langdon Coburn,
Gertrude Kasebier and Clarence White. With the aid of soft filters and
tissue paper, in addition to the band's strobe lights and smoke machine,
I made these swirling, dense shots of hair and guitars and over-the-top
rock warrior poses. It was real "Hammer of the Gods" stuff and both the
band and I loved the results. I took my work with me to different art directors, here and in New York, at magazines and record companies.
To massive, thundering indifference. No one, it seemed,
was much interested in what I considered my best work at the time. It was
a real blow. Not long after, the band sold their name to another Canadian
band, a dull alt-rock outfit from out west who'd gotten a record deal,
and who probably didn't know where my friends got their name from. They
disappeared after two albums -- typical for Canadian bands on major labels.
My friends changed their name to "Love Bomber", used the
money from the sale of their name to buy new gear and pay for a demo, went
techno then quietly broke up. I still see them on the street from time
to time. We don't have much to say.
I put the photos away in a box, pulling them out only
to show other photographers, until Allison e-mailed me a week or two before
I got married. It was nice to go down into the darkroom and work on the
shots, using all of the skill I'd learned in the intervening decade. I
was proud of the results, and sent then along to Texas with pride.
Nobody will buy them, I'm sure, even at the low, low price
of US$400, framed. After all, who in the hell is Pure, and why would anyone
buy a photo of a band that they've never heard of? I'd like to think that
someone will appreciate the photos for their sense of mystery, that gauzy
mock-threat I spent so much time trying to enhance, and which seems part
of the appeal of rock and roll to me. But I'm probably wrong, and in about
a month or so I'll probably have another couple of pictures to hang on
my wall, ready to join the other unsold work I've sent out into the world
over the years.
At least I like it.