Madonna, The Beatles and Elvis were three of the first pictures I saw on entering the “Who Shot Rock and Roll” exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. That they opened with such rock royalty seemed to say that we’d be dealing with the big names and their most iconic images in this exhibit. I was ready for a tour through the famous album covers, most memorable magazine shoots and famous tour photos that convey “rock and roll.” While in many ways I was right, the exhibit both presented but also enriched the most famous images associated with rock’s biggest names.
Promoted as “the first major museum exhibition on rock and roll to put photographers in the foreground,” the exhibit focuses on those who helped craft the look of rock, including Rolling Stone’s Annie Liebowitz, NME’s Pennie Smith, Anton Corbijn and Dave LaChapelle, with other names large and small mixed in. The images are categorized under several broad topics, such as “portraits” or live performances, rather than chronologically. This strengthened my sense of the universal emotions that this music taps into—sexual yearnings, rebellion, cool aloofness—and the parallels between the artists regardless of era or style, whether The Beatles and U2, Led Zeppelin and Henry Rollins or Elvis and Amy Winehouse.
While the exhibit presents some of the most familiar images in rock and roll iconography, it manages to reframe many of them in a way that appeared fresh. For the photos that were eventually used as album covers, the curator, Gail Buckland, has showcased the uncropped images without text, so we see more of the Greenwich Village buildings from Bob Dylan’s walk for “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” and a fuller focus on the live setting as The Clash’s Paul Simonon wields his guitar on what would become the cover of “London Calling.” The finalized album art does appear in the exhibit as well though—below the original photo, hidden under a flap to allow for a sometimes-surprising jolt of recognition (“Oh! That’s where I’ve seen this”).
Even better was the jolt of seeing familiar artists in unfamiliar contexts. Jimi Hendrix in tux and bowtie backing up Wilson Pickett, or Mick Jagger’s deflated posture as he leaves a stage full of audience members’ shoes in Lynn Goldsmith’s photo of an Anaheim, Calif. concert, tweaked the conventional perception of them.
In the same way, some over-familiar pictures seen on dorm room walls and T-shirts were enriched thanks to the addition of other photos taken in the same shoot and the stories behind the photographer’s choices. Seeing the full series of photos taken of John Lennon in his I Heart NY T-shirt made me wonder why only the one has stuck. Seeing a series of images of young Elvis just reminded me why he was such a pimp. The exhibit showcased works on where acts that were perhaps not on the same legendary level as the big names, but the images that accompanied them were as famous as anything in the room, a reminder of how intertwined the music and imagery is in rock and roll.
My favorite shot may have been Barry Feinstein’s picture of Bob Dylan at a press conference. Dylan looks frozen faced and mysterious holding a dummy in his hand as the crowd of cameras point at him (apparently during the conference Dylan had the dummy whisper in his ear before answering any questions himself). The photo captured the playful sensibility that’s associated with Dylan, but also said more about celebrity, musicianship and the media, which even his music would not be able to quite capture. In its best moments, this exhibit did the same.