The History of Music Photography in Pictures – The Vinyl Factory

Retracing the rich, sometimes turbulent history of musicians and photographers.

John Berger, one of the most influential art critics of his generation, once wrote that “photography, because it arrests the course of life, always flirts with death”. Which makes it somewhat ironic that, since the inception of the camera, photography has contributed to both the birth and development of countless musicians and their surrounding scenes.

More than just a documentary device, the camera helped artists ascend into the realm of almost divine figures, with their scintillating images leaving a tangle of myth, desire and deception in their wake.

This dynamic has transformed over the years, impacted by changing ideas of authenticity, the disruption of traditional photographic practices by social media and camera phones, and the development of the music industry. -same. A new exhibition at the Pace Gallery in New York, titled From studio to stageseeks to unblock these discrepancies.

Peter Hujar, Rod Stewart on a dock, Memphis, 1971 © Peter Hujar / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The show ranges from the jazz scene of the 50s in New York to the leather punks of 70s Britain, to the hip-hop pioneers of the early 80s and on to today’s provocateurs like MIA and Chief Keef. By weaving an eclectic tapestry of genres, eras and artists, the exhibition questions the ways in which we wish to see and consume our musical icons.

Susan Sontag wrote that “to photograph people is to rape them”. The relationship between photographer and subject, according to her and others, is antagonistic, turning “people into objects that can be symbolically possessed”. There is definitely some truth in that. For fans, the photographs offer a way to feel closer to their idols: adorning their bedroom walls with posters and memorabilia, devoting hours to maintaining “stan” social media accounts.

However, many photographers have struggled to challenge the idea that photos merely objectify their subjects, aspiring instead to capture more authentic moments in their work.

Janette Beckman, Sade, (colour), New York, 1983 © Janette Beckman, courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery, Los Angeles and Pace Gallery, New York

For photographer Janette Beckman, building trust with her subjects is crucial to producing authentic portraits. For her, “each portrait is a collaboration between me and the subject”. Based not on possession but on mutual respect, his photos of Sade hanging out on New York’s Lower East Side, or Run DMC on the street where they lived, offer intimate glimpses into the world of musicians. Even now, she still eschews tools like Photoshop, saying her favorite way to photograph someone is to walk the streets of her neighborhood.

Janette Beckman, Run DMC and posse, Hollis, Queens, 1984 © Janette Beckman, courtesy Pace Gallery

The same goes for Kevin Cummins’ photos of Ian Curtis and David Bowie — the ceremonial armor of Bowie’s costumes and makeup discarded — or Peter Hujar’s photo of Rod Stewart having fun on a dock. These images reveal the ability of the camera to bring out the vulnerability of an artist, painting him, simply, as people. Interesting people, often extraordinary, but people nonetheless.

Today, that level of intimacy may seem rare. High-production studio shoots have become the norm for major music magazines, with hyper-stylized imagery often approaching fashion editorials. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: photographers and editors are becoming more innovative and daring in their image creation, emboldened by many stars’ willingness to experiment with aesthetics.

Kevin Cummins, Ian Curtis of Joy Division at TJ Davidson’s rehearsal room in Manchester, England, 19 August 1979 © Kevin Cummins, Courtesy Pace Gallery

However, in Beckman’s eyes, the corporatization of the music industry has made it much more difficult to establish genuine connections between photographer and subject. “Most of the shoots were just me and the artist, no art directors, stylists, managers or PR people. It was easy to build trust and work with [them] to create the portraits,” she recalls. “Today, it’s more complicated; there are usually more “cooks in the kitchen”.

It is not uncommon in the modern era for artists to demand strict control over their own image. In 2013, for example, Beyoncé banned press photographers from her Ms. Carter world tour, in an apparent backlash to a series of “unflattering” photos from his Super Bowl performance that year. The power dynamic seems to have changed.

But in getting the ‘perfect’ image – which usually translates to well-lit and posed – there’s a risk of losing the kinetic brutality seen in Cummins’ image of the Sex Pistols at Wolverhampton’s Club Lafayette, or the sleazy hedonism dispatches from Nick Waplington of The Sound Factory in New York.

Nick Waplington, Untitled from The Sound Factory series, New York, 1989-93 © Nick Waplington, courtesy Pace Gallery

As music photography practices have evolved, many musicians have become their own surveyors. Once subject – for better or for worse – to the gaze of the photographer, they are now able to fulfill the otherwise dissonant roles of photographer and subject simultaneously.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have helped accelerate this trend. Charli XCX shot a self-portrait for the cover of her 2020 album How I’m Feeling Now, laid back in her underwear in the intimate setting of her bed; Reggaetonero Bad Bunny, meanwhile, was photographed by his girlfriend Gabriela Berlingeri for the cover of Rolling Stone, with his mask literally ripped off.

Charli XCX how i feel now

The desire for these “intimate” images is perhaps explained by art critic Fisun Guner’s theory that “for many, the artist is an exotic creature whose mystery has yet to be unraveled”. When we look at the seemingly vulnerable and exposed forms of our idols, we can feel like we really know them.

Smartphones and social media have made musicians more photographed than ever. Janette Beckman sees this as a positive thing for photographers, who now have the ability to instantly share their work with people around the world. But for musicians, this can represent an additional constraint.

In a test for The Guardian highlighting the current trend of record labels demanding TikTok content from their artists, English singer-songwriter Self Esteem wrote: “It might seem quite demeaning – not to mention psychologically dangerous – to tie your only chance of success to your ability to play the kind of personality that plays well online, and not to your job.”

Rahim Fortune, Erykah Badu, 2020 © Sasha Wolf Projects and Rahim Fortune, courtesy Pace Gallery

Arguably, the “highlighted” nature of social media has eroded authenticity. Exposed to so much stare, artists (understandably) become increasingly protective and controlling of their image and how they are perceived. The clear separation between subject and object in traditional photography structures can offer relief from this, as well as a distinct barrier to its audience. And the results, like From studio to stage documents so meticulously, are of unique value.

When photographers have the opportunity to work closely with musicians for long periods of time, authentic, intimate and revealing moments of openness and authenticity can flourish. As American photographer Rahim Fortune says, “true documentary photography will always have a special place in music and can never be replaced by smartphone technology.”

From studio to stage will run from June 29 to August 19 at Pace New York.


Banner photo: Kevin Cummins, David Bowie in front of Tea & Sympathy in New York, January 10, 1997 © Kevin Cummins, courtesy of Pace Gallery;

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