It’s only rock and roll, but I used to quite like it
People have been making pictures of stage performers for as long as there have been plays, concerts and public performances to capture. Toulouse-Lautrec’s 19th century studies of dancers at the Moulin Rouge may not seem to have much in common with recent photographs of rock stars in action on stage, but there is a thread that connects them: trying to capture a moment in one art-form through the medium of another. Toby Sargent reports on a small photographic exhibition in Norman Road.
The first pin-up I ever had, aged seven, was a life-size photograph of Cliff Richard wearing what I recall were cream slacks with white slip-on shoes and a loosely fitting t-shirt that appeared to be made out of the same material normally associated with string vests. He was caught in mid-air, with the image set against a lurid tangerine coloured background, suggesting sunshine and fun. It was a publicity picture for Summer Holiday, his 1962 musical, and measured a good six by four, and that’s feet not inches.
‘They’ll be my turtle doves’
Happy days. And oh, the hours I spent staring up at Cliff’s enigmatic smile, wondering whether he would forever remain a ‘Bachelor Boy’ until his ‘dying day’ as another song from the film predicted or whether, as he hinted in the lyrics, he’d ‘meet a girl and fall in love, then . . get married have a wife and a child, and they’ll be my turtle doves.’
Fifty years on the jury, of course, is still out on that one.
But all the while, the Sargent bedroom walls were bracing themselves for a revolution. And within months, Cliff was pulled down, in a gesture not unlike the toppling of those statues of Saddam Hussein after his fall from grace. In his place, inevitably, came The Beatles. I’d cut out pictures from magazines – Fabulous was my favourite, a weekly offering colour pin-ups – and I recall even creating a collage of my pop heroes to decorate a litter bin in my bedroom. Varnished it and everything – that’s how we were in those days.
Film stars in bikinis
In time, however, the realisation dawned: only girls had pictures of pop stars on their walls. Blokes had sporty stuff, film stars in bikinis or, just as likely, nothing at all. But the pictures of rock stars themselves remained important. Confined now to the pages of the pop and rock press – Disc, Melody Maker and then, inevitably, New Musical Express (NME) and imported copies of Rolling Stone – the pictures were a crucial part of the rock fan’s development. There may not have been any affordable way to discover what The Mothers of Invention sounded like, but a picture in NME could get you a long way. And especially as a helpful counter-balance to the frankly dire writing that surrounded them on the page.
So the current exhibition at The Lucy Bell Gallery is a welcome trip down memory lane for oldsters like me. The show, titled 30/30/30, displays the work of Jill Furmanovsky, one of the UK’s best known and respected music photographers. With a career spanning more than 40 years, there are few artists who have not been caught in her inquisitive lens: Pink Floyd, Bob Marley, Leonard Cohen, Rod Stewart, James Brown, Eric Clapton, Blondie, The Police, Led Zeppelin, The Pretenders, Bob Dylan and Oasis are but a few.
Furmanovsky came to London in 1965 and was one of the teenagers that hung around outside Abbey Road hoping to catch sight of The Beatles. Indeed her first rock picture was of Paul McCartney standing outside his house, with two of her school friends, taken on a Kodak Instamatic.
Furmanovsky graduated from the Central School of Art and Design in 1974 (Graphic Design) and went on to become the official photographer at the Rainbow Theatre, a significant venue for rock performances in the 1970s, where her career began.
The title of the show at the Lucy Bell Gallery comes about because in 1998, she founded RockArchive by making available 30 of her best images representing her 30 years as a rock photographer in an edition of 30 darkroom prints. Although her career has now gone some way beyond the 30 year boundary, some of her most celebrated images were taken within that period, including her portrait of The Rolling Stone’s drummer, Charlie Watts, for which she won the ‘Jane Brown Portrait Award.’
It’s a nice exhibition – and I choose that flimsy adjective deliberately – which I enjoyed and would recommend to anyone with an interest in this narrow genre, or simply a desire to see again the faces of their youth. It isn’t art in any real sense, nor is it sufficiently remarkable to sit alongside the best of photo-journalism. But you can look at the pictures and sometimes the years will roll back – and that’s no bad thing.
‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!’ as none of rock’s finest lyricists were quite good enough to write at the time, subsequent Nobel prizes for literature not withstanding.
Jill Furmanovsky: ’30/30/30′ at The Lucy Bell Gallery in Norman Road until 4 January. Admission free. The gallery is open Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 4pm.
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