The Portland Museum of Art is kicking off the New Year with a major rock show. Backstage Pass: Rock Camp; Roll Photography (January 22 through March 22) is an exhibition of some 200 photographs of rock and jazz musicians, all borrowed from the collection of a Maine summer resident who wishes to remain anonymous.
What I can tell you about this wealthy rock collector is that he was active in New York City during the 1980s as a producer of New Wave records and films and that he was once married to a monomial rock singer. (No, not Madonna.)
Focusing his collecting on candids and backstage photographs rather than performance pictures, Mr. Rock has put together a collection that ranges from a 1956 photo of Elvis Presley by Alfred Werthheimer to a 2007 photograph of Iggy Pop by Kate Simon. Among the rock stars pictured are the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Kurt Cobain, Alice Cooper, Jim Morrison and the Doors, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, and Neil Young.
The photographers represented in the Backstage Pass show include not only those, such as William Claxton, Laura Levine, and Kate Simon, well-known for their photographs of musicians and the music scene, but also artists such as Lee Friedlander (portraits of Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Carl Perkins, and Frank Sinatra) and Harry Benson (a 1964 photo of Mohammed Ali playfully punching the Beatles and a portrait of James Brown).
“The relationship between rock & roll and the camera is intimate and profound,” writes Portland Museum of Art interim director Thomas Denenberg in the exhibition catalogue ($29.95 softbound, Yale University Press). “The photographer encounters the musician, and something is born that lives both between and beyond them.”
Rock critic Greil Marcus, who will deliver PMA’s 2009 Bernard A. Osher Lecture on January 26, notes in the catalogue how fame transforms the way we see photographs of the famous. Appraising a 1963 photograph of a youthful Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of the Rolling Stones, holding a picture of the five original members of the band, Marcus writes, “The photograph doesn’t capture a moment; it shows what could not be shown: the future.” At the time, only a handful of the hip had heard of the Rolling Stones. Now almost anyone would recognize the world’s greatest and longest running rock band.
Those of us past 50 can enjoy Backstage Pass as a stroll down memory lane, remembering the heroes of our youth in the 1960s and 1970s. Younger viewers might see it as an exhibition of pop music history. Ultimately, image is everything in the world of rock & roll and what Backstage Pass shows us are people we all once wanted to be projecting their celebrity onto the screen of popular culture.
Portland Museum of Art, Seven Congress Square, Portland, ME. 207-775-6148.