how to take a picture of rock ‘n’ roll

How can a photographer capture the raw energy of a musical artist? i-D looks at the evolving world of music photography.

by Jane Helpern
08 May 2015, 6:45pm

Getty Images / Michael Ochs

On February 6th, what would have been reggae revolutionary Bob Marley's 70th birthday, the Known Gallery on Fairfax in Los Angeles was jam-packed like it was a Supreme drop. Except this time the streetwear kids turned out for the opening of Revolutionary Dreams, a collection of fifteen giant images of Bob Marley each representing one of his global anthems of peace and pot, shot by iconic music documentarian Dennis Morris. On meeting Marley outside a London speakeasy in 1975, Morris told Known, "I knew my life was about to change… he gave me confidence. He gave me hope. He gave me identity. He made my dreams possible. And for millions of others worldwide, he did the same."

Bob Marley "Kaya." "Revolutionary Dreams" exhibition photo by Dennis Morris. London 1978.

Morris' images of the reggae superstar resonate as loudly as Marley's music still plays in Jamaica, serving as a reminder of the deep social, political, and personal impact these intimate portrayals of our idols once had. It's a world away from the blurry camera-phone pictures of faraway stages clogging our feeds today, prompting the question: is music photography still relevant? And how does one leave a legacy in the oversaturated industry? The answer must first be prefaced by a history lesson.

Back in the pre-Instagram days, folks were in it for the love (not the likes). Iconic music photographers such as Glen E Friedman, Henry Diltz, and London DJ/punk documentarian Don Letts — whose 1978 The Punk Rock Movie shot on Super 8 footage featured all the key players in the UK punk movement (The Clash, The Slits, The Sex Pistols) — were capturing a piece of history. In LA, the show From Pop to the Pit is currently showing electric, rarely seen archival portraits of the bands that shaped the city's music scene from 1978-1989 shot for the now defunct Herald-Examiner. These camera-wielding renegades were in pursuit of those vulnerable and fuck-all moments that happen backstage, in the pit, and in an infested alley behind a venue. From hazy-days with Diltz, Woodstock's official photographer who spent the 60s with Joni Mitchell and the Laurel Canyon Folk Scene, to stage-diving with Edward Colver, the gritty punk photog who chronicled the birth of American hardcore and snapped early portraits of Bad Religion and Minor Threat, nostalgic images have shaped our understanding of a formative time.

Many of today's biggest fashion, fine art, and commercial shooters have also dipped into music. In 1970, Annie Leibovitz became staff photographer (and later chief photographer) for the recently launched Rolling Stone magazine, and in 2007, Ryan McGinley exhibited Irregular Regulars, images from a two year tour through the US, UK, and Mexico with Morrissey. There's always been a dynamic intersection of fashion and music, and thanks to Opening Ceremony's fall/winter 2015 collaboration with Spike Jonze — which transformed the filmmaker's archive of unseen pictures of the Beastie Boys, Björk, and Kim Gordon into collaged graphic prints on clothing — rock history has never been a hotter commodity.

Spike Jonze's photographs of Björk and Thurston Moore at Opening Ceremony's fall/winter 2015 presentation. Image courtesy Black Frame.

And then there's Brit Mick Rock, famous for his glam portraits of a bombshell Blondie and a gender-bending Bowie. He continues to exhibit new and retrospective work and shoot with contemporary artists including The Killers, Lady Gaga, and Alicia Keys. But despite his popularity with the Tumblr generation, Mick admits he's homesick for the "shock value" and explosiveness of the 70s. "What was once rock 'n' roll and very disposable is now art. My vision, for better or worse, has been pure music," Mick tweeted in January in a caption accompanying a vintage photo of Queen. Mick dabbles in the future and reminisces about the past, but he'll forever be synonymous with a time when rock was rebellious, costumes were glamorous, and faces were glittery — when history wasn't just a #tbt.

Which brings us up to speed to today, where phone photography and social media have every amateur shooter vying for that money shot (the selfie stick has been banned from Coachella this year). While some 35mm devotees diss the competition, others, like photographer/director Timothy Saccenti, who has worked with everyone from Miguel to LCD Soundsystem and Depeche Mode, embrace it. "It's been an undeniable shift. For my world, mystery has been more difficult to cultivate and control, but it's also been an amazing outlet for the experimental side," he says of social media. "Since the barrier to entry to be a 'photographer' has dropped so drastically, flooding the world with images, a unique process or way of seeing things has become even more important." Saccenti also stresses the need to research the subject and leverage personal anecdotes that differentiate an artist from others in that same world. "Doing research is a rewarding part of the process. You have to be psychologically investigative into it, then figure out how to make it work for their physical and emotional attributes."

James Murphy by Timothy Saccenti

28-year-old Los Angeles photographer and OFWGKTA Brand Manager Brick Stowell has been shooting hip-hop collective Odd Future, which he also tour managed from 2010-2014, since before they got signed. But he's not trying to be the dude who documents everyone and everything just because he's got access. He keeps it curated - focusing his lens on Odd Future and labelmates Trash Talk, mounting a body of work with a distinct point of view that tells a story. His secret to not getting lost in the feed? "Do your homework. Know what you're talking about. Have knowledge and a valid opinion by going to shows and watching what people do at them. Don't just be a hater on something you don't have any knowledge on." Rather than trying to be everywhere, he's following in the footsteps of photographers like Dan Monick, who spent fourteen years photographing Atmosphere and the Ryhmesayers crew.

Odd Future by Brick Stowell

It's easy to discredit the digital age as a creatively infertile time devoid of originality and spontaneity, but maybe that's to be so stuck on what has been that we forget to consider what will be. Maybe Mick Rock said it best when he Instagrammed one of his famously flamboyant photos of Ziggy Stardust captioned, "There's an art to looking back - How to celebrate the past without being entrapped by it..." After all, even the fanciest camera gear is no match for raw chemistry. According to Timothy Saccenti, "The best images come out of the unknown. You can plan and build sets and have props. But when the subject is there, it's something altogether different and that's where the magic lies." We may live in the era of media immediacy, but only time will tell which images shape and make history.


Text Jane Helpern
Photography Getty Images / Michael Ochs

Music photography
Dennis Morris
Glen E. Friedman
Henry Diltz