What is music photography? It’s a simple question but one that gets more slippery the more you look at it. With holograms of dead stars such as Michael Jackson and Tupac now ‘performing’ live, and Kurt Cobain a playable character on Guitar Hero, it’s clear depictions of our pop icons have opened up – and meanwhile more open-minded attitudes towards pop culture have allowed fine artists to incorporate popular music, vinyl records, cassette tapes and even rock groups into their work. Grappling with these issues after The Photographers’ Gallery asked me to curate a show on the subject, I decided to set some parameters.
First, I restricted myself to full-time, working photographers – not programmers, not producers, not the many amateurs who share images online, not the stars who post images of themselves on portals like Instagram, Vine or YouTube, and not the webcams behind the Boiler Room. I find this work interesting from a sociological and anthropological point of view but maybe not so much from a photographic point of view, so I was happy for it to find a separate home on The Photographers’ Gallery’s Media Wall for the duration of the exhibition.
Equally though, I decided not to include fine artists who use music in their work such as Christian Marclay or Bettina von Zwehl, because somehow what I was more interested in – and what I understood by the term ‘music photography’ – was image-making that comes from, or at least relates to, the music industry. This soon evolved into an exhibition about portraiture because, while the music industry obviously uses lots of other kinds of imagery, showing the stars, and to a lesser extent, showing their fans remains key. As I collected projects I was interested in, I naturally found they all focussed on pictures of people.
I was also specifically interested in music photography made in the last 15 years or so though – since the turn of the century, that’s to say, and since both music and photography started to go digital. What kind of work do photographers make now that music can be streamed, and now that the images on billboards, album covers and magazines can move? The exhibition, We Want More, includes just 14 photographers, plus an extra section showing pop videos, a tiny drop in a huge ocean of image-making. But I’ve tried to include work that comes from a variety of different sources, and adopts a variety of different points of view – from the carefully stage-managed portrait to the behind-the-scenes insight, and from the commissions from the stars or record labels to the self-assigned projects.
Some of the photographers in the show don’t work for the music industry, but many do. Dan Wilton, who has worked for record labels such as XL Recordings and Domino, and magazines such as Dazed and i-D, for example, while Deirdre O’Callaghan has shot for labels such as Warp and Universal, and for artists such as Damon Albarn, De La Soul and Grinderman. Other phorographers I’ve worked with are better-known in the art world, but also have roots in the music industry – Ryan McGinley has work in the Guggenheim Museum New York, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and The Whitney Museum of American Art, for example, but he’s also worked with musicians such as The Virgins and Sigur Ros (and shot his Irregular Regulars series at Morrissey gigs). Roger Ballen, meanwhile, couldn’t be described as a music photographer per se, but has worked on commission for South African rap outfit Die Antwoord.
Other photographers in the show don’t work for the music industry at all, but have made images that I felt made an interesting comment on its iconography. Dan Cohen’s series We Want More shows musicians such as Jill Scott and Chaka Khan backstage at the Melkweg venue in Amsterdam, for example, in a bid to capture “the person, not being an artist for 10 or 20 seconds”. Lorena Turner’s The Michael Jacksons shows Jackson impersonators who have adopted the instantly-recognisable trappings of his image, and James Mollison shows fans reproducing their idols’ looks.
Image Making and Music in the 21st Century is on show at The Photographer’s Gallery from 17 July to 20 September 2015. More details here.
Read the full feature in Sound and Vision, BJP’s music issue, available to buy now.