Billie Holiday baring her soul; a sweaty, young James Brown bringing down the house; Janis belting it out at Newport; Hendrix soloing at the Fillmore East…… these are just a handful of the classic moments in music history that some of us were lucky enough to experience firsthand. But when most of us picture historic events or musicians who are no longer with us, we see them through the eyes of extraordinary photographers.
Driven by a passion for music and a personal connection to their subjects, these men and women create images that capture the true character of people who define great music. Has the heavy-handed influence of the corporate world and the short attention span of today’s throw-away culture changed all this?
Many of the great photographers of music history had a distinct advantage: they befriended their subjects, toured with them around the country, and unwound with them after the stage lights turned off and the audience went home. Once granted access to a musician’s life, photographers were free to document what they deemed important.
Look at the classic black and white work of music photographers like Herman Leonard and Jim Marshall and you’ll understand the elements of exceptional music photography. Each image is the work of a talented photographer who, through a combination of hard work, persistence, skill, and instinct, knew how to choose and frame a single instant that, because of its power to inspire, would live on long after the moment passed into music history.
Something magical about the minimalism of a great black and white portrait allows us to see directly to the core of a human being. Removing color from an image helps remove the distraction of superficial detail. What’s left is the expression of a human face and the message conveyed by body language. The petty little details of daily life blur into insignificance and character comes into focus.
It’s easy to compare the power and directness of classic images from the past and see how things have changed for the worse. Marketing and the desire to please stockholders seem to have replaced the appreciation for individuality and passion. Radio has become the domain of a few corporate giants that understand the power of cash, not the power of song. Countless glossy promo portraits approved by lawyers and marketing drones show us the faces of celebrities, not musicians. The great tradition of record-album cover art has been reduced to thumbnails on a tiny iPod screen. Carefully orchestrated TV shows like American Idol exploit the sad fact that many see success in the music world only as a route to fame and wealth. The ego-driven fantasy worlds of music videos compete for our entertainment dollar. And the music fades into the background.
But at Elmore we know the truth: Music and music photography are both still very much alive and well. We can respect the music icons of the past and still recognize that the world we live in continues to be filled with great musicians, too. Dedicated photographers brave the gauntlet of PR agents and tour managers to bring us powerful and honest portraits of the talented musicians creating and performing great music today.
Read about these artists, as well as some of the music icons who influenced them, here in the pages of Elmore. Look at some terrific photographs that give a sense of who these people really are (and yes, we include plenty in color, too!). Then get out to as many concerts as you can and experience the music for yourself, and someday you can point to an historic photo and say, “I was there.” E
Photo Editor and Photographer