A windshield frames an image of 1970s London: a double-decker bus, the sky pale behind brick row houses. A rear-view mirror reflects a bit of dark brown hair and a wary brown eye, instantly recognizable as Paul McCartney's.
It makes sense that Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History, 1955 to the Present, an exhibit at the Akron Art Museum open through Jan. 23, includes a photograph by Linda McCartney, an accomplished rock photographer before she married a Beatle. Her expertly composed image evokes the couple's intimacy and the distance fame creates between a celebrity and his surroundings. It's as emotionally charged as a three-minute song.
And that's the point. Guest curator Gail Buckland aims to recognize rock photography as the music's essential partner, part of a dual revolution of sound and image.
"Rock needed the image to disseminate its message of rebellion and freedom and teenage angst," she says.
Buckland, a historian known for her work on 19th-century photography, says her exhibition claims a prominent place in art history for the best rock photographers.
"Most of the men and women who've shaped the image of rock are unknown," she says, even though they took "some of the most iconic images the world has ever known."
Consider Don Hunstein, the longtime Columbia Records photographer who shot the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Hunstein's photo of Dylan and girlfriend Suze Rotolo walking arm-in-arm down a snowy Manhattan street became one of the most famous images of the early '60s, a romantic, Bohemian vision of youthful optimism. Buckland, who included an outtake from the photo shoot in the exhibit, interviewed Hunstein and learned his main influence was French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson's book The Decisive Moment.
"Cartier-Bresson is known for being very discreet and watching life unfold," Buckland says. "I think when you see the Freewheelin' cover, everything about it seems right in the same way ... the way she grasps his arm, their body language."
Clevelanders and Akronites might be an especially tough audience for Buckland's exhibition. The idea of rock art in a museum isn't new to us because we've had the Rock Hall in town for 15 years. We might even be especially quick to recognize which images surpass rock's visual cliches and retain power and which don't.
For instance, a massive six-panel holographic mashup of Jimi Hendrix images, intended to celebrate psychedelic grandeur, falls flat because it echoes the cover of the ubiquitous Hendrix compilation The Ultimate Experience. Almost hiding next to it is a true surprise: a black-and-white 1966 photo of Hendrix backing up Wilson Pickett at an Atlantic Records party, dressed in a tuxedo — a souvenir of the guitar daredevil's years as a session musician.
In the battle between newness and overexposure, Buckland's exhibit pulls out a win for rock's energy. Aware that Bob Gruen's shot of John Lennon in a New York City T-shirt has been mass-produced ad nauseam, Buckland shows it in context as one of several images from Gruen's negatives, including a shadowboxing Lennon.
Rather than show Madonna at her self-styling heights, Buckland chose Amy Arbus' candid shot of her in 1983, still sporting thrift-store chic, and Andreas Gursky's fantastical collage of images from Madonna's 2001 tour, in which singer, band, stage lights and fans blur into a celestial panorama. To represent The Clash, Buckland includes Pennie Smith's photo of Paul Simonon destroying his bass — the London Calling cover, still electrifying — and another Gruen photo, an unguarded shot of Joe Strummer and a woman leaning against a car while kissing.
"Most of the photographers in the exhibition have an honest relationship with the musicians," Buckland says. "There's no paparazzi in my show, no one sticking a lens in their faces. A lot of pictures are quiet, tender, not aggressive, even though you think of rock 'n' roll as having a hard edge."