Shoot Rock Stars

Tune in: Ernest Batson of the Mighty Mofos, in a backstage photo by Diana Watters
Diana Watters

AH, THE '60s. Sex, drugs, and media aesthetics were such uncomplicated issues then. "My style is no style," insists 60-year-old photojournalist Jim Marshall, referring to the bare-bones aesthetic he cultivated while definitively documenting that era's rock elite. "The photo is my interpretation of how I see the person, but I also try to bring out something of the essence of that person."

Quaint as that might sound to a generation cautioned to handle unstable concepts like authenticity by quartering them off with protective quotation marks, Marshall's shots of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Bob Dylan nonetheless hint at a genuine intimacy between photographer and subject. Marshall's black-and-white celebrity vérité is as respectful as it is candid.

Marshall's traveling exhibit, Not Fade Away, (also the title of the 1997 volume that compiles his best rock-related work) will be the main attraction at an upcoming display of rock-affiliated photography, running from September 12 through October 25 at pARTs Photographic Arts. But smaller installations from contemporary local photographers and UM grads, Diana Watters and Tony Nelson, will be more than a sideshow.

Thirty-six-year-old Watters gingerly pries into the disheveled back rooms of local venues before and after shows, snapping hometown musicians while they're too preoccupied to be fully aware of her presence. Nelson, a 34-year-old occasional Rolling Stone contributor, ventures from the safe confines of the press pit and explores the dynamics of festival crowds. Taken as a whole, the exhibit reveals itself as an exploration of photography's claims to psychological realism and the celebrity photographer's desire to capture the nature of the celebrity image.

For close to two decades, Marshall palled around with the highest echelon of the musical counterculture, from Coltrane and Dylan to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. His work is a powerful document of the mystifying powers of naturalistic photography; the more his celebrities seem to let down their guard, the more seductively unknowable they become. Stars whose temperaments are inextricable from their public personas--Joni Mitchell casting her eyes downward like a sullen madonna; Joplin sprawling with boozy, goofy ease; Johnny Cash looming stolidly outside the walls of Folsom Prison--transmit both a sense of themselves and their iconic power.

Unintentionally telling moments do occasionally puncture Marshall's aura. An ornery poolside Dylan in '64, unwillingly enduring a neck rub from an equally tense Joan Baez, expresses more than the freewheelin' Bob kicking a tire tube down a New York sidewalk a year earlier. And when Captain Beefheart raises his arm to cast some freaky hoodoo jive cameraward, his hypnotic gaze is unintentionally stranded somewhere between paranoia and insecurity.

Yet these remarkable, candid moments would become harder for less-established freelancers to access. As the wheels of rock publicity were greased with the liquid assets of international corporations, scowling for the camera degenerated into another tedious tour chore for musicians. Marshall won't put up with the rigid demands of the contemporary press shoot. "I'll only work when I have the access," he declares. "If my body of work doesn't mean something to somebody, then fuck 'em. I don't want to work with them."

Of course, there are countless less prominent musicians eager to be committed to film. If anything, they're all too eager. "Everyone's so hyperaware of cameras in our time that it seems like everyone's always posing," says Watters. "But if you're around bands often enough and they start to trust you, they can go about their business and somewhat forget about you." If Marshall enjoyed the spread of countercultural leisure, Watters's backstage snapshots are a record of men at work: a guitarist tuning and changing strings, a singer mulling over set lists and hastily memorizing lyrics, a drummer tapping a compulsive beat on a stool. Her subjects indulge in labored concentration or time-killing antics as an antidote to both anticipation and boredom.

The homely, gear-strewn backroom of Bunkers and the claustrophobic, graffiti-soaked basement of the 7th Street Entry are occasionally as much Watters's subject as bands like the Vibrochamps or the Mighty Mofos. Her most striking shot is of the Mofos' Ernie Batson, his shaved head bowed down, ear pressed firmly to the neck of an uplifted guitar. He personifies stalwart intensity, and the textures of his scalp blending with the speckled wall behind him become a study in contrast.

Much of Nelson's display is culled from a '94 Lollapalooza spread he shot for Cake magazine. The original intention was to shoot portraits of bands backstage, but the confusion that surrounds such a large festival tour and the same publicity machinations Marshall disparages thwarted Nelson's efforts. So he turned his camera away from the stage and toward the audience. This practice has since become a habit, with Nelson reserving a few rolls during freelance gigs to survey those in attendance. "Sometimes I search for archetypes," Nelson says, pointing to a portrait of a Marilyn Manson fan dutifully bedecked in satanic, gender-transgressive uniform.

Of course, many of the crowds are as well-trained to perform before a camera as the performers on stage. They know what it means to look like you're having a rockin' good time--arms raised triumphantly, mud splashed defiantly. But as they strive to express their individuality by assuming conventional poses, the fans' Marshallian idiosyncrasies find expression in the different ways in which they fall short of the clichéd ideal.

"I like to look into a chaotic scene and try to find a real moment of calmness," says Nelson. "Someone you can make a portrait rather than [a subject of] documentary," he says, in reference to a shot of a striking, dark-haired young woman, distinct from the whooping crowd and even from the boyfriend in whose arms she's cradled. We don't know which band she's gazing at with weary, relaxed expression. Her countenance is unconscious and indecipherable, and for that preserved moment she's as enigmatically intriguing as Marshall's master of self-conscious media manipulation, Dylan himself.

Not Fade Away will be on display from September 12 through October 25 at pARTs Photographic Arts, 711 W. Lake St., Mpls.; 824-5500.

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