Mythmaking: How Rock Photography Helped Forge Its Stars

By Chris Derrick

These days if you want to find out something about your favorite recording artist, all you have to do is a cursory Google search or sign up for the TMZ RSS feed, and you’re bound to get inundated with images and information… too much, in fact, of the kind of information that steals the magic and mystery. Also, you’re liable to be drenched with scandal-mongering “news” about the latest pop diva or teen idol bristling under his or her handlers’ tight reins.

Once upon a time rock ‘n roll was a driving and defining force in pop culture. And its blazing practitioners existed in the public consciousness only when they were on-stage, in rock fan magazines, like Rolling Stone (or the occasional pre-cable TV appearance) and in the album covers’ image and interior art. And that is where a fan’s imagination, fueled by the fire of the rock photograph, created the Dream World where rock gods and goddesses lived in.

WHO SHOT ROCK ‘N ROLL, up at at the Los Angeles Annenberg Space for Photography til October 21st, is a revealing and nostalgic photo exhibit that details many of the groundbreaking rock groups of the 60s and 70s as the photographers of the era (all new to the profession) saw them, befriended them and captured them in all their glory (quiet moments included) on black and white 35mm.

The power and metaphysical aspect of a rock photograph is hard to quantify… what we do know is that seminal rock photographs transport us beyond just the composition, the artist, the lighting, the album or tour it is trying to promote.

Iconic rock photos catapulted the album cover (and the band) deep into your soul and deposited a sensation that only Morpheus, the dream lord, could be behind. These unforgettable images enabled the listener to drop the needle onto the LP, zone out to the music and personally recreate what the band was like, what they were up and where they were when they weren’t making music… all this from the album’s cover and interior art.

Grace Jones shot by David Corio, featured in the Annenberg show

At its core, rock photography – which is art in every sense of the word – gave you a license to dream up your very own reality for the rock band or solo artist whose music meant so much to you. Rock photography symbiotically added to the mythology of the rock groups and performers, as they shed their mortal skin and were reincarnated as gods and goddesses. Their exploits and actions transformed into the stuff of legend (as photographer Bob Gruen said about Led Zeppelin’s US tours) and legend, through its very nature, garners more gravitas than fact.

How events metamorph into legend is an interesting aspect of mythmaking in its own right. And there is no telling what “legend” fans’ imagination will concoct to justify an explanation for the unexplainable. In the in the eye-opening rock documentary SEARCHING FOR SUGARMAN, which chronicles the improbable misfire of a career of the musician Rodriguez, the imagined happenings were nothing short of astonishing.

Sixto Rodriguez (who had some highly touted producers working on his material) was, puzzlingly, a commercial failure in the US in the early 70s. However, he became a seminal countercultural and socio-political figure in Apartheid-era South Africa during the 70s and 80s — despite the fact he never set foot in the country. The hallucinatory photographic images on his album covers only enhanced his mystique. Rodriguez’s initial two LPs Cold Fact and Scenes from Reality were stillborn in the States, so his record label – A&M – failed to issue any press/promotional material of any kind for the musician outside of the original photos on the LPs (A&M eventually fired him and Rodriguez dropped out of sight). The cover of Cold Fact features an enigmatic Rodriguez in a hippie vest, a precursor Kangol hat and expression-obfuscating sunglasses sitting in a bizarre glass bubble.

As the legend goes, when a teenage girl brought Cold Fact to South Africa in the mid 70s, the music opened the eyes, hearts and minds of progressive teens and young adults. Rodriguez’s passionate, incisive and anti-authoritarian lyrics on songs like “I Wonder,” “Sugar Man,” “Crucify Your Mind” and “Inner City Blues” infected the South African imagination with the society-shifting idea that rebelling against an oppressive regime was not only the right thing to do, but an obligation.

Now, if you are old enough to remember the international anti-Apartheid movement of the early and mid 80s, you probably never even heard about white rebel musicians! It was Rodriguez’s emotionally raw voice and society-indicting lyrics that inspired much of the anti-Apartheid music that the white South Africans made.

Although Rodriguez was hugely popular in South Africa, his fans did not know that he was a flop in the US, and, consequently, couldn’t understand why no tour dates where scheduled in South Africa where his album sales were through the roof.

As such a cultural force (more popular than The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, by some accounts), it was baffling to South Africans that Rodriguez only produced two albums. So the South African fans went beyond dreaming up what his life was like and how he got inspiration for his songs, they even dreamed up Rodriguez’s demise!

Of the many legends about Rodriguez, one unconfirmed rumor (as a reason why his recording career was prematurely cut short) was that he killed himself on stage after a poorly received concert. Another bit of lore had him dousing himself with gasoline and then lighting himself on fire; still another had him shooting himself in the chest on stage. No one in South Africa knew if these (or the other rumors) were true, but they sounded tragically impressive. And they fostered a myth that would take shape and remain unshaken for over twenty years.

All this from a man whose public and private persona was solely generated by album cover art and jacket lyrics; crazy, right? It is a great testament to the power of the subconscious mind when images and music are melded together for a gestalt emotional affect.

The potency of the album cover has pretty much waned since the record companies did away with the CD’s long box (again, if you’re old enough to remember that attempt by record label marketing departments to further the impact of larger scale photos of their musical artists). Today, there are still extraordinary and emotion-evoking album covers, but at the small size of the CD jewel case, or even worse on a smartphone display, it’s not really the same, is it? And that’s something of a double-edged tragedy.

As Jimmy Stewart said in THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERY VALANCE, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Truth used to fear Legend, but now Truth, by and large, laughs in the face of Legend. Now this doesn’t mean that Legend is has lost its mojo or that Truth has a monopoly in the “win” column. What it does mean is that we need to revise the quote. As demonstrated in the Rodriguez film, there is plenty of truth out in the world these days, so print the legend, let it live and breathe, and if people want to bring their gods and myths back down to Earth then they know how to do so.

To find out the truth behind Rodriguez’s legend, you’ll have to see the movie…and to get a more intense taste of the influential capability of rock photography, you can still catch the WHO SHOT ROCK exhibit this week of pick up the book at the Annenberg Space… you’ll get a new appreciation for those memorable images. Myth and legend are the stuff that dreams are made of, and we actually yearn for the myth over the truth… because the myth connects us in ways beyond mere words, and presents an altered reality that fulfills our need for a greatness that is beyond us, whereas the truth strips reality down to its raw facts… clean of any artifice, it shows us how things really are… for better or worse. The question, then, is: are we better off knowing the truth or cherishing the myth?