Who Shot Rock & Roll

Behind a generation's iconic images.
Who Shot Rock & Roll

Open any page in Who Shot Rock & Roll? A Photographic History, 1955-Present, and you're likely to run into a familiar face—if not an old friend: Bob Dylan, cigarette in mouth, walking keep-warm-close with a woman down a snow-covered street. John Lennon in sunglasses, arms folded across his New York City T-shirt. The Ramones in ripped jeans, lined-up against a grimy brick wall. Hendrix kneeling over his flaming guitar. Johnny Cash flipping off the camera at San Quentin.

Gail Buckland's new book introduces us to the photographers behind more than 200 iconic music photos, many of them already seared in our consciousness from the posters plastering our bedroom walls, album covers studied for hours, magazines thoroughly absorbed. These images, for better or worse, helped make us who we are.

Buckland champions the unsung hero in this part of our collective cultural cornerstone: the photographer. She tells the stories of the men and women who snapped the shots we've come to know so well. Some were budding photographers who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Others were artists working with photography and within music. And still others were hired hands, cranking out photos for record labels over the decades.

The selection of images (and photographers) includes intimate, close-up portraits, backstage candids, private moments, and onstage antics by musicians you've no doubt heard of, shot by people you most likely haven't. The book spans popular music from Buddy Holly and Elvis to the White Stripes to Puff Daddy and Jay-Z.

In certain circles, music photography is derided as mere "entertainment photography," a step above shooting stills on a movie set. Buckland helps bury that notion. The reader gets a revealing look at what it takes to make photos like these. Of course, as many of the fotogs mention, getting this kind of access to rock stars is impossible today, what with all the overprotective agents, publicists, and label reps. You get a sense of that in the book, with most of the really cool candid shots ending around the late '70s.

The book offers plenty of Beatles photos: the Fab Four as a five-piece back in Liverpool, stepping off the plane in San Francisco to play Candlestick, as solo artists in the '70s and '80s. Likewise, there's no shortage of the Stones, Dylan, Madonna, and Elton John—all artists who not only know how to perform, but know the power of a strong image, and use it to their advantage.

Punk is well represented with photos by Bob Gruen (New York Dolls, Dead Boys), Stephanie Chernikowski (Blondie), Roberta Bayley (Ramones, Heartbreakers), Ian Dickson (Sex Pistols, Ramones), Jill Furmanovsky (Joy Division), Ed Colver (Minor Threat, Black Flag's Damaged album cover shot), Ebet Roberts (Cramps), and more. Metal is not so well represented.

As cool as it is, especially for those who can't get enough of behind-the-scenes action, the book isn't without a few flaws. Despite an impressive and unexpectedly broad selection of images and photographers, the layout proves frustrating. Photographers who shot more than one iconic image have separate pages sprinkled about, each dedicated to the story of a specific image. It's a good idea in theory, but the formatting is inconsistent—a few photographers have two or three images by different bands lumped together—and that makes it hard to follow a single photographer's work throughout the book. Grouping by photographer would have made for a more cohesive experience.

A smaller but more frustrating layout quirk is how the text occasionally jumps to the back of the book—sometimes just a short paragraph. You're getting into a story about Lew Allen shooting Buddy Holly on his tour bus and then have to fish around the back of the book for its conclusion. It's an annoyance that starts out small and grows with each occurrence.

Formatting qualms aside, Who Shot Rock & Roll is an exhaustively researched, thoroughly captivating book, especially for people like me, whose love of music intersects with a love of photography. It takes the killer rock and roll photo book to the next level. The book also serves as a catalog for a traveling exhibit of the same name, opening October 30 at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.