Wall Be Right There, 2022. As soon as I snapped this, something about it seemed familiar…
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I CANNOT IMAGINE MAKING PHOTOGRAPHS without having someone sitting on my shoulder.
Not a squirming kid hitching a piggyback ride at a theme park: I’m talking about the invisible presence of photographers past, those influences that are so strong that you might imagine you can see their faces as you peer through the viewfinder. Men and women whose approaches so strongly flavor your own view of the world that it can be difficult not to directly channel them into your work.
Of course, we often deliberately pay tribute to those who’ve gone before us. We might purposefully re-interpret their works, or, in our moments of maximum hubris, even convince ourselves that we can improve on them. But in many more cases, their power, as teachers, to mold our perceptions leaks out quietly, buried inside what we assume is our own “original” style. We might not be actively trying to emulate or steal, but, once we back off from this image or that, we have to admit that the fingerprints of one or another of our photo gods can be clearly detected.
Pete Turner’s cover for Wes Montgomery’s Road Song album, 1968
That’s what happened to me on a recent walk to a nature preserve. The walking path parallels a long support wall that stands beneath a traffic overpass, giving it that receding-into-infinity look, and something about the composition appealed to me, although I was not consciously thinking of any particular artist’s work. A door just opened in my head and I said yes.
Later, when I was correcting and cropping the shot, its inspiration finally hit me, as I recalled the legendary Pete Turner’s cover shot the the album Road Song by Wes Montgomery, shot in the late 1960’s. Pete created nearly all of the album covers for jazz producer Creed Taylor’s CTI label of the period, most of them abstract in nature with no direct link to either a song or record title. This shot, with his wondrous wide-angle framing a barrier trailing off to the horizon in a bluish dusk, with only the tail lights of a distant car to anchor the wall in real space, was, and is, a masterpiece, the kind of highly commercial, mass appeal masterpiece that he regularly (and seemingly effortlessly) knocked off for hit records by Antonio Carlos Jobim, Deodato, Hubert Laws, Freddie Hubbard, and George Benson, releases that added a stunning visual signature to the Boomer generation’s definition of jazz.
By comparison, my unwitting tribute to Pete, which basically happened on a subconscious level, was fairly cluttered and thus nowhere near as direct in its impact, but I was happy, rather than sad, that at least a part of my love for his work had sneaked into my own. I couldn’t fill his shoes, certainly, but it was fun to even accidentally slide a few toes into his slippers.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
ANY COMPLETE DISCUSSION OF THE LEGACY OF THE BEATLES‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, marking its fiftieth anniversary in 2017, will include voluminous analyses of its ground-breaking production technique and breakthrough approach to musical composition, and rightfully so. But this most fundamental of pop culture events of the 1960’s must also be thought of in purely visual terms, since many of us first encountered it as an amazing, challenging image.
In truth, the collaboration between Pop Art designer Peter Blake and studio photographer Michael Cooper, with its ad-hoc gathering of cardboard celebrities grouped around a gravesite with the word BEATLES spelled out in blossoms, is the first act of a two-act play. The cover set the same audacious terms of engagement that the record inside the sleeve would abide by: Art and Music are what we say they are: We, the Beatles, are in complete charge of our music, our image, and our connection with the audience: we will not have “a” style, but will hybridize whatever schools of thought come to hand, from modes of composition to instruments to shifting patterns of Past, Present, and Future to coloring outside the lines of even our own culture. I read the news, today, oh, boy, and it said there are no more rules: there are no more walls. The stage can no longer hold us. Only the studio itself is vast enough to contain what we have to say.
The cover of Sgt. Pepper made a stunning break with the accepted practices used by record labels to market their goods. Quite simply, the suits in the front office were no longer in charge of the pictures. And what of that picture, or, more accurately, that picture of pictures? Is it a tribute? A put-on? A serving of notice that the Beatles are dead, long live the Beatles? Yes, yes, and hell, yes. Pepper made it plain, once and for all, that album covers, which had begun in the 1930’s as basic advertising sleeves for the goods within, could be venerated, influential, and, yeah, framed on some freak’s wall. Like, you know, man, art.
And, if Cooper and Blake were drawing a line between eras for the record world, they were doing so to an even greater degree for photography, which, in 1967, was still considered by some as more craft than art. Within a few years after A Day In The Life‘s long, ringing super-chord, museums were mounting shows by Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander, and Robert Frank, right alongside the painters, and directly adjacent to people like Warhol who constituted categories all their own.
Just as Alice In Wonderland is somehow legless without John Tenniel’s illustrations, Sgt. Pepper’s’ outside will always be wedded to its inside, and vice versa. As the most popular multimedia product in commercial history, it owes much of its titanic impact to the image of four oddly costumed men with four strangely new mustaches and one big message: there is more to us than meets the eye. Like the best of photography, the picture issues a challenge. Nothing is real.
And nothing to get hung about…….