'60s Redux

Linda McCartney's photos do little beyond documenting some of the decade's biggest musical stars.

McCartney's photo of Frank Zappa is impressive for its offbeat composition.
McCartney's photo of Frank Zappa is impressive for its offbeat composition.
The current exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Linda McCartney's Sixties: Portrait of an Era, immediately begs the question: Are the rock-musician portraits by McCartney, who died of breast cancer last year, so distinctive that an entire decade can be better appreciated by spending time with them?

The answer is no, unless one subscribes to the notion of the '60s that seems to infuse many of these shots. McCartney, in the forward of the book that carries the same title as this exhibit, tips her hand about what this notion might be: "A lot of [these stars] were vulnerable and sensitive, and they found themselves being overindulged." That performers like Janis Joplin were vulnerable and sensitive—i.e., that they struggled with the triple-headed demon of fluctuating self-esteem, fame, and artistic growing pains—is beyond doubt. But to suggest that such celebrities "found themselves being overindulged"—that they did not freely choose the heroin, the pot, and the Southern Comfort—is to willfully ignore that which is disturbing in order to concentrate on what is pleasing.

Sure enough, McCartney's '60s are full of joyful abandon and camaraderie, but they rarely, if ever, hint at the crumbled youthful idealism implied in Dennis Hopper's statement to a beleaguered Peter Fonda at the end of the 1969 film Easy Rider: "We blew it."

Instead, McCartney gives us the '60s as the cavalcade of stars. In the '40s, the movie starlets got this treatment in the fan mags. See Lauren Bacall pout. See Joan Crawford look angry, as an amazed stagehand looks on. Here, at the Rock Hall, instead of the faces that fueled the pre-TV movie industry, we get the Rock and Roll wünderkinder who topped charts, made J. Edgar Hoover livid, and struck fear into war-supporting adults everywhere. See Pete Townshend about to pound a microphone into submission. See Janis Joplin belting out the blues. See Mama Cass reach for more oysters.

It's by no means written in stone that celebrities can't also be good portrait photographers. For example, Yul Brynner, the baldpated actor who starred in The King and I, was no slouch with a camera. His portraits of fellow actors, neither standardized nor repetitive and often appealingly fresh, sometimes evoke the fine photo-journalistic efforts of the versatile Alfred Eisenstaedt who, for more than thirty years, lent Life magazine such a distinctive visual profile. McCartney is not within hailing distance of Brynner, and she's eons away from portraitists like Eisenstaedt. Why is this so?

For one thing, McCartney mistook confrontational directness for insight. Diane Arbus was able to capture the essence of the dispossessed people she frequently photographed, not because she photographed them with natural light and in their own surroundings, but because she saw things in them that other people had not seen. Although McCartney was a devotee of natural light and she too photographed her subjects in their own habitat—usually concert halls, publicity receptions, and during live performances—these photos demonstrate the obvious.

A color shot of Jim Morrison at Fillmore East in March of 1968 could have been taken by anyone attending any Doors concert in the late '60s. It is indifferently composed—unless one wants to make something of the fact that the singer is placed to the far right and is in sharp focus, whereas a centrally placed bandmate is blurry. The star always has center stage, no matter where he is? Maybe, but glib statements like that hardly make for arresting photography. Arbus was blunt and it mattered. McCartney was blunt but prosaic.

McCartney seemed to be banking on the assumption that, if her subjects were intense people and she just aimed the camera at them, compelling photos would ensue. It is a tribute to the native charisma of performers like Ray Charles and Bob Dylan that this is sometimes the case. Dylan is all intelligence, resembling a rumpled, bespectacled young professor who is looking askance at his older, more conservative colleagues. The shot of Ray Charles convinces you that the man is like a self-renewing light source. He looks the same in practically every photo taken of him—with those black glasses and the tweed jacket—and yet there's an impressive sense of energy. McCartney was not a midwife for such energy. It was simply there for the taking, and she had a camera to record it.

The frequent problem in these 47 photos is that McCartney did not take the next step, from being mere documentarian to truth-teller. Too often in this exhibit, we have the facts, but the photographer was unable to pull them together to create art out of life.

A case in point is a photo of Joplin in tight closeup. Her skin is patchy. She smokes a cigarette, her hair is unkempt, and she looks away. Chilly and clinical, this photo seems to say that Joplin was an everywoman who became a star. Nothing new, here.

However, compare this shot to some pictures of Joplin (not by McCartney and not in this exhibit) in her messed-up apartment a few months before her death in 1970, and one sees what McCartney did not see. In those shots, we encounter a young artist careening out of control, with the disorder of the cluttered room echoing her increasingly disturbed mental state.

This is the complex Joplin of her letters (on display at the Rock Hall until recently, when they had to be returned to her family), in which the tormented singer compared herself to her red car which, when new, was shiny and polished, but which now was rusted, with its hubcaps stolen and keys missing. (The kicker was that this damaged car was "parked on a hill"—a prescient metaphor for idealism mixed with corruption.) McCartney's Joplin portraits don't hint at any of these deeper struggles—they are either straightforward concert shots or closeups that are paradoxically unrevealing.

McCartney hung out with her subjects, and it's obvious from the photographs that at the least she had a gift for putting her subjects at ease. Sometimes, everything comes together, and a real portrait takes shape. It doesn't happen often, but it is these craftsmanlike efforts, and not the glitzy or obvious shots, which give the viewer a reason to remember this exhibit.

A portrait of Frank Zappa taken in his office impresses for its offbeat composition and the way in which it allows the musician's personal possessions to help in telling us about him. In the photo, Zappa appears at the lower right of the frame. The asymmetrical placement works, because a diagonal formed by a background bookcase and a vertical line formed by a speaker both converge at Zappa's head. All roads lead to Zappa in this shot. With his scraggly hair, beard, and Mephistophelean glare, he looks forbidding. But hey, there are actually books in the man's bookshelf, he has a mandolin hanging on the wall, an appointment book, a tasteful poster of a groovy chick, and a sheet of paper posted on the wall that consists of a series of improvisatory squiggles. Zappa was a composer in an astringent avant-garde idiom as well as a rock musician, and this portrait—which contains glimpses of both worlds—is apt on many counts. It's among the two or three best things in the exhibit.

Also in this category, one could cite McCartney's humorous portrait of her husband Paul staring to the left, while the couple's sheepdog Martha stares to the right. The contrast in texture between the animal's fur and Paul's coarse wool coat is keenly observed. The portraits of Jimi Hendrix suggest that the guitarist who turned the National Anthem into a gruesome sonic experiment had a sense of humor along with his intensity.

Despite sporadic instances of insight, these well-behaved photos ultimately bring to mind Richard Gere's reverent snaps of Tibet and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Different subject, same attitude. If Gere's photo collection could be considered the visual accompaniment of his earnest Academy Award asides about human rights, this hyper-nostalgic foray into the '60s most often resembles the visual equivalent of an incantatory monologue about Woodstock from someone who claims to have been there.

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