'60s rock photography revisited
By Mark Beech
Bloomberg News Service
The Beatles flee from crowds of screaming fans on a 1964 tour to pose at a Scottish country hotel, carrying umbrellas and looking pensive under a grey sky.
The Rolling Stones, with less good grace, sneer through hangovers and lack of sleep for an early-morning photo shoot in the fog of Primrose Hill.
On the opposite wall, David Bowie perfects his "alien spaceman" look with a gold jumpsuit and Led Zeppelin members sport the impassive stares of rock gods.
Around them at the National Portrait Gallery, some 150 other images capture the essence of "swinging London," when the U.K. capital became the center of the pop world. The show is accurately called "Beatles to Bowie," yet bears a misleading subtitle "The '60s Exposed."
Anyone expecting surprising revelations, with telephoto paparazzi shots through bedroom windows, will be disappointed. Singer Marianne Faithfull, wearing white socks, looks impossibly innocent as she reclines in the Salisbury pub on St. Martin's Lane. Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix look boyish and angelic: The only hint of drug culture is in the dazzling psychedelic colors and swirling kaleidoscope images.
There are references to "icons" and "iconic" in the exhibition notes. If this means the stars were worshiped in their time, that's certainly true. Some of the pictures, of the Beatles in particular, are still endlessly recycled on bedroom walls, screen savers, T-shirts and computer games.
Even the most casual fan will recognize some images, such as Bruce Fleming's Hendrix studio pose that ended up on the cover of the "Are You Experienced?" album.
It's more interesting to see the images that didn't make it. Fiona Adams photographed the Beatles in 1963, dancing like dervishes on a wall off Euston Road in London. The exhibition adds her Rolleiflex contact sheet, showing how that perfect shot beat out four others in mid-jump.
While a few photos on display look little better than box-Brownie snaps — a moody Eden Kane (remember him?) leaning on a Ford Zodiac car in 1962 — there are many masterpieces. Tony Frank's landscape of the Welsh town of Pontypridd, with a black-clad Tom Jones surveying the sweep of river and railway line, is breathtaking and far from the normal rock portrait.
Among the most enjoyable pictures are some the stars probably would prefer to forget: Bowie's advertising shot for a hideously bad toy piano or a young Rod Stewart in a mod suit that looks like it's made out of cardboard. Then you come around a corner and face the Colin Jones picture of the Who's Pete Townshend in a Union Jack coat and pinhead stare. They don't make them like that any more.