Iain MacMillian

Editorial Photography and Music

© Iain MacMillian

From the stage to the streets, the convergence of music and photography has produced some truly extraordinary imagery.

─── by Edward Clay, August 14, 2020
  • How to capture the rawness of a sound as it resonates from the amps? This has been the quest of music photographers for generations, from the iconic shots of rock and pop stars of the 60s and 70s to the early days of punk and hip hop. Capturing a sound is impossible, but capturing a feeling is another story…

    Photography and music Jimi Hendrix, 1967 © Jim Marshall
    Jimi Hendrix, 1967 © Jim Marshall

    When talking about music photography, one must also consider sub-cultural identities and their visual signifiers. When someone says “metal” few things come to mind almost instantaneously.

    Of course, there is the music, but then there are the clothes, the black baggy trousers, and hoodies, the long hair, beards, and piercings. The same can be said for hip-hop, punk, grunge, and pretty much every other musical genre.

    Run-DMC, Hollis, Queens, New York, 1985 © Glen E Friedman

    The identities that people create for themselves, which, at least in the late 20th century, align themselves with music, have been the subjects of many photographers. Derek Ridgers, who has taken photos of everyone from James Brown to Nick Cave, made his name with his seminal project “Skinheads” which focussed on the controversial youth cult of the early Thatcher years in Britain in the late 70s and early 80s.

    From Skinheads © Derek Ridgers
    From Skinheads © Derek Ridgers
    Photography And Music - Debbie Harry & Iggy Pop, Toronto, 1977 © Bob Gruen
    Debbie Harry & Iggy Pop, Toronto, 1977 © Bob Gruen

    His striking images of the tattooed and shaved-head youths who followed punk and hardcore music speak of rebellion but also have subtly political undertones. His work marks an important time in modern British history and looks at the complexities of the austerity under Thatcher from the perspective of the disaffected youth. His work was later recognized by Morrissey and used to promote the Your Arsenal tour.

    The Kings of England © Graeme Oxby

    Likewise, Graeme Oxby has been charting the world’s obsession with Elvis, and the lengths fans go to come closer to their idols. His project The Kings of England follows Elvis impersonators as they live out the monotony of their daily lives with some help from The King.

    Oxby’s work is a tongue-in-cheek exploration of these Elvis superfans as they compete for work, perform in their local towns and sing in their bedrooms. By focussing not on the artists themselves, but on the fans and their relationships to the musician, one can glean the cultural impact the music has had on decades worth of people.

    From God Listens to Slayer © Sanna Charles
    From God Listens to Slayer © Sanna Charles
    "They find violent release in homegrown Japanese Beatles." © Michael Rougier
    "They find violent release in homegrown Japanese Beatles." © Michael Rougier

    On the other side of the world, Malian photographer Malick Sidibé’s work captured the euphoric zeitgeist gripping Bamako in the 1960s as French colonial rule was ending in Mali. As the nation underwent profound changes, the youth, naturally, responded to this, breaking free from their shackles by embracing music and fashion as means of expression.

    Photography And Music Nuit de Noel (Happy Club) © Malick Sidibé
    Nuit de Noel (Happy Club) © Malick Sidibé

    Sidibé claims
    “We were entering a new era, and people wanted to dance. Music freed us. Suddenly, young men could get close to young women, hold them in their hands. Before, it was not allowed. And everyone wanted to be photographed dancing up close.” His iconic photo of a couple dancing in a club on New Year’s Eve in 1963 is a perfect moment of pure ecstasy where you can almost hear the music.

    Black & white photo of jazz bassist, Edna Smith, by Roy De Carava
    Edna Smith, Bassist (1950) © Roy De Carava
    Picture of John Coltrane playing the saxaphone in 1961 by Roy De Carava
    Coltrane #24 (1961). © Roy De Carava

    During the same period, Roy DeCarava was documenting life in his beloved New York City, capturing quotidian scenes on the city streets, and by night, turning his attention to the jazz artists who were setting alight the city’s underground clubs.

    Transcribed in his poetic and modernist visual language, DeCarava’s images – which were published in the photobook ‘”The Sound I Saw” – embody the essence of the subject: spontaneous, subjective, and captivating.

    Black & white photo of jazz musicians by Roy De Carava
    Oliver Beener Group #4 (1956) © Roy De Carava

    “I do a lot of curiosity buying. I buy it if I like the album cover, I buy it if I like the name of the band, anything that sparks my imagination.” Bruce Springsteen

    Additionally, the creative synergy between photography and music has always been an important element of album design. Many internationally renowned photographers are behind some of the most iconic albums in musical history, images which remain in society’s collective memory.

    Photography And Music - Grace Jones, blue-black in black on brown, New York, 1981. © Jean-Paul Goude
    Grace Jones, blue-black in black on brown, New York, 1981 © Jean-Paul Goude

    From four men at a zebra crossing, to a Buddhist monk engulfed in flames, the zipper on a pair of blue skinny jeans, a burning man shaking hands with another man – only a few examples of the visual representation granted to the black vinyls inside which have left deep impressions on generation after generation of music fans.

    Though the album format has been changing since the advent of digitalized music and the growth of online streaming, and perhaps losing some of its significance as artwork, photography and music will continue to bounce off one another as long as musicians and photographers continue to appreciate one another’s craft. Many of the most iconic album covers today were not commissioned works but the result of the musicians themselves sifting through visual history.

    Iain MacMillian - Beatles, Abbey Road, 1969
    Beatles, Abbey Road, 1969 © Iain MacMillian

    Though music and photographs exist to speak for themselves, they undoubtedly influence one another greatly and have met in infinite ways.
    As music itself changes, there are endless possibilities open for photographers to document this fluctuating landscape, both in expressive and more journalistic ways.

    All images © their respective owners