The Brooklyn Museum's Who Shot Rock & Roll: A Photographic History 1955 to Present is what you'd imagine the high school yearbook of classic and contemporary rock would look like. Bruce Springsteen with a girl (or several) on each arm outside a New Jersey deli plays the heartthrob, while Eminem, gripping a lit stick of dynamite (a la David La Chapelle) is probably in the principal's office. John Lennon and Yoko Ono are the sweethearts, Marianne Faithful the girl-next-door, and Ian Curtis the doleful loner. Putting these images into one space amounts to a pleasant who's who to the soundtracks of our lives, but makes it clear that success in music has a lot to do with image. The portraits mostly reinforce what we already know about our favorite musicians; nothing new is revealed, carefully crafted reputations remain intact. Overall, Who Shot Rock & Roll is a pretty accurate reflection of the scene itself; not particularly cerebral, but a whole lot of fun nonetheless.
The over 180 photographs in the exhibition run the gamut from scribbled-on Polaroids to computer-manipulated portraits. Some are very familiar, ubiquitous even ("The Ramones New York 1976" by Roberta Bayley, above), while others have gone unseen until now ("Kurt Cobain Crying" by Ian Tilton). The exhibition dedicates a lot of space to artists in the early years of their careers, images that are sweet in their naivete: a stiff-looking David Bowie poses awkwardly in a hotel room, and a demurely dressed Madonna peers into Amy Arbus' lens on a quiet New York City block. Other photographs capture musicians "behind the scenes," both backstage and in the bedroom. Diane Arbus managed to photograph James Brown in his Queens home, curlers in his hair and a faraway gaze on his face, while M.I.A. stares dazedly into Valerie Jodoin Keaton's camera after a concert. A corner is dedicated to "the crowd," images of venues crammed with bodies. Ryan McGinley's "Untitled Morrissey" (2005-06), a cerulean sea of heads, is like looking back in time to that one, unforgettable show that every viewer has in common. Two galleries feature "portraits" and photographs that "construct an image," categories that have pretty much become one and the same. The most charming and honest images in the exhibition, however, appear in a slideshow put together by musician Henry Diltz. Eighty fuzzy snapshots, both candid and posed, accompanied by the familiar clicks of the projector, are reminiscent of a family vacation slideshow, albeit in this case of an impossibly cool vacation with Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison.
Without really trying, Who Shot Rock & Roll explores that strange and necessary relationship between photography and rock and roll. The medium is silent, the antithesis to the noisiness that defines rock and roll, yet it allowed musicians to push rock beyond just the music. Photography was essential in building the archetypes of celebrity that exist to this day: devil-may-care, dark and brooding, revolutionary, or any other of those that have now become all too familiar (note the uncanny resemblance between Amy Winehouse and members of 60s group The Ronettes). It's not everyday that a museum exhibition opens in which the artist is secondary to the subject, and maybe that's a good thing. But all incredulity aside, Who Shot Rock and Roll holds a mirror up to the face of American music, resulting in an exhibition just as imperfect and essential as rock and roll itself.