‘Backstage Pass’: Celebrating the stars of rock ’n’ roll

By Mary Gow

David Bowie, the Beatles, Madonna, Debbie Harry, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones — including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards before they were the Rolling Stones — everyone from the rock world from the late 1950s to 1980s is at Shelburne Museum. In nearly 300 photos, viewers come face to face with the icons that made music history.

“Backstage Pass,” an exhibition of rarely seen photographs of nearly every important figure in rock ’n’ roll history, has opened at the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education at Shelburne Museum. Filling two galleries, the show is an almost encyclopedic history of rock. At the same time, it is remarkably intimate, giving viewers close-up glimpses of iconic musicians, often in the early stages of their celebrity.

“The relationship between rock ’n’ roll and the camera is intimate and profound. The photographer encounters the musician, and something is born that lives both between them and beyond them,” writes Shelburne Museum Director Tom Denenberg in the spectacular “Backstage Pass” catalogue that accompanies the show.

The photographs in “Backstage Pass” are all from a single private collection, belonging to an individual who chooses to remain anonymous. The overall collection numbers over 800 images. Beginning in the 1960s, living in England and later the United States, the collector saw and had relationships with many of these bands. He shares his backstage access through this exhibition.

Denenberg worked with the collector nearly a decade ago at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art, organizing the “Backstage Pass” exhibition there in 2009 with many of the photographs now featured at Shelburne. The catalogue, “Backstage Pass: Rock and Roll History,” with its splendid selection of photographs and essays about celebrity portraiture, was first published at that time. The Portland show attracted tremendous attendance, not just among baby boomers, but across generations.

More than 50 photographers’ works are in the show. Many are well known — Harry Benson, Philip Townsend, Laura Levine and Kate Simon. (Simon will be giving and artist talk titled “Behind the Lens” at the museum March 15.) Many were young paparazzi of the time.

“There was a whole culture of stringer photographers shooting concerts in every community. Any kid with a camera would get a pass into concerts and send their pictures off to Creem or Rolling Stone,” said Denenberg.

Throughout the exhibition, this accessibility to the musicians shows through. Few of the shots are actually candid, but ease and spontaneity pervades. The photographs offer rare glimpses of musicians at the center of seismic cultural shift.

Many photographs feature the artists in the days of their rising celebrity — startling reminders of their youth.

Tony Bennett, sculpted and unlined, cigarette between his lips, strikes a Hollywood pose in 1958. The Supremes, styling stiletto pumps and stewardess-like suits pose curbside with umbrellas in 1964. Also that year, the Beatles, mop tops still in place, clown with magnificently toned Muhammad Ali. In a beautiful close up, discs of light reflect from Aretha Franklin’s eyes in 1966.

In a 1963 photo, Andrew Loog Oldham, at 19 years old already a self-confident promoter, holds aloft a photograph of the Rolling Stones. The young musicians, in tidy matching suits, were making their first television appearance, on Britain’s “Thank Your Lucky Stars.”

“The photograph doesn’t capture a moment; it shows what could not be shown: the future. The void into which, you can imagine, the man in the chair is about to pitch the people he holds over his head,” writes Greil Marcus, music critic and author, discussing the image in the show’s catalogue.

Photographs in the show are arranged in clusters, somewhat chronologically. The 1950s into the 1970s are in the upstairs gallery, 1970s and later in the downstairs gallery. There is a scrapbook-like quality in the galleries, as friends’ photos might be kept together.

The history of rock ’n’ roll tells a broader cultural story. Along with wonderful moments with musicians, the show opens conversations on issues including race in America and protest. In his research for the 2009 “Backstage Pass” exhibition, Denenberg came across the pivotal change in music labeling, when an editor at Billboard Magazine renamed the ”Race Records” category, changing it to “Rhythm and Blues.” That rephrasing opened up the music landscape.

Protest and activism also make appearances in the show. In 1964, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez stand with a poster stating: “Protest Against the Rising Tide of Conformity.” In Central Park in 1975, Patti Smith and masked companions protest the Shah of Iran’s regime.

A public opening and director’s talk, “Rock & Roll and the Camera,” will be presented at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18, in which Denenberg explores the cultural work of rock ’n’ roll photographs. Shelburne Museum is presenting other special events accompanying this exhibition; for details, go online to shelburnemuseum.org.

Shelburne Museum

Shelburne Museum presents “Backstage Pass: Rock and Roll Photography,” Feb. 11 – May 7, in its Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, 6000 Shelburne Road (Route 7) in Shelburne. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday – Sunday; admission is $10, $5 ages 5 – 17; call 802-985-3346, or go online to shelburnemuseum.org. A public opening and director’s talk, “Rock & Roll and the Camera,” will be presented at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 18.