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The History of Music Photography

Montage of Rockarchive Print Images, 2023

The history of music photography is intertwined with the history of photography itself and dates back to the early days of the medium. However, the recognition of popular music photography as a distinct genre, really began to take shape in the mid-late 20th century.

Prior to this, capturing live performances was challenging due to technical limitations. Photographers had to work with slow film speeds, cumbersome cameras, flash bulbs that had to be reloaded, and the limited film speeds available.

Despite obstacles, some managed to capture seminal moments. Most notably William P. Gottlieb and Herman Leonard, both of whom documented the golden era of jazz in the 1930s and 1940s, immortalising giants such as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington.

Elvis Presley, 1956 by Al Wertheimer

The popularity of rock 'n' roll in the 1950s and 1960s and improvements in camera technology brought a new energy and attitude to music photography. Photographers like Al Wertheimer, Don Hunstein and Robert Whitaker became known for their candid and intimate shots of legends such as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan and The Beatles. Their photographs not only captured the rawness and intensity of performances but also provided glimpses into the personal lives of musicians, shaping the mythology surrounding them.

In the 1960s and 1970s, music imagery further evolved with the rise of album cover art. Storm Thorgerson and ‘Po’ Powell of Hipgnosis broke the mould with their surreal imagery for Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin. Meanwhile Brian Duffy, Gered Mankowitz, and Mick Rock created iconic album covers that became inseparable from the music they represented - from the striking cover of David Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane' to the classic portrait of Queen lit from above for ‘Queen II’.

Queen II album cover by Mick Cover

During the 1970s and 1980s, the UK music press played a vital role in documenting the vibrant music scenes of the time. Publications such as Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Sounds and later The Face, published live, studio, and on-the-road images taken by photographers such as Michael Putland, Barrie Wentzell, Pennie Smith, Jill Furmanovsky, Ray Stevenson and Chalkie Davis. In America it was Rolling Stone and Annie Lebovitz. These pioneers provided photographic essays on life-style of the times that were poured over by fans. From rock legends like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones to punk icons like The Sex Pistols and The Clash, music press photography captured the energy and style of these eras.

Pete Townshend's Guitar, The Who, 1979 by Michael Putland

With the advent of MTV in the 1980s, photography began to merge with filmmaking. Still photographers Anton Corbijn and David LaChapelle became renowned for their music video directing, infusing their visual styles into the narratives of the songs.

in the 21st Century digital technology developed to such an extent that shooting stills and film with sound, are not only possible with cameras, but phones too. At the same time Photoshop opened the door to manipulating images easily, echoing the audio equivalent that gave birth to techno savvy artists such as Kanye West, Jay-Z, Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish and The Weeknd.

Billie Eilish, Glastonbury Festival, 2019 by Jill Furmanovsky

In the end, what really touches us about great music photography is the emotional resonance it evokes, capturing the rapture of being at a concert, or diving into the imagined head space of a true icon in a luminous portrait. It’s an art form that at its best captures the essence of music and preserves its inspiring legacy for generations to come.

At Rockarchive we have specialised in printing, selling, restoring and curating music photography for the last 25 years, working with photographers who have captured the very best in rock 'n' roll images. Our exhibition 'In the Moment: The Art of Music Photography' that is showing at the Barbican Music Library. London in 2023 is a celebration of music photography and runs until 4th December.

In the Moment: The Art of Music Photography at the Barbican Music Library