Music Comes Into Focus
Music and photography have something in common: They both strive to capture a moment in time and share its unique beauty with the world. The sympathetic relationship between both art forms was showcased Wednesday night during the GRAMMY Foundation's 11th Annual Music Preservation Project program, "Music In Focus," at the historic Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles.
The presentation delivered a stunning multimedia display, which combined video montages of classic photographs with live interviews and musical performances.
In his opening remarks, Recording Academy and GRAMMY Foundation President/CEO Neil Portnow recalled the iconic photographs that managed to capture — within a single frame — the essence of such legendary artists as the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Elvis Presley.
Hosted by author and music television personality Kurt Loder, the presentation paid tribute to the work of three iconic photographers: Danny Clinch, Robert Knight and Herman Leonard. Each of these visual artists was paired up with a live musical performance.
Leonard's work is synonymous with the golden era of American jazz. Evocative black-and-white portraits of Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis are only a small part of his legacy — he is also an author and his work is featured in the Smithsonian Institution. Leonard was present in the audience, and was saluted by the capacity crowd with a standing ovation.
GRAMMY-nominated artist Sara Bareilles accompanied the video montage of classic Leonard images with a haunting rendition of Duke Ellington's standard "Moon Indigo," backed by the subtle accompaniment of an acoustic bassist.
Raised in Hawaii, Knight has been documenting the bluesier side of rock and roll for the past 40 years, photographing guitar-heavy artists such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan. During a candid interview with Loder, Knight explained that he leveraged the money he earned from commercial photography — working for cruise ships and Hawaii hotels — to fund his love for rock photography and travel the world shooting his favorite bands in concert.
Unlike pioneers who rest on their laurels and focus exclusively on juicy anecdotes from the past, Knight made it a point to express his admiration for two contemporary guitarists: Tyler Bryant and Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Both musicians were on hand to turn the Wilshire Ebell into a hard rock arena, delivering a high-voltage version of Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and trading solos in a display of dazzling technique and exquisite musicianship.
Clinch — the official GRAMMY photographer — also had many stories to tell. He recalled a photo session with Neil Young made memorable by his decision to rent a Cadillac from the '40s as a prop. The resulting image is pure rock and roll lore: Young's face, in black and white, as seen through the car's rearview mirror.
Clinch also recalled the soulful portrait of a shirtless Tupac Shakur that ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine following the rapper's tragic death.
"Every shoot is different," he emphasized after showing a vibrant picture of Tom Waits riding a merry-go-round at a fair. Clinch explained that some artists are natural models and always willing to play for the camera, while others are more reserved and prompt him to bring them back to their comfort zone — playing a guitar or piano.
One of Clinch's favorite subjects, Lucinda Williams, appeared on stage with her band and seminal producer/guitarist Daniel Lanois. Williams then launched into a remarkably soulful interpretation of the gorgeous "Fruits Of My Labor" — generating the kind of impromptu magic that GRAMMY Week and the GRAMMY Awards are noted for. Lanois followed with a whimsical piece, which he performed solo on pedal steel guitar, an instrument he studied as a child.
During an interview with Loder, Williams admitted that she had kept Clinch waiting on a number of photo sessions, "In fact, I made him wait every time," she laughed. The warmth with which she praised Clinch's artistry underscored once again the unique rapport that can unite musicians and photographers.
In a way, Wednesday's "Music In Focus" program was all about the blurring nature of inspiration — the magical moment when a song or photo freezes in time for all of us to cherish.