At the Gibbes Museum of Art, beginning this Friday, the late Lizard King wants to give you a hug. Jimi Hendrix will be in attendance as well, along with his contemporaries the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Janis Joplin. Bob Marley will be hanging out, and so will Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh. And, of course, let's not forget the King of Rock 'n' Roll, Elvis.
Sound and Vision: Monumental Rock and Roll Photography opens this week at the Gibbes and will be on display through 2012. It's far from your average collection of rock photography. Even the museum's Curator of Exhibitions Pam Wall was surprised when the photos first arrived.
"I immediately said, 'Holy cow. These are pretty big,'" recalls Wall.
They're not just large. Curated by the Washington, D.C. Govinda Gallery's Chris Murray and organized by The Columbus Museum in Columbus, Ga., the Sound and Vision images utilize a digital pigment printing process pioneered by rock artist and photographer Graham Nash, bringing every detail captured on the photographer's original negatives back to life-size, down to the pores on Hendrix's nose and the power in the clinched fist of a young B.B. King.
"It's not chemicals on photographic paper. These are inks on watercolor paper," explains Murray. "They're so rich and deep. They vibrate, just like the music."
When Annie Leibovitz put on her first show in 1984 after leaving Rolling Stone, it was Murray who hosted it. While helping her hang the portraits, Murray decided to purchase a photo of a naked John Lennon, enveloped in the body of his wife, Yoko Ono.
"She turned to me and said, 'Chris, John was murdered on the day I took that photo,'" Murray recalls. "At that moment, I realized that it was not only a good photo, it was an important photo. I had an epiphany. That moment gave me the impetus as a curator to uncover and find and show and publish books of the best photographs documenting contemporary music."
Murray is quick to differentiate between photos of rock stars and real photography, and the list of photographers represented in Sound and Vision attests to that. The contributing artists include Joel Brodsky, Barry Feinstein, and Alfred Wertheimer, each renowned as being among the best in their trade. Few curators other than Murray could have secured permission to pull these photographers, both living and deceased, together for one show.
"Nearly each photographer represented, I gave them their first exhibit. And when I say, 'I gave it to them,' I mean they gave it to me. It was my honor," says Murray.
For this third stop on Sound and Vision's five-city tour, Murray recruited friend, folk-rock icon and photograph subject Donovan to accompany him to Charleston.
"Pretty much every musician in the show, Donovan either knew or was influenced by, so it will be wonderful to hear his commentary, and it's the first chance he's had to see the exhibit, just like everyone else," says Murray.
Famous for songs including "Season of the Witch" and "Mellow Yellow," Donovan will join Murray for the first of three talks in the show's Art and Fame Lecture Series on Sept. 21, with the pair commenting on the intersection of music and photography, before an after-party at Oak hosted by the Gibbes' Society 1858. Other lectures include Elvis historian Warren Perry (Oct. 12) and Charleston magazine Music Editor Stanfield Gray (Oct. 26).
Accompanying the 39 photographs on display are a collection of ephemera, including album covers that utilized the iconic pictures, from the covers of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass to London Calling by The Clash. Ranging from 1956 (Elvis) to 1999 (Lauryn Hill), the images were selected to resonate with audiences of each living generation, finding the common ground between Kurt Cobain and Mississippi John Hurt.
"Some of them are so powerful. People connect with these images in such strong, personal ways," says the Gibbes' Wall, whose most profound experience was with a Frank Stefanko portrait of Bruce Springsteen in 1978. "I have these very vivid images of being seven or eight years old and seeing this cassette tape on the console of my dad's bright yellow MG. The picture immediately makes me think of being a carefree child and having fun with my family."
And, of course, there are the stories behind the photos themselves. There's "Serious Bob," photographer Kate Simon's name for a picture taken seconds before her smiling portrait of Bob Marley that became the cover of Kaya. There's John Lennon, pre-Beatles haircut, as his bandmates (minus Ringo Starr and including Stuart Sutcliffe) stroll past him on a cobblestone road in 1961 Hamburg, Germany. There's even the 1956 shot of Elvis kissing Charleston resident Barbara Gray, who revealed herself as the girl in question after 55 years in 2011.
From Bob Dylan to Tupac Shakur and Marvin Gaye to Madonna, Sound and Vision captures a half-century of musical icons and restores them to glory. "You can kind of see this arc, like a rainbow, of this golden age in music and all the glorious sounds that came out of it. These musicians and photographers actually affected people," says Murray. "And it's about as close to Jimi Hendrix as you can get."