Keeley and then some…
In his book, ”Photography, A Very Short Introduction,” the author, Steve Edwards complains “photography runs in all directions, permeating diverse aspects of society.” He also states that, “ Trying to account for photography as a whole, is akin to a history, or a museum of writing: it is best shown by the uses in the institutions or tasks in which it was put to work.”
In the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s, the music industry supported a remarkable variety of music and image production. Cultural shifting plus the evolutionary advances in technology invited interesting experimentations in package design, and a celebratory moment in the creation of iconic photographs. The industry’s use of pictures as an accompaniment to the music, made for an incredibly rich and innovative atmosphere for artists and image makers. I think the pictures that I made in those years invited people to enjoy a layered and imaginative visual story that was always somewhat mysteriously inspired by the music. While every story was different, every image always had a story.
Some of my earliest memories are about obsessively playing 45’s on my great grandmother’s record player. Almost before I could talk, I was playing “The Green Door, How Much Is That Doggie in the Window, Theme from Dragnet, The Yellow Rose of Texas and Sixteen Tons” among about fifty others that were stored in one of those boxes with the handle on the top. I remember being fascinated even by how every time the disc would drop onto the platter the arm would magically swing over in sync and start the song. I would sit in her bedroom for hours while the adults were talking in the kitchen about I never knew what. I know that I always looked forward to going to her house, and at that age music was introduced into my life as an incredible mystery, a wonder and something that seemed infinite.
The first stereo album I owned was “Surfin USA,” by the Beach Boys. By 1962 I was really captivated by music and how the images strategically accompanied the music. It was funny. I thought I understood the music. I could play the drum parts to the songs and even make up my own parts, but the images of bikinied girls, fast cars, surfboards, wholesome sex, beaches, the sun and surf and the pictures of fun completely confused me. I was really short, lived in New Jersey, did poorly in school and everything else, was sick all the time and had real difficulties reconciling the reality that I was born into.
I took art lessons, drum lessons, played in bands and even though I was miserable most of the time, music and those narrative images that were printed on the album packages seemed to offer me a view into a world that all fit together beautifully. The pictures were a strangely harmonic and inseparable component to the listening experience. Sometimes, I would just take the albums out and study the pictures. I couldn’t explain the “why” of it all or justify the time I spent listening, imagining, thinking about music, daydreaming, looking those pictures, and wondering about how to make a life that was more interesting than the one I was living. I know now that everyone worried about how much time I spent alone.
Jumping to 1982, I had a really good career going of quitting or getting fired from jobs. After leaving the photo editor job at the LA Weekly I was playing percussion in bands with Victoria Williams, Peter Case and then surprisingly drafted into T Bone Burnett’s touring band featuring Mick Ronson. We opened for The Who and The Clash in those first round of the Who's farewell shows. We went out and played before The Clash in gigantic stadiums for over a hundred thousand people each night. We played the King Dome in Seattle, the Los Angeles Coliseum and I experienced music from a side of the stage where most people don’t ever get to be.
I soon realized that drummers only get to play twice a day; once in a sound check and then again in the performance. I wound up with an enormous amount of time to kill so I started making up for the lost time in school by reading. After the Russian authors, I read everything by Somerset Maugham, Melville, Proust, Hammett, Chandler and I think a million short stories. I haunted the bookstores in every city we played.
Starting in the 1980’s I made photographs for the covers of vinyl LPs, then worked on tape cassettes and finished this chapter with the explosion of the CD. The progression of making art went from a big 12” square for record albums, to the strangely shaped little tape cassettes, and then to the 4” square of the compact disc. Now in the 21st Century we all consume, share and steal digital audio files with some attached anonymous virtual image to view on our digital devices.
Today’s music is made and edited differently from the past, but the real difference is that the majority of music’s audience has gone from listening to music in an acoustic space to inserting little bud like speakers in their ears and making the inside of their heads the listening space.
My photographs were often used as material for advertising music recordings, or for the publicizing of an event or concert, but tracing back to my own relationships with music, I always considered the “package” as an important and personal story told about music, and the people that make it. Photographs have always held this remarkable tension between a truth and fiction. The portraits of musicians aren’t necessarily a truth.
Most photographers love making pictures, but those who courageously practice portraiture are usually curious, fascinated or even obsessed by the miracle of expression. People’s stories are told by the smallest gesture, the subtle pose, the mysterious condition of character and the circumstances of fame that move back and forth between some kind of real truth of what a person looks like in the moment, the most fabulous lie or fiction of who people would do anything to be, and the image that isn’t really either fact or fiction.
In a kind of poetic reverse of what used to confuse the 13 year old me, today I understand that the portraits can sometimes just be about music. The two people trying to make pictures about expression meet in a shared circle of making… and the person other than the subject that you might just feel, but can’t ever see in every photograph is always me.
Dennis Keeley 25 Years of Music