Musicians as Photographers – Two Exhibitions At Somerset House

On a recent trip to London, I took the opportunity to visit Somerset House and take in a couple of exhibitions, both of which featured work by artists better known (to me at least) as musicians than as photographers. The shows in question present the work of Chris Stein, founder member of the punk band ‘Blondie’, and Canadian rock musician Bryan Adams…

Wounded: The Legacy of War – Photographs by Bryan Adams

This show features a series of portraits of British military personnel who have suffered serious and significant injuries whilst serving in Afghanistan and in Iraq. The images are presented as large scale prints, some colour, some monochrome, rendering each subject against a plain white backdrop. Through these pictures we see in no uncertain terms the true extent of these people’s injuries, with many being heavily scared and/or having lost limbs; this is not for the feint hearted. That is not to say however that these people are represented as woeful, or that the exhibition takes on the qualities of some sort of horror show. Far from it. What stuck me as I moved through the gallery was how these individuals retained their identity, their dignity. It is as if we see the person first, their injuries second. In all but a few shots, the subject is shown facing the camera, often looking into the lens with the camera taking a relatively low viewpoint, i.e. bellow eye height. Sometimes in ceremonial dress, sometimes in battledress, these remarkable people present themselves along with their medals, their scars and their artificial limbs as matter of fact.  Far from any effort to disguise or conceal, in many of these images the subject has deliberately and overtly revealed the full extent of their disfigurement by rolling up a trouser leg or removing their shirt as if in a spirit of defiance echoed by their stance and there expression, not to mention the occasional tattoo proclaiming the likes of ‘unscarred’.

Prior to visiting this exhibition, I had not realised that this Bryan Adams was the Bryan Adams, the same Bryan Adams who’s record breaking power ballad had dominated the UK singles charts back in in 1991. Even after I had made the connection, or to be more accurate, the connection had been pointed out to me later that day, I had no knowledge of his history or achievements as a photographer. (I have since discovered through Adams’ website that he has been publishing and exhibiting work since 2000). I can therefore say with complete honesty that I had no preconceptions or expectations concerning the photographer when approaching the work.

Given their explicit nature and topical relevance, it is difficult not to be affected by these high definition photograph and I noted a number of visitors were moved to the point of tears. It is to the credit of Adams that he has managed to address such a challenging and uncomfortable subject with sensitivity, humanity and respect. This show is open until 25th January 2015 (details can be found here), I thoroughly recommend it.

Chris Stein/Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk

In approaching this show, I had significantly more in the way of preconception. I new of Stein’s Art School background and his relationship to Blondie’s iconic vocalist Deborah Harry, this has been the subject of many an article and TV documentary. The exhibition consists of a combination of personal snapshots and more consciously and deliberately made publicity pictures which reflect the life of the band throughout the 1970s and 80s. Again we see some large scale work, but this time the prints are made from primarily 35mm monochrome negatives often in a grainy, contrasty style that seems to echo the subject matter, i.e.  New York’s the emerging punk culture.

Blondie as a band enjoyed considerable commercial success, especially in Europe and as their career took off their sound perhaps became a little more ‘mainstream’, more ‘pop’. These images remind us of the band’s musical heritage, and perhaps go some way to reasserting their credibility as an integral and influential member of the New York scene. Stein’s photographs include shots of the likes of Iggy Pop, Patty Smith, The Ramones, Television, The Heartbreakers, Talking Heads and others in a ‘snapshot’ style that lends a certain gritty authenticity to the pictures. Along with these documentary images, Stein presents more structured depictions of his band and in particular an often stylish Deborah Harry made in many cases as publicity shots, in which she is sharply contrasted with somewhat less glamorous surroundings such as backstage at CBGB’s.

As I walked through this show, I found on many occasions Stein’s accompanying comments to be as revealing as the images themselves. Reading the texts, I found a sense of the ‘ordinary’, of intimacy, making both Stein and his subjects feel more tangible, more ‘real’, less remote. I was also struck by the number of Stein’s subjects who are no longer around and this gives the exhibition an undercurrent of pathos.

Of course, this exhibition should appeal to music fans, not only those with an interest in Blondie but those who remember the turbulence of the late 70s and the ‘punk’ revolution (that would be me then). I would also suggest that this show offers something for the photographic aficionado. The quality of these pictures along with the selection and presentation of both the exhibition and the accompanying book suggests that Stein, like Adams, is an accomplished visual artist with a refined understanding of the camera and its ability to communicate. Like Adam’s show, ‘Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk’ is open until 25th January. Admission to both exhibitions is free.

You can view a selection of Adams’ pictures on The Independent website, and a short slideshow of Stein’s images can be seen on the Somerset House website.

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Duncan Shepherd