PORTLAND, Maine - Rock 'n' roll will never die; photographs and the memories of those who snapped them assure its immortality. "Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography" at the Portland Museum of Art presents nearly 300 rarely seen portraits of rock legends, from Chuck Berry to Kurt Cobain, Aretha Franklin to Madonna, the Ramones to the Rolling Stones.
The exhibition's genesis, says museum curator Tom Denenberg, was a luncheon conversation he had with the anonymous collector about the role of race in rock 'n' roll. "Separating race from rock 'n' roll is like removing salt from seawater," Denenberg says. "You can do it, but the product is something else."
Included in "Backstage Pass" are works by more than 50 photographers. "Just about every photographer who ever pointed a lens at a musician is represented in the show," Denenberg says. Most of the exhibited photos are black and white because that was what most of the popular magazines, such as Rolling Stone and Creem, required.
"It's a sweeping history of rock music," Denenberg says.
But what the exhibit truly captures is a lifestyle. "Rock 'n' roll is an attitude, not a genre," Denenberg says. "Rock is a performance both onstage and off."
Most of the images were shot before the musicians became skilled at posing for the camera. While not candids, neither are they rigid promotional shots. "How musicians learned to pose is part of the story as well," Denenberg says. In time, they learned that lesson too well. "It's all marketing campaign now. Then, there was a lot more give and take" between photographer and subject.
The exhibit is of musicians caught in their prime: the young Elvis, a young Tony Bennett who could be modeling for a Marlboro Man advertisement, a baby-faced James Brown. Some photos capture turning-point moments, such as Philip Townsend's shot of Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones manager, the night the group first appeared on TV.
The juxtapositions of some photos illustrate the loss of innocence. For example, Harry Benson's 1966 photo "Ali Hits George" shows the Fab Four as playful youths with Muhammad Ali. They've hardened visibly in Townsend's 1968 shot "The Beatles with Maharishi." Other images place the musician in historical context, such as Lynn Goldsmith's "Patti Smith," taken during a 1975 protest against the US backing of the shah of Iran.
The ravages of life on the road are also clear. "Dying young is huge when it comes to rock 'n' roll," Denenberg says. "It's very poignant to see how young Janis Joplin, Duane Allman, and Jimi Hendrix were." It's also startling to see youthful images of now aging icons such as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Kris Kristofferson, and Stevie Wonder.
One of the show's most powerful images, Denenberg believes, is Kate Simon's 2007 shot of Iggy Pop. "The guy looks like he's lived an extremely hard life. He's leathery in appearance and sitting on a leather chair, with his head cocked at an angle, and just above him is a painting of Christ; he looks for all the world as if he's crucified as well."
Although Denenberg expected the exhibition to draw young people, he's been surprised by its multigenerational appeal. The demographic it's attracting, he says, is characterized in a cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker magazine that depicted a teenage girl chatting on her cellphone, with the caption: "Oh, I'm not doing anything, just listening to Santana with my parents."
Contact Hilary Nangle at www.HilaryNangle.com.