15 November/16 November 2014
Cool and collected
Rock photography: How images of pop stars have gone from bedroom walls to sale rooms.
By Melanie Abrams
Music photographs—images that would once ripped out of magazines and stuck on teenage bedroom walls—have become increasingly collectable.
Take Gered Mankowitz’s portrait of Jimi Hendrix, which nearly doubled in price from £5,367 to £9,781 between November 2015 and May 2014. Or Annie Leibovitz’s 1980 photograph of a naked John Lennon curled against a black-clad Yoko Ono. Selling for $350 in 1984 at Washington’s Govinda Gallery, the image fetched £15,420 at Sotheby’s New York in February 2013.
While music photographs have often achieved cult status—and the occasional high price—the success of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s David Bowie exhibition in 2013 and allusions to rock from the 1970s in recent catwalk shows have fueled today’s collecting boom.
“In this rampant consumerism and technology age, everyone enjoys the idea of decay and simplicity of the [1970s],” says Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, whose intimate photographs of the band during that era are on show at Somerset House in London.
Simone Klein, director of photography at Sotheby’s Paris, says: “Photographs of celebrities are increasingly important in today’s celebrity-obsessed world. And rock stars from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s are the big heroes, so they are becoming more important in galleries and auctions.” Sotheby’s Paris has a Rolling Stone front cover of Keith Richards by Sante d’Orazio (est €4,000-€6,000) in a sale this month, alongside photographs by Andreas Gursky, August Sander, and others.
Famous collectors include Tom Hanks, who seeks out Beatles photographs, Microsoft’s Paul Allen, who prefers Hendrix; Steve Jobs, the late cofounder of Apple, used to collect Bob Dylan images, according to Chris Murray of Govinda Gallery.
Other musicians are selling their personal photographs. Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac has just shown her Polaroid of self-portraits at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in New York, while Chris Dreja from the Yardbirds will display his images from the band’s studio sessions at Snap Galleries in London from next February. “Famous names don’t mean they have merit but they have an insight that others don’t, which makes them collectable,” says Guy White, Snap Galleries’ director.
Museum exhibitions—such as Brooklyn Museum’s Who Shot Rock & Roll in 2009—have upped the ante, says Bob Gruen, whose photographs of Lennon, Led Zeppelin, and Sid Vicious came to Londonewcastle Project Space last month. “There’s more recognition that it’s not just a photo of a pop star but how the photograph affects people,” he says.
Good news is that prices are still relatively low. “With a budget of £500 to £5,000 I can have a good piece of pop art,” says London property developer Robert Soning, who collects photographs of Bowie, the Sex Pistols, and Bob Marley, as well as prints by Damien Hirst and works by Banksy. Consider Gruen’s famous image of Lennon in a New York City T-shirt at the Londonewcastle space, founded by Soning: it was on sale for £950.
As the market grows, rare images are becoming available. A complete set of photos for the Beatles’ Abbey Road album (est £50,000-£70,000) will be on sale at Bloomsbury Auctions on November 21. The pictures are by Iain Macmillan, who died in 2006. Macmillan’s work is hard to find in general. “Only a finite number were produced and he only did editions of 25,” says Sarah Wheeler, Bloomsbury’s head of photographs.
For Jeffrey Deitch, who curated September’s Blondie show at the Hotel Chelsea Storefront Gallery, music photographs have become more collectable as the distinction between art forms blurs. “Even the work of the Velvet Underground is thought of as contemporary art today. I am interested in Blondie and their pictures as much as Cindy Sherman,” says Deitch.
Kevin Cummins, who has photographed Joy Division, Oasis, and New Order among others, believes musicians make stronger subjects than, say, film stars. Take his edgy Manic Street Preachers’ images (at Proud Camden uneil January 11, 2015), which documents the band on stage, in the studio, and on tour. “Musicians are themselves, whereas film stars are pretending to be someone else,” he says. “You can’t just turn up to a film set and do backstage shots, which you can with music. So there is more of an art to music photography because of the access and intimacy.”
Images of the Rolling Stones are said to be among the bestsellers. “It’s the cool feeling and groovy image they transmit. Rebellion, rock, beauty, talent, ‘70s—success sells,” says Arnaud Adida, founder of A Galarie, whose Brussels space is showing Claude Gassian’s Rolling Stones’ portfolio alongside his striking images of younger stars such as Beth Ditto and Daft Punk (from €2,200). Lady Gaga, with her distinctive style and huge fan base (she has 42.7m Twitter followers), is considered by some to be today’s star to collect.
Canny choices are crucial. Buy album covers or a quirky shot such as Bob Willoughby’s playful image of the Beatles having a pillow fight. Unique works are also to be found. New York based entrepreneur Chris Jonns has a signed image of “David Bowie—Saxophone Session” by Mick Rock, which he bought for $15,000 eight years ago. “It will only ever accrue in value as Bowie hardly signs anything,” he says.
The internet is also playing a role in the rise of music photography’s collectability, with long unseen images now coming to light, says Rock, whose casual snaps of Bowie during his Ziggy Stardust days—sleeping, having lunch or smoking before going on stage—are unveiled for the first time at Gothenburg’s Auktionsverket Kulturarena next week.
As a Stockholm-based art collector who collects the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan concludes: “Music artists will always have value because new generations will always listen to the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix.”