Rock & roll is here till May at the Shelburne Museum

The Rock & Roll photography exhibit at Shelburne Museum gives visitors a glimpse into rock & roll stars from Madonna to Janis Joplin. Photo by Eileen O’Grady

For many, the phrase “classic rock & roll” conjures up memories of a favorite song. But honing a unique persona, style, and image is as much a part of a rock-&-roll musician’s theatrical performance as his or her music. It is this visual aspect of musicianship that is being explored in the exhibit “Backstage Pass: Rock & Roll Photography” on display at the Shelburne Museum until May 7.

The exhibit consists of over 800 black-and-white and color images of rock-&-roll celebrities from Jimi Hendrix to Janis Joplin, Ozzy Osbourne to Bob Dylan and Sid Vicious to The Rolling Stones, taken from the mid-1950s up through the 2000s by photographers like Laura Levine, Kate Simon, Bob Gruen, and Philip Townsend.

“It’s basically like a history course of rock & roll,” said Shelburne Museum head curator Kory Rogers.

Some of the photographs in the exhibit are posed. Others are candid. Some were taken during performances; others picture the artists at home, or in everyday settings like grocery stores or public transportation. In one photo, Elvis Presley gives his mother Gladys a kiss on the cheek in exchange for a pair of freshly laundered jockey shorts. In another, Joey Ramone sits on his kitchen floor in front of an open refrigerator, a jar of barbecue sauce in his hand. One image features just the Beatles’ feet, from the knees down, on grey carpet. Most of these photographs have rarely – if ever – been published, and they offer a fresh and fascinating glimpse of the celebrities outside of the concert hall.

Backstage Pass was first mounted by Shelburne Museum’s Director Tom Denenburg at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art in 2009. Since then, the exhibit appeared at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H. before moving to the Shelburne Museum in early Feb.

Some of the images in the exhibit capture pivotal moments in the artists’ careers, like the one of pop queen Madonna at the first gig she ever played. Other photos capture the more macabre side of rock & roll fame – there is a suggestion of drug use in some photos of Iggy Pop, Kurt Cobain, and Chet Baker, for example. And one photograph of Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones standing casually beside his swimming pool was taken just days before he drowned there.

An exhibit like this one is somewhat of a departure for the Shelburne Museum, whose wholesome collections continue to be influenced largely by the tastes and legacy of society heiress and museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960). But Rogers says the variation in exhibitions is all part of the museum’s recent effort to engage with a more diverse demographic of people.

And it’s been working.

“I think a lot of people who may never have been to the museum before, or who might not visit the museum on a regular basis, have come to see this show because it strikes such a chord with them,” Rogers said. “It’s been kind of interesting to walk into the galleries and see who’s coming.”

For those who grew up listening to rock-and-roll music, the exhibit is a trip down memory lane. But Rogers said even those who don’t feel that bittersweet tug of rock–&-roll nostalgia can enjoy looking at the photos, finding connections with modern-day musical icons, and checking out the flamboyant fashions of the time.

None of the artists’ music plays in the galleries, but there are turntables in the atrium with headphones, where visitors can listen to songs on original vinyl LPs by the same musicians pictured in the exhibit. Guidebooks are available in each gallery, with information about each of the photographers and the performers they photographed.

Webb herself was a collector of folk art, with a passion for collecting and saving elements of everyday life that she felt were disappearing from modern culture. Although she may not have shaken her hips and grooved to the rhythm of the Sex Pistols, Rogers believes it would not be a stretch to imagine that Mrs. Webb would have appreciated the concept of the show, which seeks to preserve the legacies of the nascent rock-&-roll era.

The exhibit will be on display at the Shelburne Museum in the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education until May 7.

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