They're a different breed of kingmakers, ones without tremendous wealth or any other currency powerbrokers have traditionally leveraged throughout history. Yet for all their humility, professional photographers can exert tremendous influence over who ultimately earns power and renown. Indeed, what would music stardom be without photographers helping to shape identity and disseminate images?
That's just one of the questions the Annenberg Space for Photography attempts to answer with its latest exhibit, Country: Portraits Of An American Sound. The unique exhibit — which opens May 31 and runs through Sept. 28 in Los Angeles — introduces visitors to many of the music photographers, videographers and documentarians behind some of the most iconic country music images of all time.
The exhibit showcases more than 110 prints, including iconic and rarely seen photos of legendary country music performers such as GRAMMY winners Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson, to contemporary country stars such as the Band Perry, Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, and Kacey Musgraves, among many others. Featured just as prominently as the artists are the photographers behind their images, including the late Walden S. Fabry, veteran Grand Ole Opry photographer Les Leverett, Raeanne Rubenstein, and David McClister, among others.
Shannon Perich, curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, participated on the Annenberg Space for Photography selection panel and says there's something co-dependent about the relationship between country stars and photographers.
"To be photographed by them is a sign that the performer has made it," Perich says. "The performer wants to be photographed, and the photographer can propel the performer. It goes both ways."
Recognition for country music photographers has been overdue. While rock and roll has helped spawn superstars in the form of Annie Leibovitz, Jim Marshall, Lynn Goldsmith, and Bob Gruen — some of whom were spotlighted in Annenberg's 2012 exhibit Who Shot Rock And Roll — A Photographic History, 1955 To The Present — country photographers have toiled in relative obscurity, perhaps a result of the "aw, shucks" modesty that is part and parcel of country culture.
According to Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum writer/editor Michael McCall, he and his fellow Annenberg selection panelists looked at the entire history of country music photography and chose photographers who they believed were vital to chronicling that story.
"I think it's an interesting way to look at this music, because we had some real different types of photographers involved, and three different country eras," McCall says. "We had a couple of deceased photographers whose whole catalogs were donated to us, so we were able to pull out stuff from back in history. People get to look at the subjects through the photographer's eyes, and not just the subject of country music itself."
Rubenstein's featured photos in the exhibit include a classic shot of Nelson signing his autograph for a young fan and a rare photo of Jennings holding a cigarette and smiling. A Jewish woman born and raised in New York, Rubenstein had to convince country managers and publicists to trust her with their artists, a goal she accomplished by "trying to be honest, truthful and straightforward with my intentions."
"I'm here for the picture, and I'm going to take the best picture that I can, but I need you to help me," she says, emulating her pitch to country superstar handlers. "The publicist needs to help me. The artist needs to help me, and the makeup people need to help me in order for me to make the photo as beautiful as I hope for.
The Annenberg exhibit allows visitors to enjoy the result of Rubenstein's gentle coaxing and photographic skill, including a portrait of the late country music clothier Nudie Cohn sitting with star-crossed country/rock pioneer Gram Parsons, both clad in extravagant Western wear that Cohn designed. The exhibit also showcases what is perhaps Rubenstein's most iconic image: a 1970s shot of GRAMMY winner Tammy Wynette at her Nashville estate, radiating authority and coolness that could be described as "country gangsta."
Both the Wynette and Nudie/Parsons photos evince Rubenstein's modus operandi.
"One thing I do is enlist the subject's aid in the creation of the photo," she says. "I try and get them to suggest picture ideas. Like they'll say, 'I love my car.' OK, so let's go get the car. But it could be anything. It could be a walk in the woods, or jumping in the boat, or so much as the wink of an eye, or the wave of a hand. These things are offered to you by the artist as kind of a gift."
While the Annenberg exhibit spotlights unsung commercial photographers such as Rubenstein, it also celebrates music's supporting players — the disc jockeys, music executives, comedians, fans, and others who have helped country become the lucrative industry it is today.
For example, Henry Horenstein's photos give viewers a peek into country music's fans. From 1972–1981, Horenstein — currently a photography professor at the Rhode Island School of Design — snapped countless black-and-white images of everyday honky-tonk patrons. The resulting photos were collected in the 2012 book, Honky Tonk: Portraits Of Country Music.
"I thought I was documenting a disappearing era," Horenstein says. "I think the pictures are more about the way people lived and how they interacted with the fans. They're also about people no one really cares about, unless they're making fun of them like on daytime 'Jerry Springer' or something. They're basically blue-collar people, and they love the music."
Ultimately, blue-collar people are who the Annenberg exhibit celebrates, be they Appalachian performers who became superstars, or the fans who, today as yesterday, support country music with an obsessive zeal.
"The exhibit allowed us to dive into the idea of what photography is, and how country music has used photography to establish itself," adds McCall.
"As they move through the exhibit, we hope that the visitor actually recognizes that they have a role in shaping the definition of what country music is," says Perich. "We hope they see that when they pick certain kinds of photographs — whether they are on album covers, in magazines, on posters, or 8-by-10 glossies — the images they choose to purchase for their own personal use add their voice to affirming country values."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard, and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)