The good singing hurts, but with the lights on it’s less dangerous

grunge and classical, flamenco and ballet | Photography & Music |

Dukes are dead, long live the Dukes                                                                                                     It was just his birthday few days before, on January 8, the same of Elvis Presley in 1935. But unfortunately also his last one. “Planet Earth is a lot bluer today without David Bowie, the greatest rock-star who ever fell to this or any other world […] He was the most human and most alien of rock artist..” writes Rob Sheffield on Rolling Stones. Even if, as me, you are not a devoute fan of Bowie, it is hard did not ever having encountered him in time. Not only by his musical hits and collaborations, or productions (famous the one with Iggy Pop back in 70ies, in Berlin), but also in cinema, television, or by his masks, the Starman, Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, the Thin White Duke..

 Two photographers were deeply at work with the Bowie. One is Masayoshi Sukita (born in 1938 in Japan), who first met the artist in 1972, photographing him live at the Rainbow Theatre, London. Their collaboration and frienship kept over 40 years, Sukita he also the author of one of the most famous image of the White Duke, the portrait for his cover album ‘Heroes’ (1977).

© Sukita/courtesy of Morrison Hotel Gallery

 Recently Morrison Hotel Gallery, devoted place to iconic fine art music photography, hosted a show of Sukita’s works, in their location in SoHo district (NY) at Prince Street (their second space is in Los Angeles, West Hollywood). Exhibition closed last December 2015, but some of Sukita’s images are still on display at the gallery and rest of collection on sale is possible to be viewed just on request.

 Another fellow Londoner of Bowie, Rock’n’Roll photographer Mick Rock (born in 1948), and even referred as “The Man Who Shot the Seventies”, was between 1972–1973 his official photographer. While the archive of Mick houses photos of many Rock legends (as Syd Barret, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Blondies, Queen, Mötley Crüe..), just from these years comes the last book “Mick Rock: Shooting for Stardust, The Rise of David Bowie & Co.“, Taschen edition, 2015, an incredible compendium of the time with Bowie, with some images never previously published.

© courtesy via Taschen website

In Milan, the exhibition of the book has just closed in the city’s Taschen store (December 14, 2015 – January 31, 2016, TASCHEN Store Milan, Via Meravigli 17, 20123 Milan, Italy), while another show about Bowie, including photographs but also objects as handwritten lyrics, original costumes, album artwork, set design, David Bowie is’ has been extended until Spring at the Groninger Museum, in Netherlands (December 11 – April 10, 2016).

 But for whose the life is also supported by roughest sounds, world is lot bluer also for the fall of another star: founder member of English band Motörhead Ian Fraser “Lemmy” Kilmister passed away too, last December 28. I don’t wanna live for ever and don’t forget the joker, he sang in the song Ace of Spades.. (from their same titled album of 1980). R.i.p. Lemmy.

Spanish filmaker and photographer Pep Bonet spent many years (2008-2015) on the road with Lemmy Kilmister, working long-term reportage on the rock ‘n‘ roll band Motörhead. His book “Röadkill Motörhead”, followed by various exhibitions, has been published in 2012 by Fonart Publishing.

Nirvana of bodies                                                                                                                                    “I was simply blown away when I found that Kurt Cobain liked my work, and have always wanted to talk to him about his reasons for covering ‘The Man Who Sold the World‘ and that it was a good straight forward rendition and sounded somehow very honest…” (David Bowie, in [1]). We might not know his reasons, but surely Kurt Cobain (Aberdeen, U.S. 1967 – Seattle, U.S. 1994) used to listen not only Punk or Metal. Just 18 years ago, on January 23, 1988, Nirvana band started the record session of their first album ‘Bleach’. Legends say the cost of this piece of art was about 600 bucks for 30 hours of sessions, then published by SuB Pop Records in 1989 [2]. Also if for long time mashed by the revolution of ‘Nevermind’ album (1991), that debut is a small masterpiece in Grunge and Rock music. Raw and hypnotic, Bleach goes back to 70ies Rock roots with the solid, almost tribal bass and drum, and an angry Punk attitude, an urgence condesing noisy metal chords and solo of guitar with a screaming voice in pop chorus yet.

 Basically unknown to the World, Nirvana and fellow Seattle bands gained first fame by their promotional tours in Europe at end of 80ies, when European music press talked about their incendiary, out-of-tuned, fun, stage-diving concerts in small clubs. In 2014, Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt realised a book, ‘EXPERIENCING NIRVANA: Grunge in Europe, 1989′, sharing his eight-day period of live concerts with early Nirvana, Tad and Mudhoney bands on tour in Europe, from Rome (where Kurt, overhelemed, was thinking to leave the band) to London.

 In the introduction of this ‘micro-epic Grunge story’, Bruce Pavitt marks that his unpolished, pre-photoshop, snap-shots images are not made by a professional photographer. After the first e-book format, Bazillion Points Books published the book on paper, including two dozen never-seen-before B&W images of UK-based veteran Rock photographer Steve Double, from the last live at “London’s Astoria Theatre”, on December 3, 1989, electric gig which made the World aware of Nirvana, Tad and Mudhoney.

 Still now if I look to Bleach album I just like so much the cover. It was amateurly made by Tracy Marander, Cobain’s then-girlfriend: from left to right, Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, Chad Channing, and Jason Everman (briefly second ‘too-much-metaller’ guitar), captured in the peak of a concert at the ‘Reko Muse Art Gallery’ in Olympia, Washington, on April 1, 1989.

 The photograph has inverted tones, like a negative, an idea of Lisa Orth, a graphic designer at local music newspaper The Rocket. Their typesetter, Grant Alden, chosed then Onyx font (a poorly-kerned style already in his typesetting machine, based on Bodoni Extra Bold Condensed) which quite accidentally became Nirvana’s logo [3]. The image perfectly introduces you to the album mood. Opening the Cd version, this kind of vision wonderfully changes in a flashed still photo: Cobain catched after he dived with guitar into the drum. The scene has a palpable physic tension: on the left, the bass player Krist, probably exhausted for the intense  playing, has face and arms tirely down, meanwhile the girl with glasses behind him and the drummer look fun and surprised. A non-rational sense, an instinctive reaction to be in that (rough) precarious balance, I think is perfectly visible on Kurt Cobain, satisfied as a baby, after having been swimming in the sea of the concert. Or like a pre-birth baby, as the rite of a Rock music is like playing inside a womb.

The author of the image, Charles Peterson, (born 1964 in Longview, Washington, U.s.), is one of the Seattle Grunge music photographers for excellence, working with Sub Pop label from long data. Books like Screaming Life: A Chronicle of the Seattle Music Scene (Harper Collins, 1995) or ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’ (PowerHouse, 2003) are some of the most complete visual narrations depicting the era of this scene among 80ies and 90ies.

 The second book, which happily I found a copy in NY, is named as the debut single of Mudhoney in 1988, as ‘Screming Life’ comes from Soundgarden’s debut EP of 1987. Both are journeys throughout magnificient B&W, not cropped, film photographs of the bands of that time, together with some of the big ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ of the scene like Black Flag, Sonic Youth, Big Black, or bands not strictly Grunge as Pussy Galore, Beat Happening o Dwarves.

© courtesy of Charles Peterson/PowerHouse/”Touch I’m Sick” book

 The documentary importance, as well as the artistic value of many of these beautiful images, are evident. Then, another aspect, specificly related to the world portrayted, comes to the eyes: the physic centrality of the subjects photographed (musicians or fans) with their actions. It is a photography of bodies, expressed by their physic language that can evoke us then sounds, biographies, or attitudes of a single person, of a band, of the public under the stage, or of an entire genre of music. The absence, what is off the frame, can be not that important for sensing the scene, the music, the wild excitiment, the noise: what counts in these photographs is moistly what is happening inside.

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© courtesy of Modern Rocks Gallery. Featuring works by Don Hunstein, Bob Gruen, Sheila Rock and Jill Furmanovsky to name but a few, Modern Rocks Gallery in Austin, Texas, features iconic images of rockers from Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd to The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones.

El Cante Jondo                                                                                                                                         I enjoyed but personally did not like ‘Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck’ documentary (by Brett Morgen, 2015), about life of Kurt. A perfect feature worth to watch, in some moments electric, but then, from my point of view, going too much over a certain intimacy. Sure, Cobain’s life is important to understand Nirvana: but, should be not his music what eventually has to be always deeper discovered, while he rests in peace ? Only certain lens of suffering or most private stories can help to better look at his or in general Art ?

 Punk-Rock of course is not the only genre of music with a certain relation with strong emotions, also Jazz or Flamenco can be related to them. This last artistic tradition comes from a lively gypsies heritage of dance, sing and music, specifically born in south of Spain, where since the 15th century the Moors dominance provided a cultural melting pot of Andalusians, Arabs, Castilian settlers, Romanis and Jews. One of the greatest Flamenco guitarist, Manuel Moreno ‘Moraíto Chico’ Junquera (1956, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain – 2011, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain) explains about the spirit of this music in the beautiful documentary ‘El Cante Bueno Duele’ (‘The Good Singing Hurts” by Martijn van Beenen and Ernestina van de Noort, Netherlands, 2011).

 While suggestive images back in 1973 show a boy (Antonio de la Malena) singing the ‘Seguirillas’ song with him, at time already a young guitarist, Moraíto quotes words of his aunt Anica ‘La Piriñaca’, also a Flamenco singer: “..cuando canto, la boca me sabe a sangre..” (“..when I sing, my mouth must tastes like blood..”). It is the ‘cante jondo’ (‘the deep song/singing‘), born alongside with the history of the Gitanos people, persecuted in centuries, expressing by the artistic form of Flamenco their feelings and sufference.

 But then, feelings also like reaction, fierceness, joy of life, love stories. This summer, traveling through Granada, in south of Spain, I had occasion to attend a Flamenco session, on the tablao of a restaurant in the old Moorish quarter El Albaicín. Together with the excellent guitarist, percussionist and singer, the two young dancers Cristina Prado Carrasco and Javier Serrano were the protagonists of a passionate fun jam session. In the dark of few lights, the girl just started to dance in a way ever seen, overhelming you by the sudden change of movements, the deep sounds of her shoes beating on the wood pavement -almost a Punk-Hc drum beat-, like a wounded Goddess, spreading away energy from the body. As well as the male dancer, who left the public, especially of ladies, speachless.

 French-American photographer Gilles Larrain -a portrait of Flamenco dancer Belén Maya in 1996 of him is on the left- devoted a very large part of his career to Music world, with impressive photographs of Jazz legends as well as Flamenco musicians.

 A big exhibition some years ago, in Sevilla (Spain), at ‘El Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo de Sevilla’, Prohibido el Cante. Flamenco y Fotografía (‘No singing allowed. Flamenco and Photography’ April 3- August 30, 2009), put togheter over 200 original photographs of about 70 international authors, from classic as Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Brassaï, Man Ray, Robert Capa to more contemporany like Martin Parr, Miguel Rio Branco, Peter Linderbergh, Carlos Saura, Gilles Larrain, Lebanon-Armenian Ariane DelaCampagne, Franco Rubartelli, José Lamarca, Elke Stolzenberg.

‘Prohibido el cante – Flamenco y fotografía’ exhibition catalogue and poster, curated by Gloria Rodriguez, for the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC), RM Verlag, 2009 © courtesy of Gloria Rodriguez

 A project by Russian American documentarist Lena Herzog, has became instead a book titled ‘Flamenco: Dance Class’, Periplus Publishing Ltd London, 2003. Realized together with another project of Lena in Spain, on the traces of Bullfighers, ‘TAUROMAQUIA: the art of bullfighting, Periplus Publishing Ltd London, 2003, Dance Class follows in a period of four years the training of the student dancers of two classes: the Camino Flamenco dance troupe founded by the Emmy award-winning dancer/choreographer Yaelisa, in San Francisco, and the classes of Manuela Rios in Seville.

 An introduction about Flamenco history and at the end explanations, about the inner different types of singing, music and dance, are wrote by Ignacio de Cossio. Some quotes from Flamenco songs or artists related, written on total black or white pages, divide the book in sections. The photographs, 100 vintage B&W silver gelatin selenium-toned prints, flow exactly as the classes: first the morning lesson for beginners, then the intermediate class, last the afternoon one for the advancers practicers. In my eyes, a sense of femininity, almost a prudery, a respect, there is in how the author approachs photographing the physical excercise, the teaching, in this unity of space and time. The two books complete each others following different characters, but same subject, again the bodies (of dancers in one and of bullfighters in the other), with their tensions, their movements, or their absence of movement.

In tiptoes and with baton                                                                                                                     “Dancers are in a continual trance” says Eva la ‘Yerbabuena’ in Dance Class: and an elegant book about one special dancer is the one I found in a bookstore in Rome, just for luck. Author is Italian photographer Lucia Baldini, a woman who followed for ten years the acclaimed performer Carla Fracci (Milan, Italy, 1936).

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all images © courtesy of Lucia Baldini/Le Lettere

 Result of this long term collaboration is ‘Carla Fracci: Immagini 1996-2005’, Le Lettere, Firenze, 2005. A rare book today, in a time of so much (fair) experimentations in photo-publishing, with more than 100 B&W photographs, most of them precious full-frame images, chronologically widespreaded ballet after ballet, “like a castle of destinies and crossed sights”, as Enrico Gatta wrote in the introduction, “here are meeting many stories: of artists, spectators, theatres..”.

 Lucia also chose to interlard her images with quotes and words: by various poets, Art critics, music composers, classic authors from many countries. Less minimal than Lena Herzog in this graphic use of these, Lucia seems looking for ‘synesthesia’: sometimes there is a straight relation among texts and photos, sometimes the sounds of words you read and the sounds suggested by the image are more abstract, emotional, or poetic. And in the middle of the book, in front of a photograph portaying Carla Fracci playing ‘Isadora Duncan(1997), you suddenly just find this: “Dance is the language of deft-mutes extended from hands to all body […] Deft-mutes and dancers, what they want us to express with their gestures ? Not ideas […] but moods, moods of the soul.. Dance is like a white madness, a silent and swinging sickness.. ” (Alberto Savinio, 1891–1952, Italian painter also author of ‘Isadora Duncan’ book).

 Like the dancing body of Carla Fracci, also one of the most renowed classical conductor, Claudio Abbado (Milan, Italy, 1933-Bologna, Italy, 2014), is the subject of one photography book off last year: Claudio Abbado. Fare musica insieme’, Contrasto editore, 2015, (‘Claudio Abbado: Making music togheter’), a copious work showing by images all his long career, from his young debut in Milan in 60ies, then London, Chicago, Wien, Berlin, and finally as creator of young ensambles as the European Community Youth Orchestra, or the Orchestra Mozart in Bologna, in Italy.

 The book ‘Claudio Abbado Fare musica insieme’ is also the catalouge for the same titled exhibition (March 28, to June 28, 2015) held in the foyer of ‘Opera di Firenze’, curated by Alfredo Albertone, and organized by Opera di Firenze/Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Contrasto Agency, and with the support of ‘Fondazione Claudio Abbado’.

 The figure of Abbado, on work or behind the scenes, emerges in more than 200 colours and B&W images (from so various photographers, archives and agencies as ‘Lucerne festival’, ‘La Scala Theatre’ in Milan, Contrasto/Magnum Photos, Getty, Corbis and many others), similarly as described by a close friend of him, the (great) Swiss actor Bruno Ganz: “When you watch him, the first thing that strikes you is the immense elegance of the posture, the physical eloquence when he conducts [..] But there is more: he has an almost childlike need to sustain the purity of what he is working on..” like -Ganz suggests- the mystical vision and relation with nature of the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin of Romanticism “..and a kind of rare restraince, a personal retinence, which makes the man a mistery to me..”[4].

 Part of this ‘mistery’ lies in the Abbado’s special way to conduct and to communicate: “..Normally I am not a person who talks so much, even to the orchestra” explains himself [5] “my contacts with the musicians are not verbal. After all, can I talk during a concert ? So the expressions of the eyes, of the hands, they are ‘the contact’ with musicians.. and they gradually understand it..”. Over the getures, the easily familiar ones of the conductor on the podium in front of the orchestra, the music for Abbado seems has to be evoked also trought an almost empathic language. So it is just the relation with the sound which also becomes different, as the Berlin Philarmonic Orchestra musicians told it was under his guide, made by an almost complete lack of ego in favor of their work, his costant push to always carefully listen to each others, sometime then playing specific instruments very lower than usual.

Everything, this mutual listening mixed with the visual contact, resulted in a more clear, total, peculiar sound, “..almost a physical presence possible to be touched and manupilated..” [6]. Perhaps, just what Abbado used to refer as, in Italian, ‘Fare musica insieme’, in German ‘Das Zusammenmusizieren’, in English, ‘Making music together’.



… and surely somewhere sometime together, Kurt is dancing to the guitar of Claudio, while Morao sings … what a great jam session of friends, wouldn’t be ?



 Author’s website: in black in the essay reflect personal thoughts on Photography by author, otherwise quotes or sources are referred and numbered:

(1) “Spin” magazine, April 1995 EL_CANTE_15d

(2) “Nirvana: The Chosen Rejects”, by Kurt St Thomas, Troy Smith. By St. Martin’s Griffin ed. , 2004. (pp. 191.)

EL_CANTE_15c (3) Taking Punk to the Masses: From Nowhere to Nevermind visually, Jacob McMurray, Fantagraphics Books, 2011

(4) (5) (6) ‘Claudio Abbado: Hearing the Silence’, by Paul Smaczny, 2003, EuroArts Music International

 – On Masayoshi Sukita’s works:

– Selection of Lucia Baldini’s books

 EL_CANTE_15e  EL_cante_15m  EL_CANTE_15h  EL_CANTE_15g  EL_CANTE_15i

–  Brief selection of some photography books about Music:

51QMXm9PDZL._SX392_BO1,204,203,200_ The ’90s: The Inside Stories from the Decade That Rocked – October 18, 2011 by The Editors of Rolling Stone – The editors of Rolling Stone magazine present a tribute to the 1990s, with an anthology exploring various side of the decade’s wide-ranging music scene, along with articles by Rolling Stone’s writers, photographs of fans, musicians, concerts and festivals, and tells from musicians, like Moby, RZA, Liz Phair, Bob Weir, and even Slash. From Pearl Jam to the Wu-Tang Clan, Rolling Stone tells it all.

bio_pda-1 Flamenco: paisaje del alma” (Flamenco: Landscape of Soul), by Gilles Larrain, Fundacion tres culturas del mediterraneo, 2007 – Renowned French-American portrait photographer Gilles Larrain (Dec 5, 1938), author of the successful book ‘Idols’ (1973) about the gay activist group of NY famous as ‘the Cockettes’, spent two weeks in Sevilla, under assignment for GEO magazine to capture the Flamenco soul. Flamenco guitarist himself, Gilles extended his stay for two months, guest of Paco Lira, central figure in Flamenco world, in an attic of ‘La Carboneria’, a flamenco venue in Seville. The result is an exhibition which has been in years shown worldwide and this book, with portaits of some of flamenco’s legendary families taken in their homes in beautiful Andalusia landscape, alongside with portraits of many artists photographed by Gilles in his SOHO’s studio in New York. About Gilles Larrain’s work on Flamenco, a short film and interview here.

EL_CANTE_15 EL_CANTE_15b Flamenco. Pasión, desgarro y duende.  Una historia fotográfica desde 1970, by Elke Stolzenberg and José Lamarca. Península. Barcelona, 2012 – With text by Alfredo Grimaldos, the book presents a photography journey into Flamenco from 1970 to recent years, dvided in two parts: the photos of Ms Stolzenberg, of dancing, in movement, and the black & white portraits of Mr Lamarca.

EL_CANTE_15f Portrait of a Symphony by Constantine Manos, Basic Books, New York, 1961 – First book published by the Magnum photographer Costantine Manos, born in South Carolina in 1934. At 19 years old, Manos was hired as the official photographer for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at Tanglewood. His photographs of the orchestra culminated in 1961 with this book.

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