x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Music to the eyes

Feature A new photo exhibition in Dubai features iconic and candid shots of some of the world's most famous rock 'n' rollers.

Members of Pink Floyd photographed in a studio in Clerkenwell, central London, 1995.
Members of Pink Floyd photographed in a studio in Clerkenwell, central London, 1995.

"They're volatile, punky and genuine," says the London-based photographer Jill Furmanovsky when she thinks back to the three-year period she spent with Oasis documenting their turbulent rise to fame. Through her viewfinder, she was watching Liam Gallagher watching his brother, Noel, onstage singing Don't Look Back in Anger in San Francisco in 1997. "I originally focused on Liam, but then this figure appeared to one side so I switched focus. It happened to be Bono, who was always a very big supporter of Oasis, especially when they were starting out." The resulting picture of a blurred Liam, the naughty little brother hamming it up, while the unshaven U2 frontman appears in sharp focus looking like a protective heavy in a hoodie, is one of the most striking images in the Rockarchive exhibition currently showing at Gallery One in Dubai. Despite Oasis's reputation for being difficult and even violent at times, Furmanovsky's memories of photographing the band from 1994 until 1997 are very different. "I have live pics, and on the road and studio shots - they were a dream to work with," she says. "Live, they're not the most exciting band, but behind the scenes, the tremendous tension between the brothers was wonderful to shoot." "It's about being in the presence of greatness," says Furmanovsky of her 38-year love affair with photographing musicians. The Rockarchive exhibition is showcasing not only the great artists that Furmanovsky has chronicled but also the work of 25 other rock photographers who have captured live concert images, candid backstage moments and legendary studio shots that have ended up on album covers, in the pages of music magazines and on bedroom walls around the world.

The exhibition's works date back to early pictures of the Beatles in the 1960s through to current heavy hitters such as Coldplay and Radiohead. Furmanovsky had her first close encounter with a rock musician at her father's office in the 1970s. "There was a strange man in loud shirts and ties, he was a bit gloomy and he worked in the architects' office where my father worked, and played in a rock band. His name was Roger Waters," says Furmanovsky of her early encounters with the Pink Floyd singer and bass player. After a two-week course in photography, Furmanovsky got her first break when the Rainbow Theatre in north London hired her to be the venue's official photographer. Pink Floyd was one of the first bands she saw and photographed during a performance. "I didn't actually get paid, but the experience was amazing," she says. "It was a great opportunity and I leapt at it."

Furmanovsky captured images of bands and artists rehearsing and doing sound checks as well as live performances. Her photographs were always on display in the theatre foyer. "It was like having a permanent exhibition," she says. Her quickie photography course and on-the-job training made the punk era a favourite for Furmanovsky, and her images of The Clash feature in the exhibition as well as on her website, www.rockarchive.com, which sells prints of major artists, with images from 60 photographers.

"If you could play three chords, you could form a band, and in my case, if you had trained for two weeks, you could be a photographer," she says with a laugh. "I was the same age as the punks, or they were slightly younger, and so I felt more confident with them." In the 1980s, Furmanovsky did a lot more studio work with musicians, and colour film was used more often. "I was working with the Police well into the Eighties and I shot a cover of Boy George for The Face." Furmanovsky wasn't a huge fan of the androgynous, men-in-make-up trends among bands such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. "I couldn't really relate to it. And then in the Eighties, I had my daughter and I removed myself a bit from the scene. I shot actors and authors, some amazing people like Robert De Niro, Nelson Mandela and Emma Thompson, but [the interest in] music continued right through."

Her interest in the music scene was revived in the early 1990s, when grunge transformed the sound of popular culture, even though some of her best work from the time features rockers who were around before Kurt Cobain was born. Her striking profile portrait of the Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts with the light playing perfectly on the long, deep dimple that carves the length of his cheek was published in Q magazine. It won her the Jane Bown Observer Portrait Award in 1992 and also features in the exhibition.

"I noticed there was an ageing process going on in rock in the Nineties," Furmanovsky says. "All sorts of people - Eric Clapton, Stevie Wonder, Sting, Chrissie Hynde as well as bands like Madness - were coming back in a renewed form." The exhibition features plenty of shots of bands that made it big in the Nineties and in this decade too. The British photographer Kevin Westenberg has pictures of Coldplay and Radiohead on display in the show.

Westenberg's brilliantly lit outdoor shot of Radiohead was used for a 2004 cover of Mojo magazine when the band was headlining Glastonbury. "Our idea was to place them in a grassy field setting and we ended up shooting this in Wormwood Scrubs in west London," he says. "The set-up for lighting took four hours, but once they arrived we shot everything in an hour and then they were off again." His 2005 Coldplay shot features the band sitting in a row in a Los Angeles studio looking pensive. It was taken at the end of a three-year period of photographing the band. "This period defined them initially to the world and I was a big part of their perception of cool, which I feel now has ended," Westenberg says. "The idea was to meld a press shot and also a live shot together. The two rarely meet."

The late Nineties heralded Furmanovsky's first forays into digital photography after decades of film and dark rooms and, as a result of changing times, the Rockarchive exhibition uses both digital and film images. She sees the digital revolution in photography as "a mixed blessing". "Olympus ran an advertisement for its first digital camera in about 1997 and it was an obituary to film. It was a sad ad," she says.

Furmanovsky acknowledges that digital technology has become more user-friendly and can be used to create stunning effect, but she is not so sure about the way electronic images are so easily deleted. The constant checking of images as you go rather than waiting to get into the dark room, as well as delayed shutter speeds, means the shots are not always as spontaneous as they used to be. "Film is good for capturing the moment, but digital captures the moment after the moment," she says.

The exhibition's delightful contact sheet of Bob Marley images from 1970 is one such example of this spur-of-the-moment alchemy - it's hard to imagine achieving the same relaxed vibe if the photographer was constantly checking, deleting and reshooting rather than just letting the reggae legend do his thing in front of the lens. The technology may have moved on from Hasselblads and Leicas loaded with black and white film, and the endless hours spent in chemical-laden darkrooms have been replaced by the instant gratification of digital cameras. But as the exhibition shows, such technology was not always required to create visual magic.

Storm Thorgerson, another British photographer, has a reputation for creating astounding work without the aid of digital enhancement. His iconic 1994 photograph of a beach full of hospital beds, which is the gatefold for Pink Floyd's Division Bell album cover, is also in the show. "He really set up that shoot, got all those hospital beds on to the beach just for that one shot," says Furmanovsky. The Division Bell cover takes pride of place in the exhibition, and Furmanovsky insists again there was no digital trickery involved - Thorgerson really did set up two giant head-shaped sculptures in the field of a Cambridgeshire farm. Sometimes there's no substitute for the real thing.

Rockarchive, Gallery One at The Walk at Dubai's Jumeirah Beach Residence, until Oct 15. glewis@thenational.ae