When the Heckscher Museum of Art curators first explored the idea of a rock photo show, everyone in the room knew they weren't talking about geology.
"There was a show from Portland [Maine] we'd seen that was going to travel," recalls acting curator Lisa Chalif. "But we decided we could do our own." With limited space - the museum can comfortably display about 40 artworks in its two galleries devoted to special exhibits - "we decided to go with the crème de la crème of rock history."
The Heckscher's survey ranges from the roots of rock and roll, including Chuck Berry and Little Richard; the British Invasion, with the Beatles and Stones; Motown, Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin; electric folk, Bob Dylan; up to hip-hop with Tupac Shakur and LL Cool J. Plus icons from Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson to Bruce Springsteen.
The exhibit includes shots of 43 artists by 28 photographers - some, like the late Linda McCartney, almost as famous as their subjects. Most of the photographers, such as Great Neck's Bob Gruen, were hired by record labels to produce album cover art, or create rock-star imagery for the pages of such publications as Rolling Stone.
Art Kane was hired by London Records to milk the "bad boys" image of an up-and-coming group some in the music business believed would be the next big thing after The Beatles. "Performance shots are a waste of time," he wrote in 2007 for another museum show. "They look like everyone else's. If you want to shoot a performer, then grab them, own them, you have to own people, then twist them into what you want to say about them." He shot his classic "Circle" portrait, which includes the late Brian Jones, after buying some postcards of Queen Elizabeth and daring the Stones to do something disrespectful with them. McCalls magazine, for which the shoot was intended, was too timid to run any shot dissing the queen. So the "Circle," in which the Stones appear to be peering down at something on the ground, became an iconic representation of the scruffy band from London.
Before they were famous
A haunting shot of young Elvis, just after he signed with Sun Records, was not released until his death in 1977. Shot by Alfred Wertheimer, the black and white photo shows a young man of guileless innocence and striking, effortless beauty. It's as if, even before he opened his mouth to sing, you could tell this guy had "it."
Photos as art
Not to be missed: Allan Tannenbaum's portrait of John and Yoko, smiling together in almost beatific bliss; Joel Brodsky's black and white of Jim Morrison in an early showing-off pose, without his shirt, before degradations lined his face; also in the shirtless vein, Jonathan Mannion's pectorally impressive image of LL Cool J toting a boom box, and Michael Jackson wearing a lace pattern across his face in a Greg Gorman shot reminiscent of Stieglitz's portrait of Gloria Swanson.
WHAT "Rock On! Masterworks of Rock Photography"
WHEN | WHERE 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends, until 8:30 p.m. the first Friday of the month (rock-related performances at 7) through Jan. 9, 2011, at the Heckscher Museum of Art, 2 Prime Ave., Huntington
INFO $8, $5 students, $6 seniors, children under 10 free; heckscher.org, 631-351-3250