It’s Always Rock and Roll
Photographs by Janet Macoska
Cornell Fine Arts Museum
It would be easy to dismiss Janet Macoska’s It’s Always Rock and Roll as merely entertainment photojournalism – but’s it’s the “merely” you should stop and reconsider. What’s mere about the sheer fun of these images?
Cleveland-based rock photog Macoska says she originally thought of herself as a writer who took pictures, but now sees that “it’s the other way around.” Her lively sense of storytelling is evident in the placards beside each picture, in which she provides a concise sketch of the artist or the moment the shot was captured. Her textual accompaniment animates the mostly black-and-white show; what could have been just a nostalgic parade of ’70s/’80s/’90s pop-star posters is lifted into great rock-journalism territory. If you’ve ever had the experience of hearing backstage stories from someone who’s been there, that’s what this show can feel like. (A person who’d rather nit-pick than enjoy himself might point out that truly great photographer could tell that story without the need for text, but sometimes we need to let go of the critical faculties and just have fun.)
You can trace the evolution of pop music along these walls, from the snarling charisma of Stiv Bators to the sheepish mugging of the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff. Blondie’s polished self-presentation; the pressed-and-tailored perfection of Let’s Dance-era Bowie; Cyndi Lauper’s shiny bubblegum surfaces and Madonna striking a Riefenstahl pose: All are a testament to the publicity-savvy MTV era, but rawer, less mediated images abound. The sweat and blood of a live Dead Boys show, Lou Reed flipping off the camera while sitting glumly in a Cleveland radio station (surely not part of his grand vision back in the Factory days) and a killer backlit shot of Robert Plant mid-headbang give the exhibition its swagger.
Or should we say you can trace the de-evolution of pop music? Central to the show is a cluster of photos of Ohio’s own Devo. Home in Akron in 1978 to shoot the video for “Satisfaction,” the boiler-suited boys posed in front of the Chili Dog Mac Shop, cavorted stiffly in a fountain, and caused a ruckus on Main Street. Macoska, along for the ride, documented the day in black-and-white and color films; multiple images hang here, including a contact sheet (which functions almost as a flipbook of jocko-homo contortions).
Being based in Cleveland gave Macoska the leg up on getting the shot – it was a big enough town that all the tours stopped there, but small enough that she didn’t have a lot of competition. Macoska’s work has appeared in Creem, Rolling Stone and countless other publications; at the age of 13 she started answering fan mail at a radio station in exchange for records. In other words, she’s a true believer in the Lester Bangs/Cameron Crowe mold, a music fan who can’t believe her luck to be doing what she loves. That sense of joy infuses this exhibition.