THE READING ROOM: Sherry Rayn Barnett’s Photo Collection a Feast for Eyes and Souls
Linda Ronstadt at USC in Los Angeles in 1974. (Photo by Sherry Rayn Barnett)
The best music photographs, especially the photos of live performances, whether in small clubs or arena stages, re-create the passion of the artist’s performance. The photos take us there, give us front row seats, capture the lines of agony and ecstasy etched in the performer’s face, in their bodies. We return to those photos to live in the presence of the artist as well as in the presence of the photographer, an artist herself who transports us to a time and place, preserving the moments that comprise the history of our engagement with the music and musicians we love.
Acclaimed music photographer Sherry Rayn Barnett has gathered a stunning collection of her photos of over 200 artists in Eye of the Music: The Photography of Sherry Rayn Barnett: New York to LA, 1969-1989. She writes of her childhood in New York City: “I was raised on rock and roll — thanks to my mom.” Barnett’s mother, Peggy, was a songwriter who wrote early rock ‘n’ roll songs, and Sherry accompanied her mom to the Brill Building, where her mom would drop off demos and the young Sherry would collect 8×10 glossies of artists. “What mattered to me most,” she writes, “was the photograph — a visual reminder of the music, the face that matched the voice.”
Barnett’s father was a photographer. On weekends, the family would head to Palisades Park for the rock and roll shows where Barnett was “snapping away with my turquoise Kodak Brownie — Bobby Rydell to Patti Paige to the Four Seasons. I suppose there lay the beginning of my music archives — a small collection of mostly soft focus B&W snapshots shot from (way) below the stage … I was hooked.”
By the time she was in high school, Barnett had a new Nikon camera, and she started shooting for underground newspapers and for publications such Crawdaddy, Circus, and Rock. Barnett went to school during the day and spent her nights shooting photos of music that captivated her. By the late 1960s, she was “photographing every performance she could” in folk clubs like The Gaslight Café, The Bitter End, and Village Gate, as well as at various festivals. By the time she graduated in 1971, the folk rock scene in California had been blossoming, so she hitched her way out to Los Angeles — with a two-week stop on a mink farm in Litchfield, Minnesota and a quick stop on Las Vegas to say hello to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition — and landed on the corner of Sunset and Vine. From then her work appeared in magazines and newspapers, on album covers, and in books, films, and television shows. In Eye of the Music, she tells a story that is more than her story: “It’s a visual story of the world of the performing musician — some just embarking on their path, some in their prime, and other reinventing themselves as they mature as artists, giving us a second chance to appreciate their enduring talent.”
The book is divided into three sections — “1969-1971: New York”; “The ’70s: Los Angeles”; “The ’80s” — and each features photos and stories that capture riveting onstage performances or more relaxed offstage, sometimes candid, moments.
The first section opens with a photo of Ike and Tina Turner that Barnett shot for the New York City underground paper CORPUS. Sitting on the bed in their room at the Chelsea Hotel in matching faux leopard pajamas and robes, Ike is looking straight ahead into space and Tina is flipping through the current issue of CORPUS. On the opposite page is a photo of Tina’s electrifying performance at the Electric Circus. Other photos in this section include a laughing Debbie Green, folk singer Eric Andersen’s wife — who allegedly, writes Barnett, taught Andersen and Eric Clapton to fingerpick — a pensive Joni Mitchell, and a shot of Miles Davis from the Shaefer Music Festival in Central Park that captures Davis’ angular body and the facial expressions that show his intense concentration on shaping the music from out of his visionary imagination. The section also features stunning photos of Nina Simone at Village Gate and images of Janis Joplin onstage at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium that bring Joplin to life with all the exuberance and joy she brought to her stage shows.
The second section opens with an exceptional photo of Karen Carpenter onstage at the Hollywood Bowl in 1974 that conveys the singer’s transcendent performance; photos on the following pages capture The Carpenters in full band mode, still with Karen and her mesmerizing poses at the center of the photos. Other highlights in the section include photos that capture the energy of Birtha and Fanny, two all-female rock bands whose hard-driving rock was a model for later female groups such as The Go-Go’s, The Bangles, and The Runaways. There are eight pages in this section devoted to Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, including photos of Gram Parsons and Harris on facing pages.
In the final section of the book, some of the most memorable photos come from Barnett’s shots of musicians at McCabe’s Guitar Shop & Concert Hall, including Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash, Eric Andersen and Joni Mitchell, Sippie Wallace and Bonnie Raitt, and a “wouldn’t-you-have-loved-to-have-been-here” photo of T Bone Burnett, Jennifer Warnes, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and Richard Thompson on stage in June 1984. The centerpiece of the section is Barnett’s photos of Prince at the 1984 premiere of his film Purple Rain at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.
Barnett told me in a recent interview that she’s thankful to have so much of her own work together in one place. In these photos, she observes, “I am giving recognition to all the artists that are known in certain genres but that have gotten recognition beyond those genres. I also hope the photos honor great songwriters and artists that might have gotten lost along the way.”
Barnett strives, she told me, for a “holistic approach in her photography. I hope a photo can bring us closer to the music and closer to what the artist is conveying. In my photos, I am trying to capture the emotion of the moment. I hope when people see the photo they can feel like they were there.”
She feels connected rhythmically with the music and captures that rhythm in her photography. At concerts, Barnett shoots her photos from the front and center of the stage: “I’m so close to the energy of the performance without being on the stage,” she says. “It’s a completely immersive experience for me, and I hope the photos give the same experience to those looking at them.”
Every page of Barnett’s Eye of the Music is feast for our eyes and souls; she gives us a front seat to memorable scenes from music history and glimpses into the lives of the artists who made those moments come alive.
Here are a few more photos from Barnett’s book, used with permission (click to enlarge and view as slide show):