TOUR OF DUTY:
THE ICONOCLASTIC ROCK ‘N’ ROLL IMAGEWORKS OF ROBERT MATHEU
By Jeffrey Morgan
“Like guns and cars, cameras are fantasy machines whose use is addictive. The camera-gun does not kill, so the ominous metaphor seems to be all bluff. Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them by seeing them as they never see themselves. By having knowledge of them they can never have. It turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is sublimated murder. A soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.”
That’s Susan Sontag in 1977, writing about the art of photography in her book On Photography.
“What a buncha bunkum.”
That’s me today, writing about Sontag’s scatterbrained screed because, let’s face it, photography’s been getting pummeled with various vexatious variations of that same kinda stale soul-snatchin’ mystic mumbo-jumbo ever since Felix “Nada” Toumachon first opened his Parisian portrait studio in 1853.
If it wasn’t ignorant jungle savages skeered silly of gettin’ their essence sucked outta them by a big wooden box with an itty-bitty lens, then it was ignorant city slickers like author Arthur Conan Doyle gettin’ sucked in by delicate glassine images of ectoplasmic spirits and ethereal faeries--that is, until ace spookbuster Harry Houdini intervened to show them the error of their easy to fleece ways by definitively debunking such shyster displays of deceit. Ah, those were the days, my friend; they thought they’d never end.
These days, however, the enabling ease of digital technology has ensured that more people are taking photographs now than ever did before. And although “Back To Analog” adherents are always prompt to proudly point out that a 1974 SLR is still a state of the art piece of equipment which will never be superseded by today’s mega-pixilated pallet, what remains of the utmost importance is the innate ability to “have the eye” which will result in a captured image that will withstand the test of time--not the technical means by which it was achieved.
Ironically, insofar as the current state of the art of rock photography is concerned, the paradox is that, despite current restrictions which prohibit the use of any professional photographic equipment at rock concerts, the epidemic unfettered use of cell phone cameras has now resulted in even more concert photos being taken per show per capita since Beatlemania first ushered in the advent of the Instamatic flashbulb era.
The end result may have been millions of blurry overexposed photographs of the backs of peoples’ heads but, as pioneering female rock photographer Gloria Stavers astutely observed in her editorial “White Light/Right Beat” from the May 1964 issue of 16 Magazine: “It doesn’t matter if a flashbulb only illuminates the first two rows in front of you. Despite all the limitations, you can prove you were at the rock and roll stadium--and it was all right.”
Robert Matheu has been in a lot of stadiums during his photographic career, but he didn’t start out that way. As a class-cutting too-cool-for-high-school “juve delinq” growing up on the wrong side of the tracks in Detroit Kill City, Mr. Matheu would regularly ditch his parole officer and sneak into local gigs with a camera to avidly capture what he saw. Luckily for him, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were a golden age for nascent rock photographers because, unlike today, anyone could walk into a hockey arena or casually stroll backstage at a small club with a fully loaded camera bag in plain sight of indifferent building staff.
But despite his worst intentions, it wasn’t long before what initially began as a fast way to make a buck--surreptitiously selling cheap prints of his concert snaps in the girls’ locker room--inadvertently evolved into a higher aesthetic calling. Mr. Matheu progressively honed his photographic skills over the years by working alongside many of the musicians he shot, often accompanying them on tour to document their ascent--sometimes from a strategic spot right on the stage--as they evolved from local acts to living icons.
Flush with early success and not content to limit himself solely to the realm of music, Mr. Matheu quickly proved to be an equally accomplished photographer in the even more demanding fields of film and fashion--but he’ll be the first one to tell you that his heart has always remained firmly rooted in rock ‘n’ roll.
Whether it’s snaring a defining never-to-be-repeated moment in the split-second frenzy of a live performance or slowly crafting a nuanced personality study in his portrait studio, Robert Matheu considers his photographs to be collaborations with his subjects--and he has collaborated with hundreds of distinguished artists over the years. From George Harrison and the Faces to Johnny Cash and the Pretenders to Brian Wilson and Cheap Trick, Mr. Matheu has compiled a comprehensive genre-spanning historical compendium whose iconoclastic images are as revealing as they are diverse.
But of all the acts he’s worked with over the years, it’s Robert Matheu’s war-torn tenure with the famously infamous Iggy Pop and The Stooges that stands out as the creative cornerstone of his rock photography career. From his seminal Stooges shots in January 1970 on the historic Fun House tour to his uncanny photographs which adorn The Stooges’ reunion album The Weirdness in 2007, it’s a definitively documented and almost four decade-long tour of duty which continues unabated to this very day.
His images have appeared on over 200 albums and 500 magazine covers worldwide, Robert Matheu’s work has appeared in a host of prestigious publications such as PLAYBOY, ROLLING STONE, CREEM, LIFE, TIME, MOJO, MELODY MAKER, HARPERS, VOGUE and THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, to name but only a few.
Mr. Matheu was also the official photographer and artist/press liaison for the North American segment of the continent-spanning LIVE AID concerts; and a 25 year retrospective exhibit of Mr. Matheu’s photographs of The Rolling Stones, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Les Paul, Stray Cats and Bruce Springsteen, plus many others, continues to be on permanent display at The Cat Club in Hollywood.
The year 2000 saw Mr. Matheu begin ramrodding the long-awaited insurrection resurrection of CREEM, the legendary rock magazine that he began working for in 1978 until it went on hiatus in 1988--a decade of decadence during which his photos ran in every single issue, not to mention the many CREEM covers he photographed. Then, after years of extensive archiving and editing, 2007 saw Mr. Matheu finish compiling the best-selling hardcover anthology CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine, which is published by HarperCollins.
Not content to rest upon his laurels, 2009 saw Mr. Matheu successfully spearhead his second book, The Stooges: The Authorized And Illustrated Story, which was published in hardcover by Abrams on October 1st, 2009. He is currently overseeing the final touches for The Stooges’ Raw Power Legacy Edition for Sony Music, executive producing with Iggy Pop and Bruce Dickinson.
Now, having taken the necessary career detour needed to successfully oversee the above-noted book projects which had to be done and were a long time comin’, Robert Matheu is finally bringing it all back home to do what he does best: take photographs. Because when you love doing something that you do exceptionally well, you just can’t stop yourself from doing it to death.
Which is why no matter where you look these days, whether it’s down on the street in Detroit or upscale in the Hollywood Hills, you can rest assured that when better photographs are taken, they’ll be taken by Robert Matheu--as evidenced by his forthcoming hardcover career-spanning collection of work “The Perfect View” which will be published in 2011: The year he makes his contacts public.
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