NEW YORK - On a sweltering July afternoon in downtown Manhattan, fashion mogul Tommy Hilfiger and curator/art dealer Jeffrey Deitch sat together in Deitch’s calm, bright SoHo office. Although both men were the picture of refinement – suited smartly despite the summer heat – the subject on their minds was gritty: Rock Style, an exhibition of some of music’s most iconic photographs, which the two recently co-curated for Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery in London.
What launched this seemingly unlikely collaboration? “Tommy told me about his extraordinary book,” Deitch said, referring to Hilfiger’s 1999 photographic survey of the same title, which captured in dazzling and delicious detail the many intersections between rock music and fashion. Rock Style is inspired by the book, showcasing images of music’s leather-clad superstars by some of the most revered photographers of the time. The exhibition will also debut six new portraits of musicians by notorious street artist and graphic designer Shepard Fairey.
The show features decades’ worth of heroes: from founding fathers like Elvis and Little Richard, to unwitting revolutionaries The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, to punk upstarts Debbie Harry and The Ramones. The message throughout the show is: individual style is essential to rock swagger. “If you look at every one of the iconic superstars,” Deitch offered, “they all had very distinct, outrageous style.” In other words, as Sir Elton John once infamously quipped, “the great thing about rock and roll is that someone like me can be a star.”
Indeed, part of the success of rock style has always been not just how phenomenal it looks, but how accessible it feels. Hilfiger remembers seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show as a small boy. “I thought they were very cool,” he said, “I thought, this is what I want to do. I want to be a rock star.” So did he ever try his hand at the guitar? “I couldn’t play,” he smiled, “so I decided to look like a rock star.”
DEBORAH HARRY ZEBRA MIXED MEDIA ON CANVAS BY SHEPARD FAIREY.
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRIS STEIN © OBEY GIANT ART.
The exhibition certainly celebrates the rock posture, but it also captures intimate truths of the people beneath the clothes. Terry O’Neill’s shot of David Bowie in performance, his glittering, glamorous, almost alien persona commanding the stage, depicts the musician as an absolute force of nature – a model of high showmanship. Bob Gruen’s legendary 1974 portrait of John Lennon finds the former Beatle without any celebrity trappings, showing him for who he really was: an artist. Staring into the camera lens through a pair of dark sunglasses, Lennon wraps his arms around himself as though totally unconvinced of the need for this photo. A subtle detail embodies a larger story: a pen in the front pocket of his rumpled denim jacket, one that we might easily imagine Lennon using to record the muses as they struck him.
DAVID BOWIE’S FINAL PERFORMANCE AS ZIGGY STARDUST, 1973, THIS WORK IS NUMBER 2 FROM AN EDITION OF 50. © ICONIC IMAGES / TERRY O'NEILL.
“It was reality photography,” Hilfiger said of the quieter side of that era’s image making. “To capture these stars off guard, relaxed and real, was unique.” When asked to choose their favourite images from the exhibition – the ones they felt possessed the true spirit of rock style – Deitch answered immediately. “I love Jerry Schatzberg’s photographs of Diana Ross,” he said of the candid but dazzling stage shots of Motown’s elegant diva. “He captured her in all of her essence.”
Although Hilfiger confessed to being a rabid fan of The Stones, Hendrix and Bowie, his eye, at least for now, was focused on the present. “I’m most interested in seeing Shepard’s work,” he replied, eager to see the new crop of images of Debbie Harry, Jimi Hendrix and others created by Fairey.