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Sixties Rock Icons Through Linda McCartney's Lens

Christine Oaklander, curator at the Allentown Art Museum, stares at the stark white walls of the exhibition gallery, envisioning with her mind's eye what the blank canvas will look like in a few days time. Tools lay scattered on the floor next to tiles that are being replaced. Two retro purple couches stand on end in the front of the room. Inside two large wooden, foam-padded crates, Linda McCartney's photographs await hanging.

Most people know Linda McCartney as the late wife of legendary Beatle's frontman Paul McCartney. But Linda's love of rock stars began before she met Paul. During the '60s she worked as the house photographer at the Fillmore East concert hall in New York and became the first picture-taker for Rolling Stone.

She hung out with bands in New York clubs and nightspots before they became celebrities and described herself as ''an accepted band member whose instrument was the camera.''

This week McCartney's 51 favorite shots, collectively called ''Linda McCartney's Sixties — Portrait of an Era,'' are unveiled at the Allentown Art Museum for the viewing pleasure of nostalgic baby boomers and their kids — a new generation that has embraced retro rock and vintage clothing.

Unlike many typical '60s images, McCartney's intimate, unposed black-and-white and color portraits offer a behind-the-scenes look at who these rock 'n' roll gods and goddesses were. In fact, very few capture the musicians live on stage.

''These are much more personal glimpses. They're not just ordinary documentary of stars,'' says Oaklander. ''She really reveals the character of a lot of these musicians. She shows them to be vulnerable people who had this shell, which was their public persona. It is this divergence of who the people actually are and who they appeared to be as superstars that is the theme of the show.''

Characterized by intimacy and introspection, McCartney's photos range from a shot of husband Paul bathing with one of their babies to a smiling, boyish-looking Jimi Hendrix, to a tattered, world-weary appearing Grace Slick.

''These photos were really indicative of the times, though they're very different from the stereotypical images you might see of the '60s,'' Oaklander explains. ''A lot of these are not glamour shots. She never wanted to make them more glamourous than they already were.''

Eighteen-year-old Natali Freed, a student at Berklee College of Music near Boston, supports McCartney's down-to-earth approach.

''Maybe we'll be able to take away a more realistic perspective of what that time was really like, instead of it being glorified,'' she says.

Her brother Bart Freed, a theater technician at Symphony Hall, has a more political take on the photos. He hopes our generation makes comparisons between the Vietnam War of the '60s and the present Iraq War.

''There was political inspiration in music then, hopefully the photos will remind us of that and of our political situation today,'' he says.

Though some may draw political parallels, for most people it's about the music.

''I don't know anyone who doesn't like music,'' says 21-year-old Amanda Cook. ''And, of course, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are legendary and everyone's interested in them.''

Though it is unlikely anyone hasn't heard of McCartney's larger-than-life subjects — Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Aretha Franklin, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, The Who, Janis Joplin, B.B. King, Ray Charles and, of course, The Beatles — CD listening stations, acid-neon colored labels and detailed descriptions of the performers make the exhibit more user-friendly.

Additionally, a mini-theater constructed from the gallery's movable walls, now covered in psychedelic Woodstock posters, shows two documentaries about Linda McCartney's legacy and life during the 1960s.

This is the technical stuff that recent Muhlenberg grad Meg Cohn draws inspiration from.

''I think there's a lot I can learn from this exhibit.''

Cohn, a photog minor, snapped shots of bands for her final project in an advanced class.

''That's pretty much what I'm in to,'' says the Long Island native preparing to return home.

''It sounds awesome,'' she says. ''I'm definitely coming back to see it.''

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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