Every teenager with a poster of Harry Styles above their bed or a picture of Taylor Swift as their phone wallpaper knows that images of music culture are meditative objects of devotion. So do Magnum photographers, and their longstanding frisson with celebrity is well-documented. Magnum Artists (which stages encounters between great photographers and visual artists) and Magnum Cinema, a constellation of stars from the silver screen, both explore how to capture a subject’s (ultimately unknowable) intellectual and artistic energy, from the artist’s mind to the way their work ripples throughout the wider culture. Sharing these concerns and completing something of a trinity, Framing Sound is the first notable survey of the photographic collective’s relationship with music.
Both photographer Eli Reed and rapper Tupac Shakur understand how to overlay human and icon in a single image. A seldom-seen vulnerability in Tupac’s gaze jars with the pistol pendant nestled between his pecs. His half-off shirt frames a selection of tattoos, and in the quietness the viewer is inclined to read them: ‘2.DIE.4’ underscores Nefertiti in profile, a reference to his own song of the same name (‘my momma used to tell me […] you best find something ta die for’), the rapper pays homage to the strong black women who have gone before him. Tupac went to great lengths promoting ideas a lot larger than his own life, but Reed catches the mask partially slipping and reveals the human beneath.
In contrast, Reed’s photo of the Beastie Boys with Run DMC could not be more irreverent. Nor could the punk in the crowd at The Roxy, clutching his face à la Munch’s famous scream. Quite apart from hagiography, other Magnum photographers such as Lúa Ribeira are more interested in interrogating belief systems. Fascinated by the ‘moments and manners’ within dancehall ‘that clash with the sort of Judeo-Christian background that I grew up with’, the photograph ‘Dinah dancing at a youthhall’ expresses just such an impasse in a carnivalesque upturning of hierarchies. Whether Dinah is doing a handstand or scaling the wall all depends on your orientation – but what is shared in form and subject matter is the desire to break free of immovable constrictions.
In a later series, Agony in the Garden – named after the biblical scene before Christ is arrested and crucified, much depicted throughout art history – Ribeira is even more direct: sun at its highest point, a Spanish fan of trap and drill music crouches down in a position evoking prayer, roses tattooed on her upper arm. Peering at her phone – what has her so transfixed? – this scene shares its namesake’s premonitory mood. Her hair, nails, underwear flash red as a warning. Sit Ribeira’s composition next to Giovanni Bellini’s, made circa 1460 (crouching figure; ribbon of sky; reddish, sandy surfaces), and you will see the religious comparison is not overegged. Even the staunchest atheist would have to admit that Christianity has marshalled our morals and behaviours for centuries and that the search for something larger than ourselves, more universal, is all too human. Music scratches a similarly transcendental itch.
Getting tattoos, dancing ourselves into ecstasy – since music moves us to all kinds of sometimes deviant behaviours and depths of feeling, is there any wonder we worship at its altar? The photographs in Framing Sound are testament to the fact that musical icons cannot exist without their flocks. The images are icons in and of themselves, instruments for meditation. If a few chords can blow it all open, each seems to say, couldn’t other worlds be possible, too?
Words by Sammi Gale.